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Chief Powhatan in a longhouse at Werowocomoco (detail of John Smith map, 1612)

Werowocomoco was a village that served as the political center of the Powhatan Confederacy, a grouping of about 30 Native American tribes speaking an Algonquian language. They lived in the coastal plain area they called Tsenacommacah, in what is now the Commonwealth of Virginia, USA.

Werowocomoco was documented by English settlers in 1608 as located near the north bank of the York River in what is now Gloucester County — separated by that river and the narrow Virginia Peninsula from Jamestown. Powhatan's Chimney, a site of historical ruins, was traditionally thought to have been the site of the center.

In 2002-2003, an archaeological survey and subsequent excavations indicated a site further west on Purtan Bay was likely the location.[1] Work here has revealed a 50-acre settlement with extensive artifacts and complex earthworks built about 1400 CE. It extends more than 1000 feet back from the water. The village was first built and inhabited about 1200 CE, in the late Woodland period. Further study and research continues. The landowners and archaeology team based at William and Mary have consulted on the excavations with representatives of Virginia's Native American tribes, descendants of the Powhatan chiefdom. In 2006 the Werowocomoco Archaeological Site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Powhatan Confederacy

The Powhatan (also spelled Powatan and Powhaten) were a powerful chiefdom headed by Wahunsunacock (the Chief Powhatan) formed in the late 16th century. When this chief created a paramount chiefdom by conquering much of the coastal plain of Virginia, he called his lands "Tsenacommacah". He was referred to as "Powhatan", his title. His initial headquarters was known by the same name (in the present-day Powhatan Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia). It was name for the fall line, where there are rapids (or "rushing water") on the James River at the head of navigation.

The name Werowocomoco comes from the Powhatan werowans (weroance), "chief" in English; and komakah (-comoco), "settlement". Werowocomoco was more centrally located than Powhatan's first settlement. He may have wanted to be at the heart of the region of approximately 30 tributary tribes and their traditional areas.

In 2002-2003 a comprehensive archeological survey and excavations revealed an extensive settlement on the York River which researchers believe is Werowocomoco.[2] Excavation has revealed that the settlement was inhabited since 1200 CE, and complex earthworks were built about 1400 CE.[3] Powhatan may have made use of a site well-known to his people as a regional center.

Pocahontas and Captain John Smith

Werowocomoco was the site of interaction between Powhatan and English colonists from Jamestown. It is best known as the site of the rescue of English soldier John Smith by Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan. He had been captured while foraging along the Chickahominy River.

According to Smith's account, Pocahontas, Chief Powhatan's daughter, prevented her father from executing Smith in December 1607. Historians have been somewhat skeptical of this account, and a few believe he may have misinterpreted a ritual intended to adopt Smith into the tribe. (Smith made no mention of the incident in his own writings until 1624, some 17 years after the fact, and completely omitted it in his 1608 and 1612 editions). After 400 years, there is little chance of verifying the story. Its mythic appeal has been popularized in novels and film, including animated versions.

Capital relocated from Werowocomoco

The English colonists were often driven to desperation during the winters by their inability to find food. In December 1608, Chief Powhatan offered to sell them an entire "shipload of corn in exchange for a grindstone, fifty swords, some guns, a cock and a hen, copper and beads, and some men to build him an English-style house."[4] Smith accepted this proposal, but instead of giving Powhatan weapons, the settler planned to surprise him and take the corn by force. Sending four "Dutchmen" (Germans) ahead by land to work on the house, Smith headed for Werowocomoco by sea on December 29 with a small force. While en route at Warraskoyack, he received a report that Powhatan was plotting an ambush on him.

Smith arrived, after many stops, on January 12, 1609. The next day he was taken to see progress on the Chief's new house in the vicinity. As it happened, Smith's men and Powhatan's men, after failing to persuade each other to disarm, tried to ambush each other simultaneously during the negotiations. After these feints, the English had their corn. Smith's party then travelled up the Pamunkey river to trade with the Chief's brother, Opechancanough, whom they ended up threatening at gunpoint. When they returned to Werowocomoco a few days later, they were surprised to find the house still unfinished and the entire town completely abandoned, for which they blamed the Germans.[5] Powhatan's Chimney has long been purported to be site of the remains of this uncompleted house. The discovery of archaeological remains of a more substantial settlement on Purtan Bay makes this unlikely.

Powhatan moved his capital to Orapakes, located in a swamp at the head of the Chickahominy River (near the modern-day interchange of Interstate 64 and Interstate 295). Sometime between 1611 and 1614, he moved further north to Matchut, in present-day King William County on the north bank of the Pamunkey River. After Powhatan's death in 1618, his younger brother Opechancanough ruled near here at Youghtanund.

Smith describes location

The location of Werowocomoco was lost during the 17th century. Scholars believed West Point (a town established at the confluence of the Pamunkey River and Mattaponi Rivers at the headwaters of the York River) seemed to meet a description in writings of John Smith.

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Powhatan's Chimney

Traditionally, people thought that Werowocomoco was located near Powhatan's Chimney in the area of Timberneck Bay, slightly upstream on the York River from Gloucester Point. European settlers and their descendants called the area Werowocomoco. Its name was changed to Wicomico by the US Post Office in favor of a shorter version when a post office was established there.[6]

The area known as Wicomico is the site of Powhatan's Chimney. It is about 25 miles east of present-day West Point, Virginia. According to colonist John Smith:

"Fourteene myles from the river Powhatan is the river Pamunkee, which is navaginable 60 or 70 myles, but with Cathes and small Barkes 30 or 40 myles further. At he ordinary flowing of the salt water, it divideth itself into two gallent branches. On the South side inhabited the people Toughtamand (?), who haue about 60 men for warres. On the North branch Mattapoment, who has 30 men. Where the river is divided the Country is called Pamaunkee, and nourisheth neare 300 able men. About 25 myles lower on the North side of this river is Werawocomoco, where their great king inhibited when I was delivered him prisoner; yet there are not past 40 able men."(sic)

By local legend, a chimney on the site remained from a house built by Smith for Powhatan at the latter's regional village.

Purtan Bay - Werowocomoco archeological site

In 1977, Daniel Mouer, an archaeologist at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) identified a site further west along the York River at Purtan Bay as the possible location. Dr. Mouer collected artifacts from the surface of plowed fields and along the beach. He found fragments of Indian ceramics from the Late Woodland Period to European contact, and determined that this area was the "possible site of 'Werowocomoco'."[7] Based on his findings, the area was designated a Virginia Historic Site.

In 2002 the Ripleys, later landowners, authorized additional archaeological exploration. They had already found many ancient projectile points on the surface. Between March 2002 and April 2003, archaeologists conducted a comprehensive survey of a portion of the property. Initial testing included digging 603 test holes, each 12 to 16 inches deep and 50 feet apart. They found thousands of artifacts throughout the site, meaning that it had integrity and had not been much disturbed. These finds included a blue bead possibly made in Europe for trading.[8] Together with historical descriptions, these findings showing substantial, extended settlement, suggested the farm was the site of Werowocomoco. "We believe we have sufficient evidence to confirm that the property is indeed the village of Werowocomoco," said Randolph Turner, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources' Portsmouth Regional Office in 2003. [9]

The Purtan Bay site is less than 25 miles from West Point and 15 miles from Jamestown. Studies of the early mapping evidence support scholars' conclusions as to its likelihood as Weowocomoco.

Two Gloucester-based archaeologists, Thane Harpole and David Brown, have been instrumental in the work at the Purtan Bay site since 2002.[10] Starting that year, the Werowocomoco Research Group was formed to begin excavations. The Research Group is a collaborative effort of the College of William and Mary, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and Virginia tribes descended from the Powhatan.

The excavations revealed a dispersed village community of about 50 acres, occupied from A.D. 1200 through the early 1600s (Woodland to early Contact). Artifacts recovered include Native pottery and stone tools, as well as floral and faunal remains from a large residential community. The Research Group has also recovered numerous English trade goods, produced from glass, copper, and other metals, that came from Jamestown. This conforms to colonists' accounts of trading at Werowocomoco that emphasized Powhatan's interest in English objects, particularly copper, during the early days of the Jamestown colony.

In 2004 researchers discovered two large earthworks, curving ditches, each more than 200 feet in length and located about 1000 feet from the river. They may be part of a D-shaped construction noted on a 1612 map by John Smith. They determined the ditches dated from about 1400 CE, indicating long-term settlement at this site by Native Americans more than 200 years prior to the Jamestown settlement.[3] Earthwork constructions were often integral to ceremonial centers and may have defined or separated a sacred area. Continuing discoveries from excavations are helping scholars understand Native American-European relations. The period of interaction at this site was brief in relation to the hundreds of years of prior indigenous settlement.

Unlike some earlier projects, this one is notable because archaeologists and other researchers have carefully incorporated consultation about planning and executing the excavations with members of the local Native American tribes among the descendants of the Powhatan. These include the Mattaponi and Pamunkey, who consider sacred such sites including burial artifacts.

"When I step on this site folks...I just feel different. The spirituality just touches me and I feel it." Stephen R. Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy Tribe and a member of the Virginia Indian advisory board.[3]

Because of the significance of the excavations, in 2006 the Werwomocomo Archaeological Site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).

Gloucester County

Both the newly identified site on Purtan Bay and the site of Powhatan's Chimney at Wicomico, also thought to have been the site of Werowocomoco, are located within an area that the Native Americans may have considered Werowocomoco. The Gloucester County Board of Supervisors noted that the village of the chief in the Algonquian language was not a place name, but more correctly translated as a reference to the lands where he lived. The culture frequently relocated quarters within a general area.[11]

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