Rassawek makes national “most endangered” list

By Heather Michon

Rassawek, the historic Native American village believed to be located at Point of Fork in Columbia, has made the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual list of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.”

“Rassawek is located at the fork of the Rivanna and James rivers and was the historical capital of the Monacan Indian Nation, the town to which all others in the Monacan Confederacy paid tribute,” according to the organization’s website. “Today the confluence of the rivers, known as Point of Fork, contains at least six National Register-eligible archaeological sites and the final resting places of Monacan ancestors.”

“The history of more than 5,000 years of Monacan people is written in the soil and landscape of Rassawek, providing a tangible connection to ancestors, many of whom did not survive the arrival of the English and are buried there,” Katherine Malone-France, chief preservation officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said in a statement.

News of the selection made national headlines, including in the National Geographic and The Washington Post.

The site is endangered by the James River Water Project (JRWP), a multimillion-dollar joint venture between Fluvanna and Louisa counties to pump water from the James River into the Zion Crossroads area. The current water supply around the crossroads cannot support the planned development in that area.

Controversy over building the pumping station at that site flared up in 2018 after an archaeological survey uncovered artifacts supporting the long-held belief among researchers that Rassawek had once been located at Point of Fork.

The Monacan Indian Nation, now located in Amherst County, has pushed for the relocation of the pump, arguing that construction will disrupt the remains of their ancestors and damage priceless cultural artifacts.

“Our capital city was a contemporary of Jamestown, but much larger and more complex, and it lasted as a community far longer,” said Chief Kenneth Branham in a statement released by the tribe’s attorneys, Cultural Heritage Partners. “It is for us a sacred place of great cultural significance, and it is for all Americans a place of historical importance.”

Last year, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR) disqualified the archaeologist hired to survey the property after she was found to have insufficient credentials under state and federal law. A whistleblower on the archeological team later came forward to say the survey was improperly done, including the use of untrained construction workers to dig pits and sift for artifacts. Attorneys for the water project have disputed these charges

However, the disqualification of the archaeologist led to both the VDHR and the Army Corps of Engineers to withhold critical permits needed before the project could go forward, and the Army Corps of Engineers later told the James River Water Authority (JRWA) they would have to apply for a more stringent permit.

In March, more than 50 people gave comments before the JRWA, demanding they consider halting the current permitting process and find an alternative location for the pumps. JRWA nevertheless voted unanimously to continue.

During the Army Corps of Engineers’ public comment period this summer, it received over 12,000 comments asking that the permit be denied, Only one comment — from the JRWA itself — was in support of the permit.

In August, JRWA requested that the Army Corps of Engineers temporarily pause the permitting process, saying that while they still believed the current site was the only practical location “we have continued to engage in discussions with interested parties on this matter.”


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