Carrie Buck, a Tutelo Indian, was a victim of the eugenics movement in Virginia in the 1920s. Read more about her story at

5 Odd Facts About the Difficult, Tortured History of Virginia Indians

Steve Russell

Disappearing Indians by Legislation

Virginia Indians were virtually legislated out of existence during the American infatuation with eugenics, the dark side of the Progressive Era. Policy implications of this movement for genetic superiority included compulsory sterilizations, euthanasia, and immigration restrictions on “inferior” peoples. Compulsory sterilization was practiced on the insane, the mentally retarded, and criminals as well as persons considered inferior because of lacking white skin.

Indian women were caught up in sterilization of the “unfit” right up until the 70s, and a report from the General Accounting Office found that federal programs had sterilized 3,406 Indian women without proper informed consent.

Eugenics spread from the United States to Nazi Germany. The Nazi “racial hygiene” laws were modeled on California’s and funded by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation. After WWII, the Nazi “Final Solution” to “the Jewish problem” destroyed public support for eugenics in the U.S., excepting in black neighborhoods and on Indian reservations.

Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 forbade interracial marriages, required race to be entered on every birth certificate, but only recognized two races, the superior white race and the inferior “colored race.” Those labeled colored were limited in everything from education to burial in white cemeteries and all Indians able to “pass” did so.

The Pocahontas Exception

The Virginia Racial Integrity Act codified the One Drop Rule, meaning that anybody with a non-white ancestor was labeled colored. This was mitigated for Indians when the First Families of Virginia (FFV) insisted upon the Pocahontas Exception. Most of the FFV claimed descent from Thomas Rolfe, the son of John Rolfe and Pocahontas. When the FFV got their way, people could be considered white in spite of up to 1/16 Indian blood.

Painting depicting the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe in Jamestown. (Kean Collection)

The John Smith Fraud

After the deaths of Pocahontas and Chief Powhatan, a self-promoting adventurer with the less than pretentious name John Smith published his modestly titled Complete Works. Historians are virtually unanimous that Smith invented a cock and bull story that has come down to us as true, that Pocahontas fell in love with him at first sight and shielded him with her own body when Chief Powhatan ordered that he be brained by Pamunkey war clubs. If this tale were true, Pocahontas would have been about 13 at the time.

Smith did not publish this nonsense until the other principals had walked on, leaving him to explain her heroism and his attractiveness to women. His fellow colonists, who we might presume knew him best, tried several times to exile and even execute Smith, who they called “an ambityous unworthy and vayneglorious fellowe.”

Artist depiction of Pocahontas saving the life of Capt. John Smith. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division/Wikimedia Commons)

The Nansemond Tribal Family

The Nansemond were treated in an exceptionally brutal manner by the English colonists and then, like many tribes, split into factions over the acceptance of Christianity. According to at least one researcher, the entire modern Nansemond tribe can trace descent from the marriage of English settler John Basse to a Nansemond woman known as “Elizabeth,” said to be the daughter of a chief, in 1638. That marriage produced eight children, so it’s entirely possible that the 200 or so surviving Nansemonds who maintain tribal relations are all one extended family.

The Mattaponi and Pamunkey Tribal Tributes

Bacon’s Rebellion was a nasty piece of violence wrongly inflicted on a number of Virginia tribes. A treaty ended it in 1677, in which the English promised the tribes reservations, hunting and fishing rights, the right to bear arms, and that they would never be sold into slavery.

In return, the tribes declared their loyalty to King Charles II and promised to pay him tribute every year. The Indians who signed the treaty were assumed to be “kings and queens,” and they promised:

That every Indian King and Queen in the month of March every yeare with some of theire great men tender their obedience to the R't Honourable his Majesties Govern'r at the place of his residence, wherever it shall be, and then and there pay the accustomed rent of twentie beaver skinns, to the Govern'r and alsoe their quit rent aforesaid, in acknowledgment that they hold their Crownes, and Lands of the great King of England.

The Nottoway and Nansemond have let this agreement go to seed, but the Pamunkey and Mattaponi have designated the governor of Virginia to be the lawful successor to Charles II, and to this day they travel to Richmond to pay their tribute as required by treaty.

Virginia treated the Pamunkey and Mattaponi as one administrative unit because they considered themselves the heirs of the Powhatan Confederacy until 1894, when the Mattaponi withdrew and left the Pamunkey standing alone as direct heirs of Chief Powhatan but no longer in confederation with anybody.

RELATED: Meet Virginia Tribes for Native American Heritage Month

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