William & Mary

Governor McAuliffe celebrates National Park Service purchase of Werowocomoco

  • Now a national park:
    Now a national park:  William & Mary archaeologist Martin Gallivan (left) explains the layout of Werowocomoco to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe visited the site, where John Smith, Powhatan and Pocahontas met, in 2014.  Courtesy of the Office of the Governor of Virginia
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Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe on Nov. 30 celebrated the National Park Service’s acquisition of Werowocomoco, according to a press release from the governor’s office. Werowocomoco is the former capital of the Powhatan Chiefdom and the presumed site of Captain John Smith’s first meeting with the leader Powhatan and his daughter, Pocahontas.

William & Mary archaeologists, notably Martin Gallivan, a professor in the university’s Department of Anthropology, were instrumental in bringing to light the lost city that figures so prominently in American history and legend alike.

When opened to the public, the 264-acre property, located on the bank of the York River in Gloucester County, will be part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the release said.

 “Werowocomoco is a place of unparalleled significance, not just for the Commonwealth’s Native community, but for the nation as a whole,” said McAuliffe. “The Commonwealth of Virginia is home to some of the most important and prominent historical sites in the country and it is a great achievement that this archeological treasure is now under the permanent protection of the National Park Service. Werowocomoco will offer immense insight into untold history by showing us the complexity and depth of the Powhatan Chiefdom, and adds a new chapter to our shared American story.”

The announcement was made during the Nov. 30 recognition ceremony at the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., and also served as an opportunity for tribal representatives to share their knowledge of the site’s significance with state and federal officials. The release from McAuliffe’s office said that the private discussion among tribal leaders before the public announcement offered invaluable insight into the town’s sacred nature and affirmed the project’s historical and archeological significance.

 “The United States has a history going back long before 1607 when Captain John Smith was brought as a captive to Powhatan at Werowocomoco,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “This Department and the National Park Service have profoundly significant relationships with, and responsibilities to, American Indians. We are duty-bound to steward places like Werowocomoco for all people in close consultation with tribes.”

Only about one percent of Werowocomoco’s 50-acre archeological core has been investigated to date, but initial findings suggest the extensive settlement was occupied as early as 1200 CE and functioned as a spiritual and political center for the region’s Algonquian Indians, the release said. At its peak, the Powhatan Chiefdom spread across much of eastern Virginia and may have included 30 tribes with an estimated population of above 14,000.

“As a Virginian with an ancestor who landed at Jamestown in 1620, this acquisition of this important space is very personal to me,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis, a member of W&M's Class of 1975. “To many Americans, Werowocomoco represents the intersection between two dynamic cultures. But to many local Virginians, it is significant for the less-told story — the story of people who were here long before John Smith or my ancestors, and whose descendants are an important part of our America.”

Since 2003, Virginia’s Indians have worked with archeologists from the William & Mary to study and excavate the ancient town. Their efforts led to Werowocomoco’s 2006 listing on the National Register of Historic Places and spurred a conservation easement to be signed in 2013 by then-Governor Bob McDonnell, covering the site’s 50-acre archeological core.

Werowocomoco is managed by the National Park Service through their Chesapeake office and their staff on the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. Trail staff will begin a public planning process this winter in close consultation with the Virginia tribes. To learn more about the Werowocomoco park planning and research, visit the National Park Service website.