A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Four centuries later, the colony still provokes debate (and just what was the deal with Pocahontas?).
When the ships of English colonists first dropped anchor four centuries ago, the peninsula carved out by the York and James rivers in what is today the state of Virginia was already densely settled by prosperous farmers. For generations, the bounty from this land had given the native peoples leisure from the constant toil that had consumed their forebears--leisure to engage in alliances and warfare and to trade goods with neighbors up and down the East Coast. The colonists found houses and gardens dotting the floodplain and some of the native forests cleared for agriculture to support these large settlements. They also soon discovered that one powerful tribal group had come to dominate as many as 30 others, ruling several hundred towns and villages. The name of the paramount chief of this impressive confederacy has come down to us as simply that of the people he ruled--Powhatan.
Thanks in no small part to Walt Disney, most people can probably offer at least a sketchy outline of what happened next: Powhatan's supposed "favorite" daughter, Pocahontas, formed a close friendship with the Englishman John Smith. In American mythology, Pocahontas and the dashing Smith fall in love after she saves his life. In reality, Smith was a crusty military man some 14 years her senior and, according to some scholars, had a self-proclaimed habit of being "saved" by women of all ages. Archaeologists who have been working for most of their careers on or near the sites where this event purportedly took place have been both intrigued and plagued by the myth.
While the relationship between the chief's daughter and the colonial captain has often been misconstrued as a love story, few people are aware that the Smith-Pocahontas encounter was only one small element in a complex relationship between two peoples that may have been pivotal in determining the fate of what was to become the United States. Now, with the 400th anniversary of the establishment of Jamestown coming in 2007, and Hollywood revisiting the first meetings between the English and the Powhatan in Terence Malick's The New World, American popular culture seems to be embracing the idea that the early events at Jamestown did have an outcome of epic proportions.
Sandra Scham is a contributing editor as well as the editor of Near Eastern Archaeology. Her interest in archaeology began with a visit to Jamestown when she was ten years old.