Virginia's first known capital was Werowocomoco, from which Powhatan controlled Tsenacomoco. Powhatan was a paramount chief - he appointed most werowances (lesser chiefs) in Tidewater Virginia, for over 30 tribes living between the Aquia/Potomac creeks to the Elizabeth River.
Powhatan was born at town of Powhatan, which was located on the eastern edge of modern-day Richmond (perhaps at Tree Hill Farm) near the falls of the James River.1 He had initially inherited control of the tribe living in that town plus five other tribes located near modern-day Richmond and Ashland - the Arrohothateck, Appamattuck, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, and Youghtanund. Over time, and before the English arrived, Powhatan gained control over the tribes living along the protein-rich York River where he would establish his capital at Werowocomoco ("king's house").2
According to local tradition, Werowocomoco was located at modern-day Wicomico on Timberneck Creek, where an old chimney supposedly marked the remains of a house built for Powhatan by the English. The chimney was rebuilt in the 1930's by APVA, after it collapsed in 1888. Failure to maintain the relict chimney led to the creation of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), a non-government organization (now known as Preserve Virginia) that has played a key role in saving Jamestown Island and various historic sites associated with English colonial gentry. As one author complained in 1893, soon after the chmimney fell down:4
According to John Smith, Werowocomoco is where Pocahontas came to his rescue in 1608. Smith had been captured by Powhatan's brother Opechancanough while hunting, and carried to various villages before being brought before Powhatan himself at Werowocomoco.
Smith wrote his version in 1624, when anyone who might have disputed it was dead. According to the unverifiable 1624 story, Powhatan was conducting either an execution or a ritual that started with a special meal and could have ended with John Smith's head being smashed against a rock, but Pocahontas intervened:5
if John Smith really was rescued by Pocahontas, there would not have been any Great Plains teepees at the site, and the Native American clothing would have been animal skins...
Source: Library of Congress, Pocahontas saving the life of Capt. John Smith (1870 chromolithograph)
Today the reservations of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes are located nearby in in King William County, upstream from Powhatan's old capital. The chief and council of the Pamunkey tribe is centered on a reservation on the Pamunkey River. The Mattaponi reservation is also in King William County, on the Mattaponi River. (If you travel upstream from Werocomoco, what we call the York River today splits into two tributaries, the Pamunkey and Mattiponi rivers, at the modern community of West Point.)
modern reservations for Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes are upstream from West Point, at the confluence of Mataponi and Pamunkey rivers
Map Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service Wetlands Mapper
Werowocomoco was never the capital of all Virginia. It was the capital of just the Algonquian paramount chiefdom - Powhatan controlled only a portion of Tidewater Virginia, mostly between the southern bank of "Powhatan's river" (today's James River) and the Potomac River near Aquia. Before the English arrived, Powhatan had not consolidated control even over all territory on the peninsula between what we now call the James and York rivers. The Chickahominy tribe located on the Chickahominy River in the center of Powhatan's territory was allied with, but not controlled by him, when Jamestown was established in 1607.
The Iroquian-speaking Nottaways and Meherrins south of Powhatan's river (today's "James River"), and the Siouian-speaking Monacans and Manahoacs upstream of the falls on the Tidewaters rivers, owed no allegiance to Powhatan. Other Algonquian-speaking tribes at the Occoquan River, such as the Dogue, did not consider Powhatan to be their paramount chief. The Rappahannock River was an approximate border of Powhatan's territory (Tsenacommacah) when the English arrived. Powhatan considered the Potowomacks at Aquia/Potomac creeks to be subordinate to him, but their chief "rebelled" in 1613 and chose to sell the visiting Pocahontas to the English.
It took only two years for the English colony to disrupt Powhatan's world so much that he moved his capital, or "seat." He abandoned Werowocomoco in 1609 and moved his capital to Orapakes, to get further away from the English colonists.
Recent archeological investigations have documented that site 44GL32 is the location of Werowocomoco at Purtan Bay, between Leigh Creek and Bland Creek. The site could date to the 13th Century - so there was 400 years of settlement at that site, before Powhatan was born or the English arrived.6
In addition to the artifacts expected from excavation of a standard Native American town, archeologists have discovered other evidence that Werowocomoco was designed as a special, sacred place. Ditches, an unusual feature in Algonquian towns, separated the sacred site from the "normal" town. As described in the nomination of Werowocomoco to National Register of Historic Places:7
three creeks flow into Purtan Bay, where Werowocomoco is located
Source: US Geological Survey, Gressit 7.5x7.5 topographic map
|The site at Purtan Bay was not threatened by development, so researching the exact location of werowocomoco was never a high priority. The location was examined closely only after the landowner began to place riprap on the shoreline. After being alerted by first historical and then prehistory archeologists that the site was of uniquely high value, the landowner has been extraordinarily supportive, and even funded the initial archeological site survey.8
After consultation with the eight tribes then recognized by the state of Virginia, excavations were conducted in 2003-07 and again in 2010. The tribes posed a valuable question that helped shape the research: what was on the site before Powhatan's capital?
It now appears that the site was a sacred center as far back as 1200AD, though most material found on the bottom of the ditches dates from around 1350AD. The ditches were excavated 1.5-2 feet deep into subsoil, and were found by chance during the 2003 excavation. Also discovered was evidence of an unusually large structure, 20' wide by at least 70' long (typical Algonquian homes were 10-18' wide x 30' long), plus copper dated to the era when Christopher Newport and John Smith would have been trading with Powhatan.
Powhatan may have moved to the site around 1590 to consolidate his authority over recently-conquered tribes on the Coastal Plain, associating his earthly control with the spiritual powers at Werowocomoco. As an alternative, Powhatan could have moved his capital to Uttamusack, another religious temple complex near West Point.
The Spanish missionaries in 1570 chose to walk across the Peninsula, from the north bank of the James River to the south bank of the York River. They may have chosen Kiskiak (on the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station) for the same reason as Powhatan chose werowocomoco - to be near the ceremonial precinct of the local Algonquian tribes.
When the College of William and Mary formally announced the discovery of Werowocomoco, no mention was made in the news release or at the news conference that Pocahontas was associated with Werowocomoco. However, her "saving" of John Smith dominated the news coverage.
The interaction between Algonquian and English cultures 400 years ago involved complex political, economic, and social challenges, but the simplified tale popularized in a Disney movie continues to shape the consciousness of the public.
As described in the first paragraphs of the New York Times story on the discovery of Werowocomoco:9
Powhatan in his longhouse, prepared to greet John Smith
Source: Library of Congress, John Smith's map
When the governor of Virginia announced in 2013 that the landowners had signed a conservation easement to protect the 58-acre site in perpetuity, the news release focused on the long-term significance of the site rather than the short period when Pocahontas lived at Werowocomoco. The news release was titled:10
On the other hand, whoever wrote the news release was careful not to "bury the lead," recognizing that the general public has more awareness of Pocahontas than of the religious/political significance of the site for 400 years. The first sentence in the June 21, 2013 news release read:
The Federal government could acquire the site from the private landowners, and ultimately open it for public visits. The President proposed $6 million for land acquisition and development in the 2015 budget. If purchased, Werowocomoco would become a unit of the National Park Service, and a stop along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.11
References1. "Smith, Powhatan, & Pocahontas," Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, National Park Service, http://smith.npschesapeakebay.net/native-americans/indians-smith/smith-powhatan-pocahontas (last checked October 13, 2012)
2. Helen Rountree, Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed By Jamestown, University of Virginia Press, 2005, p.27; Strachey, William, History of Travel into Virginia Brittania, published in Jamestown Naratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony: The First Decade: 1607-1617, editor Edward W. Haile, Champlain, VA, RoundHouse, 1998, p. 615
3. "Settlement appears to be Powhatan's village," William and Mary News, October 23, 2003, http://web.wm.edu/news/archive/index.php?id=2451; "The Location of Werowocomoco" (contesting the Purtan Bay location), Mobjack Bay Relics, http://www.angelfire.com/va/mobjackrelics/Werowocomoco.html (last checked October 6, 2012)
4. Sally Nelson Robbins, Gloucester. One of the first chapters of the commonwealth of Virginia, 1893, p.4, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gdc/lhbcb.16559 (last checked October 13, 2012)
5. John Smith, The generall historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles, together with The true travels, adventures and observations, and A sea grammar - Volume 1, Chap. II. What happened till the first supply, p.101, online at Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gdc/lhbcb.0262a (last checked October 6, 2012)
6. "Landfall: A Look At John Smith’s Legacy Through Recent Archeological Findings And A Water Trail Tracing His Travels In The Chesapeake," Common Ground, National Park Service, Summer 2007, http://commonground.cr.nps.gov/Feature.cfm?past_issue=Summer%202007&page=1&feature=1 (last checked October 20, 2011)
7. "Werowocomoco Archaeological Site," National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, http://powhatan.wm.edu/resources/downloads/036-5049_Werowocomoco_2005_NRdraft.pdf (last checked October 13, 2012)
8. this and following information supplied by archeologist Randy Turner, contemplating the possibilities during a September 2012 tour of the site for the Archeological Society of Virginia
9. "Virginia Site Is Considered Possible Home Of Pocahontas," New York Times, May 07, 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/07/us/virginia-site-is-considered-possible-home-of-pocahontas.html (last checked October 13, 2012)
10. "Governor McDonnell Dedicates Werowocomoco, Paramount Chief Powhatan's Seat of Power in 1607, to Permanent Conservation," Office of the Governor News Release, June 21, 2013, http://www.governor.virginia.gov/News/viewRelease.cfm?id=1855 (last checked July 6, 2013)
11. "Obama eyes sacred Gloucester site as U.S. park unit," The Virginian-Pilot, May 27, 2014, http://hamptonroads.com/node/717655 (last checked May 28, 2014)
exibit showing frame and coating of Algonquian dwelling at 2009 State Fair... with tractors and Ferris wheel in background
(using reed mats saves significant time in reconstruction, but affects the authenticity of the reconstruction)