In River Time: The Way of the James


The struggles between Indians and white men, or between men and fish, are actually only a small, though dramatic, part of the story of Americans and their rivers. Yet these scenes, permeated by language of warfare and profit, of antagonists intent on conquering, defending, and defeating to gain wealth and glory, are the ones which are re- played in most historical records. The ideal they proclaim of men in battle with nature, trying to assert their power over its more unruly and unpredictable aspects, has become part of our American heritage.

It is difficult, therefore, to see that beneath the frantic action called history lies another, less visible drama of people gradually responding and adapting their lives to the shapes and rhythms of their environment, especially to the moving waters they chose as their highways. And beyond that, in the background, is the slow-motion saga, most visible to geologists, hydrologists, and geographers, of how the rivers have kept on creating the landscape that people claim as their own.

For eons the river has been a shaper, continuously molding the landscape as its waters transport soil and carve stone. Though to the short-lived creatures on its banks its works seem to be indelibly etched, the river erases as much as it creates, never ceasing the deliberate process of sculpting along its sinuous length. Like Proteus, the water god of myth, the river is both shapeshifter and transformer, art and unconscious artist.

Seen from above, it seems frozen eternally in relief sculpture, a bright ribbon edged in green which weaves its way between hills and through the floodplain of contrasting squared-off fields. But the essence of the river's art is motion, not the illusion of permanence. It is the crafting process lying behind the artifacts of stone, wood, and curve which man sees that gives them a live beauty, transmuting them--for some of those people on its banks--into the poetry that sings of birth, the grace of aging, and death.

There is nothing haphazard about the shaping of any river, although accidents of nature and constructions by man play their roles. The course of every drop of water is governed by natural laws whose logic can be expressed by the classic symmetry of mathematical equations. Americans who have abandoned the seventeenth-century belief in divine providences recognize no artistic, metaphor-making consciousness who is deliberately carving with flowing water intricate moral lessons in stone and soil. However, there is undeniably complex but consistent designing to be found in the river's art.

The processes that shape the James shape all rivers and their landscapes. They begin with raindrops falling on the hills. Some soak into the ground, sinking into the aquifer and perhaps later erupting into springs that feed the rivers, and others simply run off the land, carrying loosened topsoil and weathered, rocks into gullies and streams. Drawn by the relentless pull of gravity, the raindrops move downhill, heading toward their mother ocean, forming the brooks, rills, and creeks which soon join to make the river. Each stream labors to contour the land, whether into the V-shaped valleys that divide mountains or the rounded slopes that roll over the piedmont, as it rushes to sea level.

The watery fingers of the James have smoothed down one towering mountain range and are now caressing the slopes of another. They have chiseled caves and the famed Natural Bridge out of limestone and coral laid down by ancient seas. They have given two cities, Lynchburg and Richmond, their "Roman" seven hills to boast about. Above the Falls, wherever there is shape and leveling of the uplifting earth, the sculptor responsible has been the James and its tributaries.

Even though rivers are tugged by gravity and the sea, they rarely follow a direct path to their destination, for that is not the way of least resistance. Water, like most people, would rather ease around an obstacle than bore through it. From this simple preference can come elaborate, regular meanders, snaking over the floodplain like sine curves, a process best seen from high above rivers like the Mississippi.

On the more resisting bank, called a point bar, the river deposits some of its load of silt and rock as it flows by, while its currents sweep under to scoop out the opposite bank. When the neighboring land is relatively level and soft, the resulting bend can keep extending toward its eroding elbow until it hits the resistance of harder rock or hill; then it reverses its pattern to begin swinging back to the other side of the valley. Sometimes the river silts up the ends of a former bend to form an ox-bow lake or a gut. After years of twisting in its bed, the river flows through a wide, rich plain of leveled soil which is subject to drowning by ocean and flood. Bordering the plain may be terraces, remnants of more ancient floodplains, which are often faced with cliffs or worn into hills.

Judging from the wide floodplain stretching along the river above the Falls, the James was slithering restlessly, weakly imitating the Mississippi's patterning, for centuries before the most recent uplift of the earth. But now it has been "rejuvenated" again, as geologists used to say, corralled by the rising land so that it runs down a straighter course to the Falls, making islands out of the most stubborn obstacles. There are few scars or ox-bow lakes remaining from this river's earlier braided and meander pattern in its plowed and forested plains.

Downstream, however, only the water level has risen recently, not the land. So the James retains and keeps pushing at a few great meander loops, now punctuated with guts and swamps, remnants of past river paths, and manmade gravel pits. The processes of deposition and erosion continue, though on a smaller scale, below Jamestown where the tidal currents assert their full power and the river widens.

Meanwhile the former peninsula of Jamestown has become an island, losing many feet of river bank that the colonists farmed along the deep harbor where their ships anchored, and houses dot the growing sandy beaches across the river on the inside of its bend. But it is on this diminishing island and the broad tidewater curves where the story begins of how the river helped determine the course of a new nation.

Even before the colonists left England, it appeared that the rivers, especially the James, would be the center of their new world. For generations the maps drawn of Virginia were dominated by the exaggerated shapes of rivers, creeks, and bay. Gradually the waterways assumed more realistic proportions, but known details of the river's contours remained pronounced. As late as 1755 a French map of Virginia and Maryland painstakingly displayed virtually every size of stream, although the western portions were somewhat speculative. The settlements spread along the banks seem to be lost in this extensive network of watery highways .

To see the river as the first Virginians did, for as long as two centuries, I have to readjust my vision, put it into reverse. Then I can see a world balanced on the fulcrum of running water, ordered by land broken by occasional clearings between the tall green shadows of forests. My focus must be on the surface, as was theirs, barely noticing the current which persistently swings around growing land points and under eroding banks. Aside from oysters easily reached or masses of spawning shad, I must forget about the life teeming below that surface. I am now looking at an indispensable highway, one which both divided and connected, partially molding a people's culture as it had the earth on which they lived.

Moving out from Jamestown proved no easy venture for the English, more because of the Indians who had to be displaced than the currents or the bends. Yet almost from the beginning, they kept leaving the relative safety of the Jamestown fort, where bickering and sickness often prevailed, for the calmer spaces stretching along the cleaner water upstream. They preferred the fields already cleared by the Indians, either buying them with beads or copper, or burning out less reasonable groups. The big river bends, or what they called curls, above the junction with the Appomattox were particularly appealing, even though sailing ships had trouble maneuvering the twisting river with its shifting winds and channel. But here, on land repeatedly enriched by floods, the English felt particularly safe, protected by the river on most sides and a barricade at the neck of land. They must not have noticed how easily the Indians moved over the water in their primitive but effective dugout canoes.

Such a place, on Farrar's Island at Dutch Gap, was in 1611 the site of a new town. Here the dictatorial Sir Thomas Dale set up the town of Henrico (also called Henricus and Henricopolis), naming it after another English king. Within four months, powered by enforced threats of torturous death, the men had erected two or three streets of "well framed houses," including five houses on the riverfront reserved for "the honester sort of people" who would "keepe continuall centinell for the townes securitie," according to Beverley. A church, a hospital, and a college for converted Indians were also built or planned. Further up the river, above the curls and below the Falls, an iron furnace was built on Falling Creek with the aid of cooperative Indians hoping for protection from the presumably ferocious Monacans upstream. Nearby were several farms, including Varina where John Rolfe developed the golden weed with tobacco seed from the West Indies and later brought his Indian bride, Pocahontas.

At least twice the river colonizers had to retreat to Jamestown, leaving their lands to later and luckier settlers. Settlements all along the river, including Henrico and the Falling Creek mines, were abandoned by the few survivors of the 1622 Indian massacre. The next Indian attack in 1644, aimed mostly at farms south of the river, left other prime land cleared for a while. But the repeated contraction to Jamestown seemed only to release greater energy for new settlement, clearing the way for newcomers to the colony. They included some Cavaliers fleeing the uncongenial politics of Puritan England who acquired large grants for tobacco plantations. After the 1646 treaty, the Indians had to give up all their claims to the river below the Fall Line. The Powhatan tribes were forced to settle beyond the York River on the north and behind a line equally distant from the river on the south side.

However, the upriver Indians were getting restless, especially since they were being pressed by belligerent raiding parties of Iroquois and Susquehannocks. The English, keeping to the terms of their treaty, joined forces with the Powhatans against their old enemy when the Monacans came down the river seeking refuge from the raiders and alliance. They found war instead. A creek just below the Falls may have been the only winner of the battle that followed in 1656--it gained the appropriate name of Bloody Run. The Powhatan chief Tottopotomoy and a hundred of his warriors died, as did many British soldiers, and Colonel Edward Hill returned to Shirley Plantation in disgrace. Although the Monacans were theoretically the victors, they soon disappeared up the river and lost their place in history as a tribe. And the white men became even more determined to rid their land of the Indian menace, now embedded by raiders from "foreign" tribes who kept attacking the more isolated settlements up the river.

Twenty years later, the war against the Indians served as the basis for the first revolt against British rule, but again the river had the last word. In 1676, the hot-headed young Nathaniel Bacon, owner of Curles Neck and a Falls plantation, recruited colonists to go up and down the river seeking pockets of Indian resistance. However, he was far more interested in toppling the British governor, William Berkeley. Berkeley could not deny his own policy of Indian conquest, but he tried in many ways to strip Bacon of the militia power he had acquired. The confrontation came at Jamestown, where Bacon barricaded the sandy beach that connected the peninsula to the mainland. Forced to drink the brackish well water of Jamestown, the English soldiers capitulated, forcing Berkeley and a few loyal gentlemen to flee in ships downriver. Jamestown was burned, but it had not claimed its last victim---Bacon soon died in Gloucester County, apparently from what was still called the "Jamestown fever."

Later a Virginia historian, Charles Campbell, would argue that the fate of the Indians was sad but justified, since "perpetual possession of this country by the aborigines would have been incompatible with the designs of Providence in promoting the welfare of mankind." Nature's treasures of fertile soil, minerals, and metals would have been "forever entombed" without the energy and implements of the white man. Navigable rivers, "the natural channels of commerce," would have "failed in their purpose had they borne no freight but that of the rude canoe." Yet by depending heavily on the river simply as a highway and ignoring the Indians' reverent and detailed knowledge of the river's ways, the white men gave up a certain degree of control. The tidewater river would shape their developing society just as surely as it had shaped the land.

river map
chapter 6
chapter 8