From the arrival of Columbus through that of the first settlers from England, coastal Virginia area had been inhabited by a powerful, warlike tribe called the Susquehannock. When first encountered by John Smith in 1608, he described the Susquehannock as "the most noble and heroic nation of Indians that dwell upon the confines of America." Although related to the Iroquois, the Susquehannock carried out constant warfare with them. Almost completely forgotten today, the Susquehannock were on of the most formidable tribes of the mid-Atlantic region at the time of European contact, and dominated the large region between the Potomac River in Northern Virginia to southern New York. Using canoes for transport, Susquehannock war parties routinely attacked the Delaware tribes along the Delaware River and traveled down the Susquehanna where they terrorized the Nanticoke, Conoy, and Powhatan living on Chesapeake Bay.
The west shore of the Potomac River was the last of Virginia's Tidewater fringe to be settled. In 1669 Governor Berkeley granted Robert Howsing 'six thousand acres of land situate . . . upon the freshes of Potomac River on the west side.' Captain John Alexander, who surveyed this tract, including the site of Alexandria, bought the Howsing grant the year following, and sporadic settlement began.
The section suffered in 1675 because of the Susquehannock War, when the Indians crossed the Potomac to attack new settlers. Colonel John Washington with a Virginia force joined Major John Truman's Maryland troops in a campaign against the Indians on Piscataway Creek (Maryland). During a truce, Maryland soldiers killed the Indian conferees. The Susquehannock, bent on revenge, advanced southward and aroused other Indians, thus bringing about conditions that led to Bacon's Rebellion.
The Susquehannock War of 1673 was the beginning of the downfall of the tribe, who were almost completely destroyed by the Iroquois by 1675. The few survivors joined the Nottoway, later formed a new tribe called Meherrin and finally called themselves the Conestoga. The century had ended before the Indians were driven out and permanent settlements established.
For many years, the survivors lived with the Oneida in New York State, but they eventually were permitted to return along with remnants of other tribes that had been subdued by the Iroquois. Epidemics reduced their number. In 1763, the last twenty were massacred by a party of rioters known as the Paxton boys seeking revenge for Indian atrocities committed hundreds of miles to the west.
After the Susquehannock War, the English settlement of northern Virginia resumed. However, many of those who had been driven out by the war never returned, and some property owners seem simply to have forgotten about their claims. The war therefore added a further level of confusion to a landpatenting system that was already distorted by corruption and ineptitude. The patents were claimed by“headrights”; a planter could take 50 acres of land for each person he paid to bring to the colony. However, patenting alone did not create outright ownership of the land. The land also had to be “seated.”
Despite various legislative attempts to define it, the meaning of “seating” remained vague, but the rules generally required that some portion of the land be cleared for farming and a house built before the claim would be legal. Many of the tracts patented in the great land rush of the 1650s were never seated, and so the patents lapsed. Many tracts were patented again or even several times. The land grab in Virginia was carried out so quickly that there was no time for accurate mapping. Mistakes in the surveys sometimes left large voids between patents or led to overlaps and competing claims. Furthermore, it was often not clear which claims had lapsed because the land was unoccupied—a question, in fact, that often depended on the whether the claimant had the political power to have the courts recognize his claim.
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