In River Time: The Way of the James


In some ways, the river of the wilderness has never been domesticated, even today, in spite of the idyllic picture painted in tourist brochures. Replace boat engines with muscle power against erratic winds and currents, especially if the boat is pointed upstream, and it becomes clear who is still master. But the myth is seductive, enough so that my daughter and I decided that our first canoe trip on the James should be on the river curls below the Fall Line. We naively anticipated an afternoon of easy paddling and a picnic near the early site of Henricopolis.

The only wilderness we saw as we put into the waters warmed by a coal-fired power plant at the gap were the thickly wooded, isolated banks and a few waterfowl who rose at our approach. Nature seemed friendlier than the motor boats and barges which left wakes that threatened to tip our canoe. The curious stares of the boaters made us feel like intruders in their rightful territory. With some relief, we beached on the shallow side of a bend.

The upstream return was another story entirely; the wind had come up and both tide and current were against us. As we launched toward the channel, a sharp wind caught us and we found ourselves struggling for footing in two feet of soft eroded mud. Chilled, muddy, and grateful for shallow water, we climbed back into the canoe to fight our way upstream. It was not easy, for we advanced only a few inches with every hard paddle stroke, and the wind kept pushing us backwards and sideways. The wood debris piled on shore was now threatening, for it left no alternative but to keep paddling.

We were justifiably frightened and frustrated as we inched near the boat ramp, but we also found ourselves unaccountably exhilarated. Though I do not plan to repeat that particular drama, the image of our battle with the current often hits across my memory, and it is not unpleasant. Now I understand why those new settlers would keep pushing up the river, even while longing to go with the downstream how back home.

By 1700 the frontier was still just upstream a ways, in the more hostile world of granite, islands, and rapids above the tidewater. In July a ship sailed into Hampton filled with 207 Huguenots, exiled for years from their cozy, prosperous villages in France, who hoped to build a French Protestant town in the Norfolk area. They were welcomed by Governor Nicholson with disturbing news; their destination had been changed and they were to go up the James. William Byrd I, inheritor of land in the Falls area and influential in the colony, had had the last word on their fate. They were to settle in the wilderness above the Fall Line, securing that land for the white man.

The omens were all foreboding at Jamestown where the prospective settlers had to transfer to smaller boats that could negotiate the curls. The town had recently burned for the third time and so had been abandoned as a capital. Sickness was still prevalent, and many of the French proved as vulnerable as the earlier settlers. As they learned more details about the requirements of survival on the frontier, especially without a navigable waterway, they became even more apprehensive, for their skills were those of business, not farming. Not surprisingly, many chose to desert here. Only 120 trusted themselves to the small boats and the currents of the James. Almost immediately a boat that was filled with goods sank, claimed by the rough waters.

This last leg of the voyage, overcast by dread and illness, must have been the worst. They passed the site of an earlier settlement called World's End, made the left turn into the Fall zone, and landed at the tiny trading outpost of rude houses around Shockoe Creek. Loading what was left of their supplies onto borrowed wagons, they trudged through the thick forests, following a faint path more than twenty miles into land long ago cleared by the Monacan Indians on the south bank of the river. Their ears still rang with the rushing of water over granite that would block their boats from the outside world of commerce. But the key to their survival lay in the unusually fertile floodplain of that same river.

It was a desperate fall and winter as the ill-prepared settlers used up their meager supplies, especially when another group of more than a hundred Huguenots arrived in October expecting to find a thriving town. Friction developed between the leaders, meaning that the new group had to hack out a settlement several miles downstream. Soon, though, Byrd and Governor Nicholson proved their support by soliciting charitable donations throughout the colony. The ensuing generosity proved justified, for within a year the French had learned to be adept farmers, growing fruit and fat cattle on their bottom land, and establishing trade, not warfare, with neighboring Indians.

Although plans had been drawn for a French-style village around a central square, with outlying farmland along the river, these never proved practical. The fertility of the piedmont floodplain encouraged the Huguenots, like the Monacans before them, to live more separately than they had intended, becoming a segmented agrarian society which stretched back from five miles of river bank. In time, they too lost their cohesive identity by intermarrying and moving to other rivers. They opened the way for settlement of the piedmont, but today there is as little trace of their half century of settlement as there is of the Monacans' longer tenure.

The man who had directed the Huguenots to the James River frontier, William Byrd I, had done much to establish the character of the Fall Line region. He was what we would today call a "wheeler-dealer," a man who thrived on trade and not the more placid agricultural rhythms. His inherited location at the head of navigation and beside the river's rapids was an appropriate focus for his energy. He began at age eighteen, with 1,800 acres south of the Falls, and his uncle's stone house. To that he added thousands of acres, largely by using headrights of indentured servants. He built the only flour mills for miles and large warehouses. To fill the latter, he sent out trading caravans to bargain with the Indians through the Carolinas, then shipped tobacco, furs, and Indian corn to England. He not only shipped back English goods and servants, but Negro slaves, rum, and molasses.

His son, the master of Westover, had grown up far from the rough-and-tumble world of the Falls, and he had other plans for the vast acreage around the Falls he had inherited in I705· Being an absentee owner of farms and coal mines suited his temperament much better than trading. But the pattern was already set. It took him more than twenty-five years, but he finally recognized that the area was "naturally intended for Marts, where the Traffick of the Outer Inhabitants must Center." After Major Mayo laid out the street plan in 1737, Byrd nostalgically named the new town Richmond, for somehow he was reminded of Richmond on the Thames. Perhaps Byrd was a "reluctant father" of the city, as Virginius Dabney says, but the nature of the river had again had the upper hand and shaped history.

William Byrd II was not particularly impressed by the wild beauty of the Falls area, according to his journal. He wittily characterized the roar of the water over the granite as a "Murmur loud enough to drown the Notes of a Scolding Wife." His interest in this part of the river was solely practical, not aesthetic, as he figured out how to build canals to his mills and to mine iron ore from the large river island then called Broad Rock. For him the sculptured rock of the James was no more than a nuisance for shipping or a convenience for powering mills. He would offer no rapturous descriptions of its massive beauty.

Upstream settlement and trading grew quickly, as restless newcomers, inspired by the Huguenots' success, lay claim to the more than a hundred miles of piedmont floodplain above the Fall Line. Although there were those who managed to patent large grants of land along the river, including some who, like Thomas Jefferson's father, had dreams of establishing tidewater-style plantations, the settlement pattern was again dictated by the river. The floodplain may have been wide and fertile, but the shallow and rocky river prevented the large scale navigation which had ensured the wealth of the tobacco barons. Frequent floods were a deterrent to growing crops, as was the fact that the region was not threaded with navigable creeks and small rivers. In short, it was a different sort of river requiring different styles of adaptation by the white men, just as it had from the Monacans. The energetic freshwater stream with varying levels, supporting much less fish life except in the spring runs, ruled decisively against a repetition of the tidewater design.

The river did direct the path of settlement, but the pattern that emerged above the Fall Line was neither linear nor layered, as it had been for the Monacans and tidewater Virginians. It was more a series of relatively disconnected intersections along the river, radiating generally north-south from the river's overall east-west direction. The centers were located at the junctions of major Indian trails, used not so much by Monacans as by the more restless hunting tribes, which in turn had followed in the tracks of wild animals, especially buffalo. The river at these points was often fordable, which meant that ferries were also feasible.

By the time the white men began moving up the river in any numbers, the Indian threat had diminished. Most of the Monacans had moved away from the contested river lands of their fathers after the Indian military campaigns of the seventeenth century, for they were farmers, not warriors. But one part of the Indian heritage proved invaluable for people coming to this part of the river: the dugout canoe. A platform made of boards lashed against two giant canoes could be a barge that could be poled almost all the way to the trading center developing at the Falls. Similar unwieldy boats could also serve as ferries to connect the great trails, even at high water. So by 1748, there were as many as nineteen ferries licensed to operate above the Fall Line, and an equal number of settlements on the verge of being declared towns .

The two busiest trading centers developed at the two points where the river took sharp turns. Scott's Landing, later to be Scottsville, was situated at the northernmost point of the river on a great horseshoe bend, more than fifty miles above Richmond. Soon Lynchburg was incorporated near John Lynch's ferry at the next bend of the river, another fifty miles upstream. Both towns became launching points for the intrepid folks seeking to penetrate the mountains through nearby gaps. The river might not have been very navigable at that time, but its direction was the one land-hungry people pursued as they pushed back the frontier.

Inevitably Virginians became increasingly frustrated with the rocky barrier in their river highway, especially those who lived upstream. One who pushed for clearing the route was the Reverend Robert Rose of Scott's Landing, dabbler in law and medicine, owner of vast acreage on two upper tributaries, the Piney and the Tye rivers, and inventor of a bateau for transporting tobacco downstream. The General Assembly accommodated him by passing a law that provided for "more effectual clearing of the James" in 1745, although nothing would be done for twenty years. The shallow channel below the Falls, where upstream silt collected, forced larger ships to unload at Warwick, just above Falling Creek but six miles from the Falls, so it was not just rocks that blocked the way. But there was still hope that the river highway might soon be cleared. In 1768, when the indebted William Byrd III sold the rest of the Falls land (30,000 acres) in a lottery, he promised that "obstructions through the falls and other parts of the river will shortly be removed. ... Thus, communications will be open to the western frontier of the middle colonies and to the Ohio." He did not mention just how this feat was to be accomplished.

Rather soon it became clear that the river would not be easily tamed, not even by the canals that the General Assembly kept mandating. In May 1771, torrential rains poured down on the Blue Ridge portion of the river basin, though downstream residents were enjoying a sunny spring. The river began rising, up to sixteen inches an hour for sixty hours. The result was a wall of water, as much as 40 feet high, sweeping across the Fall Line. Behind it, engulfed in the raging waters, were houses, cattle, and trees, soon joined by warehouses, hogsheads of tobacco, and even ships loosed from their moorings. According to one anonymous reporter, it was as if "Old Nick had bored a Hole through the Mountains, and let in the South Sea upon them."

At least 150 persons died in what may have been the highest flood ever on this river. Those who survived found themselves in a changed landscape: the floodplain of Richmond was swept clean, islands had become sandbars, and the tidewater curls were rearranged, acquiring up to 12 feet of sand topped with flattened rocks. In 1772, an obelisk was erected on Turkey Island below Richmond, standing 45 feet above the river's normal level where the flood peaked, which still declares:

The Foundations
of this PILLAR was laid
in the calamitous year
When all the great Rivers
of this Country
were swept by Inundations
Never before experienced
Which changed the face of Nature
And left traces of their Violence
that will remain
for Ages

It would not be the last catastrophic flood on the James, though it may be the highest recorded, especially for the entire river, and the most sudden. Some property losses were reimbursed by a sympathetic Assembly. The river itself quickly adapted to its new shape, and after the maps were drawn again, most people forgot what the old shape looked like. But those who had experienced the fury of the flood were skeptical that their temperamental river could be tamed in any way, even with canals. Still, memories of the flood-- if not the monument--were erased almost as quickly as the wounds of the land healed.

Any notion of battling the river was soon eclipsed, for another sort of war was sweeping across the ocean and upstream to Richmond, now the capital of Virginia. The river would give shape and scene to the crucial last act of the Revolutionary War; the struggle to control the land would again center on the river.

The British did not try to venture up the river until the turn of 1781, when they aimed for the soft underbelly of their colonial empire so they could finish off the lengthening rebellion. They knew well that up the river lived Thomas Jefferson, architect of the Declaration of independence and present governor, and possibly many Tory sympathizers who prided themselves on their Cavalier heritage. They also hoped to destroy the stored tobacco and munitions in Richmond which were supporting the drawn-out war.

Earlier, the British felt they had adequately blocked the James without having to travel up it. Norfolk had been captured and burned on January 1, 1776, and the Hampton Roads area was further secured in May 1779, when a squadron of 1,500 men on 22 transports arrived. Over a hundred vessels, the remnant of the Virginia navy, were captured or destroyed and all the towns were taken and plundered; the fleet withdrew without losing a single British soldier. But the war went on.

For the river, this begins as a story of fire and ice but little death. At Suffolk, the Nansemond River which empties into the base of the James was literally set afire in 1779· On the wharves were hundreds of barrels of tar, pitch, turpentine, and rum which "descended to the river in torrents of liquid flame," according to historian Charles Campbell. Strong winds fanned and floated the "splendid mass" across the river "in a conflagration that rose and fell with the waves" and burned acres of marshlands. It was not to be the last fire seen on these waters.

The following winter the James and much of the Bay were effectively blockaded, not by a colonial navy but by ice. Ever since the first days of settlements, Virginians had known some unaccountably severe winters when their navigable waters were frozen solid. So it was in 1779, when even the Bay at Hampton Roads turned into thick ice from shore to shore. The river would offer no other barriers to the invading British, however.

The traitor Benedict Arnold met little resistance from the river or colonial militia when he sailed up the James with his British troops at the turn of 1781. He moved quickly, before Jefferson could prepare any opposition. Landing at the Westover wharf, he took his men by land to Richmond. Major Simcoe took a force to Westham to destroy the foundary and ammunition and, incidentally, throw five tons of gunpowder into the river (most of which would be later recovered by the hard-pressed Americans). Jefferson had meanwhile crossed the river to refuge in Manchester. Arnold sent him a letter proposing a deal: leave the river free for British vessels to come and take tobacco from the warehouses, and Richmond would be spared. Jefferson refused, though there was no way his militia could effectively blockade the river, so Richmond was burned. Again no blood was shed.

Returning to his flotilla at Westover, Arnold proceeded to sail back to Portsmouth. The outnumbered American troops followed along the river's banks, paralleling the British force, but they were effectively barred by lack of ships or bridges. .

Having determined that the James made much of eastern Virginia vulnerable, the British prepared a campaign for the spring that would exploit their naval advantage. A small group of American boats collected in March at Turkey Island, but morale dropped and many men deserted; there was no pay, not even in grog. In April Generals Phillips and Amold again set off up the river. Arnold surprised the new naval force which was waiting at Osborne's at Dutch Gap for French reinforcements. Again he offered a deal if the Americans would give up their ships, but was refused. Seeing their doom, the colonials scuttled or burned most of their ships and swam to safety across the river, retreating by water. The British proceeded to the Falls, but they hesitated to cross the river there, even though they had a bigger and better force, for now they were confronted by fire from Lafayette's troops. Instead, they looted Manchester, then destroyed the village of Warwick a few miles downstream. As they moved, American troops followed on the north side, too weak to attack but strong enough to enforce the river barrier.

Since the Virginians had been totally unable to protect themselves from British assaults coming from the river, they decided in June 1781 to move their military stores upstream to Point of Forks, where the James (then called the Fluvanna to that point) intersected with the Rivanna. Baron von Steuben had several hundred recruits guarding the depot on the south side of the James. The British Major Simcoe, coming up on the north side, was blocked without enough boats to cross the river. So he resorted to a ruse: his men stretched out along the banks and built many campfires. Steuben, convinced that he was faced by the entire British army, retreated south, and Simcoe sent men over in canoes to destroy the abandoned stores.

The British did have ships in the lower James in July 1781, so when General Cornwallis received orders from General Clinton to send his troops from Williamsburg to Portsmouth and on to New York by water, there seemed to be little problem. But when Lafayette saw the preparations, he decided to attack the British rear guard at Green Spring, downstream from Jamestown, after most of the troops had crossed the river. Cornwallis anticipated the maneuver and held back the bulk of his army. This time, without the river as buffer, there were heavy casualties on the American side. Rather than pressing his advantage, Cornwallis chose to move his men quickly over the river at Jamestown, so they could report to New York as ordered.

In September the French fleet arrived to support the Americans, bringing some most welcome rum. Almost every small boat, barge, and even canoes left near the James gathered at Burwell's Ferry near Newport News to form the "Mosquito Fleet." Two boats which had been sunk for concealment from the British were raised and restored. Meanwhile, Washington and the French army had cornered the British troops under Lord Cornwallis in Yorktown and forced the surrender which effectively ended the war. Though various skirmishes between ships would take place in the next eighteen months, especially with pirates and freebooters still roving the Bay, the James and its new country were safe from invasion for a while. The Virginians took note of their river vulnerability, learning that whoever controlled navigation could control the land. They were determined to be prepared in the future.

river map
chpter 8
chapter 10