Characteristics of Pamunkey Indians

No member of the Pamunkey tribe is of full Indian blood. While the copper- colored skin and the straight, coarse hair of the aboriginal American show decidedly in some individuals, there are others whose Indian origin would not be detected by the ordinary observer. There has been considerable intermixture of white blood in the tribe, and not a little of that of the Negro, though the laws of the tribe now strictly prohibit marriage to persons of African descent.

No one who visits the Pamunkey could fail to notice their race pride. Though they would probably acknowledge the whites as their equals, they consider the blacks far beneath their social level. Their feeling toward the Negro is well illustrated by their recent indignant refusal to accept a colored teacher, who was sent them by the superintendent of public instruction to conduct the free school which the State furnishes them. They are exceedingly anxious to keep their blood free from further intermixture with that of other races, and how to accomplish this purpose is a serious problem with them, as there are few members of the tribe who are not closely related to every other person on the reservation. To obviate this difficulty the chief and councilmen have been attempting to devise a plan by which they can induce immigration from the Cherokee Indians of North Carolina. The Indian blood in the Pamunkey tribe is estimated at from one-fifth to three-fourths.

The Pamunkey, as a tribe, are neither handsome nor homely, long nor short, stout nor slim; in fact, they differ among themselves in these respects to the same degree found among the members of a white community of the same size. They are not particularly strong and robust, and their average longevity is lower than that of their neighbors. These facts are perhaps in a measure attributable to the frequent marriages between near relatives.

The average intelligence of these Indians is higher than that of the Virginia Negro. With a few exceptions the adults among them can read and write. In view of their limited advantages they are strikingly well informed. A copy of one of their State papers will serve to give an idea of the maximum intelligence of the tribe. It reads as follows:

Pamunkey Indian Reservation
King William County, Virginia,
June 26, 1893.

We, the last descendants of the Powhatan tribe of Indians, now situated on a small reservation on the Pamunkey River, 24 miles from Richmond, Virginia, and one mile east of the historic White House, where Gen. George Washington was married to his lovely bride in the St. Peter s Church. We are now known as the Pamunkey tribe of Indians, following the customs of our forefathers, hunting and fishing, partly with our dugout canoes.

We hereby authorize Terrill Bradby to visit the Indian Bureau in Washington and in all other Departments and Indian tribes, and also to visit the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

We, the undersigned, request that whenever this petition is presented, the holder may meet with the favorable approbation of the public generally.

C. S. Bradby, Chief
J. T. Dennis
W. G. Sweat
R. L. Sampson
T. Bradby
Town Clerk
R. W. Miles
Jas. H. Johnson
W. T. Neat
B. Richards M. D.
Members of the Tribe
E. R. Allmond
A. J. Page
G. M. Cook
W. A. Bradby
T. T. Dennis

The Pamunkey Indians are temperate moral and peaceable. Ill feeling between the tribe and their neighbors is almost unknown. They are exceeding proud of their lineage and love to tell how bravely and stubbornly their forefathers resisted the encroachment of the whites. Opechancanough is their hero. They take special delight in relating the familiar story of how this noted chief when old and infirm was carried on a litter to battle that his presence might inspire his men to deeds of bravery.

It may not be amiss to give here a tradition concerning this tribe which is related as explanatory of the name of a certain ferry that crosses Pamunkey river about ten miles above the reservation. The name of the ferry is Pipe-in-tree now spelled Piping-tree. The tradition runs thus: On one occasion the Pamunkey braves met a committee of white settlers at this place and negotiated a treaty. When all the terms had been agreed to the consummation of the treaty was solemnized in usual Indian fashion by handing around the same pipe to the representatives of both nations each taking a puff as indicative of friendship and good faith. The pipe was then deposited in a hollow tree nearby and ever afterward when the colonists disregarded their agreement the poor Indians would remind them of u pipe-in-tree.”

Aside from their mode of subsistence there is nothing peculiar in the manners and customs of these people except perhaps an inclination to the excessive use of gaudy colors in their attire. Their homes are comfortable and well kept. The houses are weather boarded and are as a rule one-story-and-a-half high and consist of from one to four rooms. The best structure on the reservation is their church building where services are held every Sabbath. The church receives the hearty support of the whole tribe the membership of the church and that of the tribe being almost coextensive. As to their creed they are all of one mind in adhering to the tenets of the Baptist denomination.

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10 thoughts on “Characteristics of Pamunkey Indians”

  1. Does anyone have an info on a Gideon “Gid” Sweatt, Sweet or Sweat that lived on the reservations? He has 2 sons buried at the church on the reservation Sterling and Frank Sweatt. My husband’s grandfather is their 1/2 brother but he changed his name when he moved into Richmond to get a job at the gas works. His name was Silas Sweet. His brother Sterling owned a store in Richmond and lived down the street from Silas and his family. We came to reservation years ago and talked to Daisy. She and her family were very close to Frank who never married or left the reservation. Any info anyone would have would be very helpful.

  2. The mother of one of the first elected “negro”s in Virginia was Pamunkey; as was he. The late 1800’s was a period where they already began to separate native tribes by skin. The separation via cultural/political acceptance had already began earlier in the century as was full force after the war of 1812. Those who would sign treaties and sell land and turn over freedmen would be granted land in “Indian Territory and other reservations”. The “black” natives and other “freedmen”, (whom essentially would be considered part of the tribes they found) were labeled “negroes” or “freedmen” as a whole and many either assimilated into western culture and became laborers and farmers… Coalesced into communities that resisted and eluded “deportation”. The Yamassee Wars, Red Stick Wars, and Seminole Wars were predominately against these excluded Natives..from multiple tribes…all considered “Negroes” by colonial authorities, along with their asiatic descended allies and kin.

    One would wonder what would make one so keen on “racial identity” when Native American tribal society was always to that point seen as a culture based and often egalitarian society.

  3. Question, are the Pamunkey connected to or thru the Cherokee? I am confused by all I read. I have recently started my geneology search, on one side, I am Cherokee, another, I am Pamunkey, then I am Old Cheraw……I get asked sometime, are you Indian!!!!!! I think I had better “hash” my bloodline out. I still read and do my geneology so maybe I can understand better. Thank you for your help in this.

  4. Please correct this most offensive and outdated article. A people on the verge of extinction were forced into conforming to colonial mores and values, as well as Virginia law. The Pamunkey do not subscribe to such racist trends and have removed the echo of such laws from Tribal Law. It is now time to heal and respect all of creation. As the 12th granddaughter of Matoaka (Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan), please update this article to better reflect current values, along with the historic voluntary generosity of a people soon impacted by first contact tragedy and sacrifice. Thank you, most kindly, t. (Until we meet, again)

    1. Hello T Powhatan. My name is Josh, and I have a few questions for you about lineage if you are able to respond. My grandfather lived very close to the reservation and I did not get a chance to speak to him directly about our heritage before he passed away because I was still young. His name was W. T. Bradby. Any information you have would be very much appreciated. I look forward to hearing from you.

    2. I’m also a 12th great-granddaughter of Pocahontas, but I’m descended from her son Thomas. Are you descended from her first child (who I cannot find the name for in my research, so sorry), or from Thomas Rolfe?

    3. Hello , I learned that I was part of the pamunkey indian tribe, I learned this from speaking to my grandmother which is now 87. I was able to obtain alot of information to get me started in wanting to learn more about this tribe but it was rather heartbreaking to read the racism overtune of our tribe. I even looked through the pics and my great grandfather pic was on the page under an”unknown pamunkey indian” which I have my own pictures to prove” but this info and the history of this tribe have caused me to discontinue my efforts of unite. Including going about this and closing out the REAL pamunkey blood line to me is not away of healing or making whole.

      1. Hi, Nakeisha:

        I’m not Pamunkey, but I would recommend you persist. The history of anti-Africanism in both whites and Natives during the era of enslavement (1661 – 1865) and the era of Reconstruction and fragmentation (1865 – 1940s) is painful, but must be redressed. However it can only be redressed with the efforts of people like you (and myself), who are people of blended ancestries currently identifying as African-American but truly reflecting a rich heritage replete with Native culture and blood.

        This is a historic article (from 1893) that reflects the thinking of the time, not of now. Tribal racism continues to be an issue, but it is a shrinking one — and one that is only fought by people like you reclaiming the parts of their identity that have too long been denied.

  5. My great grandmother supposedly was born on the pamunkey indian reservation in virginia in the 1800’s. Her name was Sadie Sable and may have married a man with the last name of Jackson. They had many children, my grandmother being one of them whose name was Hilda Jackson Callis; she had a brother named Chester and one named Ishmael – all Jacksons. I understand there was a fire on the reservation and the birth certificates were destroyed. I would like to trace Sadie Sable’s ancestry, if possible. Any help you could provide would be appreciated. ([email protected])

    1. Cindy Carter Belcher

      Hello, I just very recently discovered Susannah Pamunkey was my 7th Great-Grandmother, and Chief Powhaton was my 9th Great-Grandfather. I am honored to have found this info…and look forward to all the info i can find

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