Werowocomoco was located near the north bank of the York River in what is now Gloucester County. Across the York River and the narrow Virginia Peninsula, many of the first English-Native encounters occurred during the establishment of the Colony of Virginia and its principal settlement at Jamestown on the James River beginning on June 14, 1607. Although as little as 12 miles away from each other geographically, the two capitals of Werowocomoco and Jamestown and their inhabitants were quite literally many worlds apart culturally.
Great hardships resulted for both groups during the first half of the 17th century. In 1609, Chief Powhatan moved his eastern capital to a more secure site much further inland along the upper reaches of the Chickahominy River, and late to an even more remote location. After 1612, the cultivation of land-hungry tobacco as an export cash crop and the increasing number of arriving colonists continued to overwhelm the Powhatans. Despite several uprisings, notably the Indian Massacre of 1622, by 1644, those who did not assimilate into the English population were largely reduced to living on two small reservations between the Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers adjacent to present-day King William County after 1644.
The specific site of Werowocomoco as been long-lost, and is, in modern times, the subject of continuing disagreement. The area near Wicomico along U.S. Route 17, is the site of a historical ruins known as Powhatan's Chimney, has long been traditionally thought to have been the location of Werowocomoco. However, recent studies of archaeological and historical evidence indicate another site further west on Purtan Bay may have been the location. Further study and research, which included participation by representatives of some of Virginia's surviving Native American tribes, was ongoing as of 2008.
The name "Werowocomoco" comes from Powhatan werowans (weroance) "chief" and komakah (-comoco) "settlement". Werowocomoco was more centrally-located than his original capital as Wahunsunacock expanded the group's territory to encompass approximately 30 tribes and their traditional areas.
According to Smith's account, Pocahontas, Chief Powhatan's daughter, prevented her father from executing Smith. However, if it indeed happened at all, it is also believed that this could have been a ritual intended to adopt Smith into the tribe. (Smith made no mention of the incident for over twenty years in his own writings). The story is unclear after 400 years and various dramatic and romanticized versions in book and film.
The conflicts between the Powhatan and the ever-expanding English colony decimated the Native Tribes. By the mid-17th century, the surviving Powhatan had been assimilated into other Native American groups, or were living in designated areas along the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Rivers.
The area now known as Wicomico is the site of Powhatan's Chimney, and is about 25 miles east of present-day West Point, Virginia, based largely upon the mileage figure provided by Smith. According to Smith's writing (sic):
"Fourteene myles from the river Powhatan is the river Pamunkee, which is navaginable 60 or 70 myles, but with Cathes and small Barkes 30 or 40 myles further.At he ordinary flowing of the salt water, it divideth itself into two gallent branches. On the South side inhabited the people Toughtamand (?), who haue about 60 men for warres. On the North branch Mattapoment, who has 30 men. Where the river is divided the Country is called Pamaunkee, and nourisheth neare 300 able men. About 25 myles lower on the North side of this river is Werawocomoco, where their great king inhibited when I was delivered him prisoner; yet there are not past 40 able men."
However, also according to Smith, when Jamestown was established by the English colonists in 1607, it was 12 miles away from Werowocomoco as the crow flies. Purtan Bay is about 15 miles from Jamestown as the crow flies. Wicomico is considerably further.
After years of collecting artifacts at ground level, a later landowner authorized additional archaeological exploration. Between March 2002 and April 2003 archaeologists conducted an archaeological survey of a portion of the property. Initial testing included digging 603 test holes, 12 to 16 inches deep and 50 feet apart, where thousands of artifacts, including a blue bead that may have been made in Europe for trading, were found. There, along with historical descriptions, suggest the farm was the site of Werowocomoco. "We believe we have sufficient evidence to confirm that the property is indeed the village of Werowocomoco," said Randolph Turner, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources' Portsmouth Regional Office in 2003.
The Purtan Bay site is less than 25 miles from West Point. However, although far less than 25 miles downstream from West Point, it is only 15 miles distant from Jamestown, and is additionally supported by studying the early mapping evidence. A further consideration is that the Powhatan at the time of John Smith's capture called both what we now call the York River and the Pamunkey River by the latter name, shedding some speculation that West Point may have been downriver from where Smith began calculating 25 miles to Werowocomoco.
Two Gloucester-based archaeologists, Thane Harpole and David Brown, were instrumental in the work at the Purtan Bay site since 2002 and are involved in the excavations there. Starting that year, the Werowocomoco Research Group began excavations at the Werowocomoco site. The Research Group is a collaborative effort of the College of William and Mary, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and Virginia tribes descended from the Powhatans. The excavations have identified a dispersed village community occupied from A.D. 1200 through the early seventeenth century. Artifacts recovered during the excavations include Native pottery, stone tools, as well as floral and faunal remains from a large residential community. The Research Group has also recovered large numbers of English trade goods produced from glass, copper, and other metals originating from Jamestown. The colonists' accounts of interaction at Werowocomoco emphasize Powhatan's efforts to obtain large numbers of English objects, particularly copper, during the early days of the Jamestown colony.
It is notable that, unlike some earlier projects, at this site, the archaeologists and other researchers have carefully incorporated ongoing consultation with members of the local Native American tribes, the Mattaponi and Pamunkey, who are prominent among the decedents of the Powhatan Confederacy, as such sites which include burial artifacts are sacred to these tribes.