Those looking to engage with American Indian history in Virginia have a number of options. The Gloucester County Visitor Center recently worked with NPS to open an exhibit on Werowocomoco. Machicomoco State Park is dedicated to interpreting Virginia's indigenous history, and hosts an annual Indigenous Peoples Day event each autumn. Local tribes also host their own museums and public events, including Powwows.
Werowocomoco is an internationally significant cultural and archeological site on the York River, believed to have been a place of leadership and spiritual importance to American Indians as early as circa AD 1200. At Werowocomoco, Powhatan, the leader of many Algonquian tribes, lived and subsequently met on several occasions with Captain John Smith in 1607 in the earliest recorded meetings between a Native leader and the English.
In 2016, The Conservation Fund, a not-for profit 501(c)3 national conservation organization, purchased 264 acres of land in Gloucester County, Virginia, encompassing the historic site known as Werowocomoco. The Conservation Fund then sold the property to the National Park Service (NPS) to ensure its permanent protection.
The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail manages the property for the NPS. Werowocomoco was identified in the trail's 2010 comprehensive management plan and conservation strategy as a highly significant place along the trail.
Once a new site or park is protected it typically takes a number of years to develop the more detailed plans and financial resources to manage and operate the site for public visitation. Werowocomoco is not yet open to public visitation and has no visitor facilities—no restrooms, no shelter, etc.
Resource protection and development decisions require sufficient advance research to guide the best treatment. We need to learn about the site before we can make those decisions. Researching and understanding the site are our first order of business, and that work is underway.
The Advisory Council for the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, appointed by the Secretary of the Interior in 2008, consisted of representatives of federal and state agencies, tribes, and Bay-related organizations. The Advisory Council met twice annually until 2018. The meetings were open to the public.
The Council consulted with the Secretary on matters relating to the trail and assisted the National Park Service in development and implementation, identifying significant trail resources, and other matters.
The Council was subject to the provisions of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (5 USC App.), which includes the designation of a federal officer to oversee the management of the Council. The Designated Federal Officer was Assistant Superintendent, Jonathan Doherty. The Council reported to the Secretary of the Interior through the Director of the National Park Service.
NPS initiated planning in January 2017 focusing on outreach and consultations with key partners and experts. They included: seven Virginia Indian Tribes; the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and Department of Historic Resources (DHR-SHPO); Gloucester County; the Werowocomoco Research Group (archeologists); and the Chesapeake Conservancy (the trail’s primary non-profit partner).
American Indian tribes in Virginia – the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Nansemond, Pamunkey, Rappahannock, and Upper Mattaponi – have ancestral ties to Werowocomoco and a vested interest in its stewardship. The National Park Service has and will continue to consult with tribes throughout the planning effort.
The following actions have been completed thus far by the National Park Service:
Feasibility Study and Site Assessment
National Geodetic Survey benchmark monuments installed to provide accurate coordinates for future projects
Annual consultations with Virginia Indian tribes
Archeological Overview and Assessment – This document, completed in 2020, summarizes past archeological work and existing archeological collections.
Assessment of the historic farmhouse by the Historic Architecture, Conservation, and Engineering Center (HACE)
Entrance of the property’s roads into the Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division’s Roads Inventory Program (RIP)
Production of a short film documenting the site’s recovery and early planning
Streambed and wetland restoration (see bottom of this page for more details)
Annual shoreline and easement monitoring
Ethnographic Overview and Assessment - Led by Dr. J. Cedric Woods (Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina), the Ethnographic Overview and Assessment will provide a rigorous documentation of the connections between contemporary tribes and the Werowocomoco property. To that end, the document is being completed through extensive engagement with seven tribes. Multiple levels of documentary evidence, including oral history, photographs, interviews, research reports, and archival data, are under exploration. The EOA will help guide the future of tribal consultations and site interpretation and will be especially useful as a tool for understanding Werowocomoco’s legacy in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.
Geophysical Survey - Geophysical survey techniques allow us to “see” what is under the ground without needing to excavate. NPS is working with Dr. Tim Horsley, who is an expert in these techniques, to complete this research. His research is underway, and utilizes ground penetrating radar, magnetic gradient, and conductivity gradient tools to visualize underground features. The survey includes the approximately 55 acres of open field area on the property.
Archeological Resources Management Plan - The Archeological Resources Management Plan is being developed by Dr. Ashley Atkins Spivey (Pamunkey), Executive Director of Kenah Consulting. The purpose of this project is to prepare a plan for the treatment, protection, and management of the archeological resources of Werowocomoco, including collections, future archeological excavations, and the effects of climate change. Tribal viewpoints about resources, sensitivity, and future management are a key aspect of the report.
Werowocomoco remains closed to the public. Those looking to engage with American Indian history in Virginia have a number of options. The Gloucester County Visitor Center recently worked with the trail to open an exhibit on Werowocomoco; a new state park, Machicomoco, was also recently opened and is dedicated to interpreting Virginia's indigenous history. Local tribes also host their own museums and events.
In 2020, the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail kicked off its Werowocomoco Individual Placement Program. This program is a partnership with Conservation Legacy and Appalachian Conservation Corps, aimed at connecting Indigenous youth with service opportunities in the conservation field through by utilizing the Ancestral Lands model.
The program allows Indigenous youth, particularly those with ancestral ties to Werowocomoco, to influence the future planning of the site. The participants are asked to serve as liaisons and stewards to Werowocomoco, accompanying researchers and work crews as well as tribal citizens who may need to access or tour the property.
The program is also designed to provide participants with a intimate look into the workings of a national park. For the duration of their stint with the trail, participants rotate between four divisions at Colonial National Historical Park: Interpretation & Education, Law Enforcement, Facility Management, and Resource Management.
To conclude their service, program participants deliver a presentation to trail staff that shares their perspective on how Werowocomoco should be managed in the future. Similarly to tribal consultations, these presentations are invaluable in the planning process because they allow the NPS to more fully understand and honor indigenous perspectives.
Werowocomoco, like many American Indian sites in the Chesapeake, is located along a shoreline. In fact, archeology suggests that the shoreline was the most heavily occupied part of the town. This means that shoreline erosion and sea level rise, both of which are accelerated due to climate change, pose a threat to Werowocomoco's valuable archeological resources.
As the property was prepared for NPS acquisition, many areas of shoreline remained unstable. Some resources had probably already washed out into the York River, and this would continue to occur unless action was taken. To address this threat, the Virginia Insitute of Marine Science and a generous group of volunteers were tasked with constructing a living shoreline at Werowocomoco.
What is a living shoreline? A living shoreline is a method of strengthening the integrity of a shoreline with plants and rocks. The rocks provide a hard barrier to keep soil from washing away, and the plants do the same by putting down a network of roots that holds the soil together. This effectively creates an artificial marsh, which has the added benefit of improving wildlife habitat and water quality. Marshes even sequester carbon from the atmosphere.
Progress of the Living Shoreline
The shoreline when first installed.
Four years later, the marsh grass has grown in.
A previous owner constructed a pond on the property by obstructing a creek with an earthen dam. The dam had a growing sinkhole, creating a flooding risk. It also obstructed the natural flow of the creek and its associated wetlands.
The dam has since been stabilized, and NPS is planning to restore the streambed and wetlands to their natural state. This project includes the delineation of the wetland, which extends into neighboring properties; consulting with archeologists; replanting native wetland plants; and controlling invasive plants.