An Overview of the Powhatan Chiefdom in 17th-Century Virginia

Hamor visits Powhatan, de Bry / Wikimedia Commons

Accounts of Powhatan authority hint that a complex set of dynamics shaped the Powhatan political realm.

By Dr. Martin Gallivan
Professor of Native American History and Archaeology
College of William & Mary


With its remarkably rich ethnohistoric and archaeological records, the Chesapeake region offers much to those interested in understanding the culture histories of Native societies. The written accounts produced by European sources during the early years of the colonial era highlight the actions of Powhatans[1] and Monacans, some of whom competed for wealth, power, and influence. However, evidence of the social changes that produced the figures shaping this political arena has been difficult to recognize in the years leading up to Jamestown. Archaeological patterns apparent in other North American contexts reflecting the centralization of authority in political and ceremonial centers are largely absent from the region. Long-distance exchange networks that conveyed items crafted with sacred connotations played a rather modest role in the Late Woodland Chesapeake, judging from the archaeological evidence. Mortuary practices generally lacked expressions of the social differentiation that might convey differences of wealth or power during this period. Clearly, the Native societies of the late pre-contact Chesapeake produced a unique culture history in the years leading up to Jamestown that deserves consideration on its own terms. The following discussion relies on accounts written by English colonists in the early days of the colonial era and on the Chesapeake region’s archaeological record — particularly evidence from the James River valley dating to the centuries before Jamestown’s settlement. Clearly this evidence must be complemented by the voices of contemporary Virginia Indians, many of whom have their own perspectives on the region’s culture and history.

The Cultural Context

In 1607, 104 Englishmen disembarked forty miles upstream from the James River’s mouth to establish the Jamestown Colony. Colonists including John Smith (1986a, 1986b, 1986c, 1986d), William Strachey (1953), George Percy (1998), and Henry Spelman (1998) recorded their impressions of the early colonial encounter, focusing on Indians of the surrounding Coastal Plain. These impressions form the basis of ethnohistorians’ interpretations of the Indians known to the English as the Powhatans (e.g., Mooney 1907, Feest 1966, Rountree 1989, Gleach 1997, Kupperman 2000, Axtell 2000, Rountree and Turner 2002). In the northern Virginia Coastal Plain, Indians speaking Algonquian[2] dialects related to the Powhatans’ engaged in a shifting set of relations with the Powhatans and their paramount chief (Potter 1993). The Monacans and Mannahoacs, probable Siouan speakers referred to collectively as the Monacans in some contexts, resided in the Virginia interior, west of the fall line (Hantman 1990). Fleeting contacts with English colonists and the brief textual references to these encounters confirm that the early seventeenth-century Monacans lived in settlements lining the Piedmont portion of the James and Rappahannock rivers. Archaeological evidence suggests strong cultural affiliations and close exchange ties between the Monacans and the Indians of the Ridge and Valley, who are not named or described in early colonial records (Hantman 1998, Gardner 1986). To the south of the Powhatans, Iroquoian-speaking Nottoway and Meherrin Indians’ settlements lined the rivers still named for these groups (Binford 1964). In North Carolina, coastal Algonquian and Iroquoian groups and Piedmont Siouans paralleled the linguistic contrasts that marked Virginia’s early historic cultural landscape (Ward and Davis 1999, Merrell 1991).

Before Jamestown

“The carte of all the coast of Virginia,” by Theodor de Bry, 1590. The map is a depiction of the North Carolina coast, then known as “Virginia”, in 1585. Call no. FVCC970.1 H28w, North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill. Presented online at NCMaps.

From the accounts of European contacts with Indians of the Virginia Coastal Plain prior to 1607, it is clear that hierarchical political systems preceded the establishment of Jamestown. Intermittent encounters between Europeans and Virginia Indians occurred throughout the sixteenth-century, with contact after 1586 generally ending up violently. In 1561 Spanish colonists captured the son of an Algonquian chief near the mouth of the James (Lewis and Loomie 1953, Gradie 1993:165), a man they christened Don Luis. Don Luis represented the first of several culture brokers in coastal Virginia who influenced Native groups’ strategies in the face of the Colonial encounter (cf. Fausz 1985:239). By the 1580s English colonists on the North Carolina Outer Banks heard of a wealthy and powerful king on the James River, most likely Powhatan, who “would be loathe to suffer any strangers to enter his Countrey, and [who] was able to make a great many of men into the fielde, which . . . would fight very well” (Lane 1955:60-61). In the North Carolina Coastal Plain surrounding the Roanoke colony, werowances led affiliated villages of Algonquian Indians by the 1580s.

Equivocal evidence of the impact of European-introduced diseases prior to Jamestown’s settlement may be drawn from Powhatan’s opaque remark that he had “seene the death of all [his] people thrice” (Smith 1986c:247). Documentary accounts do indicate that epidemics ravaged the North Carolina Algonquians in contact with the Roanoke colonists during the 1580s (Hariot 1972:28). By 1617, following a period of intensive contact between Jamestown colonists and Powhatans, a “great mortality” gripped the Powhatans (Strachey 1953:46) caused by an epidemic of probable European origin. Archaeological evidence of earlier epidemics has not been identified. In the North Carolina Piedmont, probably the best-understood contact-era archaeological context in the Middle Atlantic, evidence of depopulation triggered by European diseases does not occur until the latter half of the seventeenth-century (Ward and Davis 1991). Ward and Davis found no indications of “virgin soil” pandemics preceding direct face-to-face encounters between Europeans and Indians that some researchers hypothesize (e.g., Dobyns 1983, Ramenofsky 1987, Smith 1987, Barker 1992), although evidence of devastating diseases does occur with subsequent, intensive European-Indian contact. The recent research indicating that droughts played a devastating role on Native societies of the Chesapeake region during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth-centuries (Blanton 2000) provides what may be a more parsimonious explanation for Powhatan’s reference to waves of death.

Powhatan Society

The English referred to the Virginia Algonquians surrounding their Jamestown settlement as the Powhatans, applying the common use name of their paramount chief. Although most researchers have followed this practice (cf. Feest 1978), the Powhatans were an evanescent social entity and a complex polity lasting less than a century and just beyond the life of its charismatic werowance. Like other Native societies on the edge of the colonial endeavor (e.g., Merrell 1991), the Powhatans of ethnohistorical accounts represented a ‘new world’ of social possibilities during the protohistoric and early colonial eras rather than a society whose cultural practices had withered from a more vibrant pre-colonial past. It is easy to forget the extent to which Native societies exerted control over the field of inter-societal interaction during the early years of the struggling English colonies in Roanoke, Jamestown, and New England (Kupperman 2000). In many ways, the early years of the colonial encounter in the Chesapeake represent the ultimately doomed efforts of Native societies and Englishmen to civilize one another (Gleach 1997).

Archaeological evidence of an identifiably Algonquian presence in the Virginia Coastal Plain extends as early as A.D. 200 (Potter 1993), and the descendants of the constituent tribes of the Powhatan chiefdom continue to reside in eastern Virginia and play a prominent role in contemporary cultural and political life (Rountree 1990, Moretti-Langholtz 1998). Reconstructions of early colonial Powhatan population from colonial references indicate that approximately 13,000 Powhatans resided in 6,500 square miles of the Virginia Coastal Plain (Turner 1976, 1978). The Powhatans’ settlement pattern included substantial ‘towns’ lining the major rivers of Virginia populated during the warm weather months, and smaller, less permanent settlements away from the riverine environment occupied during hunting forays after the agricultural cycle. Within Powhatan settlements, social distinctions led the English colonists to differentiate between the “better sort” and common folk (Smith 1986b:160-161). A mixed horticultural-foraging-fishing-hunting economy permitted the Powhatans to produce enough surpluses in the early years of Jamestown to support the colony with large quantities of maize. Powhatan economic relations hinged on the complementary production of engendered labor (male hunting and female foraging and horticulture) that came together in the household, the fundamental unit of production. Based on colonial descriptions of chiefly succession, the Powhatans appear to have reckoned descent through the matriline.

Powhatan Authority

Powhatan, detail of map published by John Smith (1612) / Wikimedia Commons

Though framed by an outsiders’ perspective, English documentary accounts of Powhatan authority hint that a complex set of dynamics shaped the Powhatan political realm. In 1607 the man referred to as Powhatan was the Mamanatowick, or “great king”. At that time Powhatan dominated or influenced Coastal Plain groups from the James River basin to the Potomac’s southern shores and from the fall line to the Eastern Shore. Powhatans’ “empire”, as the English referred to it, began with inherited authority over six groups residing near Powhatan’s natal village, also named Powhatan, located in the inner Coastal Plain near the James River fall line. By the early seventeenth-century, Powhatan had extended his authority from a core area along the inner Coastal Plain of the James and York rivers to more than thirty named groups in the Virginia Coastal Plain through military action or its threat. A werowance held authority within each “district” or petty chiefdom of the Powhatan paramountcy, and the principal towns within districts each had their own, lesser werowance. Generally glossed as “chief”, John Smith suggests that the name werowance more accurately implied a military commander (Smith 1986b:174). This status helps contextualize the tenor of Powhatan political dynamics circa 1607, defined as they were by a fluid tangle of alliances, military threats, and intermittent hostilities.

Although some controversy formerly attached itself to the appropriate label for the Powhatan polity, most researchers accept Binford’s (1964) use of the term chiefdom. Given the ethnohistorical indications of a three-tiered political hierarchy, the Powhatans appear to have been an almost archetypal complex, or paramount, chiefdom (Earle 1978, Wright 1984). As envisaged in Smith’s (1986b) Map of Virginia, the Powhatan political landscape consisted of “kings’ howses”, where werowances resided, and “ordinary howses” which lined the rivers of the Virginia Coastal Plain. Tribute, recorded by Strachey (1953:87) as comprising 80 percent of all production, flowed from commoners to werowances, and from werowances to the Mamanatowick. This proportion appears to reflect more closely Strachey’s rhetorical excesses, and possibly those of Powhatan himself, regarding the harshness of the Powhatan regime rather than any actual tribute payments. English notions of tribute and exchange never fully grasped the social context of the Powhatan gift economy, resulting in inter-societal misconceptions that frequently ended in hostilities (Mallios 1998). Werowances dominated prestige good exchange networks through which these materials moved and which provided the material expression of chiefly social status. In mortuary rituals reserved exclusively for werowances, the Powhatans interred remains with prestige goods such as copper or shell beads in temples constructed for this practice (Smith 1986b:169).

The authority of chiefly leaders in the Powhatan polity and of paramount chief Powhatan’s power appears to have been multifaceted. Strachey (1953:60-61) emphasized the Mamanatowick’s power to coerce:

It is strange to see with what great fear and adoration all these people do obey this Powhatan, for at his feet they present whatsoever he commands, and at the least frown of his brow, the greatest will tremble; that may be because he is very terrible, and inexorable in punishing such as offend him.

Historical events indicating that some Virginia Algonquians resisted, or at least avoided, Powhatan’s demands and that others pursued agendas at odds with the Mamanatowick’s cast doubt on Strachey’s hegemonic characterization, leading some researchers to read the authority of chief Powhatan and Algonquian werowances as “incomplete” (Rountree 1993). Indeed, the individual Powhatan’s authority appears in the historical record to be far-reaching but rooted in cultural categories that linked power to the ability to act rightly (i.e. morally) (Gleach 1997:37). In Gleach’s innovative structural analysis of Powhatan categories of power, politics, and privilege, the authority of Powhatan and the werowances of the Chesapeake region ultimately flowed from their connections to the sacred, a connection that manifested itself in culturally appropriate behavior. At the time of the colonial encounter, Powhatan possessed an overwhelming authority due to its basis in the sacred realm and in its inherited status. Powhatan drew spiritual power from a shamanic status as the “one who dreams”, while his inherited political status as a werowance gave him authority over districts in the core region of his chiefdom (Gleach 1997:32).

Leadership among the Virginia Algonquians differed somewhat from the authority of European rulers, not only in paralleling a cosmology in which the sacred and the political formed a seamless realm. Authority structures among the Powhatan also reflected a social order in which communities shared decision-making collectively. Coastal werowances and, indeed, Powhatan himself ruled only after consulting and receiving the consent of councils comprised of men who had undergone the huskanaw rite of passage, a term translated as “he has a new body” (Gerard 1907). The Powhatans considered such men to be quioccosuks[3], who embodied a divine status (Smith 1986d:125). Powhatan reportedly had a hunting house or a “court” where he and his councillors and priests met with the Mamanatowick and advised him, and “when they intend any wars, the werowances usually advise with their priests or conjurers, their allies and best trusted councilors and friends” (Strachey 1953:104).

Priests, men in possession of considerable spiritual power, tended temples outside of villages and thus existed on the periphery of the Powhatan social order. Colonial accounts suggest that werowances mediated between priests and commoners in Powhatan society (Williamson 1979). Priests lived outside of villages, tending the bodies of dead ancestors in temples, or storehouses of tribute, that only priests and werowances could enter. Though associated closely with werowances, Powhatan priests dominated an alternative field of sacred authority. Conceptually, werowances appear to have shared characteristics of priests, who were socially dead to the Powhatans, and commoners, who participated in life-giving pursuits (Williamson 1979:404-405). It is their mediation between the structural categories of Powhatan society that may have allowed these men to appear, somewhat misleadingly, as “kings” to the English colonists. Their mediation involved a culturally-sanctioned role that required the establishment of social relationships that ranged beyond the village context, an often dangerous realm from which the Tassantasses[4] originated.

The Powhatans shared political authority in other ways as well. Several references in the colonial record indicate that the Powhatans had a political system comprised of dual chiefs: an external chief who presided in matters of war and a more powerful internal or peace chief (Gallivan and Hantman 1996, Gleach 1997:35, Kupperman 2000:102). Though in many ways Powhatan acted as the internal chief of the Powhatans while his aggressive brother Opechancanough served as war chief, Powhatan at times dominated both authority structures. By placing himself as an intermediary between the English colonists and Powhatan communities, the Tassantasses mediated the colonial divide just as he mediated structural divisions between priests and commoners within Powhatan society. Such mediation depended in part on the unique historical circumstances of the sixteenth century protohistoric period during which Powhatan arose as a political power and the subsequent colonial era when his strategic ties to the English enhanced his status.

Solidarity and Factionalism in the Coastal Plain

Statue of Christopher Newport on the campus at Christopher Newport University / Photo by MyTwoCents, Wikimedia Commons

A careful reading of the colonial ethnohistory indicates that a blend of solidarity and factionalism was central to the political dynamics of the early seventeenth-century Coastal Plain. When Captain Christopher Newport first headed up the James to explore the river on which the English had settled, he and his men made it as far as the falls, visiting Powatah, werowance of Powhatan village and son of the Mamanatowick. Gabriel Archer (1998a:106-107), one of Newport’s men, reported that,

In discoursing with him we found that all kingdoms from the Chessipians were friends with him, and to use his own word, cheisc, which is “all one with him” or “under him”. . . Hereupon he very well understood by the words and signs we made the signification of our meaning moved of his own accord a league of friendship with us, which our captain kindly embraced.

Later Powhatan himself sought to establish relations of alliance with the English, pleading with Smith to put aside his weapons since the English and Indians were all “friends and forever Powhatans” (Smith 1986d:195). Among the Powhatans, the huskanaw ritual fostered relations of solidarity that brought young men from the Coastal Plain together for a yearly rite of passage that joined residents from many villages (Strachey 1953:98).

Despite such institutions and the Mamanatowick’s efforts to exercise a unifying authority, the Virginia Coastal Plain of the early colonial era was, in fact, a social landscape fraught with divisive factionalism. Numerous Virginia Algonquians disobeyed Powhatan’s dictums with regard to interaction with colonists and rarely reflected the sense of solidarity as Powhatans that chief Powhatan sought to foment. In the heart of chief Powhatan’s domain, the Chickahominies continued to remain an independent group led by a council rather than a werowance. As noted earlier, the English frequently encountered the political maneuvers of werowances who sought to leverage ties to the Tassantasses for their own ends. The English eventually complained to Powhatan about attacks from his fractious “subjects” that ran counter to Powhatan’s professed “love” of the colonists:

upon our complaint to him it is laid upon some of his worst and unruly people, of which he tells us that even King James (commanding so many divers men) must have some irregular and unruly people; or ells upon some petty werowances, whome peradventure [i.e. perhaps] we have attempted [i.e. tempted] (saith he) with offenses of the like nature, then that is any act of his, or done by his command, or according to his will (Strachey 1953:58).

Though Powhatan hinted at his suspicions that the English provoked the ire of “his people”, he also lays the blame for the hostilities in the hands of insubordinate werowances acting on their own. Strachey questioned Powhatan’s veracity here, though other events suggest Powhatan was likely telling the truth. The repeated efforts of werowances to co-opt the English into exchange relations that circumvented the Mamanatowick speaks to the competitive nature of the political economy during John Smith’s two voyages around the Bay and its tributaries. Several years later, when Powhatan’s younger brother Opechancanough planned his first coordinated attack on the colonists in 1621, he reportedly sought poison to use against the English from a werowance on the Eastern Shore but was refused (Gleach 1997:146). Even the most powerful figure in Powhatan society was incapable of quelling the divisive Native political dynamics of the early seventeenth-century.

The Powhatans as a Complex Chiefdom

Reconstructed Powhatan village at the Jamestown Settlement living-history museum. / NPS, Wikimedia Commons

Given the concurrence of the Powhatan paramountcy’s emergence during the late sixteenth century and the acceleration of hostile Algonquian-European encounters, ethnohistorians understandably assign culture contact an important role in the emergence of political complexity among Virginia Indians (e.g., Gleach 1997:22; Fausz 1985:235; Feest 1966, 1978:254; Axtell 1988:181; Kupperman 2000:36-37). Historians and ethnohistorians generally place sporadic European contacts alongside internal factors as critical in the consolidation of political authority and the emergence of political hierarchies in Virginia. Lacking written or archaeological evidence of this process, some researchers have suggested that trade monopolies among Virginia Algonquians interacting with Piedmont groups resulted in wealth accumulation and social inequality (e.g., Feest 1966:78-79, cf. Potter 1993). Under this scenario, intergroup hostilities encouraged military alliances and the development of a socially integrative ritual conducive to the formation of ethnic confederacies. One researcher has proposed that European-introduced epidemics of the sixteenth century caused a rapid depopulation of coastal Virginia and that this depopulation triggered the formation of the Powhatan paramountcy (Barker 1992). With curtailed tribute available for exploitation from a smaller population, Algonquian chiefs including Powhatan expanded their domains militarily to establish control over communities that could supply additional tribute payments. How a chiefly political economy first emerged is left unaddressed in this scenario, and archaeological evidence provides no support for the proposed demographic sequence. The consensus view among ethnohistorians involves multiple causes for the emergence of the Powhatan paramountcy, with the hostile threat posed first by the Monacans and later by Europeans playing leading roles (e.g., Rountree 1989:149-151).

Generally, then, the Powhatan Indians of the early seventeenth-century Virginia coastal region comprised a complex chiefdom marked by social stratification, political hierarchy, and a political economy dominated by elites. When the English established Jamestown in 1607 they settled amidst what researchers have characterized as one of the most complex polities in North America (e.g., Potter 1993:1, Feinman and Neitzel 1984). However, Powhatan social organization remains enigmatic given the shallow temporal depth of its chiefly political system and ambiguity regarding the role of European contacts in the consolidation of the Mamanatowick’s position. Colonial accounts suggest that political dynamics included Powhatan’s efforts to establish a hegemonic solidarity while werowances pursued political strategies independent of the Mamanatowick’s. In the process, werowances placed themselves at the center of networks of power, networks that ensnared the English colonists. Concurrently, collective events including the huskanaw and council sessions reflected institutions through which the Powhatans shared power and decision making across the society.

Late Pre-Contact Coastal Plain Archaeology

From the rather equivocal sense of Native American life in early colonial Coastal Plain left by the documentary record, archaeologists have drawn concepts for interpreting the late pre-contact archaeological record. Unlike most ethnohistorians, archaeologists’ interpretations of the sociopolitical developments among coastal Virginia Indians generally invoke a long-term process whereby acceleration of population growth and the intensification of subsistence production spurred the formation of complex polities. Much of this research draws upon a combination of regional settlement pattern studies and ethnohistorical analysis, quite different sources of historical knowledge whose linkage poses epistemological challenges.

Regional archaeological survey in several areas suggests to archaeologists that the Chesapeake’s chiefly societies emerged out of a social transition whereby Middle Woodland (500 B.C. – A.D. 900) “harvesters of the Chesapeake” became Late Woodland (A.D. 900 – 1500) village agriculturalists (Potter 1993:139, Binford 1964, Turner 1976, Dent 1995). Prior to this transformation, a focus on estuarine resources and intensive settlement along major waterways in the Coastal Plain began during the Late Archaic (3000 B.C. – 1000 B.C.) and Early Woodland (1000 B.C. – 500 B.C.) periods throughout the Atlantic Coast region, likely driven by a subsistence emphasis on shellfish and anadromous fish. Paralleling this trend, an Early Woodland shift to lowland, estuarine areas is apparent in regional settlement patterns (e.g., Steponaitis 1987). Detailed analysis of shell midden formation has produced similar evidence of increasing exploitation of oysters during the Late Archaic and Early Woodland periods in the Potomac River basin (Waselkov 1982:207). Archaeological evidence of intensive shellfish exploitation is contemporaneous with a stabilization of the Chesapeake region’s shorelines, making it difficult to separate the possible cultural transition from natural processes that heighten the visibility of post-Middle Archaic shoreline sites and submerged or destroyed earlier ones (Klein and Klatka 1991:165). Regardless of the timing of its commencement, extensive use of estuarine environments was in place in the Virginia Coastal Plain by the later centuries of the Middle Woodland Period.

Survey data along the south shore of the Potomac River record late pre-contact settlement patterns that oscillated between population concentration and dispersal through the late pre-contact era (Potter 1993). During the early Late Woodland centuries, large sites disappeared as newly agricultural populations dispersed in intermediate-sized settlements along the floodplains and neck lands of the Coan River. For the period between A.D. 1300 – 1500 a settlement pattern matching that described in colonial accounts emerged, with a large and internally dispersed village along the Coan River. The villages of the terminal Late Woodland contained a diversity and abundance of artifacts in the context of midden deposits, suggesting settlements occupied for a substantial portion of the year and favored locations which drew populations for multiple re-occupations. The survey data also suggest that population growth accelerated with the establishment of relatively sedentary communities during the final pre-contact centuries.

A team of archaeologists work a section known as “the Pastures” at what once was the home of Powhatan, where John Smith was brought as a captive. The National Park Service has acquired the site for incorporation into the Captain John Smith National Historic Trail. / College of William & Mary

Interpretations of such regional settlement patterns generally envision the development of complex polities from the interplay between high population densities, social circumscription, hostilities across the fall line, and control of important resources and communication arteries by inner Coastal Plain groups (Potter 1993:168, Binford 1964, Turner 1976). This control may indeed have conveyed a selective advantage upon groups like the Powhatan on the James and the Patawomekes on the Potomac in the sixteenth century’s competitive social climate. Some researchers have suggested that chiefdom polities ultimately arose as a solution to social and ecological problems posed by the sixteenth century cultural landscape in the Chesapeake (e.g., Potter 1993:149). In the Potomac River Valley the palisaded Potomac Creek (44ST2) and Accokeek Creek (18PR8) sites appear as fortified settlements of Piedmont emigrants in a hostile inner Coastal Plain (Potter 1993:120-121, Blanton 1999). The lack of subsurface storage at these locations raises the possibility that chiefs were present who controlled surplus maize production in above ground cribs (Potter 1993:120-121). In some Eastern Woodlands settings, the appearance of a political economy in which chiefs dominated household production resulted in the absence of subsurface storage pits (DeBoer 1988, Ward 1985).

The inner Coastal Plain may indeed represent the primary ecological setting for chiefdom emergence in the Chesapeake with its evidence of dense population concentrations amidst the overall demographic increases of the late pre-contact Coastal Plain (Turner 1976:68, 205). Due to the high agricultural productivity of floodplain soils and the increased numbers of Late Woodland settlements adjacent to rivers, competition for fertile land may have induced warfare, as indicated by the presence of fortified floodplain sites in the final centuries of the Late Woodland Period. The demographically large inner Coastal Plain groups who controlled Piedmont / Coastal Plain exchange appear to have prevailed in this hostile context, which spurred the formation of complex societies (1976:267). The increasingly-limited spatial distribution of Late Woodland (A.D. 900 – A.D. 1500) ceramic wares compared to Middle Woodland (500 B.C. – A.D. 900) patterns likely paralleled increased territoriality critical to the late pre-contact emergence of regionally-distinct Native polities (Turner 1993).

Recent excavations have produced information regarding Coastal Plain burial practices that complement this settlement pattern research. However, where ethnohistorical accounts clearly distinguish between ritual practices associated with the burials of Powhatan commoners and chiefs, Coastal Plain mortuary archaeology generally does not record the clear expression of social differentiation until the Contact Period. Ossuary burial, which often comprises the final stage of a complex, two-stage ritual process, forms the most common mortuary practice of the Late Woodland (Boyd and Boyd 1992:261-263, Curry 1999, Jirikowic 1990). While colonial accounts mention both primary interments and secondary burial ritual, it is not entirely clear whether either practice conferred a higher status. Disarticulated bone bundles, articulated burials, and cremated remains have all been identified in Coastal Plain ossuaries, which usually date to the final Late Woodland centuries and the early colonial era. Individuals from all age groups and both sexes appear within ossuaries, providing no evidence of the exclusion of social categories from this institution. Protohistoric and contact era sites contain a greater diversity of burial forms, including primary interments and ossuaries, a development that may signal heightened social differentiation.

Grave goods rarely accompany pre-contact ossuary burial, though the contact era Paspahegh site (44JC308) located near Jamestown did include ossuary burials associated with European-produced copper artifacts (Lucketti et al. 1994:164). Amateur archaeologists uncovered a clearly high status burial containing copper and shell grave goods in the Potomac drainage, again dating to the early colonial era (Potter 1989). The increased occurrence of copper in ossuary burial on the Potomac Neck after A.D. 1630 may signal widespread access to this symbolically potent material and the end of chiefs’ monopolization of prestige goods trade (Potter 1989). Early colonial accounts emphasize the placement of shell beads and copper objects with the high status burials in the Coastal Plain. The paucity of pre-contact evidence of high status burials may be a product of the Powhatans’ practice of placing chiefs in above ground temples which have escaped archaeological detection or the limited sample of excavated pre-contact burials. In support of the latter possibility, a Late Woodland component at the Great Neck site (44VB7) exhibits a notable exception to the pattern in which pre-contact burials lack clear evidence of status differences. Excavators identified three forms of Great Neck burial associated with a fifteenth century palisaded village, one of which incorporated copper grave goods (Hodges 1993).

Generally, then, late pre-contact archaeological studies record a social transformation in the Coastal Plain from a foraging and hunting economy drawing upon the rich and diverse Chesapeake estuary to a subsistence economy which complemented these resources with maize-bean-squash horticulture concentrated in floodplain locations. By the final pre-contact centuries, relatively large communities dotted the river banks of the Coastal Plain, with palisaded settlements near the fall line. Ethnohistorical accounts likewise indicate the presence of fortified settlements on the James, including at Powhatan village where the man who would become paramount chief was born. An overall pattern of late pre-contact increase in population density is evident, with an acceleration of population growth in the final pre-contact centuries. Political complexity most likely arose near the fall line where rich and diverse resources, high population densities, and a proximity to the trading and raiding Piedmont Indians made complex political organization a particularly attractive solution to social and ecological problems.

Archaeological studies generally accord with this reconstruction by providing evidence of a focusing of settlement in large, relatively permanent settlements and an intensification of subsistence production, sedentariness, and population increase. The social dynamics whereby Virginia Algonquians translated this focusing of settlement and increased production of food and children into institutionalized inequality and political hierarchy, though, have been described in vague terms that are weakly corroborated by archaeological evidence. Outside of the seventeenth-century context, patterns of sedentariness, settlement population, and the organization of households and communities remain poorly understood in the Coastal Plain and the surrounding Chesapeake region.

Monacan Ethnohistory

The confluence of the James and Rivanna rivers, an important historic site for the Monacan tribe. / Photo by Carrie Pruitt, C-Ville

As the review of Powhatan ethnohistory and archaeology suggests, the Monacans of the Virginia Piedmont played a critical role during the protohistoric and early colonial eras. Nonetheless, Jamestown colonists only briefly mentioned the Monacans, and then rather cryptically. John Smith, the principle recorder of Powhatan cultural patterns, never traveled to the Piedmont and recorded information regarding the Monacans that he had learned “by relation only”. The archaeological record of the Monacans’ Piedmont region has, until quite recently, suffered from a lack of systematic survey and excavation.

On his Map of Virginia John Smith recorded the location of twelve Monacan and Mannahoac villages in the central Virginia Piedmont. “Upon the head of the Powhatans,” wrote Smith of the James River Piedmont, “are the Monacans, whose chiefe habitation is at Rasauwmeake, unto whom the Mouhemenchughes, the Massinacacks, the Monahassanuggs, the Monasickapanoughs, and other nations pay tributs” (Smith 1986b:165). Smith’s Map depicts the James River Monacans and the Mannahoacs of the Rappahannock River Piedmont as having the same settlement hierarchy of “king’s howses” and “ordinary howses” that marked the Powhatan political landscape. The Mannahoacs are “all confederates with the Monacans, though many different in language” (Strachey 1953:107). While the linguistic diversity of the Piedmont Indians and the Siouan linguistic classification first proposed by Mooney (1907) remain controversial, it is clear from the Jamestown colonial texts that the Piedmont Indians formed a coherent social entity known collectively as the “Monacans” in their dealings with the Powhatans (Hantman 1993:98, Mouer 1983:23). The Monacans’ settlement hierarchy and references to the Monacans’ own werowances (e.g., Smith 1986c:238) and tribute paid to the village of Rassawek suggest that the Monacans possessed a centralized political economy and some form of complex sociopolitical organization characterized by relations of inequality during the early seventeenth-century.

Several written references to the Monacans emphasize Powhatan Indians’ perceptions that “The Monanacah was his enemy, and that he came down at the fall of the leaf and invaded his country” (Archer 1998a:109). Others (e.g., Strachey 1953:34-35) wrote of chronic warfare between Monacans and Powhatans that made them deadly enemies. The relationship between these groups probably involved inter-group hostilities prior to 1607, though colonists reported no such warfare in the early years of the Jamestown colony. In the context of specific events the ambivalence of Algonquian Indians regarding Powhatan / Monacan tensions suggests a relationship in considerable flux (Hantman 1993:103). Prior to the arrival of Jamestown colonists who brought large amounts of copper for trading, the Monacans probably served as a source of this symbolically-potent material for the Indians of the Coastal Plain (Hantman 1990). Regardless of the precise nature of Monacan political organization and their relationship with the Powhatans, the Monacans kept their distance from the English throughout the colonial era.

Hantman’s (1990:680-682) lexical and contextual analysis of three written references to the Monacans suggests that the Monacans were “diverse” and “barbarous” only in the sense of being numerous and different than the English. Macrobotanical (Mouer 1983, Hantman and Gallivan 1998) and bioarchaeological (Gold 1998, Trimble 1996) evidence indicates that late pre-contact Indians of the Piedmont subsisted on a mixed horticultural economy similar to the Powhatans’. Analysis of Late Woodland skeletal remains recovered in the Piedmont and in the Ridge and Valley identified patterning in dental caries, tooth wear, and enamel hypoplasia indicating that horticultural resources played an important role in a mixed subsistence regime that combined cultivated and non-cultivated foods (Gold 1998). Similarly, stable isotope analysis of teeth and bones has demonstrated that cultigens contributed substantially to diet throughout Virginia (Trimble 1996). Piedmont consumption of C4 plants (i.e. maize) comprised somewhat less than 50 % of diet. The minority status of maize in Piedmont diets may explain the infrequent occurrence of macrobotanical evidence of cultigens at Late Woodland sites in the Piedmont, a paucity echoed in Late Woodland excavations on the Coastal Plain.

In 1670, roughly two generations after the Monacans first encountered Jamestown colonists; John Lederer traveled in the Virginia and North Carolina Piedmont among the Monacans and culturally related Siouan-speaking groups to the south (Lederer 1958). Lederer wrote that some of these groups were governed by an absolute monarch who controlled a great store of pearl (1958:24), while others made decisions collectively under the collective influence of old men and oracles (1958:27). Two chiefs led another group, with each presiding over a different social realm (1958:25). Similar to earlier accounts from eastern Virginia, these characterizations of Native political systems in the interior reflect social dynamics involving both powerful chiefs and political structures with a collective orientation. Apparently, societies throughout the larger Chesapeake region adopted a range of political structures that incorporated a blend of centralized authority and collective decision making.

Late Pre-Contact Piedmont Archaeology

The riverine-centered settlement system reflected in John Smith’s Map of Virginia has a long history in the James River Piedmont. Survey data from the central Virginia Piedmont for the Middle and Late Archaic periods record a roughly balanced division of sites between those associated with major rivers (i.e. on floodplains or adjacent bluffs) and those located in upland areas (Klein and Klatka 1991, Hantman 1985, Klatka 1988, Klatka et al. 1986, Klein 1987), implying a broad-based settlement pattern involving an even distribution of sites on the landscape prior to the Early Woodland Period. With the commencement of the Woodland Period, a greater focus on floodplain locations at the expense of upland sites accompanied settlement patterns entailing increased sedentariness and population density.

Late Archaic through Early Woodland sites in the eastern Piedmont exhibit spatially-associated artifact concentrations, midden deposits, and large, deep features (Mouer 1990; Mouer, Ryder and Johnson 1981). Rock clusters and platform hearths common to Late Archaic and Early Woodland sites throughout Virginia (McLearan 1991:115) are complemented by more substantial pit features at sites in the vicinity of Elk Island, a focus of eastern Piedmont settlement. In general, these sites suggest the emergence of a more spatially concentrated, functionally variable, and temporally enduring floodplain presence in the Piedmont during the final Late Archaic centuries and the Early Woodland Period.

Archaeological survey indicates an even greater intensity of floodplain settlement after A.D. 900 with a general withdrawal from interfluvial and upland locations and a concentration of settlement along the major rivers (Hantman 1985, Klatka et al. 1986, Klatka 1988). This temporal pattern and the overall density of Late Woodland sites in the Piedmont closely parallel the results of settlement studies in the Coastal Plain. Survey and ethnohistorical studies suggest that as many as 15,000 Monacans may have resided in the Piedmont circa 1607 (Hantman 1993:100), although colonial texts fail to provide the same documentary basis for estimating Piedmont demography that researchers have used in inferring Powhatan population.

The appearance of a fall-line boundary in the distribution of ceramic types circa A.D. 200 likely parallels a distinction between coastal Algonquians and interior Siouan-speakers (Egloff 1985). Prior to this period a shared ceramic tradition spanned both of these areas. Typological approaches to the classification of Virginia ceramics have relied primarily on differences of temper to distinguish between wares (e.g., Evans 1955, Egloff and Potter 1982). By A.D. 200 a distinction between the shell-tempered Mockley ceramics of the coastal areas and the lithic and sand tempered wares of the interior suggests social boundary formation. This distinction between shell-tempered ceramics of the Coastal Plain and lithic or sand tempered ceramics of the Piedmont continued into the Late Woodland Period with the contrast between Townsend ware of the coastal region and the Albemarle series in the Piedmont. By the terminal Late Woodland, ceramic types with more restricted distributions proliferated in Virginia (e.g., Turner 1993:84-87). Shell-tempered Roanoke simple-stamped ceramics dominated the lower James while sand and crushed quartz-tempered Gaston simple-stamped appeared in the inner Coastal Plain of the James and York river drainages. Townsend fabric-impressed occurred throughout the lower York, Rappahannock, and Potomac drainages. Sand and crushed quartz-tempered Potomac Creek pottery, a ware with distinctive rim decorations, occurred in the Potomac’s inner Coastal Plain. West of the Blue Ridge, Ridge and Valley groups of the Middle Woodland and early Late Woodland centuries produced quartz-tempered Albemarle ceramics similar to those found in the Piedmont (Gardner 1986). By the latter half of the Late Woodland, the predominance of ceramics in the Ridge and Valley tempered with limestone and gastropod shells indicates a contrast with Piedmont ceramics where finely-crushed lithic temper replaced the coarsely-crushed quartz that tempered Albemarle series pottery.

Woodland Period settlement illustration / Legends of America

Aside from differences of temper, Native potters shared stylistic attributes and technological trends across the fall line and the Blue Ridge. By the end of the Late Woodland Period some see in ceramic ware distributions distinct “spheres of cultural interaction” (Egloff 1985). However, placing boundaries on these spheres remains difficult due to the sharing of non-temper attributes across wide areas of the Middle Atlantic. Attribute-based analysis of ceramics has indicated that late pre-contact ceramic style varied “clinally”, a pattern in which gradations of subtly differing ceramic style occur across geographic space (Klein 1994).

Archaeologists characterize Late Woodland Piedmont settlement forms on the floodplain as either linear arrangements of features or compact clusters of artifacts and associated midden deposits (e.g., Mouer 1983). Mouer’s (1983:27) James River Piedmont survey identified several circular middens containing material diagnostic of the final Late Woodland or protohistoric.[5] centuries, suggesting a possible trend toward the nucleation of settlement on the floodplain. The diversity and abundance of debris recovered in surface collections at these locations and the presence of midden deposits suggests the possibility of increases in sedentariness and in settlement population.

The unity of Monacan society as inferred from written references is matched archaeologically by evidence of burial mounds that are seen as physical evidence of a shared Monacan ideology (Hantman 1990:684, Holland 1978:31, cf. MacCord 1986:3). The Monacans constructed mounds of earth that contained mass burial features in some ways similar to Coastal Plain ossuaries. Thirteen accretional mounds containing thousands of skeletal remains appeared in the Piedmont and the Ridge and Valley during the Late Woodland Period (Dunham 1994). These mounds include human “bone beds” deposited during discrete burial events. The precise chronology of the Piedmont burial mounds is unclear, yet radiocarbon dated contexts from the Rapidan Mound site (44OR1) suggest that the most intensive use of the mound occurred during the latter portion of the Late Woodland (Gold 1998, Holland et al. 1983). Radiocarbon dates from similar mounds located west of the Blue Ridge have a somewhat longer sequence that begins at the opening of the Late Woodland (MacCord 1986:4, Gold 1998). These dates suggest the diffusion of mound building practices eastward from the Ridge and Valley, with mound construction in the Piedmont taking hold during the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries.

As in Coastal Plain ossuaries, these collective burial features generally involved a multi-stage ritual process. The archaeological record offers only a glimpse of only the final stage (Dunham 1999). Since the institution represented by burial mounds spans the Blue Ridge, groups in the Piedmont and the Ridge and Valley appear to be linked during the Late Woodland Period through shared ritual practices (Hantman 1998). Estimates of the number of individuals interred within various mounds vary widely due to mound deflation from cultivation practices and overbank river flooding (MacCord 1986, Dunham 1994, Gold 1998). Intensive investigations at the Rapidan Mound (44OR1) in the Rappahannock River Piedmont indicate that the mound originally contained the remains of 1000 to 2000 individuals (Dunham 1994, Gold 1998). Paralleling late pre-contact ossuary burial of the Coastal Plain, Piedmont mounds resulted from communal burial events during which Native communities interred disarticulated bones in bundles or layers, generally without accompanying grave goods.

Burial mounds of the Piedmont and Ridge and Valley may in fact have embodied a Late Woodland institution through which social power was linked to historical associations between ancestors and territory (Hantman 1990). Mounds, with their mass burials and lack of distinguishing marks of social status, may have masked social inequality behind ceremony that emphasized shared community equality in the afterlife. Indeed, symbolic analysis of burial mound practices as products of such ritual practices suggests that mound burial reproduced and transformed social relations as a “common ground” for the embodiment of contradictory social impulses (Dunham 1994:18). As the product of newly sedentary horticulturalists, these burial mounds may be read as landscape features symbolically unifying riverine territories, ancestors, and multi-communal labor (Dunham 1999:127).

Interpretation of the Monacans as representing the temporary confederacy of a segmentary lineage society (Mouer 1981), a complex chiefdom (Hantman 1990), and other labels applied to this group (e.g., Custer 1986:157) reflect different ways of reading an ambiguous ethnohistoric record and a modest archaeological data base. These data limit definitive statements that may be made regarding Monacan social organization (Klein 1986:54). Nonetheless, ethnohistorical accounts do paint the Monacans as a coherent polity with the power to threaten the Powhatan chiefdom militarily during the early colonial era. Monacans’ access to copper probably gave them leverage in the regional political economy, at least before Jamestown colonists became the source of copper objects in the Chesapeake region. Ethnohistoric references to werowances, the villages of kings, and tributary relations linking a multi-community political organization suggest a society that incorporated some measure of social inequality and political hierarchy. Archaeological data indicate patterning in Piedmont subsistence, settlement, and demography corresponding closely with that of the Coastal Plain. Although Amoroleck counted the Powhatans and Monacans as two of the three “worlds” he described to his English captors (Smith 1986d: 175-176) these worlds appear to have shared important elements and a long history of interaction.

New Interpretations

Red line shows boundary between the Virginia Colony and Tributary Indian tribes, as established by the Treaty of 1646. Red dot on river shows Jamestown, capital of Virginia Colony. / Til Eulenspiegel, Wikimedia Commons

Recent research drawing on the rich archaeological record of the James River valley (Gallivan 2003) has offered several new ideas regarding the origins and dynamics of the Powhatan chiefdom and the Monacan polity. The point of departure for this study was the contrast between the written accounts of the Powhatans and Monacans, with emphasis on political hierarchy and the region’s archaeological record, which lacks some attributes typically associated with chiefdom polities. By identifying changes in late pre-contact archaeological record, the study recovered elements of Powhatan and Monacan culture history that provide a means of reuniting the region’s ethnohistory to its archaeology. Gallivan identified a set of social changes that coincided with the establishment of relatively large and permanent village communities in the James River Valley. During the three centuries between A.D. 1200 to A.D. 1500 Native societies transformed elements of their domestic portions of the drainage. The creation of a landscape of village communities in the James River Valley triggered social dynamics that contributed to the political hierarchy of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth-centuries Chesapeake.

Nonetheless, the archaeological record of Native societies in the Chesapeake demonstrates that the early colonial era entailed a social context that differed in fundamental ways from the preceding era, complicating efforts to trace a regional culture history. A new set of developments within the domestic, communal, and regional spheres emerged rather abruptly during the sixteenth and early seventeenth-centuries, changes coinciding with the early colonial encounter. In combining ethnohistoric and archaeological evidence from the sixteenth and early seventeenth-centuries, it becomes apparent that the Contact Period presented a unique and transformative historical setting that prompted a reorganization of village life in Native communities across the region.

Archaeological evidence collected for Gallivan’s study indicates that practices adopted during the Late Woodland Period by villagers in the James River Valley changed with the protohistoric sixteenth century. Two such developments prominent at the domestic scale involve the end of both storage pit use and household expansion. These patterns may in fact have responded to chiefly intervention in the domestic economy after A.D. 1500. Late Woodland II (AD 1200 – 1500) storage patterns indicate that households produced increasing surpluses and sheltered at least part of these in storage pits located inside domestic structures. In a parallel development, domestic groups continued to increase in size during these centuries, as reflected in expanding house floor dimensions. During the Protohistoric and Contact periods, though, most villages in the James River Valley lacked storage features altogether, implying the adoption of above ground storage. Average house size began to decline after A.D. 1500, even as the range of house sizes within a village showed a growing gap between the largest houses and the rest of the domestic structures in a community. Judging from the dimensions of domestic architecture, most household groups ceased to increase in size during the colonial era, even while a few of the largest domestic groups continued to expand.

Ethnohistorical references from the coastal region complement this evidence by demonstrating how werowances and the Mamanatowick leveraged funds of power originating in the domestic sphere. In describing Powhatan households, Strachey tells us that, “The reason why each chief patron of a famely especially werowances, are desirous and (indeed) strive for many wives is because they would have many children who may, if chaunce be fight for them, when they are old, as also then feed and maynetayn them” (Strachey 1953:120). Similar motives for augmenting the domestic workforce likely played a role in the expansion of household size recorded in the region’s Late Woodland archaeology, a period when horticultural production grew in importance. The archaeological record of house sizes during the subsequent colonial era suggests that werowances may have accomplished this objective at the expense of ‘commoner’ households, such that the average size of domestic structures actually declined.

The colonial histories also record tribute payments that Powhatan extracted from werowances and that werowances drew from domestic groups, tribute that included domestic staples — corn, meat, and deer skins — along with prestige items such as copper and pearls (Strachey 1953:63). Central storage of these items occurred in above-ground storehouses constructed by the Mamanatowick and, on a smaller scale, by werowances. In fact, werowances’ considerable tribute demands may have induced some domestic groups to conceal corn and other valuables in storage pits in order to avoid tribute payment. Strachey noted of the Powhatans that,

Their corn and (indeed) their copper, hatchetts, howes, beades, perle and most things with them of value according to their own estymation, they hide one from the knowledge of another in the grownd within the woods, and so keepe them all yeare, or untill they have fit use for them . . . and when they take them forth they scarse make their women privie to the storehowse (1953:115).

Where storage pits located within domestic architecture offered adequate protection for surpluses of the Late Woodland II phase, Powhatans elected to hide corn and other valuables away from the village during the early colonial era. Similar tactics aimed at avoiding the loss of surpluses appeared amidst the colonists’ efforts to extract corn from Powhatan village at the James River falls, “Trade they would not, and finde their corn we could not; for they had hid it in the woods” (Smith 1986d: 185).

Viewed in tandem, the archaeological and ethnohistorical evidence indicates that colonial-era werowances successfully intervened in the domestic economy in order to extract surpluses. Through gift-giving, feast sponsorship, and other forms of patronage, surpluses that remained within the domestic realm during the Late Woodland II phase became funds of power wielded in the political arena after A.D. 1500. Ethnohistoric references hinting that some Powhatan households and communities took steps to counter this process through concealment indicate that, even in the Coastal Plain, werowances had not established hegemony over the domestic economy. Nonetheless, the Powhatans altered their use of storage pits rather dramatically during the colonial era, concealing them in the woods rather than placing them within their houses in response to elites’ intervention in the domestic sphere.

As detailed in Gallivan’s study, evidence from communal and regional spheres suggest the development of a new social setting during the Protohistoric period. Within village settlements the archaeological record points to the advent of palisade construction, communal feasting, and elite mortuary ritual in the Late Woodland II phase, though each took on a greater prominence during the protohistoric era. Palisades distinguished a space dominated by chiefly elites and possibly served as defensive features amidst peer polity interaction that included hostilities. Mortuary practices that conveyed heightened social differentiation indicate that symbolically-potent prestige goods with a sparse distribution in the pre-contact era assumed a substantial role with the early colonial era. The communal feasts that drew upon the surpluses of a horticultural economy became a critical part in the events of contact involving werowances and the Tassantasses. In short, through their association with palisade construction, elite mortuary ritual, and communal feasting, select villages of the early colonial era became physical landscapes that embodied expressions of sacred and political authority.

In the coastal region, documentary accounts suggest that Powhatan effectively built an individual centered authority upon the foundation of corporate will expressed by the priests and other quioccosuks during this Period. Powhatan pursued strategies designed to enhance his own centrality within regional social networks that encompassed the English by building alliances and demanding symbolically- resonant objects. In effect, the English briefly became Powhatan’s subjects during the summer of 1607 as the Mamanatowick played the werowance’s role of a culture broker capable of assimilating the unrefined strangers into the Powhatan world (Gallivan and Hantman 1996, Gleach 1997:114). Powhatan had pursued similar strategies to build networks of power during the protohistoric era prior to the settlement of the Jamestown colony, precluding the notion that the Tassantasses’ arrival somehow produced the Mamanatowick and his paramountcy. Nonetheless, through his role in the Protohistoric and Contact Period events that comprise his reign, Powhatan revealed himself as a canny manipulator of both the corporate symbols that were central to Powhatan culture and the exclusionary power that came to dominate the early colonial encounter. The intermittent violence and profound otherness that attended European visits during the Protohistoric and Contact periods likely contributed to the consolidation of chiefly authority in the Chesapeake, perhaps by encouraging some Virginia Algonquians to invest in the Mamanatowick and their werowances an unprecedented measure of authority.

Ongoing research: The Werowocomoco Site

Entrance to the Werowocomoco site / Photo by Nyttend, Wikimedia Commons

When members of the Virginia Company landed at Jamestown in 1607 they stepped into a world of Algonquian communities bound together within a powerful chiefdom polity centered on the village of Werowocomoco, Powhatan’s residence on the north side of the Pamunkey (i.e. York River). During several colonial encounters at Werowocomoco Natives and newcomers sought to civilize one another through a negotiated discourse that incorporated speech, ceremony, and exchange, as documented in the written accounts. Despite centuries of scholarship aimed at explaining these events, much remains to be learned regarding the cultural perspective of the Powhatan participants. Documentary accounts offer critical evidence of this period, though the English narratives are tinged with a colonialist bias. Understanding the Chesapeake Contact period more fully requires detailed archaeological study of Powhatan settlements in an effort to consider Native culture history on its own terms.

The Werowocomoco Research Group (WRG), a team of researchers from the College of William and Mary, the Department of Historic Resources, and the Virginia Council on Indians, have begun an archaeological investigation of the Werowocomoco site (44GL32) in Gloucester County, Virginia in a project that links researchers and descendant communities, academic and public archaeology. To date, the WRG has assembled a research team and developed partnerships with tribes descended from the Powhatans in an effort to include Virginia Indian voices in the research. The research group has completed a comprehensive shovel-test survey and conducted a preliminary field season confirming the site’s research potential. The field research indicates that the site was a remarkably large and dispersed village circa 1607 containing evidence of substantial landscape modification spanning the years from A.D. 1400 through the Contact period.

Future research at the site will consider two broad themes: 1) a community oriented perspective on the development of the Powhatan chiefdom from A.D. 1300-1609 and, 2) a study of the material consequences of the Chesapeake colonial encounter from the vantage of a Native center. The investigations will focus on changes in the settlement’s spatial organization, exchange patterns, and maize production during the periods immediately before and after 1607. The intent of the research is to contribute to an understanding of how social power came to be concentrated within and exercised from Werowocomoco.


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From A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: The First Century, edited by Danielle Moretti-Langholtz (2005), published by the National Park Service to the public domain.