A farm field overlooking the York River in Tidewater Virginia is believed to be where Pocahontas interceded with her powerful father Powhatan to rescue English Captain John Smith from death.

That’s a fanciful footnote for many Virginia Indians, historians and archaeologists, who say the real story is that this land was the centre of a complex, sprawling empire ruled by Powhatan long before the first permanent English settlement in American was founded in 1607. It was called Werowocomoco, which roughly translates to a “place of chiefs”.

“This is like our Washington,” said Kevin Brown, chief of the Pamunkey tribe. “History didn’t begin in 1607 and there are a lot of people who overlook that.”

On loan to archaeologists for more than a decade, these 23 privately owned hectares will be preserved forever under an agreement years in the making and to be officially announced on Friday.

The deal is important for Native Americans because they believe their story has been overshadowed for centuries by the narrative of Smith and his fellow Europeans. In a departure from past digs involving native sites, archaeologists sought the counsel of Indian leaders before and during the exploration, honouring their wishes that burial grounds not be disturbed and helping interpret what was discovered.

Jeff Brown, a Pamunkey and Kevin Brown’s brother, worked at the site for years. He recalled Indians visiting the sweeping expanse overlooking the York River and being overcome.

“It gets emotional,” he said. “And when you’re digging you can really feel it.”

Martin Gallivan, a William & Mary anthropologist, said the involvement of native people “enhanced the project immensely.”

Only a fraction of Werewocomoco has been explored, perhaps just two per cent. After decades of research, archaeologists used the writings of Smith and others, ancient maps and detective work to conclude with near-certainty that this was Powhatan’s seat of power about 15 miles from Jamestown.

Powhatan’s chiefdom covered 30 political divisions and a population of 15,000 to 20,000 people while Jamestown settlers struggled to survive. Excavations have yielded the outline of the largest longhouse ever found in Virginia and a system of ditches that may have separated sacred and secular areas.

Randolph Turner, a retired state archaeologist whose hunt for Werewocomoco dates to the 1970s, said Powhatan’s empire was “one of the most complex political entities in all of eastern North America.” The leader “had the power of life and death” and expanded his empire through warfare or the threat of warfare.

“He’s one of the most interesting political and military figures that I’ve ever read about,” Mr. Turner said. “And we’re just getting hints in the historical records of all he accomplished in his lifetime.”

The discovery of Werewocomoco can be credited to a purebred dog belonging to the land’s owners, Lynn and Robert Ripley.

Lynn Ripley used to walk around their land with her Chesapeake Bay Retriever, an American Kennel Club competitor named Mobjack Rhett Master Hunter. She would remove debris that could cut her dog’s paws, and found arrowheads, spear tips, pipe stems and pottery shards.

The clincher was the discovery of copper, which was valued by the Indians as gold is today.

That conclusion is supported by the U.S. Park Service, William & Mary, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

Virginia Indians hope work at the site will continue to build on what is known about Powhatan and the centuries before him, dispelling myths about what the first European settlers found when they arrived.

“I want people to understand there was a real civilization, a complex cultural community that existed prior to European colonization,” said Ashley Atkins, a College of William & Mary doctoral candidate, working at the site. “Europeans didn’t bring civilization. They brought a lot of other things, some good, some bad.” — AP