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New Effort To Uncover The Past And Power Of Werowocomoco

Martin Gallivan
Pamela D'Angelo
Martin Gallivan speaks to a group aboard the Alliance.

This story begins on the Alliance, a 105-foot schooner sailing the York River on a Sunday evening. For a few hours, with the exception of a pod of dolphins, Joel Dunn, president of the Chesapeake Conservancy has captivated a group of potential investors.

"This is the pitch," he tells the group. "The Chesapeake Conservancy is raising money to match the National Park Service’s money, and time and effort to do the research we need to do at the site." Technology like ground penetrating radar will replace digging on 55 acres. It will be used to locate underground artifacts and clues to what life was like there.

The story of Werowocomoco’s discovery cannot be told without Lynn Ripley, the landowner who shared with archeologists, her private collection of artifacts she and husband Bob found walking the 300 acre property "Bob and Mr. Coleman were going

Lynn Ripley
Pamela D'Angelo
Lynn Ripley aboard the Alliance.

from the house on the river to his farmhouse and he said to Bob, 'You know where it is, don’t you?' And Bob says, 'No, where is it?' And he said, 'It’s right over there.' And he’s pointing into a field. And Bob said, 'It is?' And he said, 'Yes, it is.' And that was the only comment," Ripley explains. "Bob thought it was strange, but, okay. It wasn’t until years later that we found out what the 'it' was that he believed to be there and that’s where Powhatan’s house was."

Beginning in 2002, Martin Gallivan, an archeologist from the College of William & Mary, led the Werowocomoco Research Group. Just off the Pamunkey River, renamed the York River by colonists, his team found evidence of a Native town unlike any other. "Evidence of an agricultural community. These were farmers raising corn, beans and squash. And it was a place that had been established several hundred years before 1607, roughly around A.D. 1200, so that’s 400 years before John Smith ever arrived in the region," Gallivan says. "There was a sizable town at Werowocomoco."

Werowocomoco Map

Then, about 1,000 feet from the shore, they found it-- the site of the house of Chief Powhatan, leader of the Algonquian empire. Here they found non-local ceramic, smoking pipes and copper, signs of negotiations with colonists in nearby Jamestown. "What does this all mean." Martin Gallivan asks? "What we have evidence of what we think is a place of ceremony, a place of diplomacy, a place of power, where the chief is residing in the early 1600’s."

And, it’s where John Smith was likely taken during his capture by Powhatan.

Ashley Atkins Spivey
Pamela D'Angelo
Ashley Atkins Spivey at her home on the Pamunkey Reservation.

Ashley Atkins Spivey has her doctorate in anthropology and is an enrolled member of the Pamunkey Tribe in Virginia. She got her start in 2005 at Werowocomoco working with Martin Gallivan’s team. "Werowocomoco for me and I would argue for a lot of the other tribes who are involved in the work, represents really the first sustained, collaborative effort by archeologists in the state to work with Native people. Unfortunately, Native people have not really had an equal place at the table when it comes to the study of our history," she says.

Federally recognized tribes by law have to be consulted by the national park system if there is any potential to impact historic, cultural or archeological resources on federal lands. "This isn’t just a place to go and throw a frisbee and put your picnic basket down," Spivey explains. "There are people buried here. This was an extremely important part of Powhatan history and how the chiefdom came to be and what it was by the time the English arrived in 1607."

Werowocomoco is closed to the public but nearby is a new state park, Machicomoco, developed with the 11 tribes with the state in Virginia.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.