Places to visit on one tank of gas: Pamunkey Indian Museum & Cultural Center

Visitors have come to the museum from throughout the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan. Many have at least heard of the Pamunkey people, thanks to one well-known member of the tribe: Pocahontas.

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The Treaty Room at the Pamunkey Indian Museum. Photo courtesy Ben Swenson

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Editor’s note: No need for a plane ticket. Put that passport away. This story is part of a series that features regional attractions outside of the Williamsburg area that can be driven to on a tank of gas or less. Buckle up and hit the road.   

Southeastern Virginia touts several remarkable historical sites, but one of them often escapes notice: Native American tribal land that predates the United States by a century.

Adjacent to King William County and six miles west of West Point, the territory of the Pamunkey Indian tribe sits on a broad plain occupying an oxbow in the Pamunkey River.

The reservation, less than an hour drive from the Historic Triangle, traces its origins back to a 17th-century treaty. But if you ask any member of the Pamunkey Indian tribe how long they’ve inhabited this land, they’ll tell you they’ve always been here.

At the heart of the reservation, surrounded by well-kept homes and fertile pastures, is a three-room museum under the directorship of Ashley Atkins Spivey, a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the College of William and Mary and a member of the Pamunkey tribe.

The Pamunkey Indian Museum houses thousands of artifacts and other antiquities that underscore the tribe’s ancient ancestry.

A directional sign on the Pamunkey Indian Reservation. Photo courtesy Ben Swenson
A directional sign on the Pamunkey Indian Reservation. Photo courtesy Ben Swenson

“The artifacts on display in the museum are a strong testament to how long we’ve been here,” Pamunkey Chief Master Sgt. Robert Gray said. “They help us tell the story of our people.”

Some of the stone tools on display date back thousands of years. Modern historians can determine with certainty the age of these tools by examining the differences in design or appearance. The shape of spear points evolved over millennia, for instance, as did the materials Natives used to temper ceramic pots, thus making them less prone to cracking.

From Williamsburg: Click here for driving directions

Kim Cook Taylor, a member of the Pamunkey tribe and one of about 85 of the reservation’s permanent residents, helps staff the museum on a volunteer basis. Among her pastimes is walking the shores of the Pamunkey River, looking for projectiles and shards of pottery used by her ancient ancestors.

Taylor said that visitors have come to the museum from all over the world, throughout the United States and as far away as the United Kingdom and Japan. Many people have at least heard of the Pamunkey people, thanks to one well-known member of the tribe.

“If I’m talking to young kids, I might use the story of Pocahontas to make a connection, but there is so much more to learn about us,” she said.

The story of Pocahontas received attention recently, as March 2017 was the 400th anniversary of her death in England, where she moved after marrying John Rolfe.

Gray recently traveled to the United Kingdom to present a lecture on Pocahontas at The British Library.

Taylor said that some visitors to the museum claim a sliver of Pamunkey heritage and that can often be validated – Pocahontas has hundreds of thousands of living descendants. But she cautioned that there is a much different and relevant story about the modern tribe.

“What’s funny is that we are not the descendants of Pocahontas,” Taylor said. “There were thousands of other Pamunkey people at the time she lived.”

Taylor and Gray hope that visitors to the museum will have a better understanding of the important place the Pamunkey tribe occupies in American history.

Pamunkey woman Kim Cook Taylor shows young visitors a collage of past and present members of the Pamunkey Tribe. Photo courtesy Ben Swenson
Pamunkey woman Kim Cook Taylor shows young visitors a collage of past and present members of the Pamunkey Tribe. Photo courtesy Ben Swenson

One room in the museum displays replicas of a couple significant 17th-century artifacts: an ornate medal called a frontlet that King Charles II commissioned for the female Pamunkey leader Cockacoeske, and a striped jacket that Pamunkey emissaries wore when they went to Williamsburg to discuss matters with English Colonial officials.

A wall displays a collage of pictures of Pamunkey tribesmen through the years, including historic personalities who inhabited the reservation in the 19th and 20th centuries, along with some of the more than 200 current living members of the tribe.

The museum also sells pottery, beadwork and other works of art made by current Pamunkey artisans.

Related: Places to visit on one tank of gas -- National Museum of the Marine Corps

Gray, a retired Chief Master Sgt. in the U.S. Air Force, said he is hopeful that the tribe will be able to find sources of funding that will permit the enhancement of the museum’s galleries.

“We’d like to be able to expand on our story of the last several hundred years, particularly the 17th through the 21st-century,” he said.

To this day, the Pamunkey Tribe maintains traditions that tie them to one another and to the land. Every spring, Pamunkey men fish for shad in the river and spawn hundreds of thousands of fry in their fish hatchery.

And every year, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the Pamunkey, as well as members of the Mattaponi Tribe, who have a reservation a few miles north of the Pamunkey’s, present wild game to the Governor of Virginia at his home, honoring the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation, which recognized their reservations.

In 2015, the Pamunkey successfully concluded a decades-long fight to gain federal recognition. Of the 566 Indian tribes recognized by the federal government, the Pamunkey tribe is the only one from Virginia, even though the state government acknowledges the existence of 10 more.

Gray said that the museum offers a compelling glimpse of the strength and endurance of the Pamunkey people, past and present: “I hope that people leave the museum wanting to know more about us,” he said.

IF YOU GO: The Pamunkey Indian Museum is open weekends, on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday 1 to 4 p.m. You can visit the Pamunkey Indian Museum & Cultural Center website for more information.

Ben Swenson is an educator and writer who lives in James City County. His blog Abandoned Country chronicles sites of historic value that have been reclaimed by nature. Swenson can be reached at benswenson@cox.net

The Pamunkey Indian Tribe Museum houses thousands of artifacts and other antiquities that underscore the tribe’s ancient ancestry. It's located less than an hour's drive from the Historic Triangle. Photo courtesy Ben Swenson
The Pamunkey Indian Tribe Museum houses thousands of artifacts and other antiquities that underscore the tribe’s ancient ancestry. It's less than an hour's drive from the Historic Triangle. Photo courtesy Ben Swenson

For more information or to have your recent trip highlighted in our new travel section, please email travel editor Aaron Gray at aaron@localvoicemedia.com