I. The Tidewater
“(this) belt lies between the sea shore and the head of tidewater. The tides extend as far up as Georgetown, ten miles above Alexandria, and up to Fredericksburg, Petersburg and Weldon…In this belt the winters are mild, snow seldom lies on the ground (for more than) a week at a time, and in summer a large portion of it is refreshed by the sea breezes, which, as the land becomes cleared, extend farther and farther inland, reaching in very hot weather to the foot of the Blue Ridge.” – Physical Survey of Virginia, 1877
The Colonial Parkway (pgs 1, 2) spans the James River Peninsula between the James and York Rivers. Carefully laid out to avoid seeing modern development (even back then in the 1930’s!) featuring scenic pull-offs, river vistas, historical markers, marsh and tall forest; it links Jamestown Island, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, with Colonial Williamsburg and lastly, Yorktown, where Lord Cornwallis threw in the towel in 1781. Spanish mariners explored and mapped these waters decades prior to Jamestown.
Gloucester County, boat launch site and nice place for catching an August sunset, end of Cappahosic Road on the north bank of the Pamaunk Flu (York River). “Here was Cappahosic, where a ferry was established early in the eighteenth century. On the old charts, this Indian district lay between Werowocomoco and Timber Neck Creek. Powhatan is said to have offered it to Capt. John Smith for “two great guns and a grindstone”. –VA historical marker.
Jamestown Island Drive, a single lane, one-way, 5-mile loop road that winds thru lush tidal backwaters, tall pine groves, and marshes. Along the way are many wayside historical markers that detail the tragic but eventually successful story of the Jamestown Settlement.
“…walking into the Woods…we espied a pathway…Wee traced along some foure miles… the ground all flowing over with faire flowers of sundry colours and kindes, as though it had been in any Garden or Orchard in England.” – Observations by George Percy, 1607
Many of the first roads in Virginia, as elsewhere in the New World, were laid out over narrow Indian pathways and game trails. Native Americans lashed logs and grasses together to serve as rough footbridges over streams and muddy ground; eventually these were replaced with sturdier, more permanent wooden bridges by the colonists as overland travel increased.
Yorktown Tour Road, a mostly one-way loop road that weaves in and out of thick forest, grassy clearings, and makes several stream crossings. It follows the defensive line held by the French and Continental armies during the siege and battle of Yorktown in the autumn of 1781.
Now a bucolic trace, this narrow dirt lane once bustled with commercial activity centuries ago. Many of the oldest plantations along the middle and southern Atlantic coastline were located on the banks of major navigable rivers. Farm lanes like the one above led to fields cut out of the forest and were known as “tobacco rolling roads” for the wooden barrels of tobacco that were rolled to nearby wharfs. Colonists “paved” some of these early roads with oyster shells, found in middens along the beaches and mudflats of rivers and “criks”.
Miles of arrow-straight causeways and canals constructed 250 years ago mainly by slaves, lead deep into the interior of this large area of wetlands and semitropical forest. Before and during the Civil War, many of their brave ancestors, including women, children and the elderly, sought refuge here from the oppression of slavery. Their primitive camps, concealed by thickets and swamps, served as an important link in the Underground Railroad network.
“Except by those log-roads, the swamp is scarcely passable in many parts, owing not only to the softness of the sponge, but to the obstruction caused by innumerable shrubs, vines, creepers, and briars, which often take entire possession of the surface, forming a dense brake or jungle.”
– Frederick Law Olmstead, The Cotton Kingdom, 1861
Accomack County (both photos below), an Algonquian word for “on the other side”, or “land across the water” is aptly named. Tucked into the far northeastern corner of the Eastern Shore, a low lying, mostly agricultural peninsula separated from the rest of the state by the Chesapeake Bay. Some other place names of Indian origen; Onancock – foggy, Chessnix – home of blue birds, Wachapreague – village by the sea.
Captain John Teach, better known by his affectionate nickname, “Blackbeard”, repaired his vessel, “Queen Anne’s Revenge” in coves at Onnancock in the 1700’s.
In the 1600’s waterways were vitally important for transport but they weren’t the main mode of travel, as soon as settlers arrived they took up the axe and began cutting roads inland. Most ordinary folks did their travelin’ on foot, a few on horseback or carriage; few knew how to swim, and most could not afford nor even knew how to build a canoe, johnboat, skiff or any watercraft.
“After his Men were a little recovered, he (Lieutenant Maynard) returned to the Men-of-War in James’s River in Virginia, with Blackbeard’s head hanging at his bowsprit, and 15 prisoners, 13 of whom were hanged, one of them being taken but the night before out of a trading Sloop: The other, not being in the fight, was taken at Bath Town, being just before disabled by Blackbeard in one of his drunken humours. The night before he was killed, being ask’d if he should chance to be killed, whether his wife knew where his money was; he answered, That no-body but himself and the Devil, knew where it was, and the longest Liver should take all.” – “Pirates”, C. Lovatt Fraser, 1922