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Lost Powhatan Village Found in Virginia - 2003-08-17

Almost 400 years ago, colonists from England arrived on the eastern coast of North America. Led by Captain John Smith, they sailed up the broad York River for an hour or so and founded the settlement of Jamestown. Their new home was in the heart of the Algonquin empire run by Chief Powhatan. After several conflicts with the settlers, Powhatan moved his people out of the area. The exact location of Powhatan's pre-contact village has been a mystery for years. But that changed this summer.

When Bob and Lynn Ripley bought 120 hectares on the north shore of the York River, they had heard suspicions that their property was the site of Werowocomoco, Powhatan's seat of power. Mr. Ripley describes the area as a majestic place. "It's so neat here because you've got an incredible view of the York River, and this place is so beautiful. It's about, a little over two miles wide here, and out to the channel is about a mile and a half. And, over here you can see those islands," he says.

Earlier this year, a team of archaeologists from the College of William and Mary announced they had found substantial evidence to prove that part of the Ripley's property is most likely the place where Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas pleaded with her father to spare the life of Captain John Smith. Mr. Ripley says he didn't really need much convincing. "Look at this creek, see this little creek between us and our neighbors? Well, that creek is a very shallow, very narrow creek, and that's the place that they describe where they had all the little bridges. And John Smith says that he fell over into a narrow little muddy creek and the Indians had to help get him out, I guarantee you, it's right there where we're looking right now," he says.

But if you look at a map drawn in 1612 by Captain John Smith himself, you won't find Werowocomoco. Powhatan abandoned the village in 1609 and since then, no one has known exactly where it was.

Shortly after buying their waterfront property in 1996, the Ripleys began finding shards of pottery and broken bottles in the dirt. They showed what they found to local archaeologists, who began conducting tests. Martin Gallivan leads a team from the College of William and Mary. "Well, we have evidence of Virginia Indian residence at Werowocomoco for literally thousands of years prior to the contact period. So we do know that there's a range of different Virginia Indian settlements on that location," he says.

Mr. Gallivan says the evidence came from over six hundred "shovel tests" of the soil, leading him to conclude the land was definitely the site of a major settlement a community that was home to at least 200 people. "Each shovel test is about a foot in diameter, and excavated two feet roughly from the surface," he says. "Almost all of these six hundred shovel tests recovered artifacts dating to the contact period, and that would be ceramics and some stone tools."

With so many pieces of the past being unearthed, Mr. Gallivan says his team will be able to recreate the town's layout by carefully examining the artifacts and soil patterns. The archaeaologist is even more pleased that the area has not been disturbed by plowing. "And that's particularly informative to archaeologists because unplowed levels contain ethno-botanical materials, or charred plant materials, evidence of post-features, where houses stood, and where cooking took place, so we can really understand the lifeways of a contact-period village," he says.

The project is being conducted with the blessing of the Virginia Indian Community, which has members of the state's eight recognized tribes on its advisory board. Board member Deanna Beacham says Indians have long been skeptical of archaeological excavations, which she says rarely take tribal concerns into account. "It's not at all unusual for Virginia Indians to find out about archaeology after it's already been done," he says.

But this time, Ms. Beacham says, Indian voices will help shape the interpretation of whatever the archaeologists learn at Werowocomoco. "There is an emphasis in the press and in the general public interest on the fact that this was Powhatan's village immediately before English contact and at the time when he first met John Smith. But the Indian community is also interested in the fact that there was continual habitation at the site for thousands of years and that's been documented by what we've found there already in surface collections," she says. "So, we're interested in the aspect of the fact that we were here for a long time before the English came."

But is this village really the site of Werowocomoco? Bob Ripley recalls being told by another archaeologist that he would know Powhatan once lived on his property if one thing could be found. "And he said 'And that's copper'. And I thought to myself, copper? And I said, Why copper? And he said, that's what Powhatan used for the currency," he says.

Martin Gallivan says he expects to find many other elements that show this site is Werowocomoco. "And in fact, we expect to find evidence of English materials at Werowocomoco. And we have found some of these already. We have found one rolled copper bead which suggests something of the trade relations between the English colonists and the Powhatan residents," he says.

Looking ahead to the excavations next summer and in many summers to come, landowner Bob Ripley pledges to be a proper steward for this historical resource. "A hundred years from now, they're going to look back at the work that was done here, and they're going to say it was the best archaeology, it was done exactly right," he says.

For now, Werowocomoco if this village is indeed Powhatan's home will remain private property, but research will continue to shine a light on Virginia's pre-colonial past.