In River Time: The Way of the James


The river which early people first encountered, probably over ten thousand years ago at the end of the last ice age, looked quite different from the river of today. From the mountains to the sea it was a braided stream, broken up and meandering restlessly back and forth along broad gravelly strips of land which were grazed by giant herbivores. There was no Chesapeake Bay in those days before the sea level rose with the melting of glacial ice, only the great Susquehanna River bearing south to join the James in carrying fresh water over the exposed continental shelf. There were also no fish leaving the ocean en masse each spring to spawn in the fresh waters of the James. These first people, called Paleo-Indians, saw no particular advantage to settling along rivers since there were few fish to eat. Usually they stayed ill small groups, moving restlessly through the forests of northern spruce and pine, hunting mammoths and mastodons .

The climate continued to warm. As the snow caps melted on the mountains, the James carried vast loads of eroded silt in the rising waters which were cutting down into its present bed. The wide floodplains became more fertile, the forests changed, and more Indians came to hunt, fish, and gather food, especially around the mouth of the river.

Several millennia ago, the Chesapeake Bay began forming as the rising seas invaded and drowned the Susquehanna and the lowest reaches of the James. As the Bay became saltier, anadromous or freshwater spawning fish such as shad, herring, and the giant sturgeon began ascending the James, perhaps four thousand years ago. Indians whom anthropologists have labeled the Savannah River people also came to the river's mouth and eventually moved upstream, following the fish, sometimes settling on the same sites chosen by other tribes centuries before. They understood well that "April is the cruellest month." The blooming of spring life ironically coincided with their starving times, for in spring the game was hidden by the new growth, the nuts were rotten, and harvest of berries and wild grain was months away. For them the river--with its dependable fish runs from March through June and the wild grains sprouting on the floodplains--promised survival, no less. It determined where, how, and even whether they could live.

De Brys etching of Indians making boatsIn that wilderness the river was the only road, and virtually every Indian village was located on a river or a large creek. Rough canoes, burned and scraped out of virgin timber, made the exchange of goods possible, sometimes over remarkably long distances. The water level was lower then, as was the level of the sea, but the James could still be an unpredictable river, often reduced by drought or swollen by flood, and its swift currents ran in only one direction. Perhaps the advantages of the linkage it provided were offset by the necessity for the groups to spread out, for even the fertile floodplains in the piedmont region could not support large numbers of people after the fish returned to the sea.

In some ways the river was a kind of natural Berlin Wall which raised social and cultural barriers. Not surprisingly, tribes tended to ally more with groups on their side of the river. But the greatest demarcation was at the Fall Line. the buffer zone that the Powhatan Indians named Paquachowng.

Above the Falls in the Piedmont Plain were the Monacans, people of Siouian linguistic origins who were settled in small groups along the river's floodplain. They were family centered and rarely roamed far for their food, a "sedentary" people (as anthropologists say) who preferred to catch the fish and gather grain which grew from seeds first swept downstream from the fertile hills. They stripped and felled trees on the islands and banks to encourage the seeds which were gifts of the floods. Probably they did not actually plant crops of maize, beans, and squash until about 1000 A.D.

Archaeologists now believe that these piedmont people lived in what has been termed a segmentary confederacy. The small bands stayed to themselves except for the necessary marriages and battles against common enemies, especially the aggressive Iroquois who kept raiding from the west. By stretching along the river, they were quite literally segmented in organization. There may have even been substantial language barriers between the tribes on the James and those on the piedmont portion of the Rappahannock River to the north. There was little political organization of the basically egalitarian Monacans, although there was a "central place" at Rassawek, on the broad alluvial land between the James and the Rivanna rivers.

The Monacans tended their own gardens beside the great fresh water stream, occasionally challenging the territorial boundaries of tribes below the Falls, though probably more to trade their soapstone pottery than to gain food. Ordinarily they stayed well above the buffer zone of the Fall Line where the Powhatan Indians sometimes hunted.

The Indians in the tidewater river, of Algonquin origin, were more numerous and closer neighbors, but they were less settled. With little fertile floodplain available, since that land had been drowned by the rising river waters, these Indians supplemented farming by hunting deer, bear, and squirrel, fishing, and gathering nuts and berries whenever and wherever they could be found. The life of the Coastal Plain was highly diverse, with an abundance of different food sources varying by season. Thus these tribes, which the English identified as the Powhatans, stayed relatively mobile, moving from river to uplands to swamps with their wigwams, following their food and camping near fresh springs.

The wide river below the Fall Line, which branched into many streams and marshes, offered easy access and communication for a people who had learned early how to turn trees into dugout canoes. This access, plus the need to coordinate food-gathering activities, evidently encouraged a more sophisticated tribal organization than the Monacans knew. Eventually more than thirty tribes joined in what by 1607 was called the Powhatan Confederacy, a loose hierarchical political organization managed by the chief or werowance, the wily Powhatan, assisted by Opechancanough. Chiefdoms were usually hereditary, passing through brothers, then sisters, then the sisters' sons. Though allied, each tribe roamed a clearly delineated territory.

Less is known about how the other major barrier on the river, the Blue Ridge mountain range, affected Indian culture. Here the river, without extensive fertile plains or the spring fish runs, may well have played only a slight role in the lives of the Iroquois who hunted in the mountains and roved in small bands through the valleys of the James and the Shenandoah.

Although the James is one river, its divided nature, then, spawned at least two cultures, with surprisingly diverse structures. By adapting to the different conditions and rhythms of the river, each developed in turn rather different styles of living. The river was the prime shaper of their daily lives.

What we know about the Paleo-Indians or the Monacans and the Powhatans before the year 1607 either has been deduced from the projectile points and shards of a few archaeological digs or was reported by the early colonists, especially John Smith. Neither source gives much basis for understanding the Indians' deepest emotions about the river. These we must surmise.

The first human beings to come to this river were probably slow to gain any sense of mastery over the river, and far slower to understand that any control of these relentlessly flowing waters was possible or desirable. So intimately de- pendent on the river were they for its sweet waters, its fish, its attractions for game, its protection, even for a sense of location and direction, that they accepted it as a major fact of their natural existence. They took its gifts as they could, very likely unable to imagine that there could be more. The rhythms of their lives were governed by those of nature, as were those of the animals they hunted.

At some point in the dim prehistoric past, these peoples became aware of themselves as being somehow separate from nature. It was then that they began seeing and questioning the river. How were they to explain its power? Its constant changes and yet its perpetual flow? What if it should stop or go away? How could mere people placate the anger of its flooding waters and lure the fish into reach?

'We have no way of knowing how or when these particular people answered these and other questions about their river. We do, however, have some idea of answers from other primitive peoples, for the clues still lie at the base of myths and religions. The river, like the skies, the forests, or the mountains, has long been the home of powerful and inexplicable gods and a symbol almost too deep for words for understanding birth, death, and life's renewal.

The ancient gods of the rivers were rarely named or described, for like the river they were shapeshifters and some- times even androgynous, as the Greek myths tell us. Some also had the power to transform intruders into fish-men or fountains. Each river or spring had its own god or nymph which guarded it and embodied the sacredness of flowing waters. Nymphs who were given names could be nurturing, for they sometimes raised children to be heroes, or they could be destructive, visiting madness on any man who spied them at midday.

These watery gods commanded respect, veneration, and even sacrifice, though not love nor strong roles in the mythic tales. They were essentially unformed and metamorphic, often nameless, more in the realm of the potential than the fully realized, even in the farthest stretches of men's imaginations. Rarely did they interfere in the affairs of men directly, for their link with primordial creation put them generally beyond time and history. Yet when men sought wisdom and foresight, it was often to the springs and fresh waters that they came to consult with the resident maiden oracle, as at Delphi in Greece. It is no coincidence that the finding of fresh water has long been called divining.

The river has been worshipped primarily as the bringer of life, as germinative, containing the potential for all forms of life. And so it was, in ways we are just now beginning to comprehend. The Indians on the James seem to have venerated the river's fertility. They learned that the river brought seeds in its flooding waters, for their ax-heads still clutter islands of the piedmont James where the Monacans once cleared trees to make certain that the seeds flourished. Since they grew their crops on the floodplain, they evidently understood that the silt deposited by the river, past and present, bore the most abundant and fruitful vegetation.

But there is no way the Indians or other primitive peoples could have consciously known that all animals breathing the oxygen of the air had their origin in the fresh waters, nor that the ages and ages of rains and erosion on the hard earth long before man appeared, as the waters ran to the sea, had turned rock into soil fit for life. Yet for almost every primitive culture situated on a fertile river, whether on the Ganges or between the Tigris and Euphrates, the recurring myths of creation show life emerging from a primeval watery chaos. So it may have been for the Indians on the James, explaining why they often placed fish on their hills of corn seed.

Whether these Indians ever felt compelled to make drastic sacrifices to guarantee the fertile powers of the water is un- known. It is improbable, though, for this is a relatively dependable river, which never dries up. Nevertheless, this river is unpredictable. There were surely fluctuations in the fish runs, as well as floods which came too late and so submerged, not planted, the rough fields.

The early colonists, for all their meticulous description of the curious dress and social habits of the "savages," were a bit derelict in recording the rituals of the Indians. What they did notice, they usually could not understand. But a time- honored rite of purification and sacrifice to the river is suggested by the account of' William White, who lived with the Powhatan Indians during the summer of 1607.

As Richard Hakluyt recorded White's story:

the morning by break of day, before they eate or drinke both men, women and children, that be above tenne yeeres of age runnes into the water, there washes themselves a good while till the Sunne riseth, then offer Sacrifice to it, strewing Tobacco on Water or Land, honouring the Sunne as their God, likewise they doe it at the setting of the Sunne.
What the English interpreted as simple sun worship and unnecessary bathing appears to include reverential recognition of the cleansing powers of the flowing river.

The ceremonial sacrifice of tobacco, prized by the Indians as a source of pleasure as well as a religious symbol, especially after a storm, also astonished the colonists. Robert Beverley assumed almost a century later that such rituals were intended to pacify or conquer the river. He noted that "when they cross any great Water, or violent Fresh, or Torrent they throw Tobacco, Puccoon, Peak ... to intreat the Spirit residing there, to grant them a safe passage." The colonists' explanations may well show more about their perspective on the river as a force to be tamed than about the Indian worship of the river's powers. Evidently many of the Indians' religious rituals centered on the river. But the kind of spiritual wealth the sacrificial tobacco represented had little meaning to the representatives of the London Company.

Water also played a key role in Indian medical practices. The roots and bark ingested for various ailments were ground and infused in water. If external application seemed more appropriate, water was used to make a poultice. But the flow of the river was imitated most in the Indians' frequent use of sweating huts, actually saunas in the Finnish style, followed by a plunge into cold water to carry off "all the Crudities contracted in their Bodies," as Beverley put it. Not incidentally perhaps, the Indians were consistently described as very healthy people before the white man's diseases began wasting them, an observation borne out by the archaeological record of their bones.

The river must have also given the Indians a peaceful sense of continuity, for it was the unending witness of past and future generations. Trees could rot and hills could be diminished by erosion, but the river kept on flowing. Though, like life, the river runs in only one direction, somehow it is mysteriously and constantly renewed. Surely here the Indians found both hope for immortality and verification of the single direction of time, the bearer of loss and death.

A myth now popular has it that American Indians worshipped nature and its indwelling spirits from arm's length, and that fear or reverence made them reluctant to tap nature's bounty. Perhaps this notion has been fostered by those who have struggled to preserve the more pristine wilderness areas where men left few if any marks. But even those Englishmen who thought they had discovered virgin land, a kind of untilled, primeval garden of Eden which lay awaiting their god-sent cultivation and redemption, had to admit that the Indians knew well how to use nature's gifts to fill their needs.

The accounts sent back to England are filled with details about how the Indians farmed, fished, and hunted. But, oddly enough, admiration for the effectiveness and ingenuity of these practices did not become emulation. As John Smith wrote in the fall of 1608, "Though there be fish in the Sea, foules in the ayre, and Beasts in the woodes, their bounds are so large, they so wilde, and we so weake and ignorant, we cannot much trouble them." The Indians had no such problems. In turn, the English, like other European newcomers, had no compunctions about trading copper trinkets for bushels of corn and taking full advantage of Indian generosity at harvest time. But as representatives of a superior Christian civilization, they felt that they must resist the temptation to learn from savages.

The English had particular trouble understanding the Indian concept of property ownership. Although tribes had territorial boundaries, the idea of exclusive possession of the land was alien to them. The land and the river belonged only to the people who used them, when they used them, and to the generations yet unborn. They did not even leave their river a single name. It was given many names in the typical Indian fashion, names associated with parts of the river that invited description (like the Falls) or, more often, with tribes whose activities bounded a particular segment for a while. For the Indians, a river and its people were connected by naming.

The Indians felt free to take from nature what they needed to survive, but they took little more, and shared any excesses from good harvests with less fortunate neighbors, even hungry white men. Perhaps they felt that to use the gifts of the earth too liberally, beyond what could be re- placed naturally, could waste what they and their children's children would later need. Thus, though the river had known Indians fishing its waters and settling on its banks and islands for thousands of years, the water remained sweet and fertile. They were effective fishermen, but they recognized certain limits. They left few signs of their long tenure: two distinct kinds of arrowheads, some Monacan pots of soapstone, a few stone fish weirs at shallow rocky places, and possibly some sediment in the bed eroded from the lands cleared above the Falls for farming. Nothing, though, really disturbed the river or its life.

It would be a mistake to romanticize the Indians' treatment of nature, forgetting that they were relatively few in number and widely scattered (probably there were never more than a few thousand in Virginia at most). They lacked tools to change their environment seriously, even if they had wanted to. The Monacans in particular used fire freely to clear trees from the floodplain, and the only reason more soil did not wash into the river was that they saw no reason to remove stumps or work over their fields. The effects of subsistence living by a relatively small number of people could be easily absorbed and repaired, if necessary, by natural processes.

But even granting these facts, we must acknowledge that the Indians could literally see and adapt to the river's processes far better than the white conquerers were willing to do, even though they actually knew less "science." Their reluctance to take more from nature than they needed, possibly from fear that nature might not continue to provide so generously, and their respect for the river's moods were attitudes alien to the people who were to displace them. We cannot know for certain how the river would have fared under continued Indian stewardship, especially if the population had grown, but it is fair to assume that the river's subsequent history could have been different.

There is at least one place on the river where it is possible today to look back through time, to glimpse the continuity the Indians must have felt. About two miles up Powell Creek, south of Hopewell in the tidewater estuary, is land high between two marshes which several groups of Indians, especially the Algonquin tribe called the Weyanoke or Weanoc, found to be choice living ground for as long as nine or ten thousand years. In 1607 John Smith counted 340 people here and in four other Weyanoke villages on both sides of the river. This location furnished fertile soil replenished from higher ground, abundant fresh water from springs and the creek, wildlife which came to drink and live on the quiet marshy creek, and protection from invasion by men or floods. Neither eroded nor mined for gravel, the soil over the bones and treasures of this culture remained untouched for centuries. For the past six years, an independent group of archaeologists has been digging at this spot, piecing together the kind of life and death acted out on these banks .

There are not many places I would consider hallowed ground, but this remote site would head my list. I had taken barely ten steps before I found a shard of pottery over two thousand years old with a surprisingly sophisticated fabric design pressed into the river clay. A little digging revealed many more such shards along with stone chips discarded from centuries of projectile point making. These fragments lying in the fill from earlier digging may not have been special enough for the archaeologists to keep after recording their precise position, shape, and condition, but they made the ground literally come alive for me. Under glass was the systematic proof of these early people's growing mastery in shaping the stones and shells from beside the river. Each object had its niche in the long history that the chief archaeologist sketched for me as he chipped at a stone, making it an arrowhead the Indians would have acknowledged as well crafted.

As we dug that afternoon, learning how to name what we unearthed, we uncovered a midden, a kitchen pit topped by deer bones with human teeth marks still on them. Speculating on what might lie beneath those bones interested me more than actually finding objects to measure or photograph, but then I am not a scientist. As we sifted through the rich black dirt, I realized that even in a few hours my eyes were beginning to refocus, to see new dimensions around me. Roots and oyster shells were easy to discard, but almost nothing else was tossed aside as we carefully felt for evidence of the ancient folk who now seemed so close.

Even the creek seemed different after we finished digging, now teeming with waterfowl and fish I had not noticed before. We would find there none of the evidence of the Indians' lives, though it was the water which had repeatedly drawn different groups of Indians to this spot. I knew that I too would have to come back, perhaps to help stand guard some warm night and to dream myself into the spirits of these people my ancestors had once forced away from the river.

Dig as we may, there is still much we can only guess about the meaning this river may have held for the simple folk on its shores. Was the river considered a nourishing mother, a vengeful father, or both, like the androgynous god of the Nile? Were its waters reputed to heal or to restore youth? Were its fish sacred? Did the Indian myths of death speak of a journey across the river? Was the pollution of the stream from which they drank forbidden, as it was in India and Babylon? We can only guess. But we can be certain that the river was vital to their emotional and spiritual as well as their physical lives. What the Weyanoke dig teaches is that the Indians recognized and responded to the river's living mastery for centuries, long before the white man came with his civilizing guns, concepts of profit and ownership, and faith that nature could provide liberally and infinitely.

river map
chapter 2
chaapter 4