Where the water ebbs and flows: Place and self among the Rappahannock people, from the emergence of their community to its seclusion in 1706

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Stephen Saunders Webb


Place, Self, Rappahannock, Seclusion, Community emergence, Virginia

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | History | United States History


Attachment to place is the core of Rappahannock Indian identity. The Rappahannock's sense of place along the Virginia river that bears their name shaped their sense of themselves, their community, and their place in the world. This devoted connection to their homeland constricted Rappahannock responses to change.

To identify Rappahannock place, this study begins with an account of human development on Virginia's Coastal Plain. Algonquian creation stories recall both the centers of Algonquian residence and the evolution of local belief systems. These accounts highlight the eternal tension between antiquity and modernity and provide a model to understand change. The Rappahannock sought to control that tension, and so lessen the imbalance that accompanied change, through careful attention to ritual and the cultivation of reciprocal relationships. Ritual provided the model for proper action. Reciprocity obligated each to all. Obligated peoples created kin and exchange networks. These networks brought corn agriculture to the Coastal Plain and further promoted peoples' attachment to particular places. The subsequent ideology of communal burial reinforced networks and provided for the return of people to their ancestral homeland.

Throughout this long history, the Rappahannock's sense of place often forced them to modify their settlement patterns in response to environmental and human change. The pattern alternated between coalescence and dispersal, or, agglomeration and seclusion. This ebb and flow of community and village life reflected the periodic pressures placed on people determined to maintain their place and balance their world. In the seventeenth century, the arrival of European settlers presented new challenges to which the Rappahannock responded to in familiar ways.

In 1603, the first contact between Rappahannocks and Englishmen began with reciprocity and ended in a murder and theft that immediately destabilized the Rappahannock's world. The Rappahannock's subsequent interactions with Englishmen, those now at Jamestown, centered on restoration of Rappahannock loss and the reconstruction of reciprocal relations with the English. That happened in May 1607, with Christopher Newport, and in December with John Smith. Both engaged the rituals of reciprocity and created exchange networks with the Rappahannock, though the sole evidence of that exchange are the glass beads and copper that the Rappahannock buried with their dead.

In 1651, the Rappahannock's world destabilized again when the English settlers flooded the Rappahannock River valley and patented the Rappahannock's land. Dislocation and violence, not reciprocity and exchange, marked the next fifty years. Across Virginia, English settlers pushed native communities inland, from the rivers' fertile floodplain to the interior of Virginia's peninsulas. To prevent this constant encroachment upon Indian land, provincial authorities attempted to define the bounds of Indian towns and restrict Indians' mobility. In defiance, communities like the Rappahannock, abandoned their villages and secluded themselves on marginal, unseated lands.

In 1705, Robert Beverley wrote in his History and Present State of Virginia that the Rappahannock lived "scatter'd upon the English Seats," much like Appomattox who lived "in Collonel Byrd's Pasture." Once again, Rappahannock families lived dispersed across their ancestral homeland, much as they had done before English colonization. Now secluded, the Rappahannock people maintained their extended kin networks, created new ones, and modified their culture to accommodate the altered environment in their ancestral homeland. The attachment of people to place remained the foundation of community for the Rappahannock people. The significance of this history is that it challenges the conventions across the Eastern Woodlands of indigenous stasis, decline, and disappearance. Instead, for the Rappahannock, European cultural contact presented immense challenges and resulted in ultimate persistence.


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