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Paspahegh: 'At the Mouth of a Stream'

On November 20, 1993, an intimate group that included members of Virginia’s Indian tribes gathered at the Governor’s Land at Two Rivers, a residential and recreational community near the mouth of the Chickahominy River in today’s James City County. With dignity and respect, they reburied human remains representing at least 18 individuals along with associated funerary objects that had been recently excavated on an adjacent archaeological site. The reinterred individuals lived on this land more than 400 years ago as members of a town in the Paspahegh district of the Powhatan paramount chiefdom.

The Paspahegh archaeological site is located on the east bank of the Chickahominy River, one-third of a mile north of its confluence with the James River, an area identified by Captain John Smith as occupied by the Paspahegh Indians. John Smith, “The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles.” Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.

The Paspahegh district, supporting about 200 individuals, represents one of 30-some district “chiefdoms” subject to Powhatan, supreme chief of the Algonquian-speaking paramount chiefdom on Virginia’s coastal plain. Linguists believe that “Paspahegh” may mean “at the mouth [of a stream]” since the towns occupied both sides of the mouth of the Chickahominy River at its confluence with the James, roughly six miles above Jamestown. At this point two water zones merged, providing the people with fresh and salt water resources. The district werowance or chief, Wowinchopunck, may have had his principal town on either side of the river, and a number of satellite towns occupied the river’s east bank (while the John Smith map of 1612 shows a “king’s house” on the west side, the famous “Zuniga map,” probably drawn by Smith around 1608, shows a king’s house on both sides of the river). The Paspahegh people lived closest to what became Virginia’s first settlement at Jamestown in 1607. Recently the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation changed the name of its Powhatan Indian outdoor interpretive site at Jamestown Settlement to “Paspahegh Town” to reflect and honor these Virginia Indian people.

When the first Virginia Company settlers arrived in May 1607, the Paspahegh people greeted them “with much welcome.” Thinking they selected a good spot for their settlement, Company officials decided to build their fort on an island in “our seating place in Paspihas Countrey,” arrogantly believing that it was completely appropriate to occupy an unpopulated area in the Paspahegh district. Over the next few weeks, large groups of Paspahegh men attempted to visit the settlers busily building their fort, once offering the gift of a deer. Each time the visits went poorly however when misunderstandings occurred between the two disparate groups. Based on these tense incidents, the Paspahegh, allied with Weyanock district warriors and those from other Virginia Indian districts, attacked the fort before the settlers completed it, trying to force these newcomers off Paspahegh lands. Raiding on the fort continued intermittently until mid-June when a message came from supreme chief Powhatan instructing the Paspahegh and others to be friendly “or els he would make wars upon them.” Powhatan hoped to establish a relationship with these foreigners because he wanted the European trade goods, tools and weapons they brought, and he planned to make them his subjects.

Needing to procure food for the new settlement, John Smith made several trading visits to the Paspahegh in Fall 1607. Tenuous relations continued but periodically the Paspahegh tried to accommodate their neighbors. In 1608, tensions escalated when the settlers accused some Paspahegh of stealing tools and both groups subsequently took prisoners. After the colonists burned Paspahegh houses, the Indians relinquished the English prisoners. When English officials did not reciprocate however, Powhatan sent his daughter Pocahontas with a gift of corn to intercede and negotiate the prisoners’ freedom. By 1609, the Virginia Indians, aware of the growing number of European arrivals needing food, took agency by trying to starve the newcomers out of Virginia. English officials responded by using force to obtain food.

“C: Smith takes the King of Paspahegh prisoner. Anno 1609.” John Smith, “The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles.” Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.

That same year John Smith, now the colony’s president, encountered the Paspahegh werowance, Wowinchopunck, near the glasshouse built outside the fort. Smith called him “a most strong stout Salvage” and grappled with the Indian, who dragged Smith into the river. There they struggled, and Smith “held him by the haire and throat” until assisted by some Polish workers brought to Virginia by the Virginia Company to cut wood and produce pitch, tar and potash. Smith wrote, “seeing howe pittifully the poore Salvage begged his life, they conducted him prisoner to the fort.” English officials allowed the werowance’s wives and children to visit him there before he eventually escaped. When settlers raided his towns to recapture him, a skirmish broke out and the settlers “burnt the kings house.” Smith further punished the Indians by killing six or seven, taking as many prisoners, burning houses and stealing canoes and fish weirs.

Wowinchopunck then sent a message to Smith indicating his desire to live amicably: “We perceive and well know you intend to destroy us, that are here to intreat and desire your friendship, and to enjoy our houses and plant our fields, of whose fruit you shall participate . . . . for we can plant any where . . . and we know you cannot live if you want [need] our harvest and that reliefe wee bring you. If you promise us peace, we will beleeve you; if you proceed in reveng, we will abandon the Countrie.” English officials and Virginia Indians called a truce during the spring and summer drought of 1609. But Smith soon sent some hungry settlers to live in Powhatan towns and dispersed others into new areas up and down the river, angering the Indians. After an injury, Smith left the colony in Fall 1609.

The following spring after a winter of intermittent skirmishes, Governor Thomas West, Lord de la Warr, arrived in Virginia. After he insisted that supreme chief Powhatan return stolen weapons and captive English prisoners, Powhatan warned the settlers that they should leave Virginia or at least confine themselves to Jamestown and not attempt further expansion. De la Warr replied that if Powhatan did not cooperate, he would burn neighboring Indian towns. By August, when Powhatan had not complied, de la Warr issued a command to George Percy to take 70 men and assault the Paspahegh and Chickahominy districts up the James River.

Percy and his men went to a primary town of the Paspahegh people, upriver from Jamestown. There the soldiers put “some fifteen or sixteen to the Sworde” while the remainder of the town’s people scattered. Then the settlers burned the Indians’ houses, cut down their corn, and captured the wife of Wowinchopunck and her children. The men put them into their boat, then promptly threw the children into the water and viciously shot them to death. Percy took the wife or “queen” back to Jamestown where the governor ordered her to be burned to death but Percy seemingly took pity on her and had her taken into the woods and more quickly killed with a sword. The English violated Powhatan Indian rules of warfare by killing women and children instead of taking them captive. Wowinchopunck and the remainder of his people abandoned their towns. The following February, Wowinchopunck died in a raid on Jamestown and his remnant people probably merged with other Virginia Indian groups.

The Paspahegh had tenaciously maintained their territory from May 1607 through February 1611, suffering through significant losses. Given the Paspahegh district’s proximity to Jamestown, the people served as convenient trading partners for the newcomers, but they also became handy scapegoats when any Virginia Indians offended the settlers. In several major attacks the settlers killed Indian inhabitants, burned their houses, religious structures and crops, and confiscated tools and canoes. After the death of Wowinchopunck in February 1611, colonist William Strachey wrote of him: “one of the mightiest and strongest Salvadges that Powhatan had under him, and was therefore one of his Champions, and one who had killed trecherously many of our men.” In 1618, their land was referred to as “Land formerly . . . of the Paspeheies.”

Archaeological survey map of the Paspahegh archaeological site, 44JC308, used to guide the construction of the outdoor living-history area at Jamestown Settlement. James River Institute for Archaeology, Inc. (JRIA), 1994.

In the early 1990s, a real estate developer planned to establish the Governor’s Land at Two Rivers residential and recreational community along the Chickahominy River. While preparing the site developers began to see evidence of a Late Woodland/Early Contact period Virginia Indian settlement in an area that, according to John Smith’s records, had once been occupied by the Paspahegh people. Specifically, both the stabilization of the Chickahominy River shoreline and the construction of the 18th hole of the future Two Rivers Golf Course would impact 2.1 acres of the surveyed tract. They hired the James River Institute for Archaeology, Inc. to investigate before starting construction. Archaeological investigations would concentrate on these 2.1 acres, designated archaeological site 44JC308. The study hoped to explore the structure of this Virginia Indian settlement, the size and health of the population, the nature of their sociopolitical organization, their subsistence means, and the impact of European contact on the lives of the people who lived here in the last decades of the 16th and first decade of the 17th century.

The excavations documented 48 structural patterns. Some represent residences, including two larger ones with partitions that could signify houses of a werowance, while other structures probably served as warehouses and/or temples. Estimates by investigators suggest that approximately 31 of these structures may have existed contemporaneously. Analysis of burials indicated a minimum of 18 individual skeletal remains, 10 of which were clustered in a cemetery, and showed that the population was relatively healthy. The people at Paspahegh lived in a ranked society; some burial locations and their orientations denote a higher status, confirmed by both European copper (matching that found at Jamestown) and native copper ornaments in several of those burials. The 2.1-acre excavated area represents only a portion of the entire area of Paspahegh settlement on the east side of the Chickahominy River.

Paspahegh Town at Jamestown Settlement

A view of Jamestown Settlement’s re-creation of Paspahegh Town.

Jamestown Settlement currently curates and displays objects excavated at site 44JC308. The outdoor area of the museum also interprets an Indian town based directly on a portion of Paspahegh site 44JC308, and the Foundation has recently changed its name to “Paspahegh Town.” By making this change, the Foundation acknowledges and honors the Paspahegh district people and their werowance, Wowinchopunck. Even though no descendants of the Paspahegh are known today, their memory lives on through other Virginia Indian tribes which have legally organized, gained recognition by both the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States government, and are actively working to spread their cultural heritage.

Nancy D. Egloff
Historian, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Selected Sources

Mary Ellen N. and Charles T. Hodges, eds., “Paspahegh Archaeology: Data Recovery
Investigations of Site 44JC308 at the Governor’s Land at Two Rivers, James City County,
Virginia,” James River Institute for Archaeology, Inc., 1994.

Paspahegh: Archaeology of the Paspahegh Settlement (44JC308), Virtual Jamestown, The
Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia

Dr. Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four
Centuries. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

Dr. Helen C. Rountree, The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman,
OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

John Smith, Complete Works of Captain John Smith, ed. Philip Barbour. Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

William Strachey, Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania, ed. Louis B. Wright and Virginia
Freund. London: Hakluyt Society, 1953.

Sandra F. Waugaman and Dr. Danielle Moretti-Langholtz, We’re Still Here: Contemporary
Virginia Indians Tell Their Stories. Richmond: Palari Publishing, 2000.

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