For more than a decade, an empty blue house perched on the edge of an otherwise houseless sweep of cliffs along the Rappahannock River loomed as a symbol of its future — which included plans for two housing developments in an ecologically and historically significant area of Virginia’s Northern Neck. But, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completes its purchase of that Fones Cliffs property this month, dismantling that house will be among the first priorities.A 252-acre property on the edge of Fones Cliffs will be preserved from development and transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this month. The cliffs along the Rappahannock River are referenced in explorer Capt. John Smith’s journals from 1608 and were the site of Smith’ interactions with the Rappahannock people. (Dave Harp)

In its place, a different story about the generations of people and wildlife who have lived around these 100-foot cliffs has already begun to emerge. Conservationists hope that narrative will persuade neighboring landowners — one of whom filed for bankruptcy on its development project in May — to consider conservation, too.

Since purchasing the property at the end of 2018 from longtime owner Terrell Bowers, The Conservation Fund has been preparing to transfer it to federal hands this month. If all goes as planned, its 252 acres of forests, fields and deep ravines will become part of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, protecting habitat for one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in the country while adding to the refuge’s 9,000 protected acres along the Northern Neck.

But not every acre is created equal, and the few that cozy up to the edge of those breathtaking cliffs — offering panoramas of the river’s curves below — are the ones conservationists are most eager to protect.

“The fact that other people are going to be able to come out here and see and understand this landscape is so important,” said Heather Richards, The Conservation Fund’s Virginia state director and program manager, as she watched storm clouds roll in from far across the river. “Pictures don’t really do it justice. You have to be out here to really understand it.”

The property will eventually be open to the public as other refuge sites are, though officials will first have to deal with safety issues such as poor road conditions and the cliff’s 100-foot drop-off.

The view that made this property prime real estate has long convinced historians and contemporary Rappahannock Tribe members that the region’s earliest inhabitants would have lived along these cliffs, too. Last month, a group of archaeologists from St. Mary’s College of Maryland scraped together the funds to do a little digging.

Cora Peirce, a cultural field specialist with the Narragansett Indian Tribe Historic Preservation Trust, and Rappahannock Tribe Chief Anne Richardson (center) talk to Scott Strickland, an archaeologist from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, about his findings during digs at a newly conserved site along Fones Cliffs. (Dave Harp)Scott Strickland, an archaeologist and GIS manager at St. Mary’s, said after just a few days of shallow, dispersed digs on the site that evidence indicates a man named Indian Peter likely lived as a tenant on the property in the early 1700s. A native, likely from the Rappahannock Tribe that still inhabits the region, Indian Peter’s name shows up in the 1697 will of landowner Angelo Jacobus. In the will, Jacobus gifts Peter clothing, a horse and a saddle, along with a promise of his freedom from indentured servitude two years later, Strickland said. At that time, Garlands Creek, which runs near the property, went by the name “Indian Peter Creek.”

“The dates of these artifacts correspond well with when he would have gotten his freedom in 1699 (according to the will), along with the name of the creek,” Strickland said. “The puzzle pieces seem to fit.”

During a mid-May visit along the cliffs, Strickland shared his findings with the Rappahannock Tribe’s chief, Anne Richardson, and Cora Peirce, a cultural field specialist who helps identify ceremonial lands for the Narragansett Indian Tribe Historic Preservation Trust.

Peirce was quick to identify the cliffs, with their lofty views and high concentrations of eagles (the tribe believes they carry ancestral messages), as a ceremonial landscape. While at the site, she burned an aromatic piece of cedar and sprinkled shells to acknowledge the site’s spiritual value. And she said the Indian Peter story sounds likely, too.

“Usually, we do have natives that are overseeing ceremonial landscapes, even if they’re indentured servants, at that time,” she told Strickland as he showed her the artifacts.

Among the Colonial era findings concentrated near the cliff were fragments of tobacco pipes, imported European ceramics and part of a glass wine bottle, all of which would have been commonplace in an early-1700s home. The archaeologists also found some “lithic materials” — small quartz flakes that could have been used to make or sharpen stone tools such as projectile points and blades. Natives would have used these tools long before Europeans arrived in Virginia, but Strickland said the fragments could not be positively dated.

Strickland later came across a piece of a projectile point lying on the ground at his feet on the way to his car. It was a base of what he later identified as a Vernon projectile point that dates back 4,000–5,000 years.

The archaeologists have found points like these at almost all of the sites along the Rappahannock, and “it does point to the use of the site dating back at least that far,” Strickland later noted.Anne Richardson, a fourth-generation chief of the Rappahannock Tribe, smiles at the edge of Fones Cliffs, a landscape archaeologists and historians believe her ancestors would have frequented for spiritual ceremonies. The property offers sweeping views of the curving Rappahannock River and, conservationists hope, “a foothold” toward preserving more of the landscape. (Dave Harp)

Strickland and his colleague, St. Mary’s archaeologist Julia King, have spent months surveying land along the Rappahannock River for Indian artifacts under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. But, until recently, this property was off-limits.

The archaeologists have plans to continue looking for evidence of three Indian villages that, based on explorer Capt. John Smith’s records, they believe were located along these cliffs in 1608. Smith described the villages “situated high upon white clay cliffs” just downstream of Tappahannock, across from marshlands.

“There’s only so many places along the river that that could be,” Strickland said. “When we had the opportunity to come out here and survey, we were trying to look for places that might fit that [description]. We don’t think we’ve found that village.”

The crews hope to look for evidence of Rappahannock cliffside communities on properties on either side of the former Bowers property that are still privately owned. Chief Richardson said finding those villages is critical, “in case they can be preserved,” too.

“It’s very important, not just for my people but for people in general,” she said. “We’re very grateful for the work that all of the conservation agencies have done to preserve this place.”

The 4-mile stretch of Fones Cliffs is still largely in private hands, though the Fund’s Richards said she hopes that preserving this 252-acre chunk in the middle will clear the way for surrounding properties to be at least partially conserved.

“This is the foothold. It’s not the biggest piece, but it is the central piece,” Richards said. “We’re hoping to say to the other owners that, ‘Hey, we’re here and we’re willing to talk to you about a conservation solution.’ ”

A more than 1,000-acre property to the south of the former Bowers tract is owned and managed by Northern Neck Lumber Co., which has not expressed plans to develop or sell it.

To the north is another 1,000-acre parcel, bought in 2017 by Virginia True Corp., which plans to develop the land into a luxury golf resort with 205 single-family homes, 513 multi-family units, 18 cabins and a 116-room lodge, along with retail facilities. Those plans could now be on hold as the company, facing lawsuits from the state and other parties, filed for bankruptcy in early May.

Joe McCauley, Chesapeake fellow at the Chesapeake Conservancy, and Heather Richards, The Conservation Fund’s Virginia director and program manager, stand at the edge of a cliffside property that the Fund purchased late last year to sell to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this summer. (Dave Harp)

Virginia True owes the Diatomite Corporation of America, the property’s previous owner, $7 million, according to the company’s filing for Chapter 11 reorganization in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York, where Virginia True is based. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is its second-largest creditor, owed $250,000, with several contractors owed about $150,000 in addition.

Virginia True’s plans to develop the Fones Cliffs property got off to a rocky start in late 2017 when the company cleared more than 13 acres of trees near erosion-prone banks without acquiring the proper permits. A few months later, a portion of the cliff face near that clearing sloughed off into the river after several days of rain.

State environmental regulators levied a series of fines and orders to get the site back into compliance over the course of 2018. But, in October, Attorney General Mark Herring sued Virginia True over the violations, saying in a statement that he would seek the maximum allowable penalties for “significant and repeated environmental violations.” That filing stated that those penalties could run up to $32,500 per day for each violation.

Conservation groups were still trying to make sense of the bankruptcy filing in late May and how it would bode for the property’s future. Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, which has advocated for more of the cliffs to be preserved, said the filing “comes as no surprise” given the property’s history.

“This project was ill-conceived from the start, and all that has been accomplished to date are a series of environmental violations,” he said. “We will continue to advocate for a conservation outcome and will remain vigilant to any and all issues that affect this irreplaceable resource.”

This time last year, it seemed unlikely that any of the properties along Fones Cliffs would be preserved. Terrell Bowers had for years oscillated between conserving his property and turning it into a 45-home development, saying he hoped to recoup the costs of purchasing the land near the height of the housing market in 2002.

Joe McCauley, who worked at the Fish and Wildlife Service for more than 30 years before becoming a Chesapeake fellow at the Conservancy, said he first talked to Bowers about conserving his property within a year of his buying it, but that deal and others over the years had fallen through.

Bowers said in a press release in October that “an incredible twist of fate” led him to pivot toward conservation and away from development. That same week, he had planned to seek approval from Richmond County officials to build 10-story condominiums on the river’s edge instead of single-family homes. But his wife’s car broke down in South Carolina while escaping the predicted path of Hurricane Florence, and Bowers decided to forsake the county meeting to help his wife and instead take the Fund up on its offer.

The Conservation Fund paid him $3.96 million for the property, which the Fish and Wildlife Service will reimburse this summer using money that was freed up with the help of Virginia representatives like Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman when another federal land deal fell through, Richards said.

“It’s been a long time coming, that’s for sure,” McCauley said in mid-May, standing on the edge of the cliffs during a visit with Richards, tribe representatives and the archaeologists. “We’re just really grateful that the Fund was able to bring it across the finish line.”

After years of bemoaning the latest developments at Fones Cliffs, Richard Moncure, tidal river steward for the Friends of the Rappahannock, said he still finds it hard to believe a piece of it will now be preserved.

“The thing we wanted to happen for so long is finally happening,” he said. “Sometimes I just have to pinch myself.”