In River Time: The Way of the James


It was no accident that the English settlers, like all European explorers, quickly named the river they had discovered as a first step in establishing their claim. From the beginning they were determined to leave their mark on a nature that they saw as a hostile wilderness. As representatives of an advanced civilization, they felt it their duty to subdue the earth. Certainly they could praise the river for its fertile banks and fish and even appreciate its beauty, but unlike the Indians they viewed it as a road to wealth. One of the first reports that Captain Newport carried back to England was appropriately titled "The Discription of the now discovered River and Country of Virginia; with the Liklyhood of ensuing ritches, by Englands ayd and industry." The battle lines separating the white man and his European notions about ownership and civilization from nature and its resident red man were already drawn. For years the outcome was in doubt, although the Indians were clearly at a disadvantage in fighting for a river they thought no man or group of men could own.

The drama which unfolded as these two cultures clashed was to be reenacted continually along each river which they both prized. At the root of the conflict were two opposing ways of seeing the river. Its resolution would set the pattern for how the river would be treated by its human neighbors for centuries to come. At first, the English could not praise the river enough, though they did not know much about it. But as their mythic expectations gave way to the reality of living with that river, it was relegated to the scenic background of their histories. They soon ceased to describe the river except as a convenient highway, though sometimes they viewed it as being as unmanageable as the Indians had been.

The James may have been a new river to them, but the English view of rivers had already been conditioned by another river an ocean away. Most knew the Thames, a tidal river then edged by an overcrowded city of half a million people. Like urbanites since that time, Londoners thought little more of the river than they would of any other highway that was troublesome to cross. They hardly realized that the same tides which gave a handy push to boat traffic also kept the river water relatively turgid and sluggish at London, so that whatever went into the river--and everything did--stayed for a while. With each rainstorm the sewage, dumped unceremoniously into ditches and the streets, was transported down to the river. Many people of London drank of the river's waters, especially those who could not afford beer, and many paid the price of typhoid fever, cholera, hepatitis, and dysentery. They knew that life was short, but not why.

Some of the people who came to the James were possessed by a dream of far more wondrous rivers than the Thames. This dream had been liberally fed by accounts of the voyages of Jacques Cartier to the St. Lawrence, John Hariot and Ralph Lane to the Roanoke and Chowan, and James Rosier to the St. George's. Many of these were published by Richard Hakluyt, a geographer much enamoured of golden, westward-leading rivers. These popular works, often dispensing with inconvenient facts, lauded the glorious waterways which penetrated the continent of the new world to lead bold dreamers to the untold wealth of the Indies which was surely to be found a few more days upstream. Undeterred by the disappearance of the colonists placed on Roanoke Island in North Carolina's Albemarle Sound by Sir Walter Raleigh, a group of Londoners, primarily merchants, formed a joint-stock company to finance a colonizing expedition to the probable northwest passage, or failing to find that, to the raw materials which lay waiting transformation into profit.

The London Council's "Instructions given by way of Advice," written by Hakluyt and given to the group of 104 or 105 prospective colonists (accounts vary) who gathered in December of 1606 to embark on three tiny ships for Virginia, show the English obsession with the fabled rivers. They were told to:

Do your best Endeavour to find out a Safe port in the Entrance of Some navigable River making Choise of Such a one as runneth furthest into the Land, And if you happen to Discover Divers portable Rivers and amongst them any one that hath two main branches if the Difference be not Great make Choise of that which bendeth most towards the Northwest for that way shall You soonest find the Other Sea.

Their first task, even before landing "Victual and munitions," was to "Let Captain Newport Discover how far that River may be found navigable that you may make Election of the Strongest, most Fertile and wholesome place." The armchair travelers specifically recommended "A place you may perchance find a hundred miles from the Rivers mouth and the farther up the better" so that enemies may be beat "from both sides of your River where it is Narrowest." After landing, forty men were to spend "two Months in Discovery of the River above," disembarking with pickaxes to look for minerals.

Hakluyt left no question about the main goal of this river expedition:

You must Observe if you can Whether the River on which you Plant Doth Spring out of Mountains or out of Lakes. If it be out of any Lake the passage to the Other Sea will be the more Easy & it is Like Enough that Out of the same Lake you shall find Some Spring which run the Contrary way toward the East India Sea.
It was to be years before the myth of the "Other Sea" beyond the Appalachians gave way to reality; as late as 1650, the sea appeared on a British map. For the first colonists, though, the dream of South Sea wealth colored their perspective of the river, keeping them from seeing more mundane realities.

The Jamestown boatsOn December 20, 1606, three ships under the command of Captain Newport, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery, set sail on the Thames for Virginia. But the English river was not ready to let them go right away. Adverse sea winds and rough water stranded the ships at the Downs near where the river empties into the sea. The Reverend Hunt almost died of typhoid fever as they lay becalmed, but he refused to give up his holy mission to the savages and return to his nearby home. As the long weeks passed, the men aboard grew at least as contentious as the winds. Finally in February, the weather changed and the frustrated and quarreling men with short provisions set out for the new world.

The English were not the first white men to sail into the Chesapeake Bay. The Spanish had sent Jesuit missionaries in 1570, following up a 1560 expedition, but they were soon wiped out by Indians. Another aborted settlement attempt originated from Raleigh's colony on Roanoke Island in 1585. In 1588, the Spanish Captain Vicente Gonzalez went up as far as the Potomac, very likely looking for survivors of the Jesuit mission. The first Englishman to sail these waters came in 1603, but Bartholomew Gilbert paid for his adventure with his life at the hands of Indians.

Some historians even report a Spanish settlement attempt on the river itself, perhaps near what would become Jamestown Island, at the unbelievably early date of 1526. Lucas Vasquez d'Ayllon is said to have brought 600 men and women, including many Negro slaves, 100 horses, and a Jesuit named Antonio Montesino to build a town named San Miguel. But d'Ayllon died of fever and the settlers suffered "hunger and sickness, internecine quarrels, negro insurrection, and attacks from the Indians"; the survivors were shipwrecked en route to Spain. As fate would have it, the scenario 81 years later would not be too different, except that more ships kept coming .

The men sent by the London Company were either ignorant of this dismal history or uncommonly brave, greedy, or desperate, or all of the above. They were not mistaken in their expectation of Indian hostility. Nevertheless, they were so eager to touch land that a party went ashore after the ships first anchored just west of Cape Henry. After sunset, they were attacked by "Savages creeping upon all foures, from the Hills, like Beares, with their Bowes in their mouthes" and two white men were injured, as George Percy's journal observations tell us. From that time, the English constantly "suspictioned villainie."

The fleet soon turned into the river, searching for the spot which best fit the instructions they carried. If they felt that their progress was being watched by an Indian behind every tree, they were not too far wrong. A number of Indian warriors had come to the river from miles around after hearing of the first landing, curious to see these strange boats and pale men, but with their bows and arrows ready. They too waited to see where the ships would land.

The place which seemed to fit Hakluyt's instructions best was a low-lying peninsula, about two miles long and one mile wide over thirty miles upstream, which was linked to the mainland by a narrow sand bar. Beside it was a deep river channel carved by erosion (which would continue to gnaw at the island). On the other side was the Back River, actually a deep marsh creek which could shelter ships. Though the English were delighted to have found a place of easy anchor and defense, there were many other conditions they failed to consider. The fact that there were no Indians residing on the land that May morning should have been a clue.

This island, which the settlers promptly named for their king, was probably the worst piece of real estate on the river in the summer time, and the Indians knew it. It lay very low, invaded by stagnant swamps, and it had no freshwater springs . Salt water mixed with fresh water in the summer at that point of the river to create what is now called a "zone of maximum turbidity. " This meant that the river was often turgid and brackish at low water, not at all suitable for drinking. Perhaps the English were reminded of the tidal Thames at London, and thus saw no problem. Defense and navigation, not the quality of the water they had no intention of drinking, were the prime considerations.

t is not difficult to understand why the Indians, poised for attack, put away their weapons and generally left the white men alone. We have their own words for the reason. George Percy reported that some of the Indians in the villages the English visited on their first trip to the Falls became upset at "our planting in the Countrie." Their leader reassured them, "very wisely of a Savage," saying, "Why should you bee offended with them as long as they hurt you not, nor take any thing away by force. They take but a little waste ground which doth you nor any of us any good." That waste ground which the Indians conceded, especially after the nearby Paspahegh Indians had been given some copper, became Jamestown.

The English had no idea that their island location was dangerous. After all, they had been thoroughly prepared to find a majestic river, and that is exactly what they saw. Percy asserted that "This River which wee have discovered is one of the famousest Rivers that ever was found by any Christian." This river and its banks were perceived as being a type of paradise, for Percy spoke of its "goodliest Woods" and "Vines in great abundance, which hang in great clusters on many Trees," just waiting harvest by eager hands. Even the ground was "bespred with many sweet and delicate flowres of divers colours and kindes" and the fruit of "Strawberries, Mulberries, Rasberries, and Fruites unknowne." The river itself was bursting with abundance with its many branches "which runne flowing through the Woods with great plentie of fish of all kindes; as for Sturgeon, all the World cannot be compared to it." No wonder people thought that here was a land and river which would provide without much work on their part, and they kept streaming into ships, disregarding rumors of starvation and disease.

A similar ecstatic response to the river is found in a letter written in June, probably by Edward Maria Wingfield: "Wee are sett down 80 miles within a River, for breadth, sweetnes of water, length navigable upp into the contry deepe and bold Channell so stored with Sturgion and other sweete Fish as no mans fortune hath ever possessed the like." Assured that they had found the ultimate river, he concluded that "wee think if more male be wishe'd in a River it wilbe founde." The myth of the wondrous river had survived the reality of its discovery.

Like the gold at the end of a rainbow river, the lure of the South Sea still beckoned. Newport, Smith, and twenty men took the shallop they had built up the river in late May, quizzing the Indians along the way about the shape and headwaters of the river. One Indian obligingly drew a map showing waterfalls, boundaries of two strong (enemy) nations, mountains, and, a week's or ten days' journey away, a great body of water. Upon inquiry, several Indians "recalled" that the great sea was salt, for they were anxious to please these visitors bearing gifts who asked such strange questions.

The barrier of the Falls proved insurmountable, especially since the Indians refused to guide the English through the enemy territory. A frustrated Captain Smith failed to see much beauty in these "great craggy stones in the midst of the river, where the water falleth so rudely, and with such a violence, as not any boat can possibly pass." Another report, probably written by Gabriel Archer, projected mercantile possibilities in this area of "overfall, where the water falls downe from huge great Rockes: making in the fall five or six several Ilettes, very fitt for the buylding of water milnes thereon." Archer was so certain of the sea beyond the mountains that he felt no need to provide details for his English readers: "beyond this the Falls not two dayes journey, it the river hath two branches which come through a high stoney Country from certaine huge mountains called Quirank, beyond which needs no relacion."

Before leaving the Falls on this first expedition, the English "set up a Crosse at the head of this River, naming it Kings River, where we proclaimed James King of England to have the most right unto it," as Percy wrote. To name this river was to claim it for England. The Indians settled below the Falls under Powhatan's rule were justifiably puzzled and disturbed by this rite of rights, but Newport smoothly explained that the two sticks bound together represented the two kings, Indian and English, and the name Kings River commemorated their union.

How could the English have so arrogantly established their ownership of the Indian river? The answer lies deep in attitudes toward nature and its resident Indians formed long before 1607, as well as the race with Spain to claim the new world. The fact that the Indian had left little evidence of his occupation of the land, that even in farming he made hills instead of extensively turning the earth, was prima facie evidence that he had not dominated nature and thus did not truly own the land. Besides, the Indians were savages in need of the civilizing order of Christianity. As Bernard Sheehan argues, it made little difference whether they were noble primitives or the devil's servants; either way they were uncivilized animals, not yet deserving of full human status. This reasoning might not have held as well had the Indians first encountered by the English been the apparently more settled and agricultural Monacans. Yet some other excuse would have been found, for the English intended to possess the river and its lands by fair means or foul.

Captain Newport soon left for England, "leaving us (one hundred and foure persons) verie bare and scantle of victualls, furthermore in warres and in danger of savages," as Smith complained. There was no more beer to drink, only river water. Unwilling and unable to find food as the Indians did or settle for a diet different from the accustomed one, the men began to die from a combination of starvation and disease. By the end of the summer of 1607, only 35 to 40 men still lived.

Each summer for the next several years the gruesome tale was to be the same. Many out of each new group of colonists succumbed in the summer before they had been properly "seasoned." George Percy, so quick to see the river's beauty, also recognized the river's role in the mortality rate. As he explained, "our food was but a small Can of Barlie sod in water, to five men a day, our drinke cold water taken out of the River, which was at a floud verie salt, at a low tide full of slime and filth, which was the destruction of many of our men." This is an apt description of America's first major public health crisis.

At least one historian, Carville Earle, who has compared the reported medical symptoms with the composition of the river during summer droughts, when the wedge of salt water generally moves up to the Jamestown area of the river, agrees with Percy's assessment. With relatively little movement of the water caused by the mixture of salt and fresh water, sewage which washed into the river stayed to spread typhoid fever and dysentery, as it did in the Thames. There were likely several carriers of those London-bred bacteria; ironically, one may have been the Reverend Hunt, who patiently tended and cooked for the sick. The high salt content of water taken when the tide was rising also may have literally poisoned the men, making them too lethargic even to dig a well for fresh water. Those that were eventually dug were shallow and probably contaminated, like the river.

can visualize the Indians camped at the fresh springs on high ground, nodding their heads wisely at rumors of the deaths of the English and restraining eager young warriors, counseling patience while these white strangers died off. But the ships kept on coming, filled with new settlers, and the people kept on dying. Soon malaria, spread by marsh- bred mosquitoes which had fed on infected European blood, also began taking a heavy toll. By 1624, of the 5,000 who had come to Virginia (not counting infants born after arrival), only about 1,000 remained according to conservative estimates. Some historians say that as many as six colonists died for every one that survived. These figures include the nearly 350 settlers killed in the 1622 massacre, when the Indians finally lost patience, for the ships and men never seemed to stop coming. At least half of the earliest colonists died of water-related diseases at Jamestown. The English assumed that the river would sustain them, without any effort on their part to know it as intimately at the Indians had. Perhaps they were blinded by their own myth of a golden river created solely to serve their needs and lust for wealth.

river map
chapter 3
chapter 5