PETITION OF THE MEHERRIN INDIANS
What steps did the Meherrin Indians take to try to protect their land from encroaching colonists?
Virginia (Colony), Colonial Papers, Petition of Meherrin Indians to the Governor, 1723 September 9, Acccession 36138, State Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. (Transcription)
Almost from the inception of the Virginia Colony, tensions over the concept of land ownership existed between the English colonists and the Indians. The Indians did not utilize a formalized system of land “ownership” but the land was important to them. A tribe might only live on a small portion of territory but needed access to a much larger area in order to subsist by hunting, planting, and gathering. The English colonists on the other hand formally patented land and considered their claims exclusionary to the property rights of the Indians. Many “treaties of peace” were signed between the Indians and the Virginia Company of London or (after 1624) the colonial government. Unfortunately these treaties, which purported to grant the Indians certain lands, seldom included patents to these lands. As a result the Indians consistently saw lands that had been granted to them in treaties settled by individual colonists who had obtained patents to the same land. Complicating the situation further was the fact that there was no one Indian representing all the tribes who had claims to the land in question.
The Meherrin Indians were a small tribe living on the banks of the Meherrin River in southeastern Virginia near present-day Emporia. In this 1723 document, the Indians are petitioning the royal governor of Virginia for relief from the English colonists who have taken their land and are now threatening to take the corn they have grown. It is notable that the Indians present themselves as “most oblein Subgetes” to “his Most Raill Magasty.” In 1705, Virginia had put into place laws that deprived all nonwhite persons, including Indians, of legal rights including the right to testify in court. This effectively kept the Indians from using the courts to settle land disputes or collect debts.
• Treaty—a formal agreement between two or more states in reference to peace, alliance, commerce, or other international relations.
• Testify—to give testimony under oath or solemn affirmation, usually in court.
• ORAL EXPRESSION: We know today that the colonists seized the lands the Indians were living on with very little compensation given to them. Why do you think the colonists felt justified in doing this? Think about the social, religious, and economic issues of the time. Have students hold a class debate based on the class's answer to the question above.
Research and Discussion Questions:
• Have students research the different Indian tribes that inhabited Virginia in the 1600s. How were they similar? How were they different? Do any of them still exist as tribes today? Where do they live?
Binford, Lewis R. “An Ethnohistory of the Nottoway, Meherrin and Weanock Indians of
Southeastern Virginia.” Ethnohistory 14, nos. 3–4 (1967): 103–218.
Dawdy, Shannon Lee. “The Meherrin's Secret History of the Dividing Line.” North Carolina
Historical Review 72, no.4 (1995): 386–415.