Appalachian Trail by County: Amherst and the Monacan Nation

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AMHERST CO., Va. (WDBJ7) The history of the Monacans

The Monacan Indian Tribe -- descendants of the Souian tribe -- are a proud people still living in Virginia today. The Monacan Nation has more than 2,300 people on its tribal role but there are still hundreds who feel they don't need to be on an official list to prove their identity.

"We know who we are," former Monacan chief Ken Branham said.

The tribe doesn't think about the history of the Monacan people in terms of time. They say for thousands of years their people inhabited the Blue Ridge Mountain area. The Monacan Indian Tribe has a vast history.

"A lot of native people said we've been here so long it doesn't matter because we've always been here," Monacan Nation member Karenne Woods said.

Woods' family used to live in Virginia but in the mid 19th century, times were rough for the Monacan people. Discrimination and oppression were a reality back then so Woods' family moved north.

"There was so much pressure on people to get out if they could because life was hard," Woods said. "Our men weren't allowed to work jobs with other non-native men until the '60s."

Now Woods comes back to Virginia in search of her people's lost history and culture. It now has to be found because back in those days, Monacans were discouraged of revealing who they really were so rediscovering the past is important to Woods.

"If the wrong people heard us saying that we wouldn't have a place to live," Branham said. "Amherst County was very hard on the Monocan people but you know we stubborn and we stayed. My grandparents on both sides are the reason why the Monacan Nation are still here today."

The Last of the Monacans: Amherst County

When you think of history, sometimes you need to go back before you thought the story began. Many consider the 1920s when the idea of the Appalachian Trail was born as the beginning of the AT, but the route was used well before that -- not as a leisurely hiking trail but as a necessity for life. Many tribes, like the Monacan Nation are considered the "original" users of the Appalachian Trail.

"I think (the Monacan Indians) would have used the Appalachian Trail as a vantage point," Woods said. They also used it as a trade route. It's the highest spot so it makes sense to go along that ridge to travel."

While thousands hike the Appalachian Trail every year, few people relate to it like the Monacans do. These days, hundreds of Amherst County residents can trace their ancestry back to the Monacan Nation. They don't have to hide who they are or where they come from.

"It's my identity," Woods said. "It's something that's very precious to me. This was the last place the Monacan people were able to survive together and make a community. They are wonderful people who would do anything for each other."

Woods admits the Monacan people may look different than people would expect them to but they haven't disappeared or vanished from Virginia.

"Everybody changes over time," Woods said. "I like to say we didn't sing the same song for 10,000 years. It's OK to adapt and change and that's what's enabled us to survive."

So when you're walking along the Appalachian Trail in Amherst County, take the time to remember the Monacan Nation, they're still here as they were thousands of years ago.