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Did Pocahontas save explorer John Smith here? Native American site of Werowocomoco fascinating regardless

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
June 18th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Indian princess Pocahontas is said to have laid her head on English explorer John Smith as her powerful father Powhatan lifted his war club to carry out Smith's execution. For Virginia Indians, historians and archaeologists, that story is just a fanciful footnote. The real story is that this field overlooking the York River in Tidewater was at onetime the center of a complex, sprawling empire ruled by Powhatan long before the first permanent English settlement on American soil in 1607.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The area was called Werowocomoco, which roughly translates to a "place of chiefs."

"This is like our Washington," Kevin Brown, chief of the Pamunkey tribe says. "History didn't begin in 1607 and there are a lot of people who overlook that." On loan to archaeologists for more than a decade, the area's 57 privately owned acres will be preserved forever under an agreement years, to be officially announced this week.

The deal is important for Native Americans because they believe their story has been overshadowed for centuries by the narrative of Captain Smith and his fellow Europeans.

Archaeologists sought the counsel of Indian leaders before and during the exploration, honoring their wishes that burial grounds not be disturbed and helping interpret what was discovered.

For Ashley Atkins, a College of William & Mary doctoral candidate who has worked at the site since 2005, "recovering things out of the ground" was secondary to working with her fellow Pamunkey. "Unfortunately, native people in the past have had no involvement at all in the way that their history has been investigated, uncovered and presented to the public," Atkins says.

"Most people would think, 'They wouldn't be involved in uncovering your own history?' But the reality is that has not been the common practice."

Only a small fraction of Werewocomoco has been explored, as little as two percent. After decades of research, archaeologists used the writings of Captain Smith and others, ancient maps and their own detective work to conclude with near-certainty that this was Powhatan's seat of power.

Powhatan's powerful chiefdom covered 30 political divisions and a population of 15,000 to 20,000 people, while nearby Jamestown settlers struggled to survive in their sometimes hostile new world.

Excavations have yielded the outline of the largest longhouse ever found in Virginia and a system of ditches that may have separated sacred and secular areas.

Powhatan's empire was "one of the most complex political entities in all of eastern North America," according to Randolph Turner, a retired state archaeologist.

The leader "had the power of life and death" and expanded his empire through warfare or the threat of warfare.

"He's one of the most interesting political and military figures that I've ever read about," Turner says. "And we're just getting hints in the historical records of all he accomplished in his lifetime."

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