9 Counties with Indian Names

  1. Nansemond, Organized 1640
  2. Accomac, Organized 1672
  3. Nottoway, Organized 1788
  4. Rappahannock. Organized 1831
  5. Appomattox, Organized 1845
  6. Powhatan, Organized 1777
  7. Shenandoah Organized 1772
  8. Alleghany, Organized 1822
  9. Roanoke, Organized 1838

When Captain John Smith first came to Jamestown, in 1607, about fifty Indian tribes lived between the sea and the mountains of Virginia. Most of the tribes belonged to the one or the other of two great confederacies. Thirty tribes under the chieftain Powhatan lived south of the Potomac, between the sea and the falls of the rivers. Against Powhatan’s tribes were opposed two smaller confederacies – the Mannahoacks and the Manakins. The Mannahoacks consisted of eight tribes scattered between the Rappahannock and York Rivers, while the Manakins were a union of five tribes who lived above the falls between the York and the James. Besides the confederated Indians, there were the Nottoways, the Meherricks, the Tuteloes, and several other independent tribes.

Although the Indians inhabited a great part of Virginia east of the Blue Ridge, the population was so scattered that it probably did not exceed twenty thousand.1 Powhatan’s great domain contained but eight thousand souls, yet the chief was able to hold his own against all his Indian foes. The Virginia Indians east of the mountains where probably numerically superior to the whites until after 1650,2 though the latter had already been victorious in several wars between the races. During the war following Opechankanough’s great massacre of 1622, the white population was reduced from four thousand to twenty-five hundred. In 1644 Opechankanough was the leader in another great massacre, in which five hundred whites perished. This second massacre was swiftly and severely avenged, and the Indians were forced to keep the peace. They were again reduced to peace about thirty years later by Nathaniel Bacon, the leader of the noted rebellion against the tyrannical Governor Berkeley. Bacon’s victory so crushed the Indians that they were never again formidable in eastern Virginia.

Beverly’s “History of Virginia,” published in London in 1722, gives a list of such towns or bodies of Indians east of the Blue Ridge as in 1700 retained their names. All of them combined could not muster five hundred fighting men, and they lived miserably and much in fear of the neighboring Indian tribes. Each town, by the articles of peace, 1677, paid an annual tribute of three Indian arrows and twenty beaver skins, for protection.

Beverly mentions twenty towns, distributed as follows: in Accomac there were Matomkin, Gingotoque, Pungoteaque, Kiequotank, Matchopungo, Occahannock, Oanancock, Chiconessex, Nanduye; in Northampton, Gangascoe, almost as numerous as all the preceding put together; in Prince George, Wyanoke, extinct; in Charles City, Appamattox, extinct; in Surry, Nottaway; in Nansemond, Menheering and Nansamond; in King William, Pamunkie and Chickahominie; in Essex, Rappahannock, extinct; in Richmond, Port Tobago, extinct; in Northumberland, Wiccomoco. The spelling of the tribal names just given in Beverly’s. There was no way to determine the spelling except by the sound of the words, hence the same name is often spelled in several ways.

Pungoteque was governed by a queen; and Nanduye was “a seat of the empress,” who had “all the nations of the shore under tribute.”

From many of these Indian names come names for counties, white towns, bays, inlets, and islands of Virginia. The Potomac River is named after an Indian tribe; Chesapeake Bay, the “Mother of Waters,”3 is an Indian name; and the James River once bore the name Powhatan, in honor of the Indian chief. Nansemond, Accomac, Nottoway, Rappahannock, and Appomattox counties are named after Indian tribes.

Nansemond is in southeast Virginia on the North Carolina border. It is drained by the Nansemond and Blackwater rivers and by Lake Drummond. This county, the ninth oldest in the State, was in existence as early as 1640, for an act was then passed defining its boundaries. It was first called Upper Norfolk, but six years later it took the name “Nansimun.” Captain John Smith spelled the name “Nansamund”; Beverly says “Nansamond”; and now it is Nansemond.

Beverly says of the Indian tribe after whom the county and Nansemond River were named: “Nansamond; about thirty bow-men; they have increased much of late.”

Accomac County comprises nearly two-thirds of that part of Virginia which lies between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The name “Accawmacke” was given to all the “Eastern Shore” of Virginia when it became one of the original shires in 1634.4 Nine years later the name was changed to Northampton, but the term “Accomac” was revived in 1672 in the name of the county that was then formed from a part of Northampton. The Accomacs were a tribe of Indians that once inhabited the Eastern Shore.

Accomac and Northampton Counties abound in Indian names. Chincoteague inlet, Matomkin Island and inlet, Onancock and Pangoteague towns pertaining to Accomac; while the Great Machipongo Inlet is off the Northampton coast. Pocomoke sound and river and Assateague bay and island are probably Indian names also.

Nottoway is a small county in southeastern Virginia, and is drained by Nottoway and Appomattox waters. Burkeville, at the junction of the two railroads that traverse the county, is becoming well known for its mineral waters.

The tribe of Indians after whom Nottoway County and river were named is now extinct. Beverly, about 1700, says that the “Nottoways” had about a hundred bowmen, and that they were increasing. Jefferson, in writing ”Virginia Notes,” about 1780, says that only a few squaws then remained of the Nottoways.

Rappahannock County is situated in northern Virginia between Fauquier and Madison counties, and takes its name from the river whose headwaters it contains. The river, however, is named from an Indian tribe that once lived along its banks in Essex County. The tribe became extinct before 1700. Richmond and Essex5 Counties were known as Rappahannock County before 1692, but the old county was absorbed that year by the two new ones that were formed out of its territory. The new Rappahannock County was not formed until 1831, or one hundred and thirty-nine years after the old county ceased to exist.

Appomattox County, on the south bank of the James, is almost equally distant from the eastern and western extremities of the State. It doubtless takes its name from the river that rises within its borders. The river has the name of an Indian tribe that once lived in Charles City County, but, like the Rappahannocks, the tribe had already become extinct when Beverly wrote his Virginia history.

Powhatan County is named after the noted Indian chief. It lies along the south bank of the James River, which separates it from Goochland. Powhatan County was formerly inhabited by the Manakins, a powerful and warlike Indian tribe; but none remained there in the latter part of the seventeenth century. The seat of their town on James River is still called Manakin Town Ferry.

Powhatan was the most notable of the Indian chiefs whom the early Virginia settlers encountered. Physically, he was remarkably strong and vigorous. Moreover, he was shrewd and courageous; not disheartened by defeat, nor unduly elated by victory. He lived as became a king, and commanded the respect of his subjects. A bodyguard of forty warriors attended him, and a sentry kept watch over his palace by night. One of his homes was on the James, where the city of Richmond now stands. He died in Virginia, April, 1618, at the age of nearly seventy. His daughter, Pocahontas, after whom a West Virginia County was named, had died in England the previous year.

Shenandoah County, in northern Virginia, is separated from West Virginia by the Shenandoah Mountains. It is watered by the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, and has the Massanutten Mountains on its eastern border.

Shenandoah County was organized in 1772, and was named Dunmore in honor of the last colonial governor of Virginia. But Lord Dunmore proved so hateful to the Virginians that they were unwilling that the county should retain his name. In 1777, therefore, the name was changed, and the county was called Shenandoah, after the stream that traverses it. The Indians called the river “Shenandoah,” thus signifying that it was the “Beautiful daughter of the stars. 85

Alleghany County takes the name of the great chain of mountains that forms its western border. The name Alleghany was given to the mountains by the English settlers of the north, who had received it from the Indians. “Appleton’s American Cyclopedia” says that Alleghany means “Endless.”6 Martin’s “Gazetteer of Virginia,” however, gives the meaning “Endless” to the Indian name of Kaatin Chunk, which was what the red men called the Kittatinny or Great North Mountains. Both the Alleghany and Kaatin Chunk mountains might well appear “endless” to observers viewing the two ranges from the val-ley between them. Very possibly, both names mean endless. The mountains might have been named by different tribes, or the words may have been synonyms in the one Indian language; and thus the one English translation might be correct in either case. Alleghany County is watered by the Jackson and Cowpasture Rivers, which unite to form the James a few miles east of the county’s border. Roanoke County lies south of Botetourt and Craig and west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It doubtless takes its name from the Roanoke River, which receives most of the county’s drainage. Roanoke, Roenoke, or Rawrenoke, in the Indian tongue, signified “shell money.”7 East of the Blue Ridge the Roanoke River is known as the Staunton until it and the Dan unite in Mecklenburg County to form the larger Roanoke.

  1. Howe, p. 136. 

  2. A writer of 1649 gives the population of that time as fifteen thousand whites and three hundred Negroes. 

  3. See Howe, p. 22. 

  4. p. 68. 

  5. History of Augusta County,” by J. Lewis Peyton, p. i. P. 31. 

  6. Howe’s “Virginia 

  7. p. 447. 

1 thought on “9 Counties with Indian Names”

  1. Very interesting and useful article. I would enjoy seeing more about the Native Americans who inhabited our state. Thank you!

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