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The site of Rassawek at Point of Fork during sundown. Photo by Greg Werkheiser.

Rassawek was the capital of the Monacan Nation in pre-colonial times. Located at the confluence of the James River and the Rivanna River at Point of Fork in Fluvanna County, the settlement was abandoned by the Monacans during the seventeenth century as a consequence of European encroachments.

Between 2014 and 2022, the site of the former settlement served as the subject of an intense legal dispute between the James River Water Authority (JRWA) and the representatives of the Monacan Nation in regard to the former organization's plans to build a water pumping station on the land. In 2022, the JRWA officially voted to choose an alternative site for their facilities, resulting in victory for the Monacan Nation.

The site of Rassawek was added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2020.


Colonial history

Rassawek labeled on Captain John Smith's 1624 map of Virginia. Reproduced from Library of Congress.

During the Pre-Columbian era, Rassawek was one of several Monacan settlements scattered throughout the Piedmont region of Virginia. In addition to its status as the political center of the tribe, Rassawek was of special significance to the Monacans due to it being a burial ground for the bones of their ancestors (who had lived in the area for at least 4,000 years), making it a place of the highest spiritual importance in the context of their culture. The Monacans, who had always been one of the least-populated tribes in the area, were relatively passive in comparison to most other Native American tribes, largely keeping to themselves and their lucrative copper mining industries. 

It is estimated that the Monacans numbered less than 10,000 individuals when English colonists first landed in Virginia in 1607. Unlike their more-powerful Powhatan neighbors to the south, the Monacans initially did not have much contact with the newcomers and continued their age-old tradition of living in relative isolation. However, as the years wore on and the influx of European settlers into the country grew larger, the Monacans were eventually forced to abandon Rassawek in the face of continued encroachments by the English throughout the late seventeenth century. While some members of the tribe migrated north to Pennsylvania and later Canada, merging with the native villages in those parts, a great portion of them gradually settled around the site of Oronoco in modern-day Amherst County, where they became known as the Bear Mountain community.

Modern history

Throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, the site of Rassawek was privately owned by a number of families, many of which made extensive note of the artifacts on the territory leftover from the Monacan era. In 1781, the area served as the site of a Revolutionary War skirmish, during which British forces destroyed a Continental Army supply depot.[1] In 1980, the construction of a gas pipeline through the area uncovered numerous native burials, with the remains that were excavated at that time never being returned to the Monacans.

Chief Kenneth Brahman and Tribal Administrator Rufus Elliott posing on the shores of the James River in front of the site of Rassawek. Photo by Mallory Noe-Payne.

Legal dispute

In 2009, the land passed under the ownership of the JRWA, a government body dedicated to administering public lands along the James River, which in 2014 began exploring the site of Rassawek as a location to construct a brand-new water pumping facility and pipeline that would supply the inhabitants of nearby communities with enough water to satisfy their growing demands. The Monacan Nation, having achieved state recognition in 1989 and, later on, federal recognition in 2018, vehemently objected to this plan on the grounds that such activities would displace and damage the bones of their ancestors (representing a serious offense to their culture that could not be permitted) as well as archaeological artifacts that made the area a site of historic significance.[2] The ensuing legal battle that officially commenced in 2018 between the two organizations would last for the next four years.

Chief Kenneth Branham of the Bear Mountain community and Greg Werkheiser, an attorney of the Cultural Heritage Partners organization who served as the legal counselor of the tribe, headed the Monacan efforts to preserve the safety of the site of Rassawek. In 2020, after bringing attention to the fact that a private archaeologist hired by the JRWA was alleged to have lied about her credentials by a former employee, Werkheiser managed to force the Commonwealth to fire the archaeologist, helping to erode the JRWA's public image.[3] Soon afterwards, the site of Rassawek was added by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to their 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list, an act that further propelled it into the public eye as a historic landscape.[4] In June of 2021, after intense awareness-raising campaigns, over 12,000 groups and private citizens submitted public comments to the Army Corps of Engineers that opposed the permit application of the JRWA to begin working on the site. Among the petition's signers were several faculty members and student organizations of the University of Virginia.[5]

On March 16, 2022, in the face of continued legal setbacks and the dogged resistance of the Monacan Nation, the JRWA officially voted to choose an alternative site for their facilities, representing a major victory for the Monacans.[6] The site of Rassawek continues to be owned by the JRWA to the present day.


Topographic map of the site of Rassawek, detailing the proposed location of the JRWA's water pumping station. Reproduced from Virginia Places.

The historical marker for the site of Rassawek lies at 37° 45.759′ N, 78° 10.823′ W in Columbia, Virginia, in Fluvanna County.[7]


  1. Web. Rassawek, Virginia Places
  2. Web. After inhabiting Virginia land for 10,000 years, the Monacan Indian Nation finally receives federal recognition, C-Ville Weekly, 03/09/2018
  3. Web. In deep: Allegations of mismanagement complicate Louisa’s demand for water, C-Ville Weekly, Philps
  4. Web. Rassawek and the Monacan Indian Nation’s Fight to Protect its Historic Capital, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 11/10/2020
  5. Web. Open Letter Public Comment JRWA application at Point of Fork, iPetitions, 2020
  6. Web. Rassawek SAVED, Cultural Heritage Partners, 03/16/2022
  7. Web. Rassawek, The Historical Marker Database, 06/06/2010