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
In 1609, Powhatan moved his capital away from Werowocomoco. In 2003, archeologists announced that the site of Werowocomoco had been identified on Purtan Bay, in modern Gloucester County. Though everyone knew that Powhatan's capital was somewhere on the north bank of the York River, specifying a location that far upstream from the mouth of the York River was a revelation for some in the area. 3
expansion of territory over which Powhatan sought to exert control
(note that Werowocomoco was not located in his original territory)
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
- Virginia's Gloucester once held a king. One of the dwellings of grim old Powhatan was upon a bend of the York, the lovely Werowocomoco, whose curved shores are gay with riotous wild grape-vines and glossy bamboo. The great stone chimney of this kingly wigwam defied cold and heat for over two hundred years. A short time ago it fell. There was shame in its fall. Virginia should have preserved it. The history of the mightiest nations upon earth hung about it. Still, it was left to crumble ignominiously in a rude corn-field, while the multitude who floated up the York, in call of its solitude, scarce knew it was there.
Powhatan's Chimney, on Timberneck Creek, was once thought to be location of Werowocomoco
Map Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service Wetlands Mapper
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
- ...having feasted him after their best barbarous manner they could, a long consultation was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could layd hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death: whereat the Emperour was contented he should live...
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
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
- Archaeological excavations began in 2003 and have continued to the present. A combination of exploratory test units and block excavations have documented intact Late Woodland/Contact period deposits virtually throughout the 45 acres nominated... As expected, and typical of Powhatan villages, intensive occupation is found along the waterfront at Purtan Bay. Here have been documented literally hundreds of postholes from former structures in addition to other cultural features as well as well preserved faunal and botanical remains... It also is here that one finds the highest density and diversity of Native American artifacts on the site, with the Late Woodland/Contact period date being confirmed by the presence of shell tempered fabric impressed, simple stamped, and plain ceramic shards as well as triangular projectile points...
- Unexpected, however, was continuation of intact Late Woodland/Contact period deposits to the east away from Purtan Bay. Here at a distance of approximately one thousand feet from the waterfront, two parallel ditches were discovered, each being approximately 2-3 feet wide and 1.5 feet deep... These ditches virtually bisect the property in a north-south direction, thereby dividing the site into a western portion nearest the water and an eastern portion bordering an interior upper terrace edge.
- The presence of solely Native American artifacts in all but the very tops of the ditches suggest they are indeed of Native American origin. This is further confirmed by two radiocarbon dates, one from each ditch, A.D. 1400-1450 and A.D. 1400-1460 (both calibrated ages at the two sigma range; cf. Gallivan et al. 2005).
- Intriguingly, Smith... describes Powhatan's house at Werowocomoco as being "some thirtie score" from the waterfront. If one assumes he was referring to paces, this places the structure ca. 1,500-1,800 feet from the waterfront as it existed in 1607-1609, and clearly to the east of these ditches. Limited test excavations to the east of these ditches have documented the presence of Late Woodland/Contact period occupation here in association with intact postholes which are undoubtedly the remains of former structures.
- Given the virtual uniqueness of the ditches in tidewater Virginia archaeology from the perspective of their location away from the waterfront, it is possible that they serve as a divide between the secular portion of the site nearest the water and perhaps a more restricted, possibly sacred, area to the east.
- This interpretation is consistent with descriptions of Powhatan temples which are documented as having their entranceway and associated sacred fire facing east. It also is consistent with the use of Werowocomoco as the capital of the Powhatan chiefdom and principal residence of its paramount chief, who was at the pinnacle of not merely secular but also sacred power in the chiefdom.
Werowocomoco on York River, with ditches identified by dotted lines on Zuniga Map - see close-up
(Jamestown identified by triangular fort, marked by blue arrow)
Source: Werowocomoco Research Project Virtual Visit
|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
- In American folk history, the Indian princess Pocahontas befriended English settlers and saved Captain John Smith from certain death at the hands of his Algonquin captors. It happened near the Jamestown colony in Virginia, within a year of its founding in 1607. Or it may be only a story.
- But Pocahontas really was a princess, daughter of the powerful Powhatan, whose chiefdom encompassed much of coastal Virginia. She got along so well with the English that she eventually married one of them, John Rolfe, and was received at the court of James I.
- Now Virginia archaeologists think they have found the site of the large village, Werowocomoco, where Pocahontas and Powhatan lived in the early 17th century.
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
- Governor McDonnell Dedicates Werowocomoco, Paramount Chief Powhatan’s Seat of Power in 1607, to Permanent Conservation
When English colonists settled Jamestown, the Indian town of Werowocomoco was a secular and sacred seat of power of the Powhatan Chiefdom—
Long lost to history, in 2003 the site was publicly identified by archaeologists with DHR and the College of William & Mary
"Werowocomoco was basically our peoples’ Washington DC." - Kevin Brown, Chief of the Pamunkey Tribe
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:
- Today Governor Bob McDonnell joined Virginia Indians and Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources (DHR) to publicly dedicate to conservation the site of Werowocomoco, the place where Paramount Chief Powhatan, Captain John Smith and Pocahontas first met, in December 1607.
- CBS News
- John Smith's 1612 Map of Virginia
- Library of Congress
- National Geographic
- New York Times
- Voice of America broadcast: Lost Powhatan Village Found in Virginia (August 17, 2003)
- do you agree with the statement that "But if you look at a map drawn in 1612 by Captain John Smith himself, you won't find Werowocomoco"?
- Washington Times
- William and Mary
1. "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)
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)
Capital Cities of Virginia