Unfortunate confluence: Ancient Monacan site intersects with Louisa’s growing thirst

John Smith documented the Monacan capital Rassawek at the confluence of the 
James and Rivanna rivers in 1612.
Library of Congress John Smith documented the Monacan capital Rassawek at the confluence of the James and Rivanna rivers in 1612. Library of Congress

In John Smith’s 1612 map of Virginia, at the point where the Rivanna River meets the James, he marked Rassawek, the capital of the Monacan Indians. Jump forward 400 years and the site is on another map, this one targeting it as a pump station to quench Zion Crossroads’ thirst.

Louisa and Fluvanna counties joined forces in 2009 to form the James River Water Authority to pump water from the James for a long-term water supply for growth-booming Zion Crossroads, which depends on wells for its water, says Aqua­Law attorney Justin Curtis, who represents the water authority.

“There is a real and immediate need for water in the area,” says Curtis. “This is not a problem that’s getting better. It will only get worse.”

The water authority applied to the Army Corps of Engineers for a water intake and pump station permit at Point of Fork, the modern-day designation for Rassawek. That triggered Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires the Corps to consider adverse effects to the Monacan site and “avoid, minimize, or mitigate,” says Marion Werkheiser with Cultural Heritage Partners, which represents the Monacans.

The James River Water Authority knew the land was a significant historic site, says Werkheiser. “They ignored it and bought it anyway” in July 2016. “They didn’t reach out to the tribe until May 2017.”

Rassawek today is called Point of Fork. Carrie Pruitt

The Monacan Indian Nation received federal recognition in January 2018. “Archaeological testing shows artifacts that go back 200 generations,” says Werk­heiser.

“Rassawek was the capital of the Monacan confederacy, and several other towns paid tribute to Rassawek,” says Monacan Chief Kenneth Branham. “It is where we conducted ceremonies, lived, and died, for thousands of years.” To build the pump station, a four-acre site will be excavated, says Werkheiser. “That is not acceptable to the Monacans,” who want the Army Corps of Engineers to deny the permit, and also want Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources to deny a permit for anticipatory burial, in the event human remains are found.

Curtis acknowledges that possibility is a “sensitive” issue. “We’re all hoping no human remains will be disturbed,” he says. “Historically people haven’t buried their dead at the confluence of two rivers. We’ve already done a number of archaeological digs and haven’t found any.”

If the project is approved, archaeologists will go into the site first “to learn as much as they can about the people who were there first,” says Curtis. Artifacts will be turned over to the Monacans, and the James River Water Authority has pledged $125,000 to the Monacan Ancestral Museum, he says.

The Monacan Nation has been asked to provide its protocol if remains are found, says Curtis. “They will be treated respectfully,” and the Monacans can re-inter them in Amherst, where many live in the 21st century.

“We have been through reburials before, and it is a traumatic experience for all involved,” says Branham. ”I can’t ask our tribal members to go through that again for a pump station that could be built elsewhere.”

He asks the Army Corps and Governor Ralph Northam “to respect our tribe and to work with the water authority to find a location for their project that does not disturb our ancestors.”

There’s always the possibility construction could disturb burial sites, whether African Americans or colonists, Curtis says.

In fact, the U.S. 29 Western Bypass was kiboshed in 2013 when a historic African American cemetery was discovered in its path.

Curtis says there are historically significant sites all along the James River. Point of Fork has been “occupied for thousands of years for the same reasons we need to be there now: It’s a source of water.” He adds, “No one disputes it’s a very important site.”

If the Rassawek site is not used, what would be a nearly mile-long pipeline would grow to 5 or 10 miles, says Curtis.

Not only does Louisa have a connection pipe waiting, it’s also built the Ferncliff water treatment plant, which has no water to treat at this point, says Curtis.

And that points to Louisa’s biggest problem: development without the water to support it.

Rae Ely has her own beef with Louisa County’s handling of water resources. “There is no groundwater at Zion Crossroads. They’ve tested and tested. That didn’t stop them and they did all that building.”

Ely lives in Louisa’s historic Green Springs district. In 2006, the county built a three-mile pipeline to Green Springs, and said, according to Ely, “We’ll pump out their groundwater.”

Green Springs residents have been tracking the depletion of their groundwater for 13 years, she says. “It’s dropping like a rock.”

She alleges that “the powers that be have been lying and claiming the James River water will be here any day now, while failing to say the Monacans opposed it.”

Ely, who has been an attorney for more than 30 years, says, “I know federal law favors the Monacans. They’re going to win. That’s a nonstarter.” And her neighbors are prepared to seek an injunction to stop Louisa from pumping out Green Springs’ groundwater, she says

“Louisa County got out over its skis and built all this commercial development,” says Ely.  And it has 2,000 homes and apartments ready to be approved, “all looking for water and it’s not there,” she says.

Ely compares the development going on in Louisa, based on water from the James that isn’t coming any time soon, to a gold rush. She offers a one-word piece of advice to the county: “Moratorium.”

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