Jun 18, 2013 8:44 AM
GLOUCESTER, Va. - A farm field overlooking the York River in Tidewater Virginia is believed to be where Pocahontas interceded with her powerful father Powhatan to rescue English Capt. John Smith from death.
That's a fanciful footnote for many Virginia Indians, historians and archaeologists, who say the real story is that this land was the center of a complex, sprawling empire ruled by Powhatan long before the first permanent English settlement in American was founded in 1607. It was called Werowocomoco, which roughly translates to a "place of chiefs."
"This is like our Washington," said Kevin Brown, chief of the Pamunkey tribe. "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, these 57 privately owned acres will be preserved forever under an agreement years in the making and to be officially announced Friday.
The deal is important for Native Americans because they believe their story has been overshadowed for centuries by the narrative of Smith and his fellow Europeans. In a departure from past digs involving native sites, 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," said Atkins, who is 28. "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."
Jeff Brown, a Pamunkey and Kevin Brown's brother, worked at the site for years. He recalled Indians visiting the sweeping expanse overlooking the York River and being overcome.
"It gets emotional," he said. "And when you're digging you can really feel it."
Martin Gallivan, a William & Mary anthropologist, said the involvement of native people "enhanced the project immensely."
Only a fraction of Werewocomoco has been explored, perhaps just 2 percent. After decades of research, archaeologists used the writings of Smith and others, ancient maps and detective work to conclude with near-certainty that this was Powhatan's seat of power about 15 miles from Jamestown.
Powhatan's chiefdom covered 30 political divisions and a population of 15,000 to 20,000 people while Jamestown settlers struggled to survive. 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.
Randolph Turner, a retired state archaeologist whose hunt for Werewocomoco dates to the 1970s, said Powhatan's empire was "one of the most complex political entities in all of eastern North America." 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 said. "And we're just getting hints in the historical records of all he accomplished in his lifetime."
The discovery of Werewocomoco can be credited to a purebred dog belonging to the land's owners, Lynn and Robert Ripley.
Lynn Ripley used to walk around their land with her Chesapeake Bay Retriever, an American Kennel Club competitor named Mobjack Rhett Master Hunter. She would remove debris that could cut her dog's paws, and found arrowheads, spear tips, pipe stems and pottery shards.
"I just seemed to have an eye for it," she said. "That's how it all began, so our dog wouldn't cut his feet. It's like we were meant to be there and I was meant to find these things."
The clincher was the discovery of copper, which was valued by the Indians as gold is today.
"I am absolutely convinced this is Werewocomoco," Turner said. "It makes no sense for it to be anywhere else."
That conclusion is supported by the U.S. Park Service, William & Mary, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.
Virginia Indians hope work at the site will continue to build on what is known about Powhatan and the centuries before him, dispelling myths about what the first European settlers found when they arrived.
"I want people to understand there was a real civilization, a complex cultural community that existed prior to European colonization," Atkins said. "Europeans didn't bring civilization. They brought a lot of other things, some good, some bad."
Kathleen Kilpatrick, executive director of the state's historic resources agency, said the site "certainly tells an aspect of a story that often goes untold. In tangible ways, it is their Jamestown."
The preservation will be commemorated Friday at a ceremony with Gov. Bob McDonnell and Indian leaders. An easement will ensure the site remains undeveloped and open to future exploration. It is part of more than 250 acres owned by the Ripleys, who have lived there for nearly 17 years.
When Kilpatrick approached them with the idea of preserving the site, "We decided it really is the best thing," Robert Ripley said.
"If we do nothing else for Virginia Indians, we've done the very best because we have preserved it for all time with an entity that has the power to enforce its easement: the state of Virginia," he said.
Lynn Ripley said, "It's their heritage, their history. We felt a huge responsibility to protect it." She hopes her collection of artifacts can be displayed someday in a museum on the site.
Centuries after Powhatan ruled, Lynn Ripley said, this place still resonates with what it once was.
"It's definitely a sacred place," she said. "It's serene, it's spiritual, it's beautiful. I feel very good about what we've done."
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