11 January 2015

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US: History Of The James River

On May 17, 1607 an expedition of English explorers landed on the shores of Virginia after a charter was granted to the “Virginia Company” by King James the First. In keeping with the principals established under Queen Elizabeth the First, the English immediately “claimed” the land and set about renaming everything in sight, much to the considerable annoyance of the local Algonquin native Americans, who duly commenced a sporadic form of guerrilla warfare with the adventurous English settlers. 

Ye large rivere”, used by the English because it had such a deep and steep draught which allowed their ship to be moored close to shore, so close they could tie mooring lines to trees, provided an ideal and secluded base. Seclusion was necessary as the rival Spaniards sought to exercise control over the entire New World despite the best efforts of the competing French and British. If discovered, the embryonic settlement, named Jamestown on the James River, both named after the English king, would be assaulted and destroyed. 

The James River provided an excellent location for the settlers, and Jamestown was founded approximately 35 miles upriver from the Chesapeake Bay. With “palisadoe” fortifications, the English achieved a degree of protection from both the marauding Algonquin Indians, who referred to the river as the Powhatan River after their own chief of the Powhattan Confederacy, and the searching Spanish. 

The portion of the James River which is navigable provided an essential lifeline for the embryonic colony – the first successful colony from which sprang the modern America. For the initial fifteen years, the James River provided the major route for supplies and new blood in the shape of new colonists from England. Despite significant investment and personal risks, the colony did not look like it would succeed – the first five years proved that the financial traffic was simply one-way – there was nothing of significance exported from the colony until the introduction of tobacco which was imported by John Rolfe in 1612.

Thereafter, the James River provided the means for the colony to export “hogsheads” of tobacco which was in great demand in England, and this proved the financial savior of the colony which would otherwise have collapsed. The tobacco plantations were established below the “fall line”, the point up to which the James River ceases to be navigable and the site of Virginia’s capitol, Richmond. Many of them established their own wharfs and landing jetties which in turn became focal points for local development with the development of trading posts, railheads and full-scale ports in their own right. Modern townships such as Bermuda Hundred, Claremont, Scotland and Smithfield, owe their existence to these early trading outposts which were established at this time.

The financial success of tobacco as a cash crop led to wider exploitation of the local environment which included wider forms of agriculture. Today, some parts of the James River flood plain claim, with truth, that they have been cultivated for over 400 years and many modern, ecologically sound farming methods have their roots in the continued use of the James River and its fertile valley plain.

The falls, which occur at Richmond, prevented effective development and exploitation of the interior by the agricultural and tobacco-orientated colonists until the late 17th Century. Abraham Woods financed fur trading expeditions up river from Richmond and the success of this enterprise led to the creation of supply routes to transport goods and supplies up and down the James River using Richmond as the fulcrum which was used to connect up-river to the ocean outlet at the mouth of the Chesapeake and which incidentally acted to create the distinct characteristics of up river and down river economies reflected today.'

Submitted by: Lawrence J. Reaves


About Today's Contributor: 
Lawrence Reaves – Writing on the history of the James River located in Richmond, Virginia can be a nice walk through the state's humble beginnings. Find more fun facts and places to visit while living the Richmond Life