David Ives Bushnell: Excerpt from
The Five Monacan Towns in Virginia, 1607


This name, as it appears on the Smith map, corresponds with the position of an extensive village site on the banks of the Rivanna, in Albemarle County, directly north of the University of Virginia and one-half mile up the river from the bridge of the Southern Railway. At that point the Rivanna makes a wide bend, flowing from the west, then turning and continuing in a southeastwardly direction. On the right or south bank there is a wide, fertile bottom, bounded on the north by the river and on the south by cliffs sloping to the low grounds. On the left or north bank of the stream the bottom is far less extensive than on the opposite side, but it is rather higher and less liable to be overflowed, and the cliffs are nearer the river. This is believed to have been the site of the ancient settlement of Monasukapanough. The village appears to have occupied both sides of the river, with a ford that made it possible to pass from one side to the other, although canoes were probably in constant use on the stream. A plan of the region is shown in figure 5.

The translation of the name of the village has not been determined, nor has that of the name of the related settlement which stood on the bank of the James. As mentioned there is a ford across the Rivanna at this place - shallow watter - which may have to do with the first part of the name. This is suggested by statements by William Byrd, in the year 1728, during the running of the line between Virginia and North Carolina, when he had an old Saponi Indian acting as guide. To quote from the remarkable narrative (p. 42): On September 28 "We proceeded to the canoe landing on Roanoke, where we passed the river with the baggage. But the horses were directed to a ford about a mile higher, called by the Indians Moni-seep, which signifies, in their jargon, shallow-water. This is the Ford where the Indian traders used to cross with their horses, in their way to the Catawba nation." And on October 2 they crossed a large creek "which the Indians called Massa-moni, signifying, in their language, Paint creek, because of the great quantity of red ochre found in its banks." Later on the same day they crossed another creek called "in the Saponi language, Ohimpa-moni, signifying jumping creek, from the frequent jumping of fish during the spring season." It would now be interesting to know if the name Jumping Branch, applied at the present time to a branch Hardware River, in Albemarle County, perpetuates an ancient Siouan name.

Mooney was of the belief that Monasukapanough was possibly "the original of Saponi." There is little reason to doubt the correctness of this belief. Lederer stated that he "arrived at Sapon, a village of the Nahyssans." The latter, as previously shown, were the Monahassanugh whose name appears on the map of 1624. Therefore it is quite evident that at the time of the settlement of Jamestown, 1607, the site on the banks of the Rivanna was occupied by the Saponi, closely allied with the Monahassanugh or Tutelo, whose village stood on the bank of the James some miles away in the southwesterly direction.

Had it not been for the work and interest of Jefferson, no account of the great burial mound which once stood at the ancient village of Monasukapanough would now be available. It would have disappeared as have the burial places once belonging to other villages of the Siouan tribes and no reference to it would have been preserved. The site of the Indian town was visible from Monticello, and the burial mound stood near the south, or right bank of the Rivanna within the area shown in plate 2. Jefferson desired to know the nature of the contents of the work and, so he wrote (p. 139): "For this purpose I determined to open and examine it thoroughly. It was situated on the low grounds of the Rivanna, about two miles above its principal fork, and opposite to some hills, on which had been an Indian town. It was of spheroidical form, of about 40 feet diameter at the base, and had been of about twelve feet altitude, though now reduced by the plough to seven and a half, having been under cultivation about a dozen years. Before this it was covered with trees of 12 inches diameter, and round the base was an excavation of five feet depth and width, from whence the earth had been taken of which the hillock was formed. I first dug superficially in several parts of it, and came to collections of human bones, at different depths, from six inches to three feet below the surface. These were lying in the utmost confusion, some vertical, some oblique, some horizontal, and directed to every point of the compass, entangled, and held together in clusters by the earth. Bones of the most distant parts were found together, as, for instance, the small bones of the foot in the hollow of a scull, many sculls would sometimes be in contact, lying on the face, on the side, on the back, top or bottom, so as, on the whole, to give the idea of bones emptied promiscuously from a bag or basket, and covered over with earth, without any attention to their order." And to continue: "I proceeded then to make a perpendicular cut through the body of the barrow, that I might examine its internal structure. This passed about three feet from its center, was opened to the former surface of the earth, and was wide enough for a man to walk through and examine its sides. At the bottom, that is, on the level of the circumjacent plain, I found bones; above these a few stones, brought from a cliff a quarter of a mile off, and from the river one-eighth of a mile off; then a large interval of earth, then a stratum of bones, and so on. At one end of the section were four strata of bones plainly distinguishable; at the other, three; the strata in one part not ranging with those in another. The bones nearest the surface were least decayed...Appearances certainly indicate that it has derived both origin and growth from the accustomary collection of bones, and deposition of them together; that the first collection had been deposited on the common surface of the earth, a few stones put over it and then a covering of earth, that the second had been laid on this, had covered more or less of it in proportion to the number of bones, and was then also covered with earth; and so on."

There is reason to believe some Indians continued to occupy the site until after the beginning of the 18th century. They may have been few in number, but among the number must have been some who were descendants of others who had lived there when Monasukapanough was a large village. As late as the middle of the century some were living who knew of the burial place of their dead. Jefferson, referring to the mound which he had examined, told how "a party passing, about thirty years ago, through the part of the country where this barrow is, went through the woods directly to it, without any instructions or enquiry, and having staid about it some time, with expressions which were construed to be those of sorrow, then returned to the high road, which they had left about half a dozen miles to pay this visit, and pursued their journey." Only those who had retained a memory of the burial place could, or would, have made such a pilgrimage.

The exact position of the mound may never be determined, but it certainly stood on the low ground, on the right bank of the Rivanna, evidently nearer the river than the cliffs, and it may have been some distance above the ford.

During the month of June, 1911, I examined part of the low ground in the endeavor to find some trace of the native village to which the burial mound had belonged. Nothing was discovered on the surface; all had been covered in the past years. Nine excavations were made about 50 yards from the river bank, and beginning about that same distance west of the road leading to the ford. One excavation was 30 feet in length, others were 5 or 6 feet square, all were 2 feet or more in depth. In seven of the nine excavations small fragments of pottery were encountered at an average depth of about 20 inches, bits of quartz and quartzite, and pieces of charcoal were also met with in some excavations. No traces of bones of any sort were found. The superstratum, some 20 inches in thickness, represents the alluvium deposited by the river since the village was occupied, and may have resulted from one or more freshets during the past century. The greatest freshet known was in 1877, at which time, so it is said, most of the low ground was overflowed to a great depth. When the waters receded some parts of the area were covered with a thick deposit of sand while on other sections the soil had been washed away and the surface lowered. Many stone objects of Indian origin were exposed. Axes, discoidal stones, and numerous chipped implements are mentioned as having been discovered, but now all are scattered and lost. Undoubtedly a great number of interesting specimens could have been collected at the time, proving it to have been the site of an extensive native village. Evidently Jefferson did not suspect the existence of part of the great village on the side of the river on which the mound stood. He mentioned the hills on the opposite side "on which had been an Indian town," which may have been the more important part of the settlement, as it has now become the more interesting.

On the Left Bank

Much of that which precedes refers to conditions on the right bank of the Rivanna, but the great village also occupied some ground on the opposite side of the stream. The land on the north or left bank rises rather abruptly from the water, continues quite level for 100 yards or more and then becomes much higher. This comparatively level area of some 20 acres or more is thus bounded on one side by the Rivanna and on the east and north by rising ground which in some places is quite steep. On the west the cliffs approach the river. Several large springs issue from the surface on the site of the village. Before the land was cleared of timber the ground was necessarily irregular and broken, and was traversed by several gullies extending from the bordering cliffs to the river, worn deep by the waters flowing from the springs which would have supplied the wants of the settlement. The area has now been cultivated for many years, thhe surface leveled and worn down by the plow, but while it remained in its natural condition surrounded as it was by wooded cliffs, it would have appeared hilly and broken; these were the hills on which Jefferson said "had been an Indian town."

The central portion of the level area is the more elevated and slopes gradually to the west and east. It is believed this part has never been covered by the waters of the Rivanna although the lower ground has been overflowed several times within recent years, always leaving deposits of sand and alluvium on the surface.

A general view of the site is reproduced in plate 2. This was taken from the high land on the north. In the foreground is the section north of the river; the course of the stream is indicated by the line of trees bordering its banks. Beyond is the low ground on the right bank of the river, with the cliffs rising in the distance.

Many stone objects have been discovered scattered over the surface of the higher part of the level ground where they may never have been covered by water, even at the times of great freshets. The specimens have thus remained since they were lost or abandoned by the last inhabitants of the village - believed to have been the Saponi, who left the site some time before the year 1670, although some may have lingered behind. About 70 years later colonists entered the valley of the Rivanna. The ground has now been cultivated for many years and, undoubtedly, numerous objects both large and small have been broken by the plow, but some of unusual interest have been discovered within the past few years.

The material collected on the surface consists of objects of stone, both chipped and polished, and numerous fragments of pottery, many of which bear the imprint of textiles. No specimens made of shell, bone, or metal have been discovered, and nothing of European origin to suggest contact with the colonists has been encountered on the site.

Many of the stone implements, or weapons, are crudely made, but with edges worn and polished as a result of much use. These are seldom broken or incomplete although a number of fragments of well made polished celts have been found, as well as more perfect specimens with only the cutting edge battered or fractured, suggesting rough usage. Perfect or complete objects of the finer workmanship are not found. This fact is difficult to explain unless the better pieces were carried away when, as it is believed, the majority of the people of the village moved to another locality during the later part of the 17th century. The crudely chipped implements may have been made by the last native inhabitants of the site, thus representing the close of the stone age in this part of Virginia.