In River Time: The Way of the James


The lordly Opechancanough did not abandon his fight for the river lands when his worthiest opponent retired from the scene of battle. For several years, he led the English to believe he was friendly, and even on the verge of conversion to Christianity. It was he who witnessed the wedding of Pocahontas to John Rolfe, a gesture of conciliation. If he ever regretted the Indian maiden's early attachment to Smith and then Rolfe, he never showed it to the English. But he had not retreated. The last insult evidently came when his friend Nemattanow was killed by the colonists, who had laughingly dubbed him Jack-of-the-Feather. By then Powhatan had died and Opechancanough had "grasp'd all the Empire to himself," as Beverley put it, skillfully manipulating the strings he held.

Just before noon on Good Friday, March 22, 1622, a carefully laid plan began on signal. All along the river at each of the new settlements, the Indians, visiting casually, suddenly massacred almost 350 English colonists with their own weapons. Jamestown itself had been warned, however, because an Indian boy revealed the plan to a white man who had "used him as his son," as Smith reports, and he quietly rowed across the river in the darkness to alert the Jamestown people.

Now that the Indians had disclosed their devilish and ferocious nature, the colonists had no hesitations about open warfare, especially since they no longer needed Indian corn. What followed, as they killed almost twice as many Indians in the next few weeks, were called battles, not massacres.

The biggest Indian killer of all would prove to be the white man's diseases, especially smallpox. Still, the next twenty-five years on the river were ones of blood and fire. The pattern was fairly consistent. English soldiers would burn out Indian villages, forcing the people back from the river. In turn, a group of warriors would attack the more isolated settlements; then the soldiers would burn more villages. It was not exactly a war, but a series of guerrilla skirmishes and ambushes.

By 1644, Opechancanough was ancient, at least a century old, confined to a stretcher and unable to open his eyelids. But he was not defeated yet, and he planned and brought off yet another massacre. This time at least five hundred colonists were killed, but there were enough settlers in Virginia by then so that the impact was small. Finally, he was captured by the English in 1646 and brought to Jamestown where he was put on display. Proud to the end, he informed the governor that had he been the captor, he would not have humiliated him so. Soon afterward, the old man was shot in the back, joining in death his old enemy, John Smith, who had died in his bed in 163 I at the age of 51.

The river would twice more be seen as a battleground in the years to come, but never again would the question of ownership be at stake. The Indians, now considered subjects of the English king, were limited to clearly defined "reservations" (the English word for "waste ground") far from the James. The new tenants, no longer captive to the dream of a golden river, did not write letters home praising the river for its fluid beauty and the varied life it sustained, only for how it could further their dreams of wealth. This shift in perspective can best be measured by looking at another outsized knight, the Atlantic sturgeon who ruled the shadowy depths of the tidewater river for almost three centuries after John Smith left for England.

The sturgeon came from an ancient line, from a species dating at least I20 million years. If the Indians had any notion of a river god, it must have been centered on this magnificent and ugly, bony-headed and armored beast. For three or four thousand years, multitudes of mature sturgeon had left the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean to find fresh shallow water where they could spawn, and they often tracked into the James, possibly going far beyond the Falls. Though their upstream run began in the spring, it could last throughout the summer. Yet there were springs when for some reason relatively few sturgeon traveled up the James.

The Falls must have glinted silver in the sunlight when these fish crowded in, for they were giants that could reach twelve feet and six hundred pounds, though more commonly they were less than half that. Those colonists who later claimed that a man could cross the river on their backs at the Falls were perhaps not exaggerating, for these rather lazy bottom-feeders were known to pause for naps at mid-day. But they were not as vulnerable as it might appear; fish hooks and nets of the time were generally useless against their armored strength.

Historian Robert Beverley in I705 described how the Indians traditionally captured this prize of the river. One way, probably favored by the young warriors, was literally man-to-fish combat. When a fish swam into a narrow portion of the river, up streams or between rocks, to forage for food by burying its pointed snout in the mud, it would be welcomed by an Indian with a strong noose woven out of reeds which he used to lasso the fish's tail. The fish, naturally, would struggle vigorously, and the Indian would have to hold tight, catching hold of the gills if he could; "that man was counted a cockarouse, or brave fellow, that would not let go till with swimming, wading and diving, he had tired the sturgeon and brought it ashore." A less energetic Indian might take his dugout canoe into the river, hoping that a sturgeon would leap in, as they often did, and that the boat would not sink before he towed it to shore.

The sturgeon could also be speared, but it had to be relatively quiet first. A favorite ploy was to make a hearth in the middle of a dugout canoe with a fire which would "dazzle the eyes of the fish" as well as illuminate the bottom of the river more clearly than daylight would allow. At each end of the boat would be an Indian with a spear, gently poling along to surprise any fish attracted by the flames and then darting them. Beverley does not say how the prize was hauled in.

There are reports from a later date of Indians clubbing to death the fish between the rocks of the Falls, for by then they had learned the wasteful ways of the white man. Previously, Indians had taken only what they needed or could preserve, using some ingenious ways of preserving the fish--ways now lost to us,, such as turning it into a flour.

The colonists were astounded by the sturgeon when they arrived in May during the spawning run. But, typically, their primary interest was in how these great fish could be turned to profit, not used for food. Their first report asserted that "our fishing for Sturgeon cannot be lesse than 2000 pound sterling a yeare." Visions of easy wealth from caviar and isinglass danced through their heads. They sent for fishermen from England, and lamented their lack of salt for preserving the roe better.

The sturgeon run turned out to be a feast or famine situation, and the English did not understand how to take advantage of either. Repeatedly they did have "great store" of sturgeon, but Smith reported that "our men would so greedily surfeit, as it cost many their lives." More likely it was the river water that was costing lives, for the sturgeon were most easily caught when the river was lowest in the summer, and thus most apt to be contaminated at Jamestown. The "sweet flesh" of the sturgeon did sustain the earliest colonists through some hard times, as Smith proudly recorded that only seven men died in June and July of 1608 because they lived upon dried sturgeon; they had caught "more sturgeon than could be devoured by dog or man," according to other reports. Under Smith's direction (using Indian fishing techniques), the colonists took all the sturgeon they could get that summer, at one time pulling in 52, at another 68.

Caviar began to look like the most promising source of wealth, for even then Londoners paid high prices for the Muscovy product. Captain Samuel Argall was dispatched to the colony to harvest sturgeon in 1609. There was a catch, though: no salt, no refrigeration, and no facilities to convert the roe into caviar. The warm climate of Virginia meant that preservation was a problem, one not encountered by the Muscovites. Evidently, at least three returning ships did carry loads of sturgeon roe which deteriorated en route to England even though they were boiled and pickled. Tobacco, on the other hand, needed no preservation and so would ship much better. Thus Virginia lost its opportunity to have an economy based on caviar.

Another factor in the abandoning of sturgeon as a source of profit was the unpredictability of the runs. If the sturgeon came in the spring of 1610, the colonists were unable to catch them. William Strachey wrote that, "The river which was wont before this time of the year to be plentiful of sturgeon has not now a fish to be seen in it, and albeit we laboured and hauled our net twenty times a day and night, yet we took not so much as would content half the fishermen." He put the blame squarely on the ineffective fishing practices, though, and not on the fish: "let the blame of this lie where it is, both upon our nets and the unskilfulness of our men to lay them." The Indians could have told the English that nets were not the best way to catch sturgeon, but then the Indians were content to make do with fewer fish.

Once the sturgeon could no longer be considered as a commercial crop, the colonists literally ignored them. They were unwilling to struggle with these unpredictable beasts for food they did not know how to preserve. The Indians were gradually forced away from the rivers, so they too encountered the sturgeon no more. For two centuries it looked as if the fish had won by default and essentially had the river all to themselves most springs.

But the time was to come--after dams were erected in the Falls that blocked the now invisible sturgeon from part of its freshwater spawning grounds--when the white men began to see that the market for caviar was still strong, and shipping the roe was no longer a problem. So began years of slaughter, when the roe were stripped from the great bodies and sent to New York to be made into caviar. In one year, 1880, over 100,000 pounds of sturgeon were "harvested." A brochure written in the I890s called the sturgeon a "lumbering, stupid" fish "who really doesn't care enough for the vanities of life to fight his way out of the nets." The king had lost his dignity and prestige and taken on a new name; he had become "James river bacon."

The tidewater sturgeon fishery did not die out until the 1930s, since isinglass from the air bladder and oil from the head proved almost as valuable as the roe for a long time. Today the sturgeon rarely bother to venture upstream. Deterred by pollution and dams, they still lurk in the ocean and the Bay, waiting to return. A few small ones occasionally brave the changed river, but they are often dead when they are discovered.

Ironically, had the colonists' attempt to harvest the sturgeon roe been successful, the story of the river might have been different. No one would have dared block the progress of the fish, and the river's health might have been guarded more zealously if profit had been involved. Yet perhaps not.

Each spring I hang over the I4th Street Bridge railing, hoping that maybe this year I will spy the silver of one of these giant fish, finally returning to its old spawning ground, perhaps even its birthplace. I grieve for the disappearance of "royal fish" from the river in my time. In dreams I picture myself crossing the river, not on a bridge but by lightly stepping on the broad backs of the sturgeon, warning the ancient kings of the river about the nets and lines they must avoid and break.

river map
chapter 5
chapter 7