For centuries before the arrival of European colonists, the falls of what would be known as the James River marked a rough borderland between the Monacan and Iroquois-speaking people to the west and the emerging confederacy of Algonquians to the east. Burial mounds and group ossuaries were characteristic of both groups, though no such mounds have been discovered near the falls.
One of the earliest examples of indigenous burials in the area was discovered in the 1970s when workers building Richmond’s Downtown Expressway near Thirteenth and Canal Streets uncovered an ancient burial site and possible encampment dating back roughly one thousand years. Archaeologists from Virginia Commonwealth University rushed in to salvage as much as they could and found at least three human burials. Two of the skeletons had been interred on their sides, facing the river. Ceramics and other artifacts surrounded the burials.
At the time of European contact, both John White at Roanoke and John Smith at Jamestown offered extensive relations of burial practices among the Algonquians of the coastal plain. Smith explained that for “ordinary burials” among the Powhatan, “they digge a deep hole in the earth with sharpe stakes and the corpes being lapped in skins and mats with their jewels, they lay them upon sticks in the ground, and so cover them with earth.” The treatment of the remains of priests and leaders differed greatly. Their bodies were typically exposed on wooden scaffolds to allow for decomposition of the flesh. Afterward, the bones were carefully collected and wrapped in skins for placement inside temples, or what the English recorded as “quioccosans.”
When the English sailed up the James River in 1607 to the falls, they discovered an Indian village they called “Powhatan” atop a nearby hill. By the time of Richmond’s founding in the 1730s, that site was claimed by the Mayo family for its plantation known as “Powhatan seat.” In the 1800s, stories began to circulate that a large stone in the family burial ground there had served as the grave marker for Powhatan himself, the initial ruler encountered by the English at Jamestown in 1607. An guidebook from 1881 informed visitors that the boulder “marks the burial-place of the celebrated Indian potentate, and bears many curious carvings and symbols.” An early twentieth-century postcard displayed the setting of the “grave,” showing a strand of trees enclosing a wooden lattice above the river, highlighting the spot’s role as a tourist curiosity.
When the Mayos sold their property for industrial uses in the early twentieth century, the stone was donated to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, which in turn mounted it in the city’s Chimborazo Park overlooking the port.
In contrast, the Pamunkeys to the east on the York River have long claimed Powhatan’s burial spot on their own reservation. Those seeking other historic Indian graves in the area can find them around the reservation’s Pamunkey Indian Baptist Church, which features grave markers dating from 1877. Similar burials can be found in the yards of around the Mattaponi Indian Baptist Church to the northeast in King William County and the Chickahominy-related Samaria Baptist Church to the southeast in Charles City County, as well as family grounds in those counties. And then there are those of tribespeople who have been buried quietly in Richmond’s municipal cemeteries.
Lastly, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources as well as area repositories including Virginia Commonwealth University hold the remains of indigenous peoples excavated at various archaeological sites throughout the region, making them impromptu burial sites as they await repatriation.
For more information, see:
Robert Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia (London: Parker, 1705)
Helen C. Rountree, The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1989)
Debra L. Gold, The Bioarchaeology of Virginia Burial Mounds (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004)
Elaine and Ray Adkins, Chickahominy Indians-Eastern Division: A Brief Ethnohistory (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2007)
T. Tyler Potterfield, Nonesuch Place: A History of the Richmond Landscape (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2009)