This article is the third in a series commemorating the American Evolution – Virginia to America 1619-2019 . See article one and two.
By the 1580s, the world had grown suddenly smaller for Europeans with advances in navigation and sailing, opening new worlds for mass migration. It also fostered a competitive climate among European powers eager to reap the profits of newly “discovered” lands in the Western Hemisphere. The New World no longer simply enticed explorers, it dangled like a golden apple for those seeking to establish permanent settlements. England, eager to establish a Protestant foothold in the New World, was no exception.
So from the beginning Virginia was not only defined by the sea, its very creation was made possible by it – not only as a conduit for bringing over settlers from England, but for the commercial routes used to export and import raw materials and finished goods. Waterways – first the Atlantic, then the James River, and soon thereafter the other waterways – played a defining role throughout Virginia’s history. The Atlantic, Chesapeake and the commonwealth’s major rivers have served as a source of nourishment, strategic protective boundaries, and vital avenues for penetrating lands to the west.
THE THREE SHIPS
History lovers who visit the Jamestown Settlement are fascinated by three wooden vessels docked along the James River just beside the re-created Powhatan Indian Village and rebuilt English settlement. The three vessels are faithful reproductions of the ships that brought the first permanent English colonists to Virginia. Led by Captain Christopher Newport, the colonists left England in December of 1606 in three small (by today’s standards) ships. The flagship, the Susan Constant, was 116 feet long from stem to stern. The Godspeed, captained by Bartholomew Gosnold, measured only 68 feet, a mere speck on the ocean but fairly typical of the ships used by English explorers. The Discovery, at 38 feet long, would barely qualify as a modern-day sailing yacht.
Twelve years later, a similar ship, the George, arrived in Virginia carrying the new governor, Sir George Yeardley, who would quickly call for the creation of America’s first democratically elected legislature.
Numerous water adventures around the Jamestown Settlement, such as the Lower Oyster Loop and the Middle Cyprus Loop – both part of the Captain John Smith Trail – attract nature and history lovers, who can gain a sense of the fascinating landscape that greeted the early colonists. First Landing State Park, the site where Captain Newport and his followers first set foot on Virginia soil, offers 19 miles of hiking trails, camping sites, climate-controlled cabins a boat ramp, and awe-inspiring stands of old-growth cypress trees.
Governor Yeardley was intimately familiar with the perils of approaching uncharted waters near land. On a voyage to resupply the early Jamestown settlers, the vessel he was on, Sea Venture, was shipwrecked off Bermuda during a hurricane. When he eventually arrived in Jamestown, he witnessed the grisly effects of supply ships missing their destination as only 60 of the 500 settlers were still alive and in wretched condition during Virginia’s “Starving Time.”
It wasn’t until near the end of the 17th century that technology allowed lighthouses to provide enough illumination to serve as effective navigational tools by warning ships of perilous obstacles. One of the oldest surviving U.S. lighthouses is in a vital point along the Chesapeake Bay. Built of native Virginia sandstone in 1792, the original Cape Henry Lighthouse was the first building project authorized under the new U.S. Constitution, demonstrating its importance to shipping.
The original served for nearly a century until cracks necessitated a new light to be built only 350 feet away. They still stand side-by-side as silent sentinels to more than 200 years of Virginia maritime history, and both still serve as navigational aids to ships entering Virginia’s ports. Visitors can climb the tower of the old Cape Henry lighthouse, now within the grounds of the Fort Story Army Base, along with numerous other lighthouses scattered up and down Virginia’s coast.
From the beginning, numerous Virginians have earned their survival and subsistence from the water. Several valuable institutions – including the Eastern Shore Watermen’s Museum and Research Center in Onancock and the Watermen’s Museum in Yorktown – honor, celebrate, and seek to preserve the proud tradition of the fishermen, oystermen, crabbers, and shrimpers who earn their living from the water, comprising an important facet of Virginia’s rich maritime tradition.
Due to its relative isolation, the Eastern Shore has doggedly preserved a unique culture shaped largely by its relationship to the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay. Housed in the historic schoolhouse just steps from the Onancock Wharf and Marina, the museum is full of displays that relay the lives of commercial crabbers and fishermen. It also houses more than 45,000 digitized photographs that trace the history of skipjacks, the traditional boats that dredged for oysters all along Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
Similarly, the Watermen’s Museum in Yorktown shares the experiences of those who plied their trade on “the other side of the bay” (as those from the Eastern Shore would call it), with 2,200 square feet of exhibition space detailing the lives of watermen. It also organizes local field trips and summer camps, while celebrating the lives of watermen. One tangible, hands-on way to experience the history and culture of life on the water is through the museum’s “come as you are” boat building project, which perpetuates the centuries-old tradition of wooden boat building on the shores of the Chesapeake. Visitors are encouraged to help build a 14-foot cedar skiff or refurbish a juniper rowing skiff from the 1940s, or even help build a replica of an 18th-century oak gunboat. The Deltaville Maritime Museum and Holly Point Nature Park also offer occasional family friendly build-your-own-rowing-skiff workshops.
Slightly further north, the Fishermen’s Museum in Reedville celebrates Chesapeake Watermen, as do other points along Virginia’s Northern Neck. Established in 1706, the village of Kinsale, for example, is the oldest town on the Virginia side of the Potomac and celebrates a rich maritime tradition. Then from Reedsville, which still supports a thriving menhaden fishery (the village holds a 125-year record for tonnage of fish landed in the country), hop on the ferry to Tangier Island, the “Softshell Crab Capital,” to experience a truly unique maritime culture and dialect largely preserved by more than 200 years of relative isolation.
JAMES RIVER BATTEAUS
The James River Batteau Festival, launching every summer on Percival’s Island in Lynchburg, is a fascinating demonstration of necessity being the mother of Virginia invention. With steady immigration swelling Virginia’s population in the 18th century, tobacco plantations and farms begin to flourish farther inland along the James River into the rolling piedmont above Richmond. With few suitable roads for commercial transport, Virginians relied on the James River as the primary artery for transporting valuable cash crops. But schooners that safely plied the Tidewater section of the James were unable to navigate the rocky shoals at the fall line in Richmond.
This left piedmont planters and farmers at a distinct disadvantage. Anthony Rucker, an Amherst County tobacco inspector, solved the problem by designing a boat to meet the unique needs of transporting tobacco. At the time, cured tobacco was packed tightly in waterproof barrels, called hogsheads, for shipment. Rucker designed the long, crafty James River batteau specifically to fit 10 standardized hogsheads, each containing 1,000 pounds of cured tobacco. The batteau’s extremely shallow draft could safely carry the hogsheads to the ports downriver, where they could be loaded on larger vessels.
Poled by batteaumen, the batteaus proved so successful they soon became popular for transporting passengers as well. Thomas Jefferson, who witnessed one of Rucker’s prototypes in 1775, was so beguiled by the vessel he made a point to comment favorably on it with a thorough description in his account book.
Sadly, the age of the batteau was short lived, as a James River and Kanawha Canal was completed all the way to the mountain town of Lynchburg by 1840, and, along with rail, rendered the James River batteau superfluous.
EXPERIENCE THE TRADITION
In addition to the many museums and sites mentioned above, visitors can experience first-hand encounters with Virginia’s vast waterways. Chesapeake Bay offers numerous adventures, from boating to fishing for monster striped bass. Paddle-in camping trips, from the coast to the mountains, provide a truly immersive experience for exploring Virginia’s diverse natural wonders. Waterfront resorts such as The Tides Inn in Irvington and Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg feature full-service marinas and ample water sports. Smith Mountain Lake nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains is ideal for boating, skiing, and fishing. And of course the Virginia Oyster Trail scattered throughout the Chesapeake Bay celebrates the resurgence of the state’s 400-year love affair with the bivalve.