Ancestral Homeland Returned to Rappahannock Tribe After More Than 350 Years

The historic reacquisition spans 465 acres in the Northern Neck of Virginia

Fones Cliffs along the Rappahannock River in Virginia
Fones Cliffs along the Rappahannock River in Virginia. Last week, the Rappahannock Tribe announced the reacquisition of 465 acres of ancestral homeland along the river. Jeffrey Allenby / Chesapeake Conservancy

More than 350 years after English settlers drove the Rappahannock out of what is now eastern Virginia, the Native American tribe has reacquired 465 acres of its ancestral homeland.

Per a statement from the Department of the Interior and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the historic reacquisition includes a section of Fones Cliffs, a rocky outcropping on the east side of the Rappahannock River where Native people lived hundreds of years ago. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland—the first Native American person to hold the position—announced the land’s return last Friday.

“It is special to us because the bones of our ancestors are there,” Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson told Gregory S. Schneider of the Washington Post prior to the announcement.

Located within the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail on the Northern Neck of Virginia, Fones Cliff is an important habitat for migratory bald eagles and other birds. The cliffs span four miles and tower 100 feet above the river, where birds feed on fish. Held in a conservation easement (an agreement permanently limiting the use of a set area of land), the property in Richmond County will eventually be open to the public.

Bald eagle flying through the air
Fones Cliffs is an important habitat for migratory bald eagles and other birds. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Chesapeake Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental group based in Maryland, bought the land for about $4 million with help from the William Dodge Angle family, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Walmart’s Acres for America Program. The conservancy then donated the easement to USFWS and gave the land title to the tribe, which plans to place it in trust with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“It’s a stunningly beautiful property,” Joel Dunn, the conservancy’s president and CEO, tells the Bay Journal’s Jeremy Cox. “I call it the Yosemite of the Chesapeake.”

Before Europeans arrived in the region in the early 17th century, Rappahannock tribal members lived in villages and hunted atop white diatomaceous cliffs; they canoed and fished in the waters below. From those cliffs in 1607, they also first spotted and launched an attack on English explorer John Smith, who survived the encounter and mapped three Rappahannock towns in the area: Wecuppom, Matchopick and Pissacoak.

“Rappahannocks would have been able to look down both sides of the river here and see potential enemies or guests coming before they ever got here,” Richardson told Steve Nelson of WVTF earlier this year. “And so this was a very strategic place for them to live, for many reasons.”

Starting in the 1640s, English colonists forced tribal members off the land and transformed it into plantations. According to Encyclopedia Virginia, the settlers relocated the Rappahannock about 35 miles upriver, to present-day Essex County, in 1682. The tribe remained there until 1706, when the local militia forcibly removed them once again.

Map of reacquired Rappahannock Tribe land
The Rappahannock Tribe reacquired 465 acres of ancestral homeland in the Northern Neck of Virginia. Chesapeake Conservancy

Reunited with their homeland, tribal members now plan to build trails and create a replica of a 16th-century village for use in educational programming about their history, per the statement.

“Your ancestors cherished these lands for many generations,” said Haaland in a speech last Friday, as quoted by the Virginia Mercury’s Evan Visconti, “and despite centuries of land disputes and shifting policies, your connections to these cliffs and to this river remain unbroken.”

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