Past keeps cropping up along remote York River Water Trail
At a Native American village along the banks of the York River nearly 400 years ago, an Englishman was brought before Chief Powhatan, leader of 30 local tribes, to face judgment.
He was accused of the brutal murder of several Indians along the Rappahannock River, a charge that would have brought death. Then, according to legend, Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, intervened and urged that the man’s life be spared.
Many historians doubt the Pocahontas part of that story is true, but there is no doubt that Capt. John Smith, leader of the nearby Jamestown settlement, was brought to Powhatan’s village of Werowoocomoco to face judgment and—for whatever reason—released.
In May, archaeologists announced they had discovered the exact site of Powhatan’s long-lost village. Although it’s not open to tourists, boaters along the new York River Water Trail can view the site from adjacent creeks and learn some of its history from three, soon-to-be-erected kiosks at nearby water trail sites on both banks of the river.
The York River Water Trail is one of more than a dozen water trails in the Bay watershed that are part of the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, along with more than 120 land-based natural, historical and cultural sites.
Water trails are nothing new; rivers were the main source of transportation before roads were built. The York River Water Trail, in fact, is dubbed “The Algonquin Trace,” because much of its emphasis is on interpreting the region’s history and culture prior to European settlement, when the York was a major transportation route for the Native Americans.
That’s an appropriate theme for the trail, which includes the York River, as well as the tidal portions of the Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers, which combine to form the York about 25 miles from the mouth of the Bay. They are probably the least changed of the major waterways on the Bay’s Western Shore.
“Simply owing to development patterns that have occurred elsewhere in tidewater Virginia—the York, Mattaponi and Pamunkey—with few exceptions, still look and feel the way Capt. John Smith described them in the 1600s,” said Billy Mills, who is developing the trail for the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers Association.
Land ownership patterns are much the same as they were 400 years ago when the king of England issued large land patents to individuals. In much of the area, large parcels remain in the hands of relatively few people. Even the descendants of John Smith’s captors, the Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribes, still have reservations along the rivers that bear their names.
As a result, there are no signs of human habitation for long stretches, other than the ever-present duck blinds along the rivers. Even bridges are few and far between.
The lack of development and its associated impacts have contributed to the York’s reputation as being one of the cleanest rivers feeding the Bay. The rivers are buffered by the most extensive systems of tidal marshes remaining on the Bay’s Western Shore, and the entire York watershed remains 72 percent forested. The marshes, many of them measuring hundreds of acres, help to keep development far back from the river, providing an added sense of remoteness to the trip.
The shallow water marshes are home to great blue herons, bald eagles, osprey and a host of songbirds and waterfowl. Many water trail stops overlap with the newly developed Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail—some of which, like Catlett Islands, may only be viewed from boats in order to preserve bird habitat.
The rivers are also a hot spot for anglers, as the sense of remoteness along the waterways also provides for outstanding fish habitat. Recent research by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science—also a stop on the trail—showed that the tidal Mattaponi River is the single most important spawning area for American shad in the Bay watershed today, as well as for a number of other migratory fish.
That has placed the river in the news lately, as potential impacts on shad put into question the fate of a controversial proposed water supply reservoir in the watershed.
Shad historically were an important resource for the Native Americans on the rivers, who counted on the early spring runs of the fish after long winters.
In fact, shad restoration throughout the Bay watershed has its roots in the York River, where both the Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribes have operated hatcheries for nearly a century as part of a tradition of returning fish to the river in exchange for those they took. Their reservations are along the water trail.
Techniques developed by the tribes were transferred to other hatcheries around the watershed in recent decades. Eggs from York River fish were used to jump-start other depleted shad populations around the Bay watershed.
The natural and cultural history of the region is woven together as one travels the 100-mile water trail, which includes all of the York River and the tidal portions of the Mattaponi and Pamunkey.
Although the trail does not officially open until October, a limited number of prototype trail maps are available. Also available are copies of maps for the earlier Mattaponi and Pamunkey Canoe Trail, which is being incorporated into the new York River Water Trail.
The completed trail will have 20 riverside access sites, located approximately every seven to 10 miles along the river, each telling local stories about the river. Many of the kiosks will feature digital message systems, delivering recorded stories at the press of a button. The stories and their sounds will be changed from time to time by trail managers to keep the messages fresh for returning visitors.
The kiosks were specially designed to fit into the Native American theme that winds through the water trail. Their roofs are shaped like a longhouse and capped with a roof of copper, the most valuable metal to the Native Americans. The roof is supported by legs of Virginia red cedar. Ten of the kiosks are in place now; the rest will be up by fall.
Maps for the trail point out the locations of now-gone Colonial plantations and settlements, such as Newington, once the home of Declaration of Independence signatory Carter Braxton, and vanished Native American villages, such as Manamassy, a town John Smith described near the confluence of the Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers, where the town of West Point stands today.
Just outside the town of West Point is Fort Scales, a complex of Civil War trenches built by order of Union Gen. John Dix in 1863 as part of an effort to hold in place Confederate troops who were guarding Richmond.
The breastworks ran all the way across the peninsula, linking the Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers, and were anchored by gunboats stationed in each river. Portions of the line are still visible near the Pamunkey side of the river.
The water trail has plenty of other stories to tell.
The site of White House, a farm once owned by Martha Custis Washington, and later Mary Custis Lee, wife of Gen. Robert E. Lee, is along the Pamunkey River. So is Williams Landing, where George Washington caught the ferry on his first visit to his future bride.
Along the Mattaponi is the small town of Walkerton, which was settled in 1665, by Col. John Walker who was sent to establish Fort Mattapony, then the uppermost fort in the watershed, to control the natives in advance of coming settlement. Years before, it had been the site of a native village where John Smith was briefly held during his captivity.
For his services, Walker secured a large tract of land where he built a ferry on a narrow bend of the river, which became an important crossing site until a bridge was built. (Today, one of John Walker’s descendants, Jerry Walker, is permitting a “leave no trace” Scout campground to be built on family land along the water trail.)
When the original bridge was recently replaced, it was discovered that Walkerton’s story began much earlier. During construction, archaeologists discovered an 8,000-year-old Native American encampment.
The York River Water Trail, which builds upon the decade-old Mattaponi and Pamunkey Canoe Trail, has been under development for three years.
The new trail is accessible by small motorized boats, but canoes or kayaks are needed to explore many of the smaller creeks that flow into the rivers. From the main trail, canoeist or kayakers can continue their explorations up adjoining coastal creeks.
Or, they can continue their explorations on land. West Point, the largest town along the rivers, has hiking and biking paths that link local schools with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ Glass Island Boat Landing, the most central public access site on the trail.
Many other areas offer opportunities to get out of the boat as well: Yorktown, scene of the climactic battle of the Revolutionary War, is along the trail, as is York River State Park, with hiking and nature trails as well as a recently opened group wilderness camp area at nearby Croaker Landing for river users.
Most of the trail has been developed with volunteer help, ranging from AmeriCorps participants, to Boy Scouts to the hundreds of others who turn out each September for the MPRA’s River Stewardship Day. They’ve built campgrounds and kiosks, conducted cleanups, put up bluebird houses, and used BayScapes native landscaping at various water trail stops.
So it may be fitting that the finishing touches on the water trail will take place during this year’s Stewardship Day celebration on Sept. 20, when the last 10 kiosks are installed.
Maps to be Readily Available this Fall
A limited number of York River Water Trail maps are available at this time; a reliable supply will be available this fall. Full map sets of the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Canoe Trail, which is incorporated into the new trail, are still available for $17
For information, contact the Mattaponi and Pamunkey River Association, 804-769-0841, or visit www.mpra.org
Happy Trails for the Paddle Set
Here are other water trails in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network. Some are under development. For contact information on each trail, visit www.baygateways.net
The Chemung Basin River Trail explores 38 miles along the Chemung River in New York, a major tributary of the Susquehanna River.
The Choptank & Tuckahoe Rivers Water Trail encompasses 60 miles along the two Eastern Shore rivers, linking 16 existing public access points for canoes, kayaks and small powerboats.
The Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth Water Trail flows from Virginia Beach through Norfolk before joining the main river and the Chesapeake Bay.
The Lower James River Water Trail extends from Richmond to the mouth of the James River in Hampton Roads with many public access points on both sides of the river.
The Lower Susquehanna Water Trail will help boaters cover 65 miles from Harrisburg to Havre de Grace, MD, on the Chesapeake Bay.
Mathews Blueways is an interconnected system of five separate water trails spanning 90 miles in Mathews County, VA.
The Maury River Water Trail runs from Cedar Grove, VA, to the James River along 34 of the Maury’s 42-mile length.
The Monocacy River Water Trail runs from the Monocacy Battlefield to the Monocacy Aqueduct in Maryland.
The Norfolk Waterway Trails System follows 38 miles of Norfolk’s waterfront, from the river’s headwaters to the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
The Potomac River Water Trail explores the lower 100 miles of the river to the Chesapeake Bay.
The Powhatan Creek Blueway is a 23-mile tributary of the James River that passes through an area that is still largely undeveloped and a great place to canoe, fish and observe birds and other wildlife.
The 55-mile Raystown Branch Juniata River Water Trail meanders through 55 miles of rural Bedford County, PA.
The Rivanna River Water Trail is a 38-mile route over a state-designated scenic river, flowing through Virginia’s Albemarle and Fluvanna counties to the James River.
The Susquehanna River Trail, open to canoeists and kayakers, covers the 50 miles from Sunbury, PA, to Harrisburg.The West Branch Susquehanna Water Trail, winds 228 miles through a northern hardwood forest of oak, cherry, maple and remnants of the great white pine and hemlock forests.
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