National Trust for Historic Preservation
As a final step in a massive four-year preservation and legal battle to protect Native American sacred ground, the James River Water Authority (JRWA) voted March 16 to choose an alternate site for its water supply project, protecting the sanctity of Rassawek, the historic capital of the Monacan Indian Nation. The National Trust has been one of the key advocates in the struggle to save Rassawek by participating in federal review processes and advocacy campaigns to preserve this historic site. In 2020, Rassawek was placed on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places List, when the implementation of the James River Water Authority plans seemed imminent.
“When we create the 11 Most list each year, we hope to rally support to places where it can make a difference,” said Paul Edmondson, President & CEO of the National Trust. “We are pleased that our efforts helped contribute to this win for Rassawek. This special place faces critical threats of several kinds, including the rising rivers, which were so long the source of its importance. However, there is one threat that we can all make sure is removed forever—that the significance of this sacred place will no longer be dismissed or ignored. At the National Trust we are committed to ensuring that the work of preservation tells the full history of our country, and that places like Rassawek are not erased from our collective memory.”
In 2014, the James River Water Authority (JRWA), a joint project of two Virginia counties, began exploring Point of Fork as the potential site of a water pump station to service new development in the area. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources, non-profit Preservation Virginia, and independent archaeologists all cautioned James River Water Authority about the archaeological value of the site.
In 2016, the James River Water Authority moved forward with their plan to build on Rassawek, but they declined to inform the Monacans of their intentions until 2017. Even then, contact occurred as part of the Army Corps of Engineers permitting process, not through any direct communication to the tribe. When challenged by concerns that the building project would disturb the ancient burial sites of many Monacan ancestors, James River Water Authority claimed there were no feasible alternatives for their project and that they would proceed as planned.
This triggered a hard-fought four-year legal battle that took on many dimensions. Legal counsel for the Monacan Indians revealed several alternative sites for the plant, in direct contradiction to the original claims of James River Water Authority. A whistleblower revealed ineptitude and inaccuracy in the archaeological findings of James River Water Authority’s consultant, and an advocacy campaign culminated in a massive public outcry involving more than 12,000 organizations and private citizens, including unified opposition among most of the 574 federally recognized tribes. Then the site was listed by the National Trust as an endangered historic place.
After such a massive public response, the James River Water Authority determined to work with the Monacan Indians to discover whether it could find an alternative site for the pumping station. After archaeological investigation of the proposed alternative site by a reputable archaeological consultant chosen by the Monacan Nation, March 16 James River Water Authority voted to move the plant to that location. The Monacan Nation has agreed to support James River Water Authority’s permit application for the alternative site. The decision is a victory for the Monacan people and for all Indian tribes striving to protect their sacred lands.
U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), who has assisted the tribe’s efforts and this summer landed his canoe at Rassawek, which is situated on a peninsula at the confluence of James and Rivanna rivers, stated: “I am glad that all sides were able to find a resolution that spares the ancient burial grounds at Rassawek from development. I know from visiting Rassawek with Chief Branham that this site is a one of a kind Viriginia historic treasure.”
The story of Rassawek goes back at least 4,730 years, determined by carbon dating done on the site, which reveals it had long been a thriving settlement for 200 generations. By 1600 AD, the Monacan tribe had created a capital that rivaled European-established towns of the era in size, like Jamestown. Prosperity was secured through trade; prestige minerals such as copper and soapstone helped Monacans establish relationships with other tribes and guaranteed economic stability. Consisting of bark-covered houses, workshops, religious buildings, and more, Rassawek also served as a cultural touchstone for about 15,000 Monacans living in smaller towns close by.
Burial rituals played an important role in Monacan life. Monacans would honor their deceased ancestors by ceremonially reburying remains as part of an earthen structure, a tradition unique among nearby American Indian tribes. The mounds grew incrementally and could reach eight feet tall and around 40 feet in diameter. Though no mounds are visible at Point of Fork today, it is well established that the site is the final resting place of many Monacans. Until further archaeological surveys are performed, it is unknown exactly how many Monacan ancestors are buried at Rassawek.