Education from LVA

George Major Cook


Chief George M. Cook, Photograph Collection, Special Collections, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

George Major Cook, who was also known by his Powhatan name Wahunsacook or Wahansunacoke was born on October 23, 1860, on the Pamunkey Reservation in King William County. Raised on the reservation, Cook learned to read and write as a child, although a state-funded school was not established until 1882. His family was instrumental in forming the Pamunkey Baptist Church and he was a devoted Baptist. In 1887 he married Theodora Octavius Dennis, and they had ten children, seven of whom lived to adulthood.

By 1888 Cook was a leader of his tribe, and he was elected chief in 1902, a position he held until his death. A dedicated advocate of education as a way to uplift the tribe, he pushed for better conditions at the tribal school and for improved secondary education. To improve public awareness of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, Cook shifted the date of paying tribute to the state from the spring to the fall. The tribe's presentation of large game animals to the governor during deer season drew increased media coverage. In 1917 Cook obtained from the state attorney general a ruling that Virginia had no right to tax Indians on the reservation or to draft members of the tribe for military service.

Cook led the opposition against Walter Ashby Plecker, director of the state Bureau of Vital Statistics, during the 1920s and 1930s when Plecker was supporting enactment and enforcement of the 1924 Virginia Act to Preserve Racial Integrity. The statute classified all Virginians in racial categories of white or colored and subjected all nonwhite citizens to the racial segregation laws. Cook denied that members of the Pamunkey tribe had any African ancestry. In 1930, the General Assembly adopted an amendment that specified that any ascertainable African ancestry officially classified a person as colored. Believing that all Virginia Indians had some African American ancestry, Plecker systematically reclassified them, obliterating their Indian heritage in the state records. Cook tirelessly and publicly fought for Virginia Indians' right to maintain their distinct heritage and to be recorded as Indians. With help from the tribe's attorney, Hill Montague, and Chief George F. Custalow of the Mattaponi, Cook led opposition to a proposal to exempt the Indians living on the two state reservations from the classification because it did not protect Pamunkey and Mattaponi living off the reservations.

Cook, who had suffered from heart disease for several years, died following a heart attack at his home on the reservation on December 16, 1930.

Suggested Reading:

"George Major Cook," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Edited by Sara B. Bearss et al., 3:422–423. Richmond: Library of Virginia,

1998– .