Issue: December 2008
Jewel of the James

The Chickahominy River remains largely, and refreshingly, the same as it
was 400 years ago, when Captain John Smith explored its shores.


by John Page Williams
photography byJohn Bildahl

In the Algonquian language of the early 17th century,Chickahominymeant "The Coarse-Ground Corn People." When Captain John Smith and his crews were exploring near Jamestown, Va., in the summer of 1607, they found a tribe of Native people calling both themselves and their river by that name. The name hints at the rich environment in which this tribe lived. Four hundred one years later, the Chickahominy River is still there, a largely overlooked jewel for any boater interested in natural beauty, colonial and Civil War history, bald cypress trees, wild rice marshes, bald eagles, ospreys, great blue herons, waterfowl, and largemouth bass. The river's tribe is still there too, with some 875 members living nearby and several hundred more scattered around the United States--many of whom return each year for the tribe's annual powwow.

In late September, two weeks before the tribe's 57th powwow and just as the weather began to cool, I spent two days on the river aboardFirst Light, my trusty 17-foot Boston Whaler, in the company of Danny Jefferson, a member of the Chickahominy Tribal Council. For me it was a return to a favorite Bay waterway, one that I have fished and explored for over fifty years. Danny and I had spent a limited amount of time together, on the water and in meetings related to the Jamestown 2007 celebration, but this was the first occasion we had had to really get to know one another on the river.

I met Danny and his wife Tamsye for supper on the porch of the Blue Heron Restaurant, overlooking the Chickahominy at River's Rest, a fine marina and motel about eight miles upstream from the James. Though Tamsye had to spend the next two days getting ready for the powwow by finishing some of the traditional Chickahominy beadwork that is her specialty, she participated in the conversation as we planned our itinerary on the river. We decided to explore down to the river's mouth and then back up the first day, and to drive up to an upriver ramp the next day, launch again to explore there, and visit the Chickahominy Tribal Center on the way home.

That settled, we went on to talk about the river itself and how from time immemorial--long before written history--the Chickahominy River and the Chickahominy people have been inextricably linked. When the written history of the river and its peopledidbegin, with the arrival of the Jamestown colonists, it described a tribe thriving on the bounties of the river and the land around it. That land provided fertile soil for growing corn, beans and squash. The river's bottomland swamps and tidal freshwater marshes provided edible plants like wild rice, furbearers like muskrats, waterfowl like wood ducks, and bald cypress trees for building light, fast dugout canoes. The river itself and its large creeks supported multiple species of turtles and fish, from 12-inch herring to 12-foot sturgeon. And the woodlands were ideal for hunting deer and turkeys, for gathering materials with which to build longhouses, and for cutting firewood. The Chickahominy people lived in a dozen villages, hugging the river and surrounded by cropland. They enjoyed relative independence from the confederacy of the region's paramount chief, Powhatan, and the adjacent Pamunkey and Paspahegh tribes, which were part of the confederacy.

In the fall of 1607, as winter approached and the newly arrived English colonists realized that they had no food stored for that lean time, Captain Smith and a crew took the colony's 30-foot shallop six miles up the James River from Jamestown, entered the Chickahominy, and began trading goods like copper pots for Chickahominy corn. Smith made four trips up the river that fall, exploring and mapping as well as trading. On the fourth trip, way up into Chickahominy swamp around the site of today's Bottom's Bridge, Va., he ran afoul of a Pamunkey hunting party led by Powhatan's most powerful brother, Opechancanough, and spent the next six weeks in captivity. But that's a story for another time. The point of this one is that Chickahominy corn likely saved the Jamestown colony during the first winter in Virginia.

In the three centuries that followed, the Chickahominy people may well have rued the day they traded that corn. Despite English encroachment, they managed to stay close to their ancestral lands along the river--and the river was still a rich natural resource--but they had become a small, neglected minority, with many members living in poverty. They were not even included in the celebrations of Jamestown's anniversaries in 1807, 1857, 1907, and 1957. For about twenty years in the first half of the 20th century, the Commonwealth of Virginia actually legislated them out of existence, even changing birth records and thus disrupting genealogies. It was a dark chapter that has complicated current attempts by Virginia's eight state-recognized Native tribes to achieve federal recognition, because the official census records do not now show unbroken lines of descent from the original tribes.

Nonetheless, the Chickahominy people endured. The tribe's members settled near Samaria Baptist Church, which they established a century ago, and their adjacent tribal center. In the new century, they have taken their rightful place among the First Families of Virginia. And this time, Steve Adkins, the current chief, played a central role in the 10-year planning process for the 2007 Jamestown celebration, in which many members of the tribe participated. This fall's 57th powwow attracted 2,500 people.

On the first morning of my visit, I met Danny to splashFirst Lightat the River's Rest ramp and head downstream. We marveled at the power of the river, as reflected by the skiff's depth sounder, which showed channel depths averaging 15 to 25 feet but falling as deep as 70 feet in narrow sections.

As we ran downriver, we studied a copy of John Smith's map with the locations of native villages he had visited, comparing their locations with the topography of the river's banks today. The game was to figure out what made a good village site--a high bank with southern exposure (for winter warmth and summer breezes), plus a good lookout post upriver and down; an easy trail from the high bank down to a firm landing on the river shore; and nearby access to marshes and swamps fed by streams and springs for drinking, cooking and washing water. No wonder the Chickahominy people loved this river then. We found great sites all along it.

To understand why the Chickahominy River is still such a rich waterway, it's helpful to get a sense of the geography. The river rises just north of Richmond and flows east through a swampy hardwood bottomland for 30 miles, then turns south and flowing another 25 miles to the James. As noted, its mouth is about six miles upstream of Jamestown and about nine miles west of Williamsburg.

In 1938 the nearby city of Newport News built Walkers Dam at Lanexa, Va., 18 miles above the mouth. The resulting impoundment, called Chickahominy Lake, serves as a water supply reservoir for the city. The shallow lake is ringed by cypress trees and marshes, with robust populations of largemouth bass, chain pickerel, channel catfish, grindle (bowfin), stiffback (white) perch, ring (yellow) perch, silver perch (crappie), and bream (bluegill sunfish), as well as wintering waterfowl, summering ospreys, resident bald eagles, and great blue herons. Because the lake's shorelines are largely marsh and swamp, they are still natural, with only minimal development.

Below Walkers Dam, the Chickahominy River is tidal, with strong currents and a two-and-a-half-foot tide swing. The surprisingly deep river is readily navigable for large cruising boats all the way to the dam (providing that they have a vertical clearance of less than 2 feet, a limitation recently created by the completion of the new Virginia Route 5 fixed bridge near the mouth of the river). The Chickahominy is made to order for scenic, leisurely cruising. Because it enters the James well upstream from the Chesapeake, the water is fresh throughout the year, except in the most severe droughts, when it becomes slightly brackish.

Like the lake, the river is surrounded by cypress swamps and marshes, but these tidal marshes grow primarily yellow pond lily along their outer edges, with large interior stands of wild rice. This water also holds bass, blue catfish, stiffbacks and ring perch, but it also has rockfish, a few of which spawn there, and river herring (on spring spawning runs). Here too the marshes, creeks, and cypress trees attract plenty of eagles, ospreys, waterfowl and herons. The rapidly growing Williamsburg area, however, is pushing development toward the Chickahominy's east bank, which lies in James City County.

Our first objective of the morning was to check in at Chickahominy Riverfront Park, a large facility just inside the river's mouth at the Route 5 bridge. This spot has been busy for several centuries, first as Barrett's Ferry, and later as a steamboat wharf---and, when I first got to know it in the late 1950s, as Dorothy Midkiff's Fish Camp. It has gone through several hands since the Midkiff family sold it in the 1980s, but five years ago, James City County acquired it, ensuring its longevity as a large public campground, boat launch facility and terminus of a biking/running trail from Williamsburg. Today it is part of the National Park Service's Chesapeake Gateways Network and an important point on the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

Over the past 30 years, I've run several dozen Chesapeake Bay Foundation field trips out of Riverfront Park for both school students and adults, using canoes and, more recently, my Whaler. One great opportunity that the park offers is the location of the two-boat launch ramp and a dozen campsites along Gordon Creek, a lovely tributary that forms the northern boundary of the Park. Danny and Tamsye are regulars there, spending weekends in their pop-up camper at a favorite site along the creek, where they love to paddle their canoe.

On this day, we went up Gordon Creek to see the cypresses and the broad marshes of wild rice (which was just ripening) and golden butterweed (tickseed sunflower). Not surprisingly, we found a couple of bass fishermen throwing spinner baits along the edge of a large marsh gut. We also began counting bald eagles to see whether we could exceed Danny's highest one-day count of nine. Most of Gordon Creek looks as it did when my father and I fished it in the late 1950s, but we were shocked to find a landscaping contractor building a gravel road down to a new dock, with a stone riprap shoreline and new suburban-style plantings. On a creek like this, I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can improve on the natural woods and shoreline.

Leaving Gordon Creek, we crossed the river to explore Morris Creek, hugging the deep channel to the left going in. Morris is a long, deep creek with well managed commercial timberland on one side and a state wildlife management area on the other. It was one of the sites selected for filmingThe New World, a 2005 movie more notable for beautiful cinematography of the Chickahominy than any historical accuracy about Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. With fall colors just beginning to appear, the cypress trees were turning their characteristic russet heather colors before dropping their needles.

We headed back up to River's Rest for a midday pit stop and a snack, stopping briefly at the Civil War site of a Confederate Navy ship railway, which General McClellan captured and burned during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. A few timbers of the railway remain--with a cypress tree four feet in diameter growing through the middle of them. For many years, there was a fish house there where watermen landed their catches of perch, catfish and snapping turtles, butThe New World's producers also leased this property for some of their filming, which necessitated tearing down the fish house. During this stretch, we also counted more eagles, including one first-year bird that was all brown except for its white "armpits," and enjoyed nearly continuous views that must have been near to what John Smith and company saw on their trading trips.

There were, however, some signs of civilization, both past and present. Where solid land comes down to the river, people have built houses with docks. One classic remnant of the mid-20th century is a decaying lumber wharf and its diesel crane, which years ago fell into the river so that its boom extends 40 feet out over the water. At its tip, I had noticed on previous trips, an ingenious osprey pair had built a fine nest that they have maintained for years, raising their young each summer in isolation from predators.

At day's end, we tallied our eagle count at 15, nearly double Danny's previous best day. Then we pulledFirst Lightback onto her trailer and headed over to Danny and Tamsye's house to see her beadwork. These two live in a large and thoroughly modern log cabin in a lovely tract of woods near the tribal center.

The next morning, we headed to Eagle's Landing, a tackle shop/restaurant/launch ramp on Chickahominy Lake just east of the town of Providence Forge, Va., off Route 60. Though various tasks have taken me down to the river frequently over the past 30 years, I have been on the lake only one day, in the fall of 1976, since my father and I fished it in the 1950s. This, then, was a sentimental journey, especially since our primary source of rental skiffs back then had been the late Sherman Jefferson, Danny's great-uncle and Chief Steve Adkins's father-in-law. Jefferson's landing is no longer in operation, but Eagle's Landing served us well. Not surprisingly, 14- to 16-foot aluminum johnboats have replaced wooden skiffs in its rental fleet years ago, and on the shallow and relatively protected lake, such a boat with a 6- to 20-hp outboard is a much more effective and economical fish boat than the large, high-powered metal-flake bass boats that predominate on the river.

As we ran down the lake, memories flooded back--the old Jefferson place, then a spot where my father caught a great string of bream on his fly rod, a creek where I caught my first chain pickerel, and finally the cove where I caught my first decent bass, on a homemade lure, no less. We also noted places where Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003 had torn up marsh and turned narrow sloughs into open water. We stopped at Walkers Dam, then turned back a quarter-mile to Ed Allen's Boats & Bait, a longtime tackle shop/restaurant/boat rental/launch ramp/campground from which my father and I had also fished. The restaurant was now bigger, but the spot was still familiar after all that time, and the property is in third-generation Allen family ownership. We bought a couple of lures and some coffee before heading back up the lake.

Near the place where I had caught that bass 55 years ago, we came upon an angler fishing from a medium-size bass boat and fell into conversation with him. He turned out to be Kenny Glenn Jr., who with his father, Kenny Glenn Sr., is well known in bass fishing circles around Richmond. It so happened that he had bought his boat from one of Danny's cousins. Glenn invited us to fish beside him on a deep underwater grass bed where he had taken a couple of fish. We had only a few minutes, but sure enough, Danny's rod bent over as a spunky 12-inch bass inhaled the spinner he was casting (another homemade lure from my basement!). I eased the bass back into the lake, and we thanked Glenn for his invitation before heading back up to Eagle's Landing to pullFirst Lightback onto her trailer and head to the tribal center.

With a considerable number of the tribe's members living close by, both the tribal center and Samaria Baptist Church have to be large enough to accommodate them. The two properties lie side-by-side, with lovely groves of trees and two graveyards that hold a great deal of Chickahominy history. While I was looking at the extensive collection of photographs on the walls of the tribal center, Chief Adkins drove up. Between business and tribal affairs, Adkins keeps a hectic schedule, so I was delighted to see him. He gave me a tour of the graveyard, showing me gravestones with painted portraits of previous chiefs, including one of his grandfather.

The day was still beautiful, and it occurred to me that the bass in Chickahominy Lake would probably begin to feed heartily toward sunset, but duty called back in Annapolis. Reluctantly, I bade good-bye to Danny, Adkins and the Chickahominy. I'm already making plans to return.



CRUISER'S DIGEST: CHICKAHOMINY RIVER

Despite being out of the way, the Chickahominy has plenty of resources to serve a wide variety of boaters.

The River's Rest (804-829-2753;riversrest.com) in Charles City, Va., is a great base of operations for exploration of the Chickahominy River in any vessel from a kayak to a 58-foot trawler. The motel is simple but comfortable, the launch ramp and marina facilities excellent and the food at the Blue Heron first-rate.

Chickahominy Riverfront Park (757-258-5020;www.jccegov.com/recreation/parks-trails/chickahominy-park.html) in  Williamsburg, Va., is a great place to camp, rent kayaks and canoes, and launch skiffs to explore the river and Gordon Creek. On days with midday high tide, a circumnavigation of Gordon Island makes for a fantastic trip.  In the morning, we paddle up Gordon Creek into the southwest corner of shallow Nayses Bay. As the tide turns, we paddle out the northwest corner of Nayses Bay, riding the outgoing current down Nettles Creek to the river, then back into the mouth of Gordon Creek to the park's launch ramp. Eagle's Landing (804-966-9094) offers johnboat rentals, tackle, boat/motor service, food and a launch ramp at the upper end of Chickahominy Lake. Ed Allen's Boats & Bait (804-966-2582;www.edallens.com) offers johnboat rentals, tackle, live bait, the Lakeside Restaurant, rental cottages and campsites.

For more information on Virginia Indians and the Chickahominy tribe, you can visit the Virginia Council on Indians website indians.vipnet.org/ or the Chickahominy Tribe's site atwww.chickahominytribe.org.