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Rassawek, Capital City of the Monacan Nation

Rassawek on John Smith's Map of Virginia, 1606
In 1608, John Smith led an expedition up the James River
and through the Chesapeake Bay in 1608.  Although he went
no further west than Richmond, he collected information about
five Monacan towns from local informants.  Each of these
sites has now been explored, and the results prove that his
information was correct.  The above image shows the south-
western part of that map, and that "Powhatan flu" is the James
River, and the "Fales" are the Falls around Richmond.

Name:  Rassawek, Capital City of the Monacan Nation

Date:  1608

Image Number:  Image courtesy of With Good Reason, Virginia Humanities

Comments:  The Scottsville Museum sits on Monacan land.  There is no evidence that there ever was a permanent settlement here, but traces of Monacan people remain--arrowheads, fish hooks, and stone tools.  Just a little way down river was the most important Monacan site -- Rassawek -- at the confluence of the James and Rivanna Rivers (see blue spot on map above).  Rassawek was the capital city of the Monacan nation, established over 5000 years ago, and was the center of a population of about 15,000 in 1600.  It appears as one of the five Monacan towns on John Smith's 1608 map of Virginia.

In 1980, a gas pipeline was installed running through the site, disturbing Monacan burials.  When the James River Water Authority proposed further disruption to the site, installing a water intake and pumping station to carry river water to Zion Crossroads, the Monacans, newly energized by their recognition as the tribe by the federal government, took action.

"Our capital city," says Tribal Chief Kenneth Branham, "was a contemporary of Jamestown, but much larger and more complex, and it lasted as a community far longer.  Rassawek is for us a sacred place of great cultural significance, and it is for all Americans a place of historical importance."  In 2020, Rassawek was named one of America's 11 Most Endangered Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, after it was nominated by Preservation Virginia for the list.

The James River Water Authority is now examining an alternative site two miles upstream with the tribe's cooperation.  The Monacan nation hopes to purchase the land at Rassawek and to conduct a thorough archaeological exploration.

Monacan mortar and grinding stone
Mortar and grinding stone:  Corn was a staple of the Monacan diet, along with beans and squash. 
Dried after harvest, corn was ground by hand in this mortar to make corn cakes or a kind of hot
cereal.  It was a laborious process! Loaned to Scottsville Museum by Monacan Ancestral Museum.

On view in the Scottsville Museum is a selection of artifacts, as well as information about the history of the Monacans after European settlement.  The nation today has its headquarters at Bear Mountain in Amherst County.  Tribal officers generously lent items to the Museum for our display; see mortar and grinding stone above.

Fish hooks made by Monacans out of deer antler and bone
Fish hooks: These hooks, made of deer antler and bone
were used by Monacans traveling through the Scottsville
and Totier Creek area on fishing and huntion expeditions.
Loaned to Scottsville Museum by Robert Tharpe.

Evelyn Edson, President
Scottsville Museum

Copyright © 2021 by Scottsville Museum

Top Image is courtesy of With Good Reason, Virginia Humanities; see "The Chiefest Town".

Second Image Located On:  Capturing Our Heritage, CD CG2021, Photographer: Connie Geary

Third Image Located On:  Capturing Our Heritage, CD CG2021, Photographer: Connie Geary



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