The Nottoway (in their own language Cheroenhaka) are an Iroquoian-language tribe of Virginia Indians. Two Nottoway groups, the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia and the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe, have both been recognized as tribes by the state of Virginia. The Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia live from Southampton County into Surry County and the Tidewater region, and the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe live in Southampton County and surrounding counties in Virginia and North Carolina. Since colonial times, treaties by regional government with the Nottoway attested to their presence as a distinct people.
Both contemporary tribes received state recognition in February 2010. They do not have reservations or federal recognition.
The meaning of the name Cheroenhaka (Tuscarora: Čiruʼęhá•ka•ʼ) is uncertain. (It has been spelled in various ways: Cherohakah, Cheroohoka or Tcherohaka.) The late Iroquoian scholar Dr. Blair Rudes analyzed the second element as -hakaʼ meaning “one or people who is/are characterized in a certain way”. He conjectured that the first element of the name was related to the Tuscarora čárhuʼ (tobacco). The term has also been interpreted as “People at the Fork of the Stream”.
The term Nottoway may derive from Nadawa or Nadowessioux (widely translated as “poisonous snake”), an Algonquian-language term which speakers used for their competitors of the other language families, the Iroquoian- or Siouan-speaking tribes. Because the Algonquian occupied the coastal areas, they were the first tribes met by the English. The colonists often adopted such Algonquian ethnonyms, names for other tribes, not realizing at first that these differed from the tribes’ autonyms, or names for themselves.
Frank Siebert suggests the term natowewa stems from Proto-Algonquian *na:tawe:wa and refers to the eastern massasauga or pit viper in the Great Lakes region. The extension of the meaning as “Iroquoian speakers” is secondary. In Algonquian languages beyond the geographical range of the viper (i.e. Cree and Southern Algonquian), the term’s primary reference continues to focus on *na:t- ‘close upon, mover towards, go after, seek out, fetch’ and *-awe: ‘condition of heat, state of warmth,’ but no longer references the viper. Instead, particularly in the South, the ‘Iroquoian’ designation is primary. The semantic meaning may not relate to snakes at all, but refers to the cultural trading position of the Virginia-Carolina Iroquois as middle men between Algonquian and Siouan-speakers. Other historical developments in Algonquian languages extend the meaning of *-awe to ‘fur or hair’ (i.e. Cree, Montagnais, Ojibway, Shawnee), an obvious relationship to ‘state of warmth.’ A potential etymology in Virginia of *na:tawe:wa (Nottoway) refers to *na:t- ‘seeker’ + -awe: ‘fur,’ or literally ‘traders’ The earliest Virginia reference to “Nottoway” also frames Algonquian/Iroquoian exchanges in terms of trade: roanoke (shell beads) for skins (deer and otter).
The Algonquian speakers also called the Nottoway, Meherrin and Tuscarora (also of the Iroquoian-language family) — Mangoak or Mangoags, a term which the English used in their records from 1584 to 1650. This term, Mengwe or Mingwe, was transliterated by the Dutch and applied to the Iroquoian Susquehannock (“White Minquas”) and Eries (“Black Minquas”). Another variation was the later Mingo, which referred to descendants of the tribes who had been partly assimilated into the Six Nations and moved into Ohio and the Midwest.
The Nottoway language went extinct well before 1900. At the time of European contact (1650), speakers numbered only in the hundreds. From then until 1735, a number of colonists learned the language and acted as official interpreters for the Virginia Colony, including Thomas Blunt, Henry Briggs and Thomas Wynn. These interpreters also served the adjacent Meherrin, as well as the Nansemond, who spoke Nottoway in addition to their own Algonquian dialect of Powhatan. The last two interpreters were dismissed in 1735, since the Nottoway by then were using English.
By 1820, there were said to be only three elderly speakers of Nottoway remaining. In that year John Wood collected over 250 word samples from one of these, Chief “Queen” Edie Turner. He sent them to Thomas Jefferson, who shared them with Peter DuPonceau. In their correspondence, these two men quickly confirmed the Nottoway language as of the Iroquoian family. Several additional words, for a total of about 275, were collected by James Trezvant after 1831, and published by Albert Gallatin in 1836.
In the early 20th century, Hewitt (1910) and Hoffman (1959) analyzed the Nottoway vocabulary in comparison with Tuscarora, and found them closely related. The Tuscarora had all lived in North Carolina at one time. Due to warfare and colonial pressure, most of the Tuscarora migrated north to New York in the early eighteenth century to seek protection by alliance with the Iroquois Confederacy. They declared their migration ended in 1722, and said Tuscarora living elsewhere were no longer members of the tribe. A significant population in North Carolina claim descent from the Tuscarora and identify under that name.
The Cheroenhaka, like their close Iroquoian neighbours, the Meherrin and Tuscarora, lived just west of the fall line. They were first visited and described by the explorer Edward Bland on an expedition from Fort Henry, as he noted in his journal for August 27, 1650. At the time, the people numbered no more than 400-500. Bland visited two of their three towns, on Stoney Creek and the Rowantee Branch of the Nottoway River, in what is now Sussex County. These towns were led by the brothers Oyeocker and Chounerounte.
The Nottoway and Meherrin became friendly with the English. They were the only tribes to send warriors to help the English against the Susquehannock (also Iroquoian speakers) in 1675. Following Bacon’s Rebellion, both tribes signed the Treaty of Middle Plantation in 1677, thereby becoming Tributary Nations to the Virginia Colony.
By 1681, hostile tribes caused the Nottoway to relocate southward to Assamoosick Swamp in modern Surry County. In 1694 they moved again, to the mouth of a swamp in what is now Southampton County. Around this time, they absorbed the remnants of the Weyanoke — an Algonquian-language tribe that had formerly been part of the Powhatan Confederacy.
Although never numerous, the Nottoway were able to keep their organization. They did not disappear from records, merge into other tribes, or get pushed too far from their original homeland. Scholars believe the early Nottoway were similar in culture to the Tuscarora and Meherrin. The tribe depended on the cultivation of staples, such as the three sisters — maize, squash, and beans. This cultivation was typically done by women, while the men hunted game and fished in the rivers. They built multi-family dwellings known as longhouses, in communities protected by stockade fences.
The Nottoway suffered high fatalities from epidemics of new Eurasian infectious diseases, such as measles and smallpox, to which they had no natural immunity. These had been brought about by European contact, as the diseases were by then endemic among Europeans. Tribal warfare and encroaching colonists also lowered their numbers. When the Tuscarora migrated northward ca. 1720 to become the Sixth Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy in New York, some Nottoway also migrated there, while others remained in Virginia. It is probable that some Iroquois descendants, especially among the Tuscarora in New York and Canada, also have Nottoway ancestry.
Some Nottoway returned to the South, with bands of Tuscarora and Meherrin joining and merging with them. These groups went to South Carolina.