Presented at the James River Symposium, May 19, 1995, Richmond, VA.
Please do not download or copy without contacting the author, Ann Woodlief, at
See also my book, In River Time: The Way of the James.
Links to more....   

Heritage of the The James River

I am a word person, so let me begin with a deceptively simple question: what is a river? Surely it is more than just water running between two banks, fed by many smaller tributaries. I would suggest that practically speaking, a river is what we see and say it is. When both our seeing and saying are limited, so that we have fallen short of understanding a river's full meaning. then we who live in its neighborhood--and we are all part of rivers in more intimate ways then most of us can imagine--we have suffered, physically and perhaps spiritually, and have left tainted legacies. Yet for most people, even for most history books, it is an invisible river, for most do not see its central role in our lives.

What makes the James River special? At 340 miles long--or 434 if you add its headwater streams, it is not as long as some rivers, and at 600 million years of age, it is not quite as old as the New River to its south. It is not truly wild, for it has known, and sometimes suffered, from settled human habitation for as long as four thousand years. It has no canyons and only a few dangerous rapids, enough to block ships, but rather tame by the standards of whitewater buffs. It does have a few unique river qualities. It can flood dramatically and unexpectedly, at any time of the year, so it is an unusually "flashy" river. It is also the only major American river which flows entirely within the boundaries of one state, which presumably means that it can be watched and managed better. Yet it has very special historic value, and not just to Virginians.

This river was the first American river to be named, the first to be seen through the lenses of the written word, words that in turn would help determine, and limit, the ways it would come to be seen. Just as it worked to shape the land over the ages, so it has been shaped by the words Americans have used to describe and manage it. What they say is what we come to see. And what they say are verbs like "tame," "conquer," "fight," "use," "exploit," and nouns like "power," "highway," "resource," "wealth," "management," "real estate," "sewage," "disposal" and even personifications like "monster floods" or "savage wilderness," and most recently, the more redeeming words, "a web of life" and "our common wealth." By studying carefully the words associated with the James River, America's first river, if not its oldest, largest, or most interesting, we can come to see the broader cultural patterns, often accepted without examination. I believe it is time that we name the river in new ways, ways that acknowledge it as a living part of nature, even as we are also living parts of nature through whom rivers flow as much as they do between their banks of soil.

First, of course, the river was put in words we do not know, words of the Indians who lived, fished and traveled on this river before the Greeks came up with their ideas about civilization. How did they see the river?--how were their words, and the world view behind them, different from ours? These words may not have been written, except by white men who were determined to hear only what they wanted to hear, but there is a wisdom buried in the Indian sense about how man should relate to nature that we would do well to hear today.

For the Indians, this river was the core of their lives. They lived by its rhythms. They caught the migratory fish each spring when there was little else left to eat. They harvested and eventually planted the seeds brought to the rich river banks and islands by floods. They even learned to leave it for higher ground and cleaner spring water during droughts. But how did they see the river? We know that the tidewater Indians developed religious-type rituals around the all-powerful river that the colonists reported but could not understand. At sunrise and sunset they often bathed in groups, throwing tobacco leaves, especially on waters that were rough or high. The names they gave the river either described a particular place or a tribe that lived nearby, but they did not mark nor even conceive of private or even tribal ownership of their river or the lands that bordered it. For them the river could not be possessed or tamed, but instead lived with, respected, and held in stewardship for future generations.

Certainly the Indians were relatively few in number and lacked the technology that wastes land and rivers, and so their impact on the river was minimal. They left few signs of their camps and villages on its banks except arrowheads, clay pottery, buried fish bones and ashes where they had burned trees to clear the floodplains. But we do know that gratuitous waste and ownership of nature were alien to them, and they knew the river intimately, living by its rules, rejoicing in its fertility, and moving silently over its water in their dugout canoes as they tracked the fish and game which sustained them.

That benevolent attachment to the river was broken when the three small English ships came to settle at Jamestown. They brought with them memories of a waste-laden Thames River and dreams of a golden river that would lead to the wealth and spices of the South Seas. They wasted no time in naming the river and claiming it for their king. They saw the land and its river as a wilderness which must be conquered, the unlimited source of as many resources as possible to send back to England for profit. They intended to possess both the land and the river, even if it meant dispossessing the Indians. They considered themselves highly civilized, and so they scorned the Indian way of living with nature rather than trying to change it. For wealth, they looked to the river as a highway to Far Eastern riches, but the rocks in the Fall Line put that dream on hold rather quickly. As they looked at the huge sturgeon in the springtime river and the high piles of gigantic oysters, they decided that there were other ways they could use the river to get rich quickly before they found that great western passage. The sturgeon carried its valuable roe, cavier which was then as now an expensive luxury in England. But the caviar dream failed. Fish were hard to catch with English fishing techniques, and without salt or refrigeration, the sturgeon roe had disintegrated by the time three ships full of it reached England. But the river promised another kind of wealth. The tidewater lands grew the prized tobacco of the Indians, and what once was sacrificed to honor the river was soon grown and transported to London in ships using the river highway.

The colonists were so engrossed in their dreams of conquering the wilderness to become wealthy that they failed to pay much attention to the characteristics of the river where they had settled at Jamestown Island. It turned out that there was a good reason why no Indians were there when they landed in May, 1607, why they had moved their settlements away from the island more than a century earlier. When the water level was low, the Indians understood that the salty, turgid water at that point of the river was not healthy to drink, so they moved to locations with fresh springs. As far as they were concerned, the island was only waste land which they did not want, and they said so. So every summer, when the water was low and the salt zone moved up to Jamestown, white men who had to drink from the water that was salty when the tide was in and slimy and turgid, holding their sewage, when the tide was out, became ill and died, very likely from typhoid and salt poisoning more than malaria. Hundreds died between 1607 and 1624, many from drinking the water.

And so a pattern was set, rooted in attitudes which have been hard to change. By treating the river as an antagonist, ignoring its realities, and using it thoughtlessly as a sewer, it is ourselves we keep hurting the most. The river will go its own way, It will find ways to repair our damage, and its ecology will readjust, though in the process much that we prize may be lost or diminished. We are only little blips on its line of time.

The lesson at Jamestown was not learned; in fact, they probably had no idea that it was there to be learned. More ships and people came to replace those who died, and after a frenzy of searching for gold, or lacking that, minerals like iron or coal, the river's prime value came to be seen as a highway to England. It served the big houses along the river banks for shipping the valuable tobacco out. Meanwhile, the poorer settlers were pushed back from its banks, and the Indians pushed even further away, with those who had survived the white man's diseases pushed into reservations on less navigable rivers.

With the 18th century, two more words came to be associated with the river, especially at the Fall line: power and frustration. The rocks of the river, especially in the Fall Line, blocked their boats from those natural resources upstream. They had found uses for this geography, though, building mills on the swift waters cutting around the rocks to grind the wheat into flour. But the best wheat was grown upstream, beyond the now-less-fertile tobacco fields of the tidewater, and it needed to be transported down. So as early as George Washington's time, they began planning how to redirect and reshape the river, in short, how to build a canal that would bypass the rocky obstructions and open up those western resources and markets. After investing millions of dollars and a number of lives, mostly of slaves, in the James River and Kanawha Canal, in 1824 the canal was completed to Lynchburg. Eventually it would go 220 miles beyond Richmond to Buchanan.

People may have been moving up the river, but the fish were not so lucky. Soon after the Revolution, the river had been cut in half, with its effects felt as far upstream as Lynchburg. For years, even centuries, the migratory fish had come each spring up the river to lay their eggs. Striped bass as large as 40-50 pounds were reported cruising the river, and people above the Fall line depended heavily for their protein on this massive migration of fish, salting them for the long winters. Yet in 1789 or so, Thomas Jefferson evidently was responsible for a dam blocking the James River, which is now the 10-foot high Bosher Dam west of Richmond. It diverted water for the earliest canal, but it also changed the ecology of the river; the fish would run past Richmond no more, and as more dams were built and more sewage dumped in the river at the Fall Line, the fish runs diminished. To fill this niche, other species were introduced to the upper James in the 1880s--black or smallmouth bass, trout, even salmon (who declined to reproduce). Whether you consider the outcome to be good or bad, the lesson is that decisions were always made with little or no regard for long-term or ecological consequences.

One curious heritage of the James is its association with war and its machines, as well as the rhetoric of conquest and battle. From the beginning, the settlers wrote about how the river and those wild Indians along it must be conquered, or how it must be tamed by mills and by the canal. During the Revolutionary war, the traitor Benedict Arnold led British troops up the James in 1781 and his men proceeded west of Richmond to destroy the munitions foundary there and throw five tons of gunpowder into the river. After that it seemed that the natural place for cannon and munitions factories would be the river and its islands, a tradition that continued to the twentieth century when dynamite was manufactured by DuPont at Hopewell at the end of World War I, and was later replaced by Allied Chemical. Likewise a major polluter of the river below Richmond in the 1950s was a company that developed fuel for the rockets that sent men to the moon and arial smoke screens for the Korean conflict.

But the war most people associate with the river is that against its floods. Most recently, in 1969 and 1972 we faced so-called 100-year floods that brought out legions of bulldozers from the Army Corps of Engineers to clear debris and channelize upper tributaries. Today there is nothing like the prospect of a flood to put the river on the front pages of newspapers and into panic-stricken voices on newscasts as some great monster to be controlled. Our version of castle walls are flood walls, daring the monster to attack again. People who have built in the floodplains, whether to use the water in industry or to take advantage of the river's ever changing beauties, seem to have had very short memories. Finally we have laws restricting such vulnerable building, but with each large flood we are reminded that much was built before those laws.

Yet another way of seeing the river is as nature's great flush. In the 19th century, people began deciding that it was cheap and handy to pipe their wastes to the river. They had observed that anything dumped in the river either sank or moved around a downstream bend, well out of sight and smell, and became some else's problem. Of course, many Virginians also had to drink from the river. Such clashing uses of the river carry contradictions which seem to have been most visible in hindsight. At the same time that they took scenic journeys, by barge or steamship, up and down the river, took thousands of pounds of sturgeon, shad, and oysters from its waters, and even wrote some extravagant and rather terrible poetry about the James, they were filling it with sewage and silt. No one seemed to notice a problem at the time. The idea was still to use the river in every way possible, even though some of those uses made others dangerous. At first they did not know much about the causes of diseases like typhoid, even though more than 40 people a year were dying from it in Richmond at the turn of the century. But the bad habit of irresponsible and conflicting uses persisted, long after medical science understood about the watery transmission of disease.

By 1900 the river was becoming visibly intolerable through Richmond and Lynchburg, so Virginians found cleaner rivers for their summer retreats. Besides, the river was virtually inaccessible--in private ownership below Richmond, and then blocked off by the canal and later by the railroads upstream. So the sewage kept pouring in, and no one particularly noticed. It wasn't until 1958 that Richmond had any sewage treatment at all. Chemical companies sprang up below the Fall line, attracted by the cheap disposal available in the river. As a result, by the middle of the 20th century the river was barren below Richmond and Lynchburg, at some points so acidic that paint would burn off boats. The legislator who opposed a bill in 1912 that would have controlled waste disposal spoke for Virginians, and for Americans by other rivers, when he proclaimed that "The rivers of Virginia are the God-given sewers of the State."

Slowly, with the passage of the Clean Water Act and some citizen activism, sewage treatment improved, factories and chemical companies cleaned up their act, so that by 1976 people thought the old habits had been broken. Richmond had installed a very effective sewage treatment plant and the state Water Control Board was working hard to enforce EPA regulations, as cities were able to tap federal funds to build new treatment plants. That complacency was exploded by the discovery of Kepone in the river at Hopewell, a powerful insecticide dumped irresponsibly which was discovered because workers became desperately ill. Like many such chemicals, it went straight to the nervous systems of its victims. The James had another historic first, as the first widely-publicized environmental disaster. After Allied Chemical was given a 13 million dollar fine and masses of bad publicity, industry began to see some real financial advantage to environmental safety, and even ways of making money by using by-products formerly flushed to the river.

Today the river is far more visible to most Virginians as a sensitive and living natural resource, although old habits die hard. The bateaux races bring a historical romance to the river each year, and people turn to the river and its parks for recreation as well as more utilitarian uses. . Fishermen may still be a bit uneasy about the health of their fish, but the river is teeming with fish, although in the lower James they are catfish rather than sturgeon. The James is said to be the best smallmouth bass river in the country, even in Richmond city limits. We are a society of institutions, and many groups, official and otherwise, have taken it upon themselves to work to see that the river stays relatively clean and healthy. We are finally starting to see the river in a different way from our colonial ancestors, and not a moment too soon. We are coming full circle, and beginning to speak of the river is an ecosystem, one that includes many humans as well as fish.

We must be careful not to be complacent, however. The battle goes on, not against the river so much as against growing and wasteful populations of humans, against the easy temptation to flush our problems downstream, and constant pressure to put short term gains, especially those measured in dollars, over long term consequences. We must find that fine line between ignoring the river, using it, and loving it to death. Waste may be a natural by-product of all forms of life, but it becomes pollution when it goes beyond nature's limits to deal with it, limits which are less forgiving than we would like to believe. If we can only learn to waste and use less and assume some responsibility for the river's health, then nature may be able to rebound.

There are several ways we may see the river. We can join our ancestors in seeing it as a wild and abundant source of resources, inviting both use and abuse that lead to short-term profits. Or we can see it more pictorially, as a ribbon of sometimes muddy water, falling to the Bay between walls of green trees and golden fields, or a thinning blue line weaving across the landscape of a map, with water, land, and people seen as separated entities, touching only on their edges. We should also see it as the water which passes through our very bodies in Richmond. Iif we look with a vision of the future, we must see a network of streams which circulates through and over the earth and the bodies of living creatures, joining them forever. There are few lines or edges, only multitudes of fluid connections, renewed and reconciled through the ceaseless movement of water answering the call of gravity. This is the vision of living water that I hope you can take with you, as we too add our words for the river to its heritage.

James River Links:

James River Association
James River Runners [canoe livery, Scottsville, Va)
James River Plantations