EXPLOITATION AND DESTRUCTION: A Brief History of the James

An artist's depiction of the Indian Massacre of 1622 on Jamestown Island, Virginia. Source: Brown University/John Carter Brown Library.

An artist’s depiction of the Indian Massacre of 1622 on Jamestown Island, Virginia. Source: Brown University/John Carter Brown Library. 

By Hunter Ross

SPEND A FEW HOURS walking the banks of the James River, as I recently have, and you will easily see the degradation humans have caused. Local college students nonchalantly throw their empties onto the banks, cigarette butts are strewn over rocks, and the water is noticeably polluted in many places. This pattern of disrespecting the river is not a novel phenomenon; it began centuries ago.

While there have been many cleanup efforts on the James River in past decades, the pattern of exploitation goes further back in history than most realize, beginning with the Native American tribes of modern-day Virginia in the late 1500s.

Native Americans used the river for transportation, paddling upstream from the Chesapeake Bay west to the rapids at Richmond and beyond. They depended on massive amounts of migratory fish that used the river as a hatching site; they harvested and planted the seeds brought to the banks by floods, and they grew tobacco along the river. Although the Indians exploited the river, they had a great respect for it and its place in the natural order. Most tribes followed the modern-day rule of “leave no trace,” as the scant archeological evidence of habitation amounted to a few arrowheads and buried fish carcasses.

Tribes only assigned the river to describe particular places, for doing anything more would imply ownership—something that was contradictory to the relationship between humans and nature, said Ann Woodlief, a James River historian at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “Heritage of the James.”

“The river could not be possessed or tamed, but instead lived with, respected, and held in stewardship for future generations,” Woodlief said. They regarded the river so highly that many performed religious rituals in honor of the flowing masterpiece. One tribe, regardless of tidal conditions, would bathe as a group in the river at sunrise and sunset each day, casting tobacco leaves over its waters.

Then, in 1607, English settlers arrived and changed the fate of the James forever. A mere three ships created the settlement of Jamestown, and saw the river as a way to become extremely rich, Woodlief said.

First, the long tradition of the unnamed river was broken in honor of the English monarch, James I (1566-1625), as the colonists “wasted no time in naming the river and claiming it for their king,” Woodlief said. Jamestown settlers saw the large populations of sturgeon and oysters, both of which are struggling on the James today, as cash cows. This endeavor eventually failed: The fish were impossible to keep fresh on the voyage to England, and the rudimentary fishing techniques made it very difficult to catch the fish.

From 1607 to 1624 the settlers remained on Jamestown Island when tides were low and the James, a source of fresh water, became salty and acidic. Native American populations recognized the danger and moved away from the river.

“In summer, the water was low and the salt zone moved up to Jamestown,” Woodlief said. “White men had to drink from the water that was salty when the tide was in—and slimy and turgid, full of sewage, when the tide was out. They became ill and died, very likely from typhoid and salt poisoning more than malaria.”

The settlers eventually used the river as a passageway to deliver goods and services to upriver plantations on its tributaries, while also recognizing the river’s value for shipping goods out of the west on their way to Europe. George Washington even attempted to build a canal connecting the river to states as far west as Ohio, a project that eventually failed. Yet a pattern of exploitation was set.

In 1781, in an attempt to destroy Colonial munitions during the Revolutionary War, British forces dumped more than five tons of gunpowder into the James, pressing the river into military service. It later became an important battleground in the Civil War, and was the route that Union armies used to advance on Richmond, the Confederate capital, which fell in 1865. Dynamite was produced in factories on the James in the 20th century, and fuel rockets for NASA were produced here in the 1950’s.

Walking along the river today, with all its pollution, struggling wildlife populations, waste, litter and cleanup efforts, it is easy to see what history has contributed our current situation. The Indians used the river, yet caused little damage. When the British arrived in the 1600s, their river, “The James,” became a means to make money.

“They saw the land and its river as a wilderness which must be conquered,” Woodlief said—”an unlimited supply of resources to send back to England for profit.”

By Hunter Ross

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