As winter approached in 1607, amid an autumn of plenty, the colonists barricaded in the fort at Jamestown had no interest in returning to England. Capt. John Smith had garnered resources for the colony from Native American farmers: “good bread, Virginia peas, pumpkins, and Putchamins (persimmons).” (Eating persimmons meant that this was after the first serious frosts. Eating this fruit before the ripening influence of the frosts, will “draw the mouth awry” with their astringent juices.)
The colonists also found that “the rivers became so covered with swans, geese, ducks, and cranes that we daily feasted.”
Despite such stability—and his contributions to it—Smith was harassed by other Jamestown Council members for being slow to explore. He thus left the colony with a party of 11 to discover the headwaters of the nearby Chicahominy River, a tributary to the James.
They worked upstream in their barge with two native guides, cutting trees at great labor to go as far as their armed party could proceed together. Smith anchored the barge in a “broad bay,” secure from arrows shot off the shorelines. The most upstream feature on the Chickahominy meeting this description on today’s charts is about 20 miles from its confluence with the James.
The seven men left aboard were told not to go ashore, but stay with the boat.
Meanwhile, Smith, Master Jehu Robinson, a gentleman; Thomas Emry, a carpenter; and the two guides proceeded up the narrow, tree-choked, yet deep channel with a canoe. Smith, by his own account, went another 12 miles deep into what he called, Virginia’s “desert.”
When they went ashore “during the boiling of our victuals,” Smith told his two English companions to stay with one of their native guides—their slow-matches alight, ready to fire their cumbersome guns instantly, warning him of any attack. Smith and the other guide went “to see the nature of the soil, and to cross the boughts (bights or convoluted oxbow turns) of the river.”
Aboard the barge, the men foolishly decided to wander ashore. A Powhatan hunting party—one account claims 300 bowmen—captured George Cassen, a laborer. They were lucky the entire crew wasn’t killed.
Cassen met a horrible end. Under torture, later described to the colonists by his Powhatan captors, shells and sharp reeds were used to cut off the joints of his extremities, which were thrown, one by one, into a fire against which he was literally baking, and then the flesh was peeled off his head and face before he was disemboweled. It’s said that his dried remains were kept as a trophy for some time.
Pondering Cassen’s demise, I thought a long time about which reed this might be, and finally discovered that river cane (Arundinaria gigantea) or a second species, (A. tecta) have extraordinarily hard, woody tissue that can be split and sharpened. Tried on a steak, it will cut raw flesh as well as a moderately sharp steel knife.
Before he died, the tortured Cassen had revealed where Smith had gone, and other Powhatans scattered in bands to search the river. They shot Robinson and Emry full of arrows, killing them so quickly that they were unable to fire a warning shot.
Smith was not 15 minutes away and heard the Indians hubbub. Assuming Robinson and Emry had been surprised, and suspecting his own guide to be unreliable, he bound the man to his arm with a garter normally used to blouse his pant leg at the calf, using him as a buckler or shield. At the point of Smith’s “French pistol” the guide—who spoke Powhatan and some English—agreed not to struggle, and the pair began retreating to the canoe.
A party of warriors attacked them almost immediately, an arrow striking Smith’s thigh. A pistol shot sent the first of these men sprawling and fleeing. The pistol was likely the then state-of-the-art flintlock, which was faster to load and fire than a long matchlock musket. Smith recharged three or four more times with similar successes—killing one native and mortally wounding another—but dozens of arrows were shot at him, many piercing his clothes and wounding him.
“In retiring,” Smith recalled, “being in the midst of a low quagmire, and minding them more than my steps; I step’d fast into the quagmire, and also the Indian in drawing me forth.” They were trapped and sunk to their waists in the freezing ooze. Unable to extract themselves, after some time, they were near dead with cold.
Surrounded by the Native Americans, who by then had coalesced their bands into a party of 200 warriors, Smith negotiated, using his guide as interpreter, and indicated that all he wanted to do was return to his boat.
But, the Indians told him “the rest were slain, only me would they reserve.” This may have been in part because his guide informed the others that Smith was a werowance (chief) and as such his life should be spared—normal Algonquian protocol.
Finally, in capitulation, Smith threw away his arms. The natives then pulled them out of the mire and led Smith to the fire where his men had been murdered and “diligently they chafed [Smith’s] benumbed limbs.”
Smith’s arduous and ultimately famous captivity had begun. He asked for their leader, who turned out to be Opechancanough, Powhatan’s powerful brother and later an implacable enemy of the English. They marched him to a nearby village, Rassawrack, about six miles from the site of his capture. Smith, observing the loose mats covering temporary houses, presumed the place to be a hunting camp. It was made up of small lodges of bent poles, protected from the weather with portable mats the women packed in. A fire in the center would warm them and a hole in the roof let some of the smoke out.
Edward Wright Haile, a well-known Colonial Chesapeake and Jamestown historian, has long been interested in this capture route, where despite being led in fear of his life, Smith was still clever enough to stay alive and gather some of the best early descriptions we have of Powhatan life and beliefs.
No one today has ever found Rassawrack. This spring—before tick season—I accompanied Haile and Wayne E. Clark, an archaeologist and Native American researcher and Maryland’s director of museum services at the Maryland Historical Trust, out in Virginia’s lower peninsula forests looking for Rassawrack.
We met at a small parcel of farmland, where Haile had obtained the landowner’s permission for us to survey.
Haile, who had spent a long career as a surveyor, moved effortlessly through the forest. He knows his parts of Virginia intimately, from the oldest platted lands to new developments. He recites the histories of families that have lived on some of these parcels for centuries, laughing and noting that he’s related to a good many of them through his ancestors.
Haile has read and reread Smith’s account of his capture and imprisonment. He knows how far a man can walk in a day; he knows how a party would move to avoid stream crossings in winter, how the landscape would affect Native American paths. He was confident that he had worked out the route on which Smith was taken.
As we drove through the area, he pointed to the road along a ridge where an Indian trail that became a dirt lane along a farm boundary was eventually paved, and later assumed into Virginia’s numbered road network.
We know the location of Orapax, one of the places where Smith was marched to during his time of fear. It is not far from where we walked that day. There, nitrogen-fixing soybeans had been planted to refurbish land destined for corn. Soil-mending legumes were also used to improve fertility for corn in Powhatan’s time. The site is level land, a terrace from some ancient river, where the soil is still productive after almost 1,000 years of cultivation. These are the sites where Powhatan villages were built—and the sites quickly coveted by the English for their own corn and tobacco.
I was tempted to think that we were almost walking in Smith’s footsteps. I imagined his heavy breathing as he was roughly rushed along by his captors. They were at ease in this forest slipping along silently, dodging undergrowth, their knees reflexively responding to minute changes in topography. Smith would have walked heavily in his boots, each step an impact. He had to watch branches snapping back to slap his face, or fallen limbs or irregularities on the ground that would cause him to stumble.
He may have walked here, but the forest he knew is long gone—plowed and logged for centuries, then beaten to dust during the Civil War. As we quietly sat on the brow of a hill, Haile informed us that we were behind what were Confederate lines in 1862. The site was a defensible plain of high ground, about 180 feet above sea level.
In the crushing heat of July 1864, Union Gen. Ulysses Grant made a frontal assault on these positions. Five thousand men died. Haile said Grant refused to concede that Gen. Robert E. Lee—who held the high ground—had stopped him, and would not declare a truce so that the dead could be carried off or the wounded rescued. Haile told how men lay for days crying for water, begging for help and the dead bloated in the heat. John Smith and the Powhatans were temporarily forgotten.
We were perhaps six miles from the sites of native villages along the James, too far for local day hunts, yet close enough that parties on longer hunts would have frequently ventured in this part of the woods in search of deer.
The Chicahominy River indents this landscape. Supplies for a hunting village, such as Rassawrack, would have come by canoe as long as there was enough water. Thereafter, men and women would pack items in baskets on their backs, and with a tump-line over their brows to support the weight, they carried goods the rest of the way along trails to an upland camp.
Here between the York and James rivers, the land is deeply incised by steep valleys dropping away from dry ridges to flat valley floors where small steams meander, cutting almost vertical banks to reveal bottoms of sand and yellow gravel. During heavy rains, these streams overflow onto the flat valley floors, dissipating the flood’s energy. Slower flowing waters leave sediments on the flood plain, giving substance to soils rich in organics from leaf debris and its decomposition.
Clark said Native American hunting parties would establish their camps along dry ridges. As we worked our way down the slope toward the head of a U-shaped valley, he noted, “There should be a trail here down to the spring. They always sited near a good source of water.”
The spring would be preferable to the stream which flowed from it because spring water was always pure—not that there were toxic waste sites or septic tank seeps in the pre-colonial Chesapeake. But there could be animal wastes or an animal’s carcass out of site upstream of the place they used for drinking.
Haile said these springs, artesian in nature, were still present in his youth: In the 1960s, he knew of a farm where the water shot 3 feet out of the ground. These springs have largely disappeared in his lifetime: Development, logging and farming on the uphill recharge areas have sapped their water supply. Some are no more than moist soil, others may flow or dribble seasonally.
We found no trail here, the ravages of 400 years have eroded it away. Just over the brow, Haile pointed out an old fence-line. “This was a fence-worm, you know the zig-zag fences made by laying split rails atop each other. Eight-foot chestnut rails (one of the dominant forest trees through the early 20th century) would last a long time. There was a family that traveled these counties. All they did was build these fences. They’d cycle around and eventually show up to split rails from these straight-grained logs and raise the same fence as the lower rails slowly rotted and sank into the soil.
“Same family,” he continued, “later switched over to railroad ties, using the same technique. No special equipment, just a sledgehammer, axe and wedges. They’d first split a log—6 feet long in this case—one with good grain, split it again and so on, reducing it to several ties of 6 inches square. Put one on their shoulder—they weighed 100 pounds—and take it to the truck for Tappahannock, (VA).”
Clark dug several test pits with his shovel, looking for evidence of Native American habitation: a stone flake, bit of pottery, evidence of fire-cracked rock from a cooking site. He found none. Even though we were in relatively mature oak and tulip poplar forest, with an understory of huckleberry studded with sweet bay, the soil beneath us had long ago been eroded of its topsoil with only the faintest layer of duff formed since it was last farmed. Beneath it is only orange and featureless subsoil.
Downstream in another valley, we approached evidence of civilization. A low dam had been thrown up embaying one of the small springs. These were usually on property survey lines, Haile said, and in wet weather become a shallow pond.
In a time when this area was deforested by agriculture, it would become an open “frost hollow” and be quick to freeze. The ice was harvested—perhaps several times during cold weather—and taken to an ice house. The concept, Haile said, had been patented in England by Virginia Gov. William Berkeley about 1659. (Perhaps he had made some technical improvements, as ice houses for storing food are recorded in Chinese verse to the Goddess of Cold as early as 1100 B.C.) A few colonial ice houses can be seen around the Chesapeake, dug into the ground with a single access door. Layers of ice were placed inside with insulation like grass or hay between to slow melting.
There is also a beaver dam in the valley. The backed-up water has created a wet woodland, drowning the roots of fallen trees. Many more have been chewed by the beaver, munching on the tree’s juicy cambium layer for nutrition or dragging saplings or limbs to build up their dam—always in a race to wear down the animal’s continually growing teeth.
With their skins useful in their own right and valuable for trade, this beaver clan would have been trapped out by early Native Americans. These beaver survive today because of changes in today’s focus on the landscape and natural resources.
We failed to find Rassawrack. Hundreds of wooded acres to survey, only a few test pits randomly placed and very little exposed ground did not make for ideal conditions. A more sustained search for the 400-year-old Indian hunting camp is warranted.