Lost City of Powhatan

The Algonquian settlement crucial to the survival of Jamestown 400 years ago has been found. Finally

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Walking with me to the river's edge, Martin Gallivan, an archaeologist at nearby William and Mary College, points out the spots—now green with new grass—where excavations first revealed an occupation centuries before Powhatan. "This was a big village," he says, encompassing 45 acres. He estimates that hundreds of people may have lived here, working the fields and orchards that the digs show existed just inland.

On his 1608 visit, Smith and his men walked through the village and the fields, and then into the chief's impressive residence. We know this because the explorer, with his eye for detail even in a moment of extreme tension, noted in his journal that the distance from the shore to Powhatan's longhouse was "some thirtie score." Accounting for erosion of the shoreline, Gallivan walked off about 1,500 feet—and found himself standing just inside the sacred area.

David Brown, a William and Mary graduate student working with Gallivan, is trying to make sense of a jigsaw puzzle of building post molds found in a large trench dug by the archaeologists. One of them has been radiocarbon dated to 1600. "We may have a structure here that is roughly 15 feet by 45 feet," he says. Its large size, its location within the ditches and the shards of fine pottery and a fragment of copper found here hint that the building was part of Powhatan's royal compound, though neither Brown nor Gallivan will go so far as to say this is the place where Smith met Powhatan and Pocahontas.

Smith and Powhatan parted friends after their winter meeting in 1608, but soon the two peoples would be locked in a spiral of violence that doomed Werowocomoco and ultimately Powhatan's entire empire. Though he lived until 1618, the chief's power would decline steadily. Oddly, the abandoned but fertile fields and orchards around the village do not seem to have immediately drawn English settlers. Perhaps a few Algonquians continued to live there or returned to bury their dead. "Or it may be a case of bad juju," Brown says, speculating that whites might have been reluctant to inhabit an area once occupied by those they regarded as devil-worshiping savages.

Now, four centuries later, two of the archaeologists working at the site are Virginia Indians, several Native Americans have constructed a traditional house of saplings for education purposes, and a council of Virginia tribes keeps a close eye on the project to ensure proper treatment of any human remains. As Americans celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement next month, it's a good time to remember that earlier Americans had built a nearby village twice as old.

Andrew Lawler grew up just off Powhatan Avenue in Norfolk, a few dozen miles from Werowocomoco.

About Andrew Lawler

Andrew Lawler is a contributing writer for Science magazine and author of Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and other publications. View Andrew Lawler's website.

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