In River Time: The Way of the James


By the middle of the seventeenth century, the colonists could turn from the struggle to survive to the serious business of establishing their own social and economic system along the navigable river, now freed from the Indian threat. For a time they accepted the natural upper boundary of rocks at the Fall Line, and built their houses, first of wood and then of brick, along the curves of the lower James. What resulted was a linear structuring of class and wealth strung along the region they called the Tidewater, a name signifying the centrality of the river in their lives.

The most enterprising newcomers gradually secured large grants stretched along the more fertile soil close to the river, often by using the land rights, called headrights, of the poorer emigrants and indentured servants they had transported. There they established plantations, and as servants completed their indentures, the planters turned increasingly to slaves for the cheap labor needed to grow as much tobacco as possible and quickly, since this crop exhausted the soil in a fairly short time. Soon the river had taken on its nickname, the "old muddy Jeems," as the red dirt increasingly eroded. But they did more than break up the soil. Since the major highway was the sometimes unpredictable river, planters soon found it useful to have virtually every kind of craftsman available on their land. Each large plantation, then, became a fairly self-sufficient settlement under one management, linked by its boats and wharves with other similar plantations, and particularly with England.

Back from the river far beyond the choicer soils were white people who had more trouble eking out an independent living, the yeoman farmers, many of whom were once indentured servants. By the eighteenth century, access to the river was generally denied to them, so they also had little access to the wealth being shipped on the water. Crops for the profitable export trade usually had to be sold through the nearest plantation owner with a wharf. Many of the more enterprising farmers, especially south of the river, eventually gave up and went to North Carolina to be free of the power of the river barons.

People with the privilege of living on the river had a decided advantage, in spite of the occasional danger of floods. On the river banks were to be found the cooling summer breezes, the easy fishing, and more fertile acreage, but particularly a front row seat on the colony and the world. The river was swarming with boats and ships of all descriptions by the eighteenth century, many built right on the plantations from their own forests. Indeed, some of the earliest plantation owners had first been shipwrights and sailors and were still unwilling to venture far from the water which had given them a good livelihood. They benefited from the many ways England encouraged shipbuilding (in response to her own lack of timber), exempting Virginia-made ships from duties and pushing the emigration of shipbuilders. By the time the British shipbuilding industry began demanding protective legislation, first passed in 1680, it was too late. The colonists kept on building, now devoting more of the ships to internal use, plying the James, the Bay, and the West Indies.

For a long time, the native boats on the James were either versions of the serviceable Indian canoe or shallops, shorter and with masts, both of which could navigate the creeks and shallow river stretches with ease. Every owner of riverside land had at least one, to fish and go oystering, transport tobacco out to larger ships moored in the channel and bring the goods back, even to attend the parish church in many cases. By 1648, hundreds of boats were reported tied up on the James, and many had been built on the river.

By the eighteenth century, much of the shipbuilding had shifted to public shipyards in seaport towns, especially Norfolk, but boats, particularly those suited to the river's variable depths, were still being built on plantations such as Flowerdieu, Westover, and Berkeley. The variety of these crafts shows how river-dwellers adapted to the shapes of their rivers and creeks: there were canoes, bateaux, barges, punts, piraguas, flats, pinnaces, shallops, and sloops. Sloops were particularly popular, even after England restricted Virginian shipbuilding; they were built in the colony, filled with tobacco, and sold off--complete with cargo--in the West Indies. Since they had to dodge pirates in the Bay and the Caribbean, they were developed for speed and maneuverability.

The people with access to boats also had access to what money could be brought in by the tobacco trade. They could best afford the treasures of Europe and the Orient brought by European ships to grace their new mansions. They also supported the New England ships that carried loads of slaves to work the tobacco fields and cargoes of rum from the West Indies. Those who lived away from the river highway had no such opportunities. Ironically, then, the ability of riparian owners to communicate by boat with each other and the rest of the world eventually erected considerable barriers of class and wealth between them and their neighbors.

Yet even with their boats, the widely separated plantations were probably less connected with each other than each was with England. The river, with its tides, strong currents, and unreliable winds, could be a rough highway, especially for smaller boats. Whenever there was visiting between plantations, people planned to stay for a while; thus, the famed hospitality was also a necessity. But even the river-dwelling planters were slow to evolve into a community, especially as compared with their New England counterparts .

The river made and shaped the fortunes of many gentlemen in the eighteenth century, but few were as colorful and articulate as William Byrd II, builder of the manorial Westover. Like most of the wealthy planters, he inherited much of his land, more than 25,000 acres including the key river lands above Jamestown and along the Fall Line, from an industrious father and grandfather who used politics and indentures freely to acquire property. But he developed his extravagant tastes, as well as a gentleman's education, in England where he spent most of his first thirty years as a gallant bachelor. For a while, the James meant little more to him than a highway link to England, the center of civilized life. But he came to relish the role of riparian lord, entertaining lavishly and at length whenever he was not crossing and exploring up the river, seeking new land grants and resources to develop, especially metals.

Westover PlantationMuch of our knowledge of the social structure of the time as well as of natural history comes from Byrd, especially his Natural History of Virginia. Herein are many hints about the key role of the rivers in shaping the society developing along them. As he declares, "no land on the whole surface of the earth is as well situated as this one is, because it is completely irrigated with numberless beautiful large rivers abounding in ships...." The rivers provide abundant fish and easy commerce "right in front of the houses of the merchants and planters," thus saving "much trouble and expense." In the same paragraph where he praises the waters as "extremely pleasing and sweet," he notes that such "easy and convenient" navigation means that hundreds of English ships come, selling Negro slaves and buying tobacco. In fact, the tobacco would be virtually worthless without the possibility of world trade. He clearly understood the economic value of the river.

Not the least of the river's gifts which Byrd praises is its fish life. Byrd lists species at length, spotlighting the ones which taste best. Sturgeon, he claims, tastes "like the best veal"; he particularly lauds the abundance of spawning fish, especially herring, for "it is unbelievable, indeed, indescribable, as also incomprehensible, what quantity is found there." He seldom found himself at such a loss for words, but it is, finally, our loss, for it is impossible for us to visualize today what he saw.

The little book gives testimony that the river was thoroughly a part, even a center, of the life beside it, contributing to the wealth of those with access. One wonders about those who could not benefit from this resource, but that is a world which Byrd knew little about. Whenever he did encounter people without a river, as in eastern North Carolina (a place he facetiously named Eden), he is scornful, finding them lazy and provincial.

But the days of the wealthy planters were numbered, largely because their sons and grandsons lost interest in farming the money crop of tobacco at about the same time that the land's riverborne fertility became exhausted. Byrd himself died in debt, but it was his son who actually lost much of the river land. An era of concentrated river wealth soon passed, but not without leaving its divisive mark.

There were other kinds of division enforced by the river. A look at a map shows that rivers have always been natural boundaries, dividing nations, states, parishes, and neighbors of all sorts, human and animal. No number of bridges, for example, will change the fact that the Mississippi divides the whole country, not just physically. What were once rather formidable physical barriers, even though penetrated by ferries and bridges, often linger to mark cultural and psychological boundaries today.

The James very nearly splits the state of Virginia in half, zigzagging from its headwater springs northwest in the mountains near what is now west Virginia to the southeast corner of the Chesapeake Bay. As long as the river was used as a highway in the thick wilderness, however, people stayed close beside it and north was rarely divided from south. The Indian confederacies above and below the Fall Line paid little mind to the river as a boundary. Tribes like the Weyanoke and the Monacans established villages on both sides. The Fall Line rapids and the mountains did raise serious barriers, but not the river itself. Perhaps it was so much at the center of the Indians' lives, especially during the fish runs, that it could not be easily perceived as dividing.

That unity was threatened when Jamestown--and eventually the entire north side of the river--was chosen to be the hub of the new colony. Even after most settlers, including governors, chose not to brave the legendary Jamestown sicknesses, its place of preeminence in the colony was assured by its busy wharf, first on the Back River and then, when that filled up, on the deep water of the river curve where ships could be moored to the trees. For many years, every European ship coming up the rivers of Virginia to trade had to stop first to register at Jamestown. Naturally, many simply chose to load and unload their goods there, thus making Jamestown an economic center. For easier access, by road if necessary, both to the assembly and the trade, official institutions such as courthouses and churches of the counties and parishes that stretched across the river and even the College of William and Mary were set on the north side. When Jamestown was finally abandoned at the end of the seventeenth century, the capital moved only a few miles north to Williamsburg. No one evidently even considered a south side location. This division proved to be irreversible.

It took little time for the southsiders to begin developing a different sort of culture, one centered more on farming and raising hogs than on politics. Their major early contribution was the use of marl as fertilizer, and not the production of political pamphlets, even during the Revolution. Wealth and power were increasingly concentrated on the north side, especially after roads were cut to connect plantations on the many navigable rivers above the James.

There are different ways to measure this growing domination of the north side of the tidewater James, but my yardstick is a family one. In 1608 Captain John Woodlief came to Jamestown, learned how to survive, and returned to England to gather his family and indentured servants. Selected to be governor of a settlement above Jamestown on an 8,000-acre site named the Berkeley Hundred, he brought a shipload of new colonists late in 1619. Upon arrival, he conducted what Virginians now proudly cite as the first Thanksgiving service. As often happened in the colonies, Woodlief's ability to produce profits for his financial backers came in question and he was fired, so he moved south to land along Bailey's Creek and the river near present-day Hopewell.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Harrison settled in Surry County, right across the river from Jamestown. He prospered as a tobacco planter, leaving wealth that enabled his grandson to purchase the Berkeley Hundred, thereby moving into the circles of colonial power on the north bank. His son, Benjamin Harrison IV, married the daughter of wealthy planter King Carter and built the manorial house next door to William Byrd's Westover, beginning his dynasty there. Struck down by lightning, he left Berkeley and its wealth to his son Benjamin, freeing him to become a prominent colonial statesman, first as a burgess and eventually as a member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence. In turn, the "signer's" youngest son William Henry and great grandson Benjamin were both to become Presidents of the United States after they had left Virginia for the more promising West. The house still stands as a symbol of a Virginia plantation dynasty, with its vanishing claims to aristocracy.

Captain Woodlief"s descendents across the river, by contrast, are almost erased from history, having continuously but obscurely farmed their river land until it was lost in the Civil War. Younger sons migrated not to the centers of power at Jamestown, Williamsburg, or even Richmond, but primarily to southeastern North Carolina, looking for more fertile soil. They were never baronial planters or political leaders, but many were reasonably successful farmers, respected and influential in their rural communities south of the James.

The growing division in interests and prestige between the two banks of the river grew, especially as connecting roads were cut on each side. The developing split can be mapped in Charles City County, just above Jamestown, which originally stretched south of the river from the North Carolina line to the Appalachians and north to the York River. By 1655, Francis Lutz writes, "inhabitants of the sprawling territory south of the great natural barrier saw no reason why they should be compelled to travel a long distance, including the crossing of a turbulent stream, to attend church and county court sessions." They resented the periodic militia musters on the north side, but not as much as did north side residents who feared they might be called on to "protect the distant frontiers."

People did not accept the river as a political barrier without a struggle, however. The General Assembly regularly mandated public toll ferries, to be regulated by the counties, to promote unity within the colony. Convenience was another reason for ferries, but trade itself was little affected, being more oriented to the big ships in the river channel which served boats from both sides. In 1705 there were twenty public ferries operating on the tidewater James and its main branches; by 1748 there were thirteen more.

In spite of the ferries, the river remained a formidable physical boundary. Most ferries could not operate with any regularity, especially without motors, on a river with strong tides and currents. Also, ferry owners were entitled to build ordinaries, or taverns, to put up "travelers, who, on many occasions were unable to cross the stream for days because of storm and high waters." Since the ferry owner could make far more money at his tavern than with the low tolls, he had little incentive to keep his boat moving on schedule. Charles City County, like the other counties spanning the river, first divided the parish, since church attendance was considered crucial, and in 1703 completed total political division, splitting off Prince George County to the south.

This division of tidewater society became more pronounced in the nineteenth century, especially after the Confederacy died. As Parke Rouse puts it, "Below the James lies Dixie." Southside Virginia has remained relatively poor and uninfluential; the growing of peanuts, pine, tobacco, and hams has brought little profit and less power. The area has a high percentage of Afro-Americans, yet it is also a strong- hold of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant laborers and of fervent conservatism." "Southside" has retained a character which some denigrate as "redneck fundamentalism" and Rouse calls "stubborn, old-fashioned, slow-paced, insular, ready to fight at the drop of a hat." All seem to agree that in many respects it is far more like the deep South than the north side is. The division of Virginians initiated by the river still lingers, though it is slowly yielding to bridges and the wealth promised by new industry.

Maps can show how the river has physically woven its pattern through the landscape, both uniting and dividing its banks. But the social patterns the river has inadvertently encouraged and shaped from the beginning are more subtle, though almost as persistent. The reality of the river plantations and their stratified society has turned into a myth, cherished by tourists nostalgic for what seems to be a more ordered life. As they look out over the green lawns on the north bank, they see only the placid surface of the broad, muddy water. Since they look from land and not the river, they miss seeing how this powerful and sometimes disorderly river helped shape that order as it did the land. The early struggle to adapt a society to the river is as hidden as the currents and tides which push against upstream travel and slowly shift soil from one bank to the other.

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