Wordcatcher Tales: Chuckatuck, Nottoway

During my recent trip to see relatives in southeastern Virginia, I got curious about some of the Native American placenames and the languages they came from. Eventually I came across a very comprehensive article in Wikipedia on Native American tribes in Virginia (whose main contributors have the usernames Til Eulenspiegel, Parkwells, and—early on—Sarah1607). In it, I found that those tribes include not just descendents of Algonquian speakers (like the Powhatan Confederacy), but also a few far outliers who once spoke Iroquian and Siouan languages. The area I was visiting was where the three language types once met.

The village of Chuckatuck is now a borough of the city of Suffolk (the “World’s Largest Peanut Market” and home of WLPM-AM), formed out of what used to be called Nansemond County. As an English colony, Chuckatuck dates back to 1635. Chuckatuck Parish church (now St. John’s Episcopal Church) was established in 1642, and George Fox himself established Chuckatuck Friends Meeting in 1672. (Some of my ancestors show up in Chuckatuck Monthly Meeting records, but there is no longer a Friends Meeting there, as I discovered on this visit.) A Chuckatuck grist mill operated continuously from 1676 to 1972.

Despite being a tiny riverport and crossroads town, it has its own Greater Chuckatuck Historical Foundation, and Chuckatuck Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. According to the Foundation’s website, the village name comes from Chuckatuck Creek, “or Crooked Creek as the Indians called it” (a tributary of the James River). Those Indians must have been Algonquian-speaking members of the Nansemond tribe. The Virginia Algonquian language is also known as Powhatan, and was the source of such English words as hickory, hominy, opossum, persimmon, and (corn)pone.

Nottoway Parish was the original name of Southampton County, Virginia. It was named after the Nottoway River, which was in turn named for the Nottoway Indians who lived along it. The name Nottoway appears to come from an Algonquian word for peoples who were not Algonquian speakers. The same name shows up elsewhere in two counties named Nottoway in North Carolina and Louisiana, streets named Nodaway in Iowa and Missouri, and Nadoway Point in Michigan, where it faces Iroquois Island in Whitefish Bay, Lake Superior. The wide-ranging Algonquians had many foreigners in their midst.

We know the Nottoway used to speak an Iroquian language because someone collected a wordlist in 1820 from one of the last elderly speakers and sent it to Thomas Jefferson, who shared it with Peter DuPonceau, one of the earliest experts in the indigenous languages of North America. A few more words were added to the list, but they are the only trace we have left of the language. Nevertheless, they suffice to show that Nottoway was closely related to Tuscarora, which is much better documented but now highly endangered.

Two other groups of Northern Iroquian speakers lived in the area. The Meherrin Nation once lived along the Meherrin River in Virginia, but migrated south to North Carolina during the early 1700s. They signed several treaties with the colony and are now one of the eight indigenous nations officially recognized by the state of North Carolina.

The Tuscarora people once lived around the Roanoke, Neuse, and Tar Rivers in North Carolina, but began migrating north after the Tuscarora War of 1711-1713. Those who reached New York became the sixth nation of the Iroquois who are nationally recognized in Canada and the U.S. But other descendants of the Tuscarora have remained in North Carolina, and some have moved to Oklahoma.

Of the eleven tribes recognized by the State of Virginia, only three groups are not of Algonquian heritage. The Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia, Inc. and the Choreonhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe of Southampton County both descend from people who once spoke the same Iroquoian language.

The third group claims descent from speakers of Eastern Siouan languages (also known as Catawban). The Monacan Indian Nation gets its name from one of two historic tribes, the Monacan and Manahoac (or Mahock), who once lived in Piedmont Virginia and spoke languages (now extinct) closely related to Tutelo. The Tutelo fled north in 1740 and were adopted by the Iroquoian Cayuga in 1753. The ethnologist Horatio Hale, working among the Cayuga in Ontario, was the first to discover that the Tutelo language from Virginia belonged to the Siouan family. (He was also the first to identify the Cherokee language as Iroquoian.) So the Siouan language family once extended as far east as Virginia and the Carolinas and as far south as Biloxi, Mississippi.

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Filed under language, travel, U.S., Virginia

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