River Where America Began: A Journey Along the James

River Where America Began: A Journey Along the James

by Bob Deans


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River Where America Began: A Journey Along the James by Bob Deans

From the establishment of the first permanent English colony at Jamestown in 1607 to the fall of Richmond in 1865, the James River has been instrumental in the formation of modern America. It was along the James that British and Native American cultures collided and, in a twisted paradox, the seeds of democracy and slavery were sown side by side. The culture crafted by Virginia's learned aristocrats, merchants, farmers, and frontiersmen gave voice to the cause of the American Revolution and provided a vision for the fledgling independent nation's future. Over the course of the United States' first century, the James River bore witness to the irreconcilable contradiction of a slave-holding nation dedicated to liberty and equality for all. When that intractable conflict ignited civil war, the James River served as a critical backdrop for the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history. As he guides readers through this exciting historical narrative, Deans gives life to a dynamic cast of characters including the familiar Powhatan, John Smith, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Benedict Arnold, and Robert E. Lee, as well as those who have largely escaped historical notoriety.

The River Where America Began takes readers on a journey along the James River from the earliest days of civilization nearly 15,000 years ago through the troubled English settlement at Jamestown and finishes with Lincoln's tour of the defeated capital of Richmond in 1865. Deans traces the historical course of a river whose contributions to American life are both immeasurable and unique. This innovative history invites us all to look into these restless waters in a way that connects us to our past and reminds us of who we are as Americans.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780742551725
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 03/28/2007
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.32(w) x 9.40(h) x 0.95(d)

About the Author

Bob Deans, a long-time Washington, D.C. journalist, is Federal Communications Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Inc. He grew up in Richmond, Virginia and now lives in Bethesda, Maryland with his family.

Read an Excerpt


A Journey Along the James


Copyright © 2007 Bob Deans
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7425-5172-5

Chapter One


IRON GATE-The Fourth of July had come and gone in this quiet mountain hamlet, leaving only the hottest part of summer to scorch the corn and sorghum fields along the gravel lane that snaked over the railroad tracks and up to the red brick farmhouse where Clyde Gibson presides over a national treasure.

"Yeah, we let people go back there and see it," he said, nullifying with a wave and a shrug the stark "No Trespassing" signs lining the dust-choked driveway that links Gibson's place to a two-lane state road and the world beyond.

Bearing the measured gait of a man who's lived beyond middle age off the toil of the land, Gibson gestured to a shaded footpath rambling through the forested edge of the property he owns with his brother Charles. "Just walk right through there, look up to your left, and you'll see it."

I hauled my young daughter up onto my shoulders, beyond the reach of the cottonmouths that favor the tall grass and soft mud running alongside Gibson's lush tomato vines. As we ambled forth, the tree line opened, the path gave way to smooth stones of brown and gray, and, suddenly, there it was, the junction of two mountain streams, wedded beneath spires of birch and sycamore to form the beginnings of the James River.

Cool air offthe water broke the summer heat. Maisy climbed down from my shoulders, slipped out of her sandals, and waded into a clear, shallow pool at the river's edge.

"I'm taking a drink," she explained, crouching low enough to dip into the water and make a cup with her hands. "Now I will always have the spirit of the James in me."

As the country pauses to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in America, about 280 miles downstream at Jamestown, a child reminds us that, whether we drink from the river literally or figuratively, all Americans carry within them something of the spirit of the James, the birthplace of the nation and the very headwaters of American history.

From its unheralded origins behind Gibson's modest farm, the James River cuts a meandering course three hundred and forty miles through the heart of Virginia, its verdant piedmont pastures and rolling farms, its quiet tidewater villages and vibrant ports and towns, before flooding the Chesapeake Bay. There, it tunnels into the great Susquehanna River, the mother channel of the Chesapeake, and empties into the Atlantic Ocean, scattering the sediments and sands of its ancient riverbed far out to sea along the continental shelf.

At each bend along the way, there is something of this unassuming waterway possessed by no other river anywhere in the world. For it is along this river that African, English, and Native American peoples-each largely alien to the others-first came together to form the beginnings of a new civilization that would change the world.

In the four centuries since those tenuous beginnings, the United States has become the mightiest democratic trade and military power in history. Its cradle is the James, the backbone along which American Indians once thrived, the setting for the English riverside military fort that became the seat of the first representative government in America, the landing point for the first Africans to arrive in English America in chains, and the place where the country's original cash crop, tobacco, was raised on plantations that generated the export profits that, in turn, drove one of the first major economies ever created specifically to participate in a truly global marketplace.

Today, whether we live in Atlanta or Los Angeles, in Chicago, Boston, Dallas, or Seattle, our lives would be vastly different were it not for the personalities and events that played themselves out along the wandering banks of the James. This river flows through all of us and the epic national journey we share.

"Though the James is wholly contained within the state of Virginia, it is not a local river, for it belongs to the nation; not to the native-born only, but also to those who have come from many lands to become citizens of the United States," wrote Blair Niles in The James, a book published in 1939 as the world drifted toward a war that pitted this country and its allies against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan and set the stage for the decadeslong ideological battle that defined the cold war, the twentieth century, and modern America. "So much of significance to our country has happened in the James River watershed that this river cannot belong to one state alone," wrote Niles, "but must belong to all."

If the Atlantic Ocean divided Europe from the American continent, the James River provided English explorers with a gateway to the newfound frontier; it was the muddy umbilical cord tying the New World to the old. The English were not, it turned out, the first to get there.

At least fifteen thousand years before, American Indians had wandered along the river's shores. They were the ancient antecedents of native clans and tribes-the Appamattuck, Chesapeake, Chickahominy, Kecoughtan, Kiskiak, Monacan, Nansemond, Paspehegh, and others-that would eventually settle into scores of villages up and down the James and its tributaries, from the Allegheny and Blue Ridge mountains, across the broad Piedmont plains, to the great falls near present-day Richmond and along the river's tidewater reaches and toward the sea.

Yeokanta was the Powhatan word for river. When the English first arrived, the Native Americans there called the James the Powhatan after the paramount chief of the tribes that ranged across the eastern and coastal half of what is now Virginia. The English settlers quickly renamed the river for their king, James I, and, after listening breathlessly to native legends of the great, briny waters that supposedly lay somewhere just beyond the rockstrewn rapids of the fall line, headed upriver in search of the elusive passage to the Pacific and the short cut to Asia's riches it promised.

No matter whose chief the river was named for, it led to no great saltwater sea, unless one counts the mineral-laden Allegheny hot springs, surely the source of the Indians' reference to briny western waters. The mutual misunderstanding tumbled downstream from there. Instead of the long hoped-for passage to the Pacific, the river became the conduit for the first sustained culture clash between English settlers and indigenous groups, foreshadowing three centuries of conflict and bloodshed that resulted in the near annihilation of the Native American peoples.

In the process of imposing their ways upon those who'd gotten there first, the settlers established a crude military fort, which they also named for the English monarch. There, at Jamestown, they set up the first democratic body in the Western Hemisphere-its descendent, the Virginia General Assembly, still functions today-inaugurating a rough form of the American style of representative government that has evolved into the most widely emulated form of democracy in the world.

Learning from his Native American bride, Pocahontas, the favorite daughter of Chief Powhatan, the English settler John Rolfe raised the colony's first cash crop, leading the way to the export down the James of Virginia tobacco, the first source of profit for the fledgling foothold in what would one day become the richest trading nation in the history of the world.

It was up this river, also, that the first Africans journeyed into the harsh economy of American slavery, and it was here that their labors carved out of the forests, marshes, and fields the first English plantations in North America. A basic agrarian production scheme repeated across the antebellum American South, the tobacco plantation system along the James helped to generate the wealth that sustained a colony where the embers of rebellion would be fanned into the American Revolution.

When that time came, the colonies turned to the river culture for much of their revolutionary voice, to such figures as Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Peyton Randolph, and George Wythe. Giants of the American Revolution and the radical democratic form of government it spawned, each of those men spent many of their most formative and productive years alongside the James, discussing political philosophy with the likes of George Washington, James Madison, and James Monroe in the parlors of riverside plantation homes, Richmond churches and taverns, or the halls of the House of Burgesses in nearby Williamsburg, all of which were incubators of revolutionary thought.

As the young republic rose from the flames of revolution, river power drove the mills that turned wheat, corn, cotton, and iron into products and profits in the beginnings of this country's industrial revolution. And it was along the river that heavy, oaken packet boats and bateaus ferried goods between the manufacturing center of Richmond and the resource-rich farms and towns upstream, part of the great press westward that would lead a nation guided by notions of Manifest Destiny across the mountains and seemingly boundless Great Plains to extend the new country from sea to shining sea.

From these banks also arose the insurrectionist sentiments led by Gabriel Prosser, a Virginia slave, craftsman, and natural leader whose call for rebellion terrified the Southern aristocracy in a bloody prelude to the wider violence that would billow into civil war. It was alongside this river that rebels made their capital at Richmond, the strategic set piece of the war. It was over the waters of the James that the last tattered remnants of the Confederacy retreated from its fallen capital as dreams of Dixie were consumed by flames. And it was to the banks of the James that President Abraham Lincoln journeyed at the pinnacle of his career, just days before his assassination, to greet the newly emancipated slaves at war's end, bringing full circle the experience of the first African Americans, from slavery to freedom. As a fitting coda to that experience, less than two decades ago, Virginians sent to the Executive Mansion in Richmond the country's first black elected governor, L. Douglas Wilder, who was later elected mayor of Richmond.

The history that has unfolded along the banks of the James is no mere string of incidental events. These are serial and formative developments so fundamental to the making of America that it is hard to imagine a single cornerstone of our national identity-our democratic form of governance, our free market economy, our daily struggle to balance the common welfare with the rights of the individual, or the strength we take from our diversity even as we struggle still with the issue of race-without the human, political, and economic drama that played out along the James.

The forces behind these developments were global in nature: the duel between rival powers for world hegemony, the contest between government authority versus that of the church, the testing of long-established arrangements between yeomen and kings, the development of the technology and knowledge to cross oceans and build beachheads in faraway lands, the emergence of global patterns of consumption and trade, and the means to link, for the first time in history, individual status and fortune with opportunities and resources on the far side of the world.

At the James, though, in this country, those forces first converged in a lasting way, along a landscape formed over hundreds of millions of years of the river's own geomorphology, as if it had been preparing, through the eons of its own creation, evolution, upheaval, and growth, for the moment when history would leave its footprints in the muddy shallows along its shaded shore.

Following those tracks along the banks of the James, one can trace the long story of the nation, a willow-shrouded mural in granite and clay. Arguably the most historic waterway in the nation, an ancient stream whose contribution to the country has been both immeasurable and unique, this is America's river, America's treasure, a living and still evolving legacy to all her people.

"All in all, a river's story is a strangely structured drama, full of conflicts, revelations, and ironies, that is hard to replay because the script is blotted and sketchy," wrote Ann Woodlief in her 1985 book In River Time, a loving paean to the Virginia stream. "Nowhere else, perhaps, is this script more clearly written than it is on the James."

No boy who grows up along this river, as I did, wading through its shallows in the summer, hauling catfish from its muddy tributaries on rainy nights, or watching in awe as its floodwaters periodically raged, needs to be reminded of the historic debt this country owes to the James River. I was well into my teens before I realized that the phrase "Cradle of Civilization" refers to the Tigris-Euphrates river valley in present-day Iraq and not, as I had long presumed, to the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers between Richmond and Jamestown. As it is, the James proudly joins its faraway counterparts-the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube, the Yangtze, and others-to take its place in the atlas of inland waterways that have forever left their mark on the world.

None of this is immediately apparent in the cool waters flowing behind Clyde Gibson's farm, where three otters rushed past, diving and surfacing in the fast-moving stream, their dark brown coats shimmering in the midday sun. Nor does it occur to Maisy, as she picked up a smooth gray stone from the creek bed, that she was toying with the product of a cataclysmic geological family breakup, rooted in the Precambrian era, that helped to shape the river's course.


Some twelve hundred million years ago, geologists believe, when the world was already three and a half billion years old, today's Virginia was sliding around, along with the rest of the North American land mass and, for that matter, much of the earth's slowly cooling crust. Over the next seven hundred million years or so, through a series of continental collisions and shifts, most of the earth's land came together to form a single supercontinent that geologists call Pangaea. The East Coast of what is now the United States was jammed against present-day West Africa.

The modern world got a tragic taste of the forces involved in those collisions the day after Christmas in 2004, when tectonic tensions snapped open a buckle six hundred miles long just off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. The break triggered an earthquake that registered 9.0 on the Richter Scale and sent shock waves hurtling through the Indian Ocean at the speed of a commercial airliner, pushing a train of tsunami waves that killed more than one hundred fifty thousand people in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and a half-dozen other countries.

The U.S. Geological Survey calculates that a force 9.0 earthquake unleashes the energy equivalent of thirty-two billion tons of TNT or, put another way, two million nuclear bombs the size of the one that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. Replicating the force of that single tectonic clash, in other words, would require detonating a Hiroshima-type bomb every single day for some fifty-five hundred years.

Out of precisely that level of geologic violence grew the Appalachian mountain range and its local constituents, the Allegheny and Blue Ridge chains in western Virginia, some of the oldest mountains in the world.

Roughly five hundred million years ago, Virginia lay beneath the great prehistoric ocean of Iapetus, which laid down upon its bottom miles-thick deposits of calcium-rich algae, simple crustaceans, and mud, all of which were compressed over the eons into limestone, sandstone, slate, and shale. In cycles repeated millions of times, seawater evaporated, creating shallow lagoons, then rushed back, depositing thick banks of clay, sand, and salt, some of which were later covered over and capped by sediments with the shifting of the great ocean.


Excerpted from THE RIVER WHERE AMERICA BEGAN by BOB DEANS Copyright © 2007 by Bob Deans. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     ix
Introduction     xiii
Headwaters     1
Yeokanta     13
Lords of Navigation     35
Virginia     55
Democracy in America     89
Wade in the Water     117
Liberty or Death     159
River of Dreams     217
A New Birth of Freedom     249
Epilogue: Undimmed   Human Tears     277
Bibliography     289
Index     299
About the Author     319

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River Where America Began: A Journey Along the James 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
matt1066 More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be very informative. From the formation of the Chesapeake watershed, to the part it played in the colonizing of America and its place in the Civil War, Bob Deans fills your imagination with a yearning for the pivotal events that the James River played in the developement of the American colony of Virginia and the South. A good read by all accounts.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I didn't know that both democracy and slavery sprouted almost simultaneously on the James River in Virginia. This clear and entertaining book will help lots of Americans understand how it happened and what that mixed past means today.