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  • Crossing PathsIntersections between Louis Michel and Monacan Oral Traditions
  • Jay Hansford C. Vest (bio)

Locating the ethnohistory of the Monacan Nation in present-day Virginia is largely an obscure endeavor. As Jeffery Hantman aptly explains, “Only briefly noted by fragmentary ethnohistorical texts, interpreted through European eyes, or those who chose to talk with Europeans, [the Monacans] generally became the ‘barbarians,’ ‘chichimecans,’ or ‘dead-ones’ of history.”1 Acknowledging this scholarly conclusion, the contemporary Monacan Nation is today found in the central Blue Ridge area of Virginia where their origins have remained somewhat unclear. In part this obscurity has been the product of the fragmentary documentary record as suggested by Hantman, but in greater measure it is because of more than two centuries of racial apartheid directed against Natives and Africans in Virginia. Indeed, few have bothered to ask these “chichimecans,” these “dead-ones,” about their own reckoning of their origins.

It is convenient to blame the sketchy documentary record for the contemporary lack of understanding of the Monacan people; however, we may in fact revisit the surviving documents and examine them with knowledge imparted through longstanding oral traditions to connect the relevant points of history when solving this mystery. In this manner the oral traditions may shed light on the obscure ethnohistory of the Monacan Nation.

There was a lively oral tradition among my people when I was a boy growing up in Buena Vista, Virginia. Spending my day-care with my grandparents from the age of three to ten, much of this oral tradition was part of my education as passed to me in my youth. For the most part it reflected life on the mountain, at Hico—the Buzzard Rock—where my family held deep ties to place and shared an ancestry with those ancient [End Page 163] Monacan remains interred in several traditional burial mounds that sit atop the Blue Ridge.2

Acknowledging the obscurity of our Monacan ancestry as reflected in Hantman’s remarks above, I propose with this essay to apply the oral traditions I learned to a reading of one of the early ethnohistorical documents associated with the nation. Following a 1699 Huguenot settlement that occupied an ancient Monacan town site, Francis Louis Michel, a Swiss adventurer, traveled to Virginia seeking out the French Protestants with the intent of founding a Swiss colony within the British possessions. Michel made two journeys to Virginia between 1701 and 1704. Although he was not successful in his endeavor, his letters nonetheless inspired the organization of the joint-stock firm George Ritter and Company that, under the auspices of Christopher van Graffenried, in 1710 succeeded in founding a Swiss-German colony at New Berne, North Carolina.3

During his adventures Michel kept a diary of sorts that has previously been used to legitimate the Monacans’ presence in Virginia, and I will comment on links between Michel’s manuscript and the traditions I learned as a youngster growing up in the mountains of Virginia.4

Distinct from the Algonquian-speaking Powhatan chiefdoms, the Monacan tribes spoke a Siouan language while occupying the interior region of Virginia west of the Tidewater plain. In a territory exceeding twenty thousand square miles, forty distinct Siouan-speaking tribes have been noted living in the southeast during the contact period. Located primarily within the present-day Virginias and Carolinas, as well as portions of Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, these Siouans were generally partitioned into two divisions—Monacan in the north and Catawban in the south. Among the Virginia Siouans, the Monacan division included at least sixteen different tribal groups. Scholars postulate, furthermore, that the Monacans were divided into three confederacies—Monacan, Tutelo or Nahyssan, and Mannahoac—within present-day Virginia and West Virginia. The Mannahoac confederacy occupied the northern piedmont across the Rappahannock to the Potomac while the Nahyssans lived in the central piedmont from Charlottesville to Roanoke and the southwest. These confederacies bounded the Monacan on the north and west that lived along the James River in a confederation of five towns.5

While the decline of the Monacans is poorly understood, it was probably due in part to the introduction of European diseases and the depredations of colonial warfare. Anthropologist James...


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