This April 8, I stood on the northern face of Cape Henry, VA, near where the English adventurers first put their boats ashore on the Chesapeake on April 26, 1607. What I saw was still very much what they would have encountered when their boat crunched ashore on this open strand.
What I have driven through to get here by an overland route is radically changed, though, and would have bewildered the adventurers as well as the native peoples.
Traveling through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel—beneath the very floor of the Lower James River—and up onto Willoughby Spit, can be a challenge even in Sunday traffic. All along U.S. Route 60 East is cheek-by-jowl waterfront development, high-rises, the Little Creek military base, countless red lights and strip malls.
When I called to confirm the location of my hotel, “I’m at the bridge over the Lynnhaven River Inlet, about a mile from you,” the woman at the other end was silent. She had never heard of the Lynnhaven River.
When I get there, she said, “Oh yes, I used to take the kids to that spot—under the bridge—to play in the sand by the water but now it’s paved with a parking lot for the fishermen. I guess that’s good.”
Outside my room, near a cast iron parking lot manhole, was the dried body of a baby diamond-backed terrapin, which had wandered there and died, a thousand feet from any natural water.
All of the development ends a bit farther down Route 60, at the boundary of First Landing State Park. Viewing this region from space on Google Earth, one can see the stark difference in land use between rampant urban density and natural terrain. The natural landscape of Cape Henry, with the exception of the modern military base at Fort Story, reveals an unusual history in the Chesapeake’s recent geological past: accreting shoreline.
The land looks like shirred fabric ruffled into arcs of low hills and dales that follow the curvature of the outer cape shoreline. Each of these wrinkles in the fabric of land was part of a shoreline dune system in the past couple of millennia and with the alongshore flow of sand, the action of storm and wind events and time, one shoreline after another has been pushed landward and slowly colonized by successive plant communities.
The primary dune vegetation, American beach grass, includes taller, waving stands of sea oats, which are at their northern limit of distribution here. These grasses are the front line of defense against storm-whipped sands and salt spray. Thriving where the sand is mobile, they disrupt the flow of wind so that grains drop out and accumulate rather than blow by on the winds. As the plants grow up through the sand, the primary dune grows and becomes a barrier.
Behind this dune, a wind-shadow stretches inland about 10 times the height of the dune. There, other more sensitive plants can survive in the swales.
Low trees, like beach or Chicasaw-plum, survive in these sandy, poor soils, their new top growth killed by salt spray and sculpted so that they become shaped like long stiff hair blown back. Juniper, or red cedar, also pioneers here and is similarly shaped by the environment.
Farther inland, species like the maritime live oak slowly fill in the gaps, developing deep tap roots as seedlings —40 percent of the little trees’ mass is root. This enables them to survive the near-desert conditions of a dry Virginia summer in sandy substrate from which rain drains quickly away. Live oaks growing close to the sea are also sculpted and their growth hugs the ground, their branches assuming tortuous shapes. They retain their leaves all winter, unlike deciduous oaks, thus their appellation, “live.”
In the age of wooden shipbuilding, these slow-growing, dense-timbered maritime trees were much sought after because the many knees (right-angled support members) necessary for reinforcing a sailing ship were easily cut from their twisted limbs.
Once a forest canopy develops and deep woodlands with tall timbers grow, the beach extends seaward. Buried in the woods at Cape Henry are former lines of dunes and swales. These dunes became dry upland ridges. The swales, after decades of rainwater accumulating in a subterranean lens that eventually rose to ground level, became swamps and streams. George Percy, one of the Virginia adventurers—long deprived of clean drinking water at sea—was “ravished at the first sight” of these wetlands in 1607. The interior live oaks and other trees on higher ground, including the tall cypress growing in the wetlands must have been what he described as “goodly tall trees.”
Dozens of these concentric habitats arc around Cape Henry until, deep in the interior one reaches Broad Bay, upstream on the Lynnhaven. I suspect that any artifacts exchanged between would-be colonists and the native peoples lie within one of these rings, although part of the first landing site is probably under the lands of Fort Story.
I, along with the two senior co-authors, Helen Rountree and Wayne E Clark of our book, “Captain John Smith’s Chesapeake Voyages 1607-1609,” were invited here. We were to talk to the crew of a replica shallop—who, as part of the John Smith 400 Project, will somewhat follow the routes of Smith’s two Chesapeake Bay voyages in 1608.
The shallop, meanwhile, was sunk at Norfolk to allow its long-dried seams to swell to water tightness.
These tough individuals, in training for the John Smith 400 Project, were quartered not in the maelstrom of development, but at an old Civilian Conservation Corps cottage in quiet forests nearby.
The crew’s lodgings and adjacent yard are stacked with the tarred hemp lines and cable-laid cordage that rig the shallop. The sails, with nicely hand-sewn cringles (small rings attached to a sail’s edge) and bolt ropes lay among more coils of tarred hemp and oiled wood. Their smell swept me back 60 years to my early sailing days, when these were the stuff of making boats functional each season.
It was a delight to meet and work with this crew of five women and seven men selected from more than 100 applicants to sail and row the shallop.
Captain Ian Bystrom heads the crew, which are varied in skills and backgrounds. One worked as a forensic scientist for the New York City Police Department after the 9/11 attacks; two are certified emergency medical technicians; a couple have studied the biological sciences; and many have taught. Many have spent time working on the water: some aboard the New England schooner fleet, some aboard the Pride of Baltimore, Sultana or other vessels. One is a white-water rafting guide. Others are rowers, hikers, bicyclists or kayakers with thousands of miles under their calves and biceps. One’s a British structural engineer, two have studied anthropology or history, and one is SCUBA certified.
The crew works out several times a day. They run, and all do pushups before shared meals They also play together after hours. This augurs well for people who will have to live and work together 121 days in a 28-foot, open boat, “without benefit of a bed, toilet, running water, air conditioning, refrigeration, and most other modern comforts,” according to their job description. They seem up for it: Time will tell if they’re ready for it!
I was impressed by the depth and quality of their questions: “What words do I use to describe the native peoples?”
“Indians, Native Americans, original peoples are all OK,” Rountree said.
“What do I say if someone comes up and announces ‘I’m related to Pocahontas, John Rolfe, or John Smith?’”
“Well, Smith had no known progeny, but on the other relationships…say, ‘how interesting to meet someone with that fascinating history,’” Clark recommended.
“What can we do to reverse the Bay’s problems?”
“Don’t ask me that,” I rejoined. “I’m for putting people on buses leaving the basin. We must reduce population to resolve the Bay’s problems. Of course that’s not going to happen.” I then gave them all of the stock answers and programs for helping the Bay one can access at www.chesapeakebay.net .
After our sessions, Clark and I walked through the forests of First Landing State Park, looking at some replica Indian lodges built for the coming throng of 400th anniversary visitors. We were a bit disappointed to find all of the sapling frameworks chain-sawed to length, and we suspect that the scores of cattail mats might have been machine-made in China. “Well,” said Clark, “in today’s climate of wetland protection, who’s going out into the marshes and cutting that much cattail?”
Over the next two days, I returned to walk the beach near the site of the adventurers’ first landing and I looked carefully at how they would have come ashore.
I also met some of the shallop crew there, running, walking or meditating and likely thinking through the same problems. The supply of offshore sand here is large, and the beach slopes away very slowly to deeper water. Well offshore is plenty of water, deep enough for most of the world’s great shipping, where the U.S. Coast Guard, under the auspices of Homeland Security, boards and inspects each inbound ship passing through.
Today’s lines of pound net pilings go out a long way before the water is deep enough for fishermen to drive the stakes of their pockets and capture migratory fishes swinging around the cape to enter or leave the Chesapeake. At ebb tide, I could walk a couple hundred feet offshore before there was enough depth to bring a big and heavily manned ship’s boat ashore without a very long wade.
When the adventurers arrived 400 years ago on that April 26, I surmise that it must have been near flood tide for them to conveniently run their boat onto the beach. At high tide, they could come very close to the steep line of primary sand dunes that defend the shore. Later, as they prepared to return to the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, this position would have placed them close enough to the first line of dunes, where Percy related: “There came the savages creeping upon all four from the hills like bears, with their bows in their mouths, (and) charged us very desperately in the faces.”
As I write this, the re-enactment of the Virginia Company’s first landing is taking place at Cape Henry. One of the re-enactors is an acquaintance, Dr. Robert Hicks, a maritime historian and expert on 17th century navigation who portrays Capt. Gabrill (Gabriel) Archer, one of the landing party accompanying George Percy.
As the original 1607 adventurers were boarding the shallop after their foray into the woodland, Archer, upon hearing the natives attack, apparently turned just in time to see an arrow loosed at him. He threw up his arms and was wounded in both hands. I presume Hicks will not undergo similar injury for the sake of historical accuracy!