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Arrowheads Point Way to Pocahontas' Village

Artifacts were found on a Virginia farm. A major dig is expected to shed light on links between Algonquins, Jamestown settlers.

May 11, 2003|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

The legend of Pocahontas is a staple of childhood literature -- the brave Indian maiden who saves the life of Capt. John Smith against the will of her powerful and vindictive father, Powhatan, and thereby helps the Jamestown colony survive in the New World.

The Pocahontas story is, apparently, almost entirely mythical. She was, after all, only 10 at the time. But Powhatan's Algonquin tribe did save the colony by providing food and endured many crucial interactions with the Jamestown settlers.

Those interactions, which are still only poorly understood, are poised to be sharply illuminated after a recent announcement by Virginia researchers that they have discovered the village occupied by Powhatan, the most powerful chief in the region when the first Europeans settled at nearby Jamestown in 1607.

Historical maps have provided a rough idea of the location of Werowocomoco, center of a chiefdom encompassing as many as 25,000 Indians, but the excavations carried out last summer provide a more precise identification.

A major archeological dig is scheduled to begin in two weeks at the site on the banks of the York River at Purton Bay.

"Finally, we have sufficient archeological documentation to back up the historical documentation," said archeologist E. Randolph Turner III of the Virginia Department of Historical Resources. Identification of the site was triggered by the discovery of thousands of flint arrowheads, shards of pottery and other artifacts. "Literally, the arrow points right here," Turner said.

Researchers hope that discoveries at Werowocomoco -- which means, roughly, the "King's House" -- will provide new information about key interaction between the settlers and the Algonquins, including Smith's capture and release, the exchange of goods for food, the "coronation" of Powhatan as a vassal of King James and the later exchanges of hostages.

"Understanding the way the world is organized today requires an understanding of the contacts between cultures at this moment, when a new world was being created," said archeologist Martin Gillivan of the College of William and Mary. The excavations will provide "an alternative perspective" to the events recorded by the settlers and perhaps one that is less biased.

The discovery was on a farm owned by retired lawyer Bob Ripley and his wife, Lynn. Soon after the couple bought the 300-acre farm in 1996, Lynn Ripley began collecting artifacts on her daily walks.

"Every day I had time, I would go walking and see what I could find," she said. "I have collected old bottles, crocks, dishes, buckles, thimbles -- just lying on the surface, believe it or not."

Two years ago, local archeologists David Brown and Thane Harpole heard about her collection and went to see it. When she showed it to them, "I knew it indicated a substantial settlement," Harpole said. "I knew [Powhatan's] village hadn't been located for sure, and I knew this was a good candidate."

Brown and Harpole contacted Turner and eventually carried out "shovel tests" at the site, digging small holes about the size of a shovel every few feet over the entire area.

The holes provide "very small peeks into the ground," Harpole said.

They dug up thousands more bits and pieces.

"There is nothing here that would attract a lot of attention," Turner said, but the shards, arrow points and other finds indicate that there was a village extending over about 50 acres. Among crucial findings were blue beads like those known to have been given to Powhatan in exchange for much-needed corn.

"We really have no idea what the village looked like," Harpole said. "We don't know where the houses were, where the pits were and so forth. That is what we hope to find out this summer."

John Smith was a rogue and swashbuckler who was "rescued" by three high-status women, according to his memoirs -- one in Turkey, one in Russia and, finally, Pocahontas, according to historian Helen Rountree of Old Dominion University. He wrote three separate accounts of his capture by Powhatan's brother, Openchancanough. Pocahontas was not mentioned until the final one, written after all the other participants were long dead.

Most experts now believe that, even though Smith had been captured, he was received by Powhatan in a friendly manner. The warmth of those relations fluctuated over the next two years until Powhatan, disgusted by the settlers, picked up his immediate family and retainers and moved away.

In one of the hostage exchanges, a small group of German or Dutch settlers agreed to build Powhatan an English-style house.

It has never been clear whether the house was finished -- or, indeed, if it was even started. A foundation for such a house would be a key discovery, experts agreed.

Pocahontas, who already had been married to an Algonquin warrior, eventually converted to Christianity and married settler John Rolfe. He took her to England, where she was treated like royalty.

As they were preparing to return to the Colonies, however, she contracted smallpox and died.

Before beginning their research, the archeologists obtained the blessings of five of the eight small groups of Algonquin descendants remaining in the area.

The groups were pleased at the consultation, said Deanna Beacham of the Nansemond tribe.

"Frankly, usually we hear about it after something has been done," she said.

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