First Landing State Park and the Last Trace of a Vanquished Nation

There are 64 people buried at First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach. 64 souls in a small circle of sandy ground maybe 20 feet across.  This is no grown-over, out-of-the-way country cemetery so common on the rim of the Chesapeake Bay, though. The people resting there are the last trace of an annihilated tribe.

In that grave are Chesapeake Indians. Not Indians of the Chesapeake Bay area, but members of the Chesapeake tribe, who shared a name, meaning “big salt bay,” with the water they lived beside.

Their quiet resting place, just off a parking lot in a Virginia state park, seems little consolation for all they’ve suffered. Their path to this forlorn grave has been long and trying.  A back-of-the-envelope calculation puts this cemetery at roughly 1,000 square feet; the Chesapeake Indians once flourished on the natural wealth of the hundreds of square miles that are today Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Chesapeake.

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The end of the Chesapeake tribe was abrupt and horrific. Sometime around the time Englishmen permanently arrived on scene, Powhatan’s priests foretold of a nation that would rise up from the east and destroy his empire. He took no chances and sent loyalists to eliminate the tribe nearest the Atlantic.  Those unwitting victims were the Chesapeake Indians.

Warriors spared neither man, woman nor child, a few hundred souls in all.  It’s possible some fled to neighboring tribes.  But this was no ordinary battle.  Usually aggressors killed men, but women and children were kidnapped as spoils of war. Instead, this episode was, in a real sense, genocide. The tribe ceased to exist thereafter.

The people in First Landing State Park’s quiet grave were likely not massacre victims–it was their descendants Powhatan’s warriors wiped out.

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Nevertheless they were among the tribe’s last members, and much like their lineage they wouldn’t rest in peace.   The rich land they once thrived on, four hundred years later, was among the city’s choicest real estate.  Before construction crews built mansions there in the 1980s, archaeologists found and excavated human remains, including a chief, buried with more than 30,000 shell beads.

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The Chesapeake Indians unearthed as Virginia Beach grew weren’t given a proper burial for nearly twenty years.  Their remains sat on shelves at Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources in Richmond. They might have stayed there forever; there are still Virginia Indian remains held in museums awaiting repatriation.

In 1997, though, thanks to the work of Nansemond Indian Chief Emeritus Oliver Perry, these Chesapeake Indians, the stubborn holdouts of a vanquished tribe, were laid to rest with a solemn service acknowledging that they sacrificed eternal rest for modern growth.

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You’ll not see a picture of the grave here; my Indian friends told me they preferred burials not be photographed (more reason for you to visit yourself!).  The site is pleasant, quiet and respectful, shaded by towering pines, oaks and hollies.  Spanish moss sways gently in the breeze just overhead.  A split-rail fence warding off unknowing hikers is weathered a mossy green.  Shoe box-sized stones are settling deep in the sand at each of the cardinal directions.  The paint that once covered them–representing specific spiritual symbols–has faded, washed away by time and the elements.  Well-wishers have left pennies and shells on the fence posts.  The grave is returning to the earth, but in a way, that seems most appropriate of all, because that’s all these restless souls likely wanted to begin with.

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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7 Responses to First Landing State Park and the Last Trace of a Vanquished Nation

  1. Pingback: VB Commission Invites Public to Explore Preserving the History of Cape Henry | AMERICAN CORPS OF CONSTITUTIONAL CONSERVATORS

  2. John A. says:

    I’ve seen the gravesite many times, and it’s quietly moving.

    What are your sources for the story of Powhatan’s prophecy and his response? And in particular, what evidence is there that the women and children of the Chesapeake Indians weren’t simply absorbed into the surrounding populations, as often happened?

    • Ben Swenson says:

      John,

      Thanks for reading and for your comment. Yes, the burial is moving. There’s another one like it with with re-interred remains of Paspahegh Indians at Governor’s Land nearby where I live in Williamsburg.

      As to the reference on the prophecy and extermination, I relied on scholars Helen Rountree and Jim Horn for that. Rountree mentions it in The Powhatan Indians of Virginia (p. 120-121) and in Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough (p. 45). Horn mentions it in A Land as God Made It on p. 13. Both of them rely on William Stratchey’s accounts as well as their extensive knowledge of Indian-English relations of the era.

      Rountree in The Powhatan Indians of Virginia specifically addresses the common practice of bringing the women and children of vanquished foes into the conquering tribe, but she claims that because Stratchey’s description reads that “all the Inhabitants, the weroance and his Subiects” were killed, that rule was likely broken and the women and children were among those murdered.

      But like you suggest, it’s really hard so many years later without sufficient primary documentation to complete a definitive description of what occurred.

      Thanks again for reading.

      Ben

  3. John A. says:

    Thanks very much for your quick and detailed reply. I’ll certainly take Helen Rountree’s word for it, and while her reading of Stratchey isn’t the most optimistic, it does make a certain grim sense.

    As for the gravesite itself, I’ve noticed quite a few items left over the seasons–pebbles, coins, shells, small things on the tops of posts. Do you have any idea who’s leaving these items?

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Although I’m not Native, I’ve spoken with local Indians in my reporting on them through the years, and the gravesite has come up in conversation on occasion. I gather that many locals who are members of an established Virginia tribe or are in some way related have made trips to see this. They consider it a sacred site. There’s no way to tell, of course, but I imagine some of the shells and coins have been left by them. Other folks who take the time to read the plaque and consider the significance of that site, I hope, are similarly moved. What’s remarkable, I think, is that shells are among the items left on the fenceposts around the gravesite, presumably because that’s what’s there on the ground in the terrain of the park. As it turns out, though, that’s an appropriate tribute to the deceased, as shells were an important cultural item. One of the Indians who was exhumed from the Great Neck site was evidently a chief and buried with thousands of shells.

  4. Vicki Lambert says:

    Dear Ben Swenson,

    Do we know if the Chespeake Nation was murdered in First Landing State Park itself?

    Thanks,
    VL

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