Following John Smith

By Caroline Kettlewell
Friday, March 31, 2006

The eagle and the osprey both wanted this fish. The osprey, having done the work of catching it, not unreasonably seemed committed to keeping it. The eagle, on the other hand -- apparently reasoning that a fish already obligingly plucked from the water by a fellow raptor beats a fish you have to go to the bother of catching yourself -- seemed equally determined to take it away.

Between the high blue sky and the wind-ruffled waters of the James River, the eagle chased the osprey, matching the smaller bird's every swoop and dodge so closely that the two looked less like pursuer and pursued than like a pair of ice dancers in synchronized performance -- only with better costumes.

Nearly 400 years ago, the first English settlers at Jamestown might have observed a scene just like this; Jamestown's location put it in the heart of the James River's eagle territory. Whether they had the leisure or the inclination to enjoy bird-watching is another matter. Though Jamestown would become the first permanent English settlement in America, its founding residents, and ultimately their Native American neighbors, would pay a grim and exacting price for this historical distinction.

Today, with the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown little more than a year away, historians, archaeologists, researchers and others are revisiting those earliest days of the English colonization of America, uncovering new information, reconsidering long-held assumptions and broadening our understanding of the individuals, the places and the events. One of the best ways you can immerse yourself in the still-unfolding history of early 17th-century Virginia -- and explore the natural beauty of the area as the first settlers and the Native American inhabitants might have experienced it -- is to follow the recently developed, self-guided tour, "Captain John Smith's Adventures on the James River."

Known more concisely as Captain John Smith's Trail and named after the indefatigable explorer and perhaps the most famous of the first Jamestown settlers -- who would map many of the waterways of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries -- the tour follows existing roads and the James itself to many sites, including public and privately-owned museums, state and local parks, wildlife areas, plantations and, of course, Jamestown itself. Via the online guide or with printed maps to be available later this spring (which will include Global Positioning System coordinates for boaters), you can learn of the historical significance and natural attractions of each of the sites on the tour's three loops, which span from Richmond to the Hampton Roads region.

The middle of these, the Cypress Loop, explores an area still largely unspoiled by development, where bald eagles congregate along wooded shorelines, marshlands and shaded forests are alive with birds and wildlife, and archaeologists are painstakingly excavating the original James Fort, rediscovered barely more than a decade ago and now daily revealing new details in a story that made history.

'Like dogs to be buried'

Things started out promisingly enough. Having survived a four-month voyage from England in three cramped, stinking, vermin-infested and alarmingly small ships, the 104 settlers who set about in early May 1607 to make Jamestown their home in the New World must certainly have been grateful for solid land. Settler George Percy wrote lyrically of "the ground all flowing over with faire flowers of sundry colours and kindes, as though it had beene in any Garden or Orchard in England." (Settlers' quotes in this story are drawn from the texts of "First Hand Accounts and Letters," courtesy of Virtual Jamestown, a project of the Virginia Center for Digital History.) The lush forests held abundant game, the river a steady supply of fish and fresh water. And there was the hope of much more; theirs was an economic enterprise in search of profit, backed by a group of London entrepreneurs known as the Virginia Company.

Only their solid land was a mosquito-ridden swamp, the river a brackish tidal flood by turns poisonously salty and fouled with the settlers' own waste. Food supplies spoiled in the sweltering summer heat. Relations with the Algonquian-speaking natives -- whose home lands had been suddenly and unapologetically invaded by these bearded strangers -- remained dangerously unpredictable, sometimes peaceful and sometimes violent, making any venture outside the confines of the James Fort a risky endeavor. And recent research suggests that the settlers had the bleak misfortune to arrive in the middle of a severe, seven-year drought, the worst in the past nearly 800 years.

The summer wore on in a nightmare of disease and hunger, suffering and death, "some departing out of the world, many times three or four in a night; in the morning, their bodies trailed out of their cabins, like dogs, to be buried," Percy wrote. Fewer than 50 remained to greet a supply ship from England in January 1608. Nor were their troubles over. More settlers arrived, but more problems did, too; in the winter of 1609-10, which would become known as "the starving time," Jamestown's population of 214 was reduced to a mere 60.

In June 1610, the residents gave up the venture as a bad job and set sail down the river and for home. In no small sense, 400 years of American history as we know it may well have turned on the remarkable coincidence that on that very day, word reached them that a newly arrived ship from England was heading up the James bearing relief and reinforcements. The fleeing colonists were somehow persuaded to return to Jamestown, and the future of a nation took permanent, if still tenuous, root.

The 'Powhatan Flu'

On a chilly morning recently, Chesapeake Bay Foundation senior educator Bill Portlock eased his Boston Whaler away from the dock at Jordan Point Yacht Haven, just east of Hopewell at the southern end of the Benjamin Harrison Memorial Bridge in Prince George County. In the boat as well was Jeffrey Trollinger, watchable (as opposed, apparently, to "huntable") wildlife program manager for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Captain John Smith's Trail includes some sites that can be reached by land or water (the online guide and printed map indicate which sites are land, water or both). Rivers and waterways were the "roads" for the first English settlers, the fastest and easiest way to travel (which is why the older plantations along the James face the river as today our homes typically face the street).

When Smith explored these waters, the James River was known to him as the Powhatan Flu: "Powhatan" for the ruler or chief of the region's as many as 20,000 Algonquian-speaking natives, and "flu" from the Latin for "river." The waters swam thick with fish, including shad and massive Atlantic sturgeon; nearer the coast were vast shoals of oyster beds. The woods, marshes and waters were alive with ducks, cormorants, great blue herons, eagles, osprey, deer, wild turkey, beaver, raccoon (the name derived from the original Algonquian term for the animal, roughly translated by the English as something like "aroughcoune") and many species of songbird.

Today the natural world of the James River and the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed is barely a shadow of what it was in Smith's time. "Don't accept what we have now as the norm," said Portlock, whose work on behalf of the bay must often feel like presiding over a gravely ill patient with guttering vital signs and an uncertain prognosis.

Still, though much urgent work remains to protect and restore these waterways, there is cause for hope in the midst of a rather sobering saga of decline. Though peregrine, osprey and bald eagle populations in Virginia (and elsewhere) were decimated in the decades after World War II (the chief culprit in their destruction was the pesticide DDT) and as recently as 1977, according to Portlock, no bald eagles were breeding on the James, the raptors have made a steady comeback.

On a buoy just below the bridge, a pair of osprey was sprucing up a large nest. A peregrine falcon nests on the bridge itself, Trollinger said. A short distance east of the marina came the first of many eagle sightings for the day. The setting was the shoreline of the 4,200-acre James River National Wildlife Refuge on John Smith's Trail, where last summer and fall, Portlock said, as many as 200 roosting birds were counted. Undeveloped lands like these, he added, will remain crucial to the birds' continued survival.

Portlock pointed out a solitary gull flapping past. "There aren't many places where you can see more eagles than gulls," he said happily.

Although access to the refuge itself is limited and available only by permission, for eagle-spotting, the water is the place to be. Portlock advises observers to keep a distance of at least 100 yards from any nests during the breeding season, which lasts through the middle of July, but a decent pair of binoculars is all you need to get a good view. (As a bonus, the area boasts a large wintering population of eagles as well, some of which migrate here from elsewhere.) Paddle from the marina along the shallow southern side of the river and you can avoid the motorized traffic in the main channel.

Portlock offered these helpful tips for the novice bird-watcher: Osprey like to nest in dead trees; bald eagles prefer tall pines that can accommodate enormous nests that are added to each year, reaching weights of up to a ton. From a distance, eagles in flight can be distinguished from vultures by their smooth, steady soaring; vultures tend to wobble on their axis, tipping their wings to one side and the other.

Portlock and Trollinger are the kind of naturalists who can identify birds by their calls and reel off the Latin names of things (such as Mercenaria mercenaria for the familiar hard clam, so named because it was used by Native Americans to make the valuable beads known as wampum), and they took obvious and unconcealed delight in every sighting of anything furred, feathered or finned (though for the latter, the evidence was mostly the occasional flash of silver followed by a splash). Just to the east on the opposite side of the river, as Portlock motored quietly into Herring Creek, the two of them began excitedly calling out birds they spotted. "Bufflehead!" "Green-winged teal!" "Wilson's snipe!" "Killdeer!" Also present were an osprey, gulls and several great blue herons sporting a seasonal flourish of feathers sprouting off the back of the head, known as a "nuptial plume."

For paddlers, Herring Creek lies not far to the west of Lawrence Lewis Jr. Park, home to eagles, great blue herons and bald cypress trees the Algonquian once used to make long canoes paddled by dozens of men. On foot, you can get to the marshy borders of Herring Creek from Westover Plantation overlooking the James, first established in 1619. Its lovely grounds and gardens are open to the public for a small fee. Both Westover and Lawrence Lewis Jr. Park are also part of the Virginia Birding & Wildlife Trail (order an illustrated guide by calling 866-822-4737 or find the complete guide online at ), as are several other points along John Smith's Trail.

'Our Hogs do thrive most happily'

On land once more, south of the river along Route 10, John Smith's Trail stops by Flowerdew Hundred Plantation. Still farmed today, Flowerdew's bottomlands along the river were cleared by Weyanock Indians, who built a village here. Later, the English laid claim to the property and settled it in 1619. About 200,000 artifacts have been recovered here, and a selection of items on display at the Flowerdew museum testifies to thousands of years of human presence on the land.

Further east, at Hog Island, which is a peninsula and includes a 3,908-acre Virginia Wildlife Management Area, the Jamestown settlers let their pigs loose to wander and, one presumes, to fatten up on their own. Today, entry by road to Hog Island takes you past the Surry Power Station, home to two nuclear reactors and a very serious guarded checkpoint, where you'll be expected to present proper identification before gaining access to the wildlife area. (Security alerts may on occasion close access.) Though generally closed to motor traffic, the dirt and gravel road through the wildlife area makes for an easy walk or mountain-bike ride.

Above a lake near the entrance, at least a half-dozen bald eagles were flying, with more blending into their perches on the surrounding trees. Also on the Virginia Birding & Wildlife Trail, marshy Hog Island occupies a sharp bend in the river diagonally across from Jamestown Island. With the wind playing lightly across the waters lapping at the shore and the sun shining brightly in a cloudless sky graced by soaring eagles, it was easy to imagine spending hours in dreamy reverie here.

"Come before the mosquitoes," Trollinger suggested.

Meanwhile, speaking of hogs, don't forget to pick up some ham or peanuts while in Surry, which is famous for both and home to the annual Pork, Peanut & Pine Festival at the trail's Chippokes Plantation State Park in July. Try Edwards Virginia Ham Shoppe in the town of Surry (11381 Rolfe Hwy., 757-294-3688) en route to the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry.

The auto ferry, run by the Virginia Department of Transportation, is a free, frequent and enjoyable 10- to 15-minute ride across the river (for schedule and information, visit ) that offers a terrific view of Jamestown Island, along with a glimpse of the re-created ships Godspeed, Susan Constant and Discovery, which brought the original settlers to Jamestown. (In May, a newly built version of the Godspeed will set sail for an 80-day tour of the East Coast, stopping in major cities.)

'Our Fort which was triangle-wise'

Jamestown is worth devoting a day to, at least in part because there are really two "Jamestowns" to visit. One is Jamestown Settlement, a living-history and educational center that includes the ships (which you can board to get a feel for just how claustrophobic they are), exhibit galleries and a film detailing the histories and cultures that came together at Jamestown, and a re-created Powhatan Indian village and James Fort, where you can engage in period activities, such as grinding corn or playing quoits, and learn from the costumed, interpretive staff going about the business of 17th-century life on the shores of the James.

The other Jamestown is Historic Jamestowne on Jamestown Island, site of the English settlement. For those who think history is, well, history -- cut-and-dried and forever entombed in textbooks -- prepare to learn otherwise. In 1994, archaeologist William Kelso began a dig to test the long-accepted belief that the remains of James Fort had been swallowed by the river. Within a little more than two years, the south and east palisade lines of the fort had been located -- on dry land -- and in the decade since, continuing excavations have uncovered an extraordinary trove of artifacts along with new and growing understanding about the settlement's history.

Now, the archaeological team is excavating a well that may have been the first dug on the site. A dozen or so feet down, staff archaeologist Luke Pecoraro seemed happy to be troweling through the mucky ooze -- and why shouldn't he be? Acknowledging albeit that he was spending his day in a dank pit, the objects he was prizing from the mud -- it looked like an oyster shell at the moment -- may last have been touched by a human four centuries ago. Items that would have deteriorated if exposed to air were preserved in the wet, anaerobic conditions (that humans can't seem to resist throwing things into a hole in the ground proves a great boon to archaeologists; you can find updates about what's being discovered at ).

On the surface above, fellow staff archaeologist Danny Schmidt, explaining the work, said, "I have a lot of adrenaline moments. We're actively uncovering history in the birthplace of America, and we're adding so much to the story with the archaeological records."

The archaeologists and additional interpretive staff at Historic Jamestowne help visitors understand the significance of the finds and of the information to be derived from often subtle signs in the dirt. An "archaearium," a state-of-the-art interpretive and exhibit space, will open in early May, and a new National Park Service visitors center expected to open late in the year will tell the history of Jamestown before and after the arrival of the English.

Jamestown Island also features a loop road through woods and across a marsh, perfect for strolling or bicycling (leashed dogs also permitted). Nature sightings yielded in one brief tour of the island: a red-shouldered hawk, two eagles, several deer, hermit thrush, mourning dove, flicker, woodpecker, pine warbler and mergansers.

'The countrey is wonderfull fertile'

Leaving Jamestown, the middle section of John Smith's Trail follows Route 5 toward Richmond, crossing the Chickahominy River, along which Smith was captured by Indians and the much-mythologized Pocahontas comes into the story. For fans of the Terrence Malick film "The New World," a number of scenes from the film were shot here. The 5,217-acre Chickahominy Wildlife Management Area (take Route 623 north from Route 5) follows the western shore of the river and not surprisingly is included on the Virginia Birding & Wildlife Trail. Boaters can get on the water via a ramp in the wildlife area or on the opposite bank at Chickahominy Riverfront Park (also on the Bird & Wildlife Trail).

Farther along Route 5, stop in for snacks at Haupt's Country Store ("family operated since 1893") then continue for a visit to some of the riverside plantations.

Though the word "plantation" conjures up "Gone With the Wind" imagery, most of these properties significantly predate the Civil War era, and for the first English settlers, the word meant simply "place where you plant." Dubious credit goes to John Rolfe (who would marry Pocahontas, admitting himself "entangled and enthralled" with her) for sowing the seeds of the colony's first truly profitable venture: tobacco. For "The New World," Malick's crew built a painstakingly accurate re-creation of an early Colonial farmhouse on the grounds of Berkeley Plantation to serve as Rolfe's farm, planting gardens and a field of tobacco. Plans are being made to turn it into an interpretive site. Berkeley lays claim to a number of historic firsts (first Thanksgiving -- though no turkey; first corn whiskey in America distilled here -- by an Anglican priest; "Taps" first played here), but one of its most interesting stories is how it came into the hands of current owner Malcolm Jamieson.

His grandfather arrived in the United States from Scotland, penniless, at age 12 and joined the Union army as a drummer boy, mostly for the regular meals his service guaranteed. At one point during the Civil War, the army camped on the Berkeley grounds; decades later, when the former drummer boy had grown well-off operating a fleet of tugboats in New York, he bought Berkeley for its timber. The stately Georgian home (circa 1726) had fallen into ruins, the grounds were overgrown, but Jamieson's father lovingly and laboriously restored it all. Now the son devotedly maintains it -- right down to the flock of grazing sheep.

Nearby Shirley Plantation is an entirely different story. Eleven generations of the same family have made Shirley, with its commanding views of the James, their home, and though house tours are offered on the first floor, the family still occupies the upper floors (and the kitchen in the basement); the running footsteps of generation 12 could be heard overhead while Randy Carter (generation 11) discussed what it's like to grow up in an antique. "It's unusual having 40,000 people go through your house every year," he admitted.

When you've gone through their house, enjoy the shade of the massive willow oak (estimated to be about 350 years old) overlooking the river before continuing on, as John Smith did, to end your journey at Richmond and the Falls of the James, where, he found, "the water falleth so rudely, and with such a violence, as not any boat can possibly passe."


CAPTAIN JOHN SMITH'S TRAIL . For more information, contact Virginia Tourism Corp. at 800-847-4882 or the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation at 804-786-1712.

JORDAN POINT YACHT HAVEN 101 Jordan Point Rd., Hopewell. 804-458-3398. . Launch fee $8, includes parking.

JAMES RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE Flowerdew Hundred Road, Prince George. Access to the property is closed to the public except by permission; call 804-829-9020. .

LAWRENCE LEWIS JR. PARK 12400 & 12580 Willcox Wharf Rd., Charles City County. 804-652-1601. .

WESTOVER PLANTATION 7000 Westover Rd., Charles City, 804-829-2882. . Grounds open 9 to 6 for self-guided tours. $2 adults, 50 cents ages 6-16, younger than 6 free.

FLOWERDEW HUNDRED PLANTATION 1617 Flowerdew Hundred Rd., Hopewell. 804-541-8897. . Open Monday-Friday 10 to 4, April 1 through Nov. 15. $8 adults, $5 ages 6 to 12, seniors and military.

HOG ISLAND WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA Route 650, Surry County. . Open daily, sunrise to sunset, until September 2006. Because Hog Island is managed for hunting at other times during the year, check the Web site or call 757-253-4180 for information about hours from September on.

JAMESTOWN SETTLEMENT Jamestown Road, Route 31 south. 757-253-4838 or 888-593-4682. . $11.75 adults, $5.75 ages 6-12, younger than 6 free. Open daily 9 to 5, 9 to 6 June 15 through Aug. 15. Closed Christmas and New Year's Day.

HISTORIC JAMESTOWNE Colonial Parkway, Jamestown Island. 804-648-1889. . Open daily 8:30 to 4:30, 8:30 to 5:30 Memorial Day through Labor Day. Closed Christmas and New Year's Day. $8 adults, 16 and younger free. Tickets good for seven consecutive days.

CHICKAHOMINY RIVERFRONT PARK 1350 John Tyler Hwy., Williamsburg. 757-258-5020. . Free. Open daily 8 to 5. Call after Memorial Day for summer hours. Fees for boat launch, camping, pool. Canoe and kayak rentals available.

CHICKAHOMINY WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA 12510 Eagles Nest Rd., Charles City County. 757-253-7072. . Seasonal hunting is permitted. (Schedules at .)

BERKELEY PLANTATION 12602 Harrison Landing Rd., Charles City. 804-829-6018 or 888-466-6018. . Open daily 9 to 5 except Thanksgiving and Christmas. $11 adults, $6 ages 6-12, $7.50 ages 13-16, 10 percent discount for AAA members, military and seniors; group rates.

SHIRLEY PLANTATION 501 Shirley Plantation Rd., Charles City. 804-829-5121 or 800-232-1613. . Open 9 to 5 daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Adults $10.50, seniors $9.50, ages 6-18 $7, younger than 6 free. Veteran, AAA discounts, active military free.

Other Resources

CAPTAIN JOHN SMITH 400 PROJECT . On May 12, 2007, 14 scientists, historians and sailors will board a reproduction open boat for a 121-day voyage to retrace John Smith's 1608 expedition.

CHESAPEAKE BAY GATEWAYS NETWORK . Online maps, guides and more to 150 parks, wildlife refuges, museums, sailing ships, historic communities, trails and other attractions in the bay region.

JAMESTOWN 2007 . Official event web site, from the Jamestown- Yorktown Foundation.

ASSOCIATION FOR THE PRESERVATION OF VIRGINIA ANTIQUITIES JAMESTOWN REDISCOVERY SITE . The APVA owns the Historic Jamestowne property, which it administers jointly with the National Park Service, which owns the rest of Jamestown Island (The National Park Service's Jamestown Web site is

VIRTUAL JAMESTOWN ARCHIVE . Featuring texts of original documents from Jamestown settlement, from which quotes were drawn for this story. A project of the Virginia Center for Digital History.

JAMESTOWN 1607 . From the Virginia Tourism Corp. Includes guide to locations where "The New World" was filmed. For information on film, to be released May 9 on DVD, visit .

Caroline Kettlewell lives on the "Powhatan Flu" and online at Her blog devoted to narrative nonfiction is at

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