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How did Edith Turner, chief of the Nottoway navigate nineteenth-century Nottoway and Anglo-American societies while keeping the tribe's children on the reservation?

Lesson Images

Edith Turner petition

General Assembly, Legislative Petitions, Southampton County (received 11 December 1821), Box 234, Folder 71, Record Group 78, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. (Transcription)

General Assembly, Legislative Petitions, Southampton County (received 11 December 1821), Box 234, Folder 71, Record Group 78, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. (Transcription)

General Assembly, Legislative Petitions, Southampton County (received 11 December 1821), Box 234, Folder 71, Record Group 78, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. (Transcription)

Standards Of Learning

USI.1, USI.3, VS.1, VS.2, VUS.6

Historical Information:

In 1821 Edith Turner (ca. 1754—February or March 1838), also known as Edy Turner (or by her Nottoway personal name, Wané Roonseraw), petitioned the Virginia General Assembly as chief of the Nottoway (Cheroenhaka). Turner had taken part in land transactions since 1794, but as chief she led a push to divide the reservation's land among the individual Indians, perhaps in an attempt to convince more Nottoway to adopt white farming practices. Early in the nineteenth century most of the Indians on the Nottoway reservation refused to participate in intensive farming. Forced to sell reservation land to pay debts, the Nottoway saw their landholdings decrease, making their traditional ways of life increasingly difficult. Turner transcended these problems to own a farm, where she prospered.

Turner's level of self-sufficiency was considerable for a woman in her time and place, but her compassion for the Nottoway children makes her an outstanding figure. Records from 1808 show her acting as foster mother for two Nottoway children, and she successfully urged the white trustees of the tribe to return four other Indian children to the reservation. At age seventy-six she still looked after at least two children in her home. Turner most likely led the struggle to keep tribal children from being schooled or apprenticed off the reservation. As one of the last speakers of the Nottoway language and with knowledge of their legends, Turner instructed the children in the traditions of the tribe as well as in how to survive in white-controlled society. In 1820 she provided surveyor John Wood with a Nottoway vocabulary, allowing scholars a peek at the Iroquoian language. The only Nottoway of her time to write a will, Turner died in Southampton County in 1838 at about eighty-four years of age.

Lesson Activities

Have students read and attempt to transcribe the Nottoway Petition of 1821. Once they have made the attempt, provide them with the transcription of the document and ask them to analyze it.

♦ What was Edith Turner's position within the Nottoway (Cheroenhaka) tribe?

♦ For what were they asking?

♦ What was the reason for their claim?

♦ Why did the Nottoway (Cheroenhaka) make sure to state that they were not interested in suffrage? What effect did they believe it would have on their petition?

♦ Given the history of Virginia Indians and the reality of English settlement, what does this document represent? What types of transitions were the Nottoway making?

♦ What is unique about the signatures on the page?

Talk about ways in which individual people can give back to the community. Edith Turner (Wané Roonseraw) served children throughout her life, as a foster mother.

♦ Develop a class project in which your students can give back to the community.

Study Edith Turner (Wané Roonseraw) and the Nottoway (Cheroenhaka) tribe with your class. Turner was a chief.

♦ What does that say about the position of power for women in American Indian cultures?

♦ How did Turner keep Cheroenhaka traditions alive?

♦ How can we keep these traditions from going extinct?

Talk about how Edith Turner's life was different from the lives of your students.

• Edith Turner (Wané Roonseraw) was considered the chief of her people and one of the last speakers of the Nottoway (Cheroenhaka) language. She did what she could to pass on traditions of the Nottoway people to the younger generation. Today the languages once spoken by Virginia Indians are mostly forgotten.

♦ What traditions, stories, songs, or even recipes have been passed through your family?

Edith Turner (Wané Roonseraw) was born during the French and Indian War, and lived through the Revolutionary War.

♦ What position would you have taken on the onset of the Revolutionary War if you had been Turner?

♦ What was the relationship between the English and the Virginia Indians prior to the war?

♦ Did the war help the Virginia Indians or did it hinder them in the preservation of their culture?

♦ What was the result of the war on the Virginia Indians?

Edith Turner (Wané Roonseraw) lived during a time of changing relationships with the American colonists and later with the United States government.

♦ What do we know about the Nottaway (Cheroenhaka) people in Virginia?

♦ Where did they live (geographically)?

♦ As a leader among the Nottaway, what choices did Turner have when facing the threat of white encroachment on her people's land?

♦ What role did Turner play as a cultural gatekeeper? In what ways did she seek to keep intact Nottaway (Cheroenhaka) culture?

Make a list of the personal qualities that made Edith Turner successful. Identify how the opportunities for American women have changed since she was alive. Think about how the role Edith Turner (Wané Roonseraw) played in her community differs from, or is similar to, the role American women play in government today.


• Divide into groups and have students write a one-act play about Edith Turner or an event in her life.

• One way Edith Turner (Wané Roonseraw) helped keep Nottoway (Cheroenhaka) traditions alive was providing her native vocabulary to surveyor John Wood in 1820. Refer to the English Nottoway (Cheroenhaka) Vocabulary Sheet. Have students write and illustrate and story about the life and times of Turner. Students should use at least ten words from the list in their story. Stories should discuss Indian life ways that students learned through studying the Nottoway (Cheroenhaka) people.

• Write about the policies of the English towards the Virginia Indians from Edith Turner's point of view.

• What pressures did the Virginia Indians face as the numbers of American colonists continued to increase and spread westward? How did these issues affect her life and the culture of the Nottoway (Cheroenhaka)?


• Look at a Virginia map and find the locations associated with Edith Turner and the Nottoway Indians.

♦ Are they near the coast?

♦ Are they far from the capital?

♦ Do you see mountains or rivers?

♦ Into which of the five geographic regions of Virginia do they fit?

♦ What land or water features can you recognize?

♦ How does the tribe location effect how Turner and her tribal members survived?

Lesson Handouts

English Nottoway (Cheroenhaka) Vocabulary Sheet PDF Handout (48 KB)

Suggested Materials

Briggs, Martha Wren, and April Cary Pittman. “The Metes and Bounds in a Circle and a Square: The Nottoway Indians of Virginia,” Virginia Cavalcade 46 (1997): 132–143.

Rountree, Helen C. “The Termination and Dispersal of the Nottoway Indians of Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 95 (1987): 193–214.

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