James River trail lets travelers explore like Capt. John Smith

Published 4:35 pm Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Ospreys and turkey vultures soar above cypress trees as kayaks glide on the water, passing by herons scouting for fish and fiddler crabs scurrying along a narrow strip of shoreline.

Bill Portlock, senior educator with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, stops paddling on the Chickahominy River to point out arrow arum, wild rice, rose mallow and other plants growing in a tidal freshwater marsh, much as they did when Capt. John Smith explored the region in the early 17th century.

Virginia recently released travel maps for Capt. John Smith’s Trail, a boat and auto tour along the James River following Smith’s footsteps that is the first segment of what authorities hope will become a national water trail. The Chickahominy flows into the James in southeast Virginia.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The Virginia trail was developed in time for the 400th anniversary commemoration of the founding of Jamestown, America’s first permanent English settlement, in 1607. The route includes Jamestown, plantations, parks and museums, and places where Indians lived thousands of years before the English arrived.

State tourism and conservation officials tout the trail as “a great way for boaters and motorists to discover the beauty of Virginia that inspired John Smith.”

Indeed, Virginia is fortunate that there are areas along the James that have not been overly developed, even though they are private property, said Randolph Turner, director of the Tidewater Regional Preservation Office of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. He contributed to a book about Smith’s voyages on the Chesapeake Bay.

One of the best spots to get a feel for what the landscape looked like in 1607 is at the confluence of the Chickahominy and James rivers, Turner said.

“If you want to understand Virginia 400 years ago, you have to get out on the water because that was the principal means of transportation,” he said. “Obviously, as you go up and down the James River, or portions of the Chickahominy River, you’re going to see development that wasn’t there at that point in time. But in general terms … you’ll get a very, very good overview of what Virginia was like during that time period.”

The trail also is a good tool for teaching people about the environment, and how pollution has hurt the ecosystem since Smith’s day, when the waters of the James were still clear, said the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Portlock. The organization works to restore the bay and its tributaries.

The trail “will get people outside. They’ll begin to care and want to know more, and then they’ll become more active in the process of trying to get improvements in the environment,” Portlock said during a summer excursion on the Chickahominy and the James.

Members of the Chickahominy Tribe’s board said Virginia Indians have other reasons for supporting the trail: getting their story told, raising awareness that the rivers once were dotted with Indian settlements and perhaps helping them in their push for federal recognition, which could entitle them to financial aid.

“There’s more down the trail than just (Colonial) Williamsburg and Jamestown,” said Keith Wynn, of Providence Forge.

“Our ancestors traveled these rivers long before the colonists got here,” added Reggie Stewart, of Chester, in an interview at Chickahominy Riverfront Park.

While the powerful chief Powhatan had the allegiance of most Algonquians in Virginia’s coastal plain, the Chickahominy Indians were independent. They befriended the English settlers, trading with Smith in the fall of 1607. That December, Smith set off to explore the Chickahominy River when he was captured by Indians and eventually taken to Powhatan. Legend has it that Powhatan spared Smith’s life at the behest of the chief’s daughter, Pocahontas.

“Everyone has seen the western Indians in the movies,” said Danny Jefferson, of Providence Forge. “The folks that aren’t aware of the history … don’t realize that the Virginia Indian tribes were the first ones to make contact with the colonists. Here is where it all started.”

Last year, President Bush signed legislation authorizing the National Park Service to study the feasibility of establishing the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail, in Virginia, Delaware and Maryland. The proposed trail would be a circuit of the Chesapeake Bay, with river extensions, combining the routes of Smith’s two major voyages around the bay in 1608, and other river explorations.

Virginia’s trail is divided into three loops, each of which can be toured in a day. Some sites are more accessible by boat; others are best reached by car.

The Upper Oxbow Loop includes Virginia’s capital, Richmond, and takes travelers to that city’s historic canals and riverfront. Other highlights include Shirley Plantation, the oldest plantation in Virginia, and Presquile National Wildlife Refuge, an island with protected habitat for wintering waterfowl and other migratory birds.

Moving eastward, bald eagles, herons and various songbirds nest along the stretch of the James River in the middle Cypress Loop, where cypress trees grow along the water’s edge. The loop includes the mouth of the Chickahominy River, where Paspahegh Indians once lived. Settlers attacked the Paspahegh in 1610, razing the chief’s town and destroying the corn fields.

On the Oyster Loop, where the lower James widens to more than five miles, travelers can observe the ongoing archaeological dig at Historic Jamestowne, the original site of the 1607 Jamestown colony, and see recreations of the settlers’ ships at the Jamestown Settlement living history museum. The loop also includes several other museums, including the Watermens Museum, Virginia Living Museum and Mariners’ Museum.

On the Net:

Virginia’s Capt. John Smith Trail: http://www.johnsmithtrail.org

Proposed Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historical Water Trail Study: http://www.nps.gov/nero/josm/