In River Time: The Way of the James


To see the river as simply the servant of trade, industry, and military strategy is to admit only the noisier part of its nineteenth-century history. There is another, more reflective view, expressed by a few writers and artists who were less than enchanted with the river's pragmatic present. Like many of their compatriots, they spoke wistfully, and sometimes extravagantly, of the values of the fast-vanishing wilderness, naming a nature that was to be found now more in the imagination than in the developing countryside and cities. This was also the age of Emerson and Thoreau, John Muir and John Burroughs, and Mark Twain. On the James, it was the time of less illustrious writers such as William Caruthers, John Esten Cooke, John Pendleton Kennedy, and "Wor Doow," and numerous minor landscape painters who put the James at the center of their works. Most had to look into a past that never was to find a river wild enough to be worthy of their praise.

The conflict between the merits of civilization, especially in its colonial incarnation, and Indian savagery was replayed in many historical romances and poems set on the James. Although the withdrawal and demise of the Indians was unavoidable, Americans, including Virginians, were convinced that the white man's victory had been qualified and perhaps pyrrhic. Time had punctured much of the arrogant colonial confidence in the superiority of civilization, but it was too late to restore the merits of wilderness anywhere except in art. Many of the Virginia works, whether in prose or heroic verse, paint a sentimental portrait of the forest princess, Pocahontas, as a child of the wild river, gradually tainted by the white culture as her murderous kinsmen hover nearby. Hers is a conflict never resolved, presented more as a symbol of irretrievable loss than as fact. Nature, specifically the tidewater James in Virginia literature, stands as the silent center of the clash between civilization and wilderness.

One of the earliest "historical" sagas set on the James is William A. Caruthers' The Cavalier of Virginia, or the Recluse of Jamestown. An Historical Romance of the Old Dominion, published in 1832. Although this is the story of a romance between Nathaniel Bacon and Virginia Fairfax (complete with locket evidence of noble birth) set against the colonial defiance emerging against British rule, it also portrays the culmination of the battle between Indians and white men to possess the rich land between the rivers. The river receives the same hyperbolic adjectives as the book's romantic heroes. The focus is on Jamestown Island, surrounded entirely by the river thinly separating it from an impenetrable wilderness. Indians, bent on murder of course, periodically appear on the opposite river bank; beyond them, hidden in a wild cave, lurks a recluse, an ancient gigantic soldier who is usually accompanied by "ferocious" storms and will emerge to solve the riddle of Bacon's birth. Our hero, Bacon, repeatedly crosses the river (actually, this is probably the Back River portion of the James), once on horseback, "stemming the torrent" as wolves howl in the background to echo his grief over his aborted wedding. He also takes troops up the river to seek Indians to be burned out, pushed back from the rivers. Yet he is loved--and is sympathetic to--Weyanokee, an Indian maiden taken in by the Fairfaxes and "reclaimed from the happy ignorance of savage, to the more painful knowledge of civilized life." She returns to rule the few remaining Chickahominies, saving Bacon from death at the stake, but she too is doomed. In this book, the James has become the sentimental incarnation of the wilderness, at once a semi-protective boundary and battleground, where "ill-omened birds of night" and "sounds of wolves and beasts of prey" resound, "reverberating from cliff to cliff."

The river in John Esten Cooke's The Virginia Comedians, or, Old Days in the Old Dominion, published in 1854, is still wild and even threatening at times, though a century has passed. But it is also a "noble river," offering renewal and delight for those who flee the "noise and bustle" of city life. In a long apostrophe to the James, attributed to the deceased author of a manuscript written in a "rhetorical and enthusiastic style," the reader is asked:

Have you never sought a sensation finer, emotions fresher, than city triumphs and delights--and, leaving for a time your absorbing cares and aspirations, trusted yourself to the current, like a bark, which takes no prescribed course, stops at no stated place, but suffers the wind and the stream to bear whithersoever they will, well knowing that the wind cannot waft it, the tide cannot bear it, where the blue sky will not arch above, the fresh-waving woods will not mirror their tall trunks and fine foliage in the serene surface?
In order to lose himself to find his soul, the nineteenth- century reader is instructed to go in autumn, "when the waters ripple like molten silver agitated by the breath of the Deity," and like the fisherman who drops his paddle, "trusting to Providence to guide his course," and dream "in the broad sunlight of the past and the future." The reader is assured that if he goes to the river, "gliding over the swaying billows of the great stream," he will "see if there is not yet some fresh delight in this our human life--a poetry and romance unstifled in the heart."

The narrative role of the river is only slightly less "poetic." Beatrice, a young British actress who comes with her father's company to eighteenth-century Williamsburg, is in fact "a pure child of the wilderness, in spite of the external claims which an artificial civilization, an inexorable convention, laid to her time and thoughts." A sail on the James brings out her essential free spirit, when she rejoices "like an Indian, once more in his native wilds." To her delight, a storm quickly blows up, but the frail mast breaks and tosses her overboard. Unable to swim, she is rescued by her future lover, none other than a Charles Waters, son of a fisherman.

The river is the scene of a later bloody confrontation between Waters and Champ Effingham, an effete aristocrat so maddened by his passion for Beatrice that he has abducted her into his sailboat. Charles wins the battle but not the fair maiden until she discovers that she too was born a Waters, not the daughter of the stage manager, and thus is free to leave the theater and join her cousin. After they marry, they move far up the river to where it is still wild, beyond the Blue Ridge and beside its curative mineral springs. Effingham finds a more suitable bride, a Lee who lives in a neighboring river mansion. The message seems clear that the river may be the antidote, even the salvation for an "artificial civilization." By implication, that civilization is not so much the one of the 1760s as that of the 1850s.

A similar nostalgia, although tempered by the lighter tone of gentle satire, marks John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn. Set in 1829, this collection of letters from Mark Littleton, New Yorker and summer sojourner at a plantation on the south bank of the James, is not much less restrained in its enthusiasm for the bucolic tidewater setting. Arriving by steamboat, Littleton describes this "terra incognito":

I gazed upon the receding headlands far sternward, and then upon the sedgy banks where the cattle were standing leg-deep in the water to get rid of the flies: and ever and anon, as we followed the sinuosities of the river, some sweeping eminence came into view, and on the crown thereof was seen a plain, many-windowed edifice of brick, with low wings, old, ample and stately, looking over its wide and sun-burnt domain in solitary silence: and there were the piny promontories into whose shade we sometimes glided so close that one might have almost jumped on shore ... and there were the decayed fences jutting beyond the bank into the water, as if they had come down the hill too fast to stop themselves.
He laughs at his "lady-like rapture" at seeing Jamestown, "with all my effervescence of romance kindled by the renown of the unmatchable Smith." Both punctuation and a sketch are commanded to portray its deserted splendor:
lo! there it was--the buttress of an old steeple, a barren fallow, some melancholy heifers, a blasted pine, and, on its top, a desolate hawk's nest. What a splendid field for the fancy! What a carte blanche for a painter! With how many things might this little spot be filled!
Kennedy does little to fill those "spots," however, because it is not so much the colonial past that intrigues him as the hospitable virtues of a river society already doomed by its feudal customs and strong intransigence to change. Yet he finds much happiness among those who inhabit this picturesque setting.

The plot, such as it is, centers on a legal dispute over a stream boundary line. The "Apple-pie Branch," actually a swamp with a stream emptying into the James, inspired one Edward Hazard around 1750 to build a breastwork dam and flour mill, all in the name of effortless wealth--"this unprofitable tract of waste land would thereupon become the most valuable part of the estate." As the mill wheel began its first turning, Hazard danced gleefully, exclaiming that "this comes of energy and foresight; this shows the use of a man's faculties, my boy." But he knew little about the ways of swampland, and his mill pond emptied in less than two hours, bringing the wheel to a screeching stop, "a prolonged, agonizing, diabolical note that went to the very soul." As a result, a "large, pestilent lake" had been formed which "engendered foul vapors that made the country, in the autumn, very unhealthy." Business dropped off quickly for a mill that could work for less than two hours in wet weather. Nature soon reclaimed her own, sending a flood to sweep away the decaying dam, and the swamp returned to its original unkempt state.

Hazard's son, having learned nothing, decided in 1790 to drain the swamp to plan a meadow. Thus a protracted legal battle was launched over the boundary between the neighbors, though it is admittedly the "pride of conquest" rather than the land which is most at stake. Littleton appreciates the hilarious turnings of the resulting legal quagmire and all ends well, resolved more by good will than law. The "Apple-pie Branch" is left to its own unruly ways.

Unfortunately, the humorous grace that redeems the popular nostalgia of Swallow Barn is absent from the river poetry of the time. There were some who indulged in metrical romances of many cantos, usually in blank verse or iambic tetrameter couplets and always in high seriousness, published either privately or in newspapers. Although some were presumably set on the James, most celebrated the Indians, especially Pocahontas, and have mercifully remained obscure and anonymous. One little book is totally devoted to the James, not just its Indian romance, making its author the sole, though an unworthy, candidate for poet laureate of the river.

In 1889, "Wor Doow" of Claremont (a pseudonym for Fred Woodrow, according to the Virginia Historical Society), published in the local newspaper of this little tidewater town a booklet entitled, "The James River, or Rhymes, Legendary and Historical of the Old Powhatan." This collection of poetic effusion and tales celebrates primarily the lower James as a river "distinguished for the magnificent vegetation along its meandering channels, its stately curves and the Arcadian solitudes and repose of its shores," truly the "paradise of the savages." Woodrow's rhetoric rides at full tide in the introductory poem, named "The Old Powhatan."

Majestic stream of ancient days,
And nomads of thy winding ways,
   And fair embowered shore;
Where clings the fragrant flower and weed
To moss of fen and slope of mead
   And many a rugged scaur.

Here savage red with paddle blade,
Propelled his bark from glen to glade,
   To chase the leaping game;
Crouched o'er his fire at eventide
And tuned his reed to dusky bridge
   Aside the reddened flame.

Here bent his bow and shaped his spear
For mortal foe or timid deer,
   And sharped the flinty stone
For peaceful chase, or wild affray,
In forest swamp or distant bay,
   Or gorges grim and lone.

The bittern 'neath the evening star
Kept watch, along the shallow bar,
   For swift and finny prey,
The eagle on the lofty peak,
With blood upon his royal beak,
   Perched waiting for the day.

The antlered stag browsed in the brake,
The heron plashed in lonely lake,
   Hawks circled in the sky;
The mockingbird in bush and tree,
Gave out his magic minstrelsy,
   And heard the plovers cry.

The whip-poor-will, 'neath summer's moon,
Woke up the wild and drowsy loon,
   Among the sedges damp;
The bark of fox came up the glen
And, on the sedge that fringed the fen,
   The firefly hung his lamp.

The silvery trout came up the creek,
The roving crab of Chesapeake
   Swam 'neath the cypress tree,
And turtle slumbered in the sun,
And, where the deeper channels run,
   Came sturgeon from the sea.

With trailing vine and fronted fern
And thousand flowers in brae and burn,
   And lilies by the spring;
With babbling brook and gladsome note
Of melody and robin's throat
   The hills and valleys ring.

A garden wild of bush and tree
From mountain side to salty sea,
   A warm and golden zone;
A prospect fair, and yet to be
For nations coming o'er the sea,
   The seat of Freedom's throne.

The poet also waxes as eloquently on Jamestown, the three wars, and the story of the phantom ship. Such a glorious past, he assumes, is the foundation for a more glorious future, especially now that the burden of slavery has been lifted and industry set free. He declares that "the South has entered the era of prosperity," and welcomes the fact that "her solitudes are being peopled, her resources developed." The poet of a wilderness river has retired, leaving a "prophet" in his place, anxious to see the time "when the manufacturer will utilize this magnificent waterway, the husbandman fertilize its shore, the tourist gaze on its quiet reposeful scenery" and even the Northern family build "its fairy home on the bluffs of the old historic James." He sees no contradictions in his dreams, as his poem "The Prophet's Dream" makes clear:
Historic James! thy halls and towers
On vineyards red, and myrtle bowers,
   There dawns a brighter day,
Where lonely hill and silent wood
And ruins where thy temples stood,
   Now crumbling to decay,

Shall hear the tramp of coming feet,
Thy fruitfulness and fame to greet,
   Thy glory to restore.
Up-raise the spire--rebuild the hall,
Stand up again the fallen wall,
   And beautify thy shore.

Thy solitudes--of homes shall tell,
Thy meadows hear the tinkling bell
   Of many a folded flock;
The hills be crowned with golden grain,
The purpling grape shall climb again,
   The mountain and the rock.

The sail of ship shall snow the stream,
And pennons in the water gleam,
   Of stout and gallant bark;
The hum of industry be heard
To mingle with the song of bird
   And matin of the lark.

And children cradled on the shore,
Re-tell the tales and deeds of yore
   On thy historic wave;
And North and South to country true,
The flag to shield and duty do,
   The busy and the brave.

No wonder these lines never made it beyond the Claremont Herald. There is little to redeem their poetic cliches, not even very accurate details. Woodrow's talents fell far short of his inspiration, though we can forgive his failure to mention realistic details like industrial development or working boats. But he spoke for many with his embellished optimism that somehow the best of the agrarian and the industrial myths could be combined in accord with the river's historic past.

Not all the literature of the James was formal and rhetorical; there were a few oral legends circulating that cast the spell of the supernatural over the river. One, recorded by Woodrow, tells of a phantom ship which rides the tidewater that is said to be sailed by the restless spirit of a pirate seeking his treasure hidden "in one of the many gorges debouching on the river shore." Then again, it might be the "tormented soul of some arrant skipper who embued his hands in innocent blood and the African traffic."

My favorite tale, elaborated by William Chesterman, hints of future problems. Where the Chickahominy enters the James is a spot still called Dancing Point, long reputed to be haunted. A man, appropriately named Lightfoot, owned a plantation there with a marsh which he wished to drain. The Devil, cast here as a kind of an early advocate for wetland preservation, opposed the scheme, so they agreed to meet for a midnight "trial of dancing" to decide the issue. "Flaming torches and shooting stars rising from the swamp lighted the ground upon which the contest took place." Lightfoot was still dancing at dawn when he discovered his swamp had become a "field, high and dry" but, as it developed, unable to grow grass or herb. Lights are still said to dance at night over the bare area, and "no fox seeks here his prey." The moral is either that no one wins a dispute with the Devil, or do not fool with the delicate balances of the estuary.

Artists were forced to be more honest in their depiction of the river, for it was difficult to paint the Falls area--the favored subject--without including the riverside industries, the canal, a bridge or two, and, hovering above on its Acropolis-like hill, Jefferson's classical Capitol. The earlier landscapes, usually of oil or watercolor, focused primarily on the river from different directions, obscuring details of buildings. As the city grew busier, so did the pictures and prints. There are almost always people in the foreground; perhaps sitting under parasols to enjoy the scenery or busy with cart and horse or fishing net. Two perspectives became most popular: from the west, looking down on the canal from the Hollywood Cemetery hill, or from the south bank, looking at the town. The dimensions and the detail of the river gradually shrink in the pictures, crowded out by looming buildings and hemmed in by bridges and mills. The later prints, often printed in travel books, served to advertise the city's prosperity more than to embellish the art of its river. However, the most popular print was made by Currier and Ives, picturing Richmonders straggling over the Mayo Bridge with the city flaming dramatically behind them at the end of the war.

Not all artists were so enamoured of the development around the river, only the ones whose prints were widely circulated and thus have survived. I have come across a few others--delicate pen-and-ink sketches of people canoeing between the rocks by Auguste Pleé, and watercolors by Lefevre J. Cranstone of a river with no people, only a few picturesque buildings and the moon casting its romantic haze. There are others, perhaps showing the grand tidewater houses shimmering in the calmed water, but these were often anonymous and privately owned, done by some of the young ladies Benjamin Latrobe addressed in his little 1798 essay on landscape painting.Richmond as seen from the James River

Some American streams were immortalized in the nineteenth century by artists--the Mississippi River by Mark Twain, the Hudson River by Washington Irving and a school of artists, even the sluggish Concord River by Henry David Thoreau. But the James has not yet been adequately captured either in words or art. Its long human history of combining aristocratic longings with materialistic exploitation may have failed to inspire artistic imagination. Its art does, however, epitomize the American longing to keep the best of both the natural and the industrialized worlds, the past and the future, even if reality dictates otherwise.

river map
chapter 13
chapter 15