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New Virginia state park honors Native American tribes that lived on the land for centuries

Machicomoco State Park along the York River opened this spring. Officials hope it will shed light on the American Indians who have long called the area home.

A new state park in Virginia called Machicomoco has opened along the York River in Gloucester County. It is the first park in the state dedicated to honoring Native Americans and their history in the area. (Virginia State Parks)

This story originally included the wrong year for when a conservation group purchased the land. Conservation Fund bought the land in 2017. The story has been corrected.

Virginia is preserving hundreds of acres of tall grasslands and woods overlooking the York River, home to Native Americans over several centuries. More than a half-dozen tribes lived in the area before White settlers forced out many of the Indigenous people.

After decades of various owners and plans for the land, it was turned into Machicomoco State Park, a name that means “a special meeting place” in the Algonquin language. The park is the state’s 40th and the only one dedicated to Native Americans.

Officials said it has a dual purpose: to honor Native American tribes that trace their ancestral roots to the land and to educate nonnative visitors about the land’s importance to Indigenous people who still live in the region.

Melissa Baker, director of Virginia State Parks at the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said that “the primary thing that makes this park different is that it’s the first park dedicated to telling the story of Virginia’s native tribes.”

“That history is important to Virginia,” she said. “We haven’t always focused on that history or told it with fidelity.”

Baker said the state park system worked with tribal leaders and elders, along with local historians, to develop and design the park and to tell the stories Native Americans wanted to tell from their history.

Powhatan and his people: The 15,000 American Indians shoved aside by Jamestown’s settlers

Machicomoco, which opened this spring, includes 645 acres north of the Hampton Roads area, about three hours south of Washington. The land previously had several owners, and at one point in the mid-2000s a developer planned to build luxury homes on part of it. In 2017, the Conservation Fund purchased the land and worked with the state to plan and develop a park. The land was then donated to the state.

The ties to Machicomoco are deep for tribes that have long called the area home. Tribes that historically lived on the land include the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Upper Mattaponi, Monacan, Nansemond, Nottoway, Cheroenhaka Nottoway, Pamunkey, Patawomeck and Rappahannock.

The park is about 10 miles downriver from Werowocomoco, a Native American village that historically was the headquarters of Chief Powhatan, a powerful American Indian spiritual and political leader who oversaw an empire of 30 tribes in the Tidewater area along the banks of the York and James rivers.

When English settlers arrived in 1607 and eventually established Jamestown, there were about 15,000 American Indians in the area. Tribes lived in villages of up to 100 “longhouses” along rivers and tributaries, where they hunted, fished, grew crops, and collected fruits and nuts as food and medicine. They traveled for trade along the waterways in canoes dug out from tree trunks.

For decades, the Native Americans and English clashed, facing devastating disease and starvation. The English at one point captured Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, and held her captive for a year. By the 1620s, hundreds of English and Native Americans had died. Eventually, Powhatan’s realm, which had stretched some 6,000 square miles from modern-day Alexandria to the North Carolina border, crumbled, and tribes were forced to recognize the English empire.

A Native American tribe once called D.C. home. It’s had no living members for centuries.

Descendants of the Algonquin tribes that Powhatan once oversaw still live in the Tidewater area. For those tribal leaders, elders and the historians who were involved in the planning to turn Machicomoco into a park, its opening is a path back to generational ties to the land.

Stephen Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy tribe, said having a swath of land dedicated to honoring American Indians will allow visitors to learn about Virginia’s Indigenous people.

“We see Civil War battlefield sites that illuminate aspects of the war,” Adkins said. “We see parks across Virginia that talk about various facets of the state, but we haven’t seen any parks that interpret and showcase the history and culture of Natives in Virginia, until now.”

The park’s creation comes at a time of racial reckoning across the country, and Adkins said there has been “an awakening that we have given short strife to our Native culture” in Virginia, a place he said is often considered in “the heart of Dixie.”

Machicomoco includes designs and displays that showcase the tribes’ history on the land. Several displays list the Algonquin names of plants beside the English interpretations, according to Martin Gallivan, an anthropology professor at William & Mary who helped in the design.

The park also includes a campground area, picnic shelters and areas for fishing, along with walking and biking trails.

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It contains several interpretive areas, along with an educational walking trail that highlights native plants important to Indigenous people. A gray, stone-like table shows some of the “modern-day landmarks,” Gallivan said, along with the names of tribes that have lived in the area.

Baker said the design is “meant to help visitors make sense of the land they’re on and the tribes in the area and their history.”

Chief Walter D. “Red Hawk” Brown III, who represents the 400 members of the Cheroenhaka Nottoway tribe, said he was honored to be involved in providing context during the planning process. Brown said his tribe has been in what is now Virginia for centuries, based on skeletal remains found in the area.

Brown said there are “so many entities that are pushing to eradicate American Indian history” rather than highlight it. “Usually people are trying to wash Native people out,” he said, “but Machicomoco is about educating people on the Indigenous tribes in the state.”

Brown said the public often hears of Pocahontas or Powhatan but not about tribes in Virginia. The new park, he said, will remind visitors that Native Americans are “still here.”

“We’ve always been here,” Brown said. “We were here before they came, and we have remained.”