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Native American tribe in Va. reclaims big parcel of its homeland

The Rappahannock Indians once dominated the area of Fones Cliffs, a unique rock formation in Virginia’s Northern Neck

A view of Fones Cliffs in Virginia’s Richmond County. The area is considered the ancestral homeland of the Rappahannock Indian tribe. Through several purchases with help from environmental nonprofits, the tribe now controls much of the land. (Conservation Fund)
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For centuries, a Native American tribe considered a large swath of land with cliffs jutting out along the Rappahannock River in Virginia’s Northern Neck as its ancestral heart and homelands.

In their heyday before English settlers arrived, the Rappahannocks — after whom the river is named — lived off the rich, fertile land in the area, known as Fones Cliffs. Maps and writings of English explorer John Smith told of how he narrowly survived an ambush from the Rappahannocks, who tracked his approach from the cliffs while other Indians, armed with arrows, hid among bushes in the wetlands of the valley.

Fast forward and the English settlers forced the Rappahannocks — like dozens of other American Indian tribes — off their land. Their struggles continued under discriminatory policies. Eventually, the Rappahannocks were left with just a fraction of their once-vast lands that they deem sacred.

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But through a recent deal with a conservation group, the Rappahannock tribe will regain a last, large part of land — roughly 960 acres — along a four-mile stretch of Fones Cliffs. The land is one of three properties — totaling about 1,600 acres at Fones Cliffs — that tribal leaders, historians and preservationists fought to acquire and protect from development for decades.

For the tribe, leaders said, the deal showcases a growing movement across the country of Indigenous people taking back and caring for land that was once theirs.

“This property has been rescued, and now a sacred piece of property can be returned to our tribe and remain as an iconic feature of the Rappahannock River,” said Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson. “It means we, as Indigenous people, can return to the lands that were ours from the beginning and teach people what it means to us.”

Over the years, land developers had proposed building a variety of large-scale projects including, at one point, a mining operation. There have also been proposals for a resort, a golf course and a housing complex on the land.

Instead, the land has been acquired in pieces by allies of the Rappahannock tribe.

In 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service became owner of one of the parcels — roughly 250 acres — that sits midstream at Fones Cliffs. This past spring, the Chesapeake Conservancy bought another piece, about 460 acres at the southern point of the cliffs, and turned over ownership of it to the Rappahannock tribe. In December, the Conservation Fund — a nonprofit organization based in Arlington, Va. — bought the last property, about 960 acres at the northern point of the cliffs, for $8.1 million. The nonprofit plans to turn it over to the Rappahannocks.

Because one parcel is owned by a federal agency and the other two will be owned by the Rappahannocks and put under conservation easements with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, experts said, the deals ensure the land will be protected in perpetuity from future development. Conservationists say the effort is a win and an example of what can be done through public-private partnerships.

“The fate of this property has been in jeopardy for so long,” said Heather Richards, the Conservation Fund’s Mid-Atlantic regional director. “The conservation of it is the culmination of more than a decade of work to preserve the wildlife and habitat at Fones Cliffs and return the land to its rightful owners — the Rappahannocks.”

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For the Rappahannocks, owning more of their ancestral land is meaningful.

After centuries of land takeovers and discriminatory practices, the Rappahannocks were essentially a landless tribe, experts said. They have a small community center nearby. The acreage acquired through these deals restores the tribe’s homeland.

“Native people have been in the Fones Cliffs vicinity for thousands of years,” said Julia King, chair of the anthropology department at St. Mary’s College. With the tribe’s blessing, King has done work in the area and found Native American artifacts. “They had a big territory, and they were the most important tribe on the river. It really is their land.”

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Flanking the east side of the Rappahannock River in Richmond County, Fones Cliffs reaches 100 feet high in some parts and is a rare spot in the topography of the mid-Atlantic region because of its white diatomaceous earth. Wildlife experts said the area is also precious because of its largely untouched wetlands, which are an ideal habitat for fish, eagles and other creatures.

The Rappahannocks once lived in villages and towns in the lush lands along the river, and before English settlers arrived, archaeology and tribal experts estimate they numbered roughly 2,100.

The tribe became well known, historians believe, as an intermediary in the trade of copper from tribes along the Great Lakes for shells from others in the Mid-Atlantic region along the James, York and Potomac rivers. For the D.C. region’s Indigenous people, who had access only to shells, the copper was valuable and rare.

English settlers who arrived on Virginia’s shores in the 1600s explored the Chesapeake Bay area. In one of his most famous maps of the region, Smith — the English explorer — depicted three Rappahannock towns at Fones Cliffs. He noted in detail how he and his men had been attacked at Fones Cliffs by the Rappahannocks.

Initially, the settlers left the Rappahannocks alone as they focused on taking over the empire of the Powhatan Indians to the south and establishing their colony of Jamestown. King, who is also an archaeologist, said because the Rappahannock land along the river was one of the last spots the colonists invaded, it became a magnet for other Indigenous people being driven out of their homelands.

After 1600, other Indians — Mattaponi and Patawomecks — moved into the Rappahannock River Valley. King said the American Indian population in the area probably grew as it became “the last solely Indigenous-occupied territory on the western shore” of the Chesapeake.

That changed rapidly in the late 1640s as English settlers pushed their way into the Rappahannock land and turned it into plantations. Rappahannocks were forced off the best, most fertile land, King said, and were eventually left with little land of their own.

The Virginia General Assembly’s enactment of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 — which was intended to ban interracial marriage — further decimated the Rappahannock population by declaring that every person had to choose whether they were White or “colored”; Native American was not an option. Indigenous people were counted as “colored.”

Some Rappahannocks moved. Others married into neighboring tribes. Many who stayed in the area faced discrimination in getting jobs, and their children lacked education opportunities for decades.

A turning point in Rappahannock history came in 2018, when they were federally recognized as a tribe. And now that they have a sizable piece of their homeland back under their control, leaders said they have plans for it but promise to keep much of it undisturbed for wildlife, especially the bald eagles nesting in the cliffs.

“We don’t want to do anything to harm this place,” said Richardson, the tribe’s chief. “We love the Rappahannock River and respect the hundreds of species of plants and creatures of the land.”

Still, the Rappahannocks said they do want to use some land to educate the public and their own people about the tribe’s history and show the respect they have for the land. They would like to hold tribal ceremonies on the land and create a small village that would be a reproduction of their life in the area in the 16th century, so they can present and explain their cultural traditions. There are also plans to put in trails and informational kiosks for visitors.

“The bones of our ancestors are there,” Richardson said. “It’s an ecosystem unto itself, and to think we almost lost it and someone could have come in and destroyed that was unconscionable. We are thrilled we’ve been able to help save it.”