Many of us recall that in 1607, shortly after the founding of Jamestown, Virginia colonists explored up the James River to the falls, at present-day Richmond. Less remembered is that colonists lived at the falls in 1609 and 1610, among the first English attempts to dwell outside Jamestown.
In 1607 there was an Algonquian town at the falls called Powhatan. The paramount chief of the Algonquians of tidewater Virginia, whose name was Wahunsenacawh, was from that town. The local custom was to call a chief by the name of his or her town. Thus Wahunsenacawh was called Powhatan, and the people under his rule have come to be known as the Powhatans.
A primary story of early Virginia is of the occupation of the Powhatans' lands by the English. The colonists' expeditions to the upper limit of navigation on the James River were episodes in that story.
Presented here are sketches of the four main ventures to the falls during this early period, one each year in 1607, 1608, 1609, and 1610. Also offered are some theories about the locations of the sites associated with these events of four centuries ago.
1607: Bittersweet Discovery
In May 1607, two weeks after first landing at Jamestown Island, a group of two dozen colonists under Christopher Newport set out to explore the upper James River. The investors back in England and the adventurers in Virginia both had visions of grand discovery, imagining they might find mineral riches or a passage to China. The colonists sailed and rowed up the river in their pinnace and were mostly well received by the Powhatans who lived along the shores. At the falls, about 60 miles above Jamestown, rocks and rapids blocked the boat's passage and halted the advance. There Newport held several parleys with Parahunt, the chief of Powhatan town, who was adamant that the colonists proceed no farther. Powhatan town was just below the falls, and a distance above the falls lived another Indian nation, the Monacans, who previously had been hostile.
Gabriel Archer described the feelings of the English at the falls as "between grief and content." It's a curious phrase. He may have meant that they were "content" because they had safely accomplished their immediate mission but had "grief" because dreams of quick fortune had been punctured. The colonists satisfied themselves for this venture by raising an inscribed cross on an island at the falls and claiming the river for their king, and then they returned to Jamestown.
1608: Newport's Force
After the 1607 visit to the falls, Christopher Newport returned to England, and when he came again to Virginia in 1608, he "brought an express command, to Discover the Country of the Manakins." West of the James River falls lived the Monacans, sometime enemies to the Powhatans. Newport assembled an exploratory party of 120 men that this time did not stop at the falls but disembarked and marched upriver. The English had brought along a boat that disassembled to carry to the upper river, but this scheme did not work because the six-mile length of the falls was too far for portage.
Upriver from Powhatan town was a mostly unoccupied buffer zone some ten or fifteen miles wide that separated the domains of the Monacans and the Powhatans. Newport's force proceeded some forty miles, belligerently pushing through two Monacan towns and searching for minerals. Despite the explorers' "gilded hopes," Virginia had no riches like New Spain; the best find proved to be the iron ore discovered previously, downriver below the falls. On the return from Monacan territory, the colonists, whose other mission was to gather food, found that the Powhatans at the falls had anticipated unfriendly demands and hidden their corn. The English went back to Jamestown empty-handed of provisions and "all complaining and tired."
1609: Contentious Settlement
In May 1609 a fleet known as "the third supply" sailed for Jamestown from England with nine ships. A late July hurricane wrecked the ship carrying the leaders on Bermuda. (William Strachey wrote an account of this misadventure that was probably a source for William Shakespeare's The Tempest.) The remaining ships reached Jamestown, but with the leaders missing, conflicts arose. John Smith, who had become the leader of the colony, thought little of the new arrivals, describing them as "unruly gallants packed thether by their friends to escape ill destinies."
Because Jamestown lacked supplies to support the new colonists, several groups set off to make new settlements. About September 1609, one group went to Nansemond, at the lower end of Chesapeake Bay, and another of 120 men "went to plant at the falls." The latter’s leader was Francis West, younger brother of Lord Delaware (early spelling: de la Warre), the non-resident governor of Virginia. According to George Percy, John Smith sent Francis West and his men "up to the falls with six month's victuals to inhabit there." They "erected there a Fort, calling it West's-Fort," and became "Reasonably well settled," but the Powhatans at the falls did not receive them happily. English who strayed from the fort were attacked, "some of them coming home wounded," and "others never returned to bring any tidings but were cut off and slain by the savages."
John Smith went to the falls and found West's Fort "inconsiderately seated in a place, not only subject to the rivers inundation, but round environed with many intolerable inconveniences." By his account, Smith struggled for nine days to act as an intermediary between the settlers and the Powhatans. The latter complained that the English were "stealing their corn, robbing their gardens, beating them, breaking their houses, and keeping some prisoners." As a remedy Smith arranged the purchase of the Powhatans' townsite, to his thinking much better situated. Smith said there was "no place so strong, so pleasant and delightful in Virginia, for which we called it Nonsuch." (Smith's name also made reference to the palace called Nonsuch built by King Henry VIII in Surrey, England.)
Other accounts interpret events less favorably towards Smith. George Percy wrote that "Capt. Smith perceiving both his authority and person neglected incensed and Animated the savages against Capt. West and his company." At any rate, "new turmoils arose." Smith thought West's crew "did abuse themselves with their great guilded hopes of seas, mines, commodities, or victories they so madly conceived," and he "left them to their fortunes: they returning again to the open air at West Fort, abandoning Nonsuch; and he to James Towne." On the boat heading downriver Smith carried gunpowder "in his pocket," said Percy, "where the sparke of a matche lighted very shrewdly burned him." The serious injury forced John Smith's departure from Virginia.
At the falls, the Powhatans remained hostile and continued to raid, and toward the end of 1609, George Percy wrote, "Capt. West did come down to us from the Falls" to Jamestown, abandoning the fort, having lost eleven men and a boat "besides those men he lost at the Falls." Jamestown was no haven, however. The winter of 1609–10 became the "starving time." Francis West, sent in a boat with crew to find food, instead fled back to England. In fall 1609 there had been some 500 English colonists in Virginia, and by spring 1610 there were about 60.
1610: The Governor's Mission
The crew shipwrecked on Bermuda managed to build a new vessel and in spring 1610 sailed to Virginia. Finding the conditions grim, the leaders decided to abandon Jamestown. When just underway to return to England, they met a relief fleet bearing the governor, Thomas West, Lord Delaware (1577–1618), and 300 men. Jamestown was reoccupied and the colony sustained.
Iron ore sent to England in 1608 had proved of good quality. Lord Delaware's intention was to establish a post at the falls to "search for Minerals and to make further proof of the Iron mines." For that purpose, he sent a party that included his ironworkers "in a barkque up to the falls," according to George Percy. As the English passed the village of Apoamatake, near the mouth of the Appomattox River, "they were called ashore by the savages." At first intending only to stop for fresh water, the colonists were enticed to the village, "like greedy fools," said Percy, "more esteeming of a little food than their own lives." At "a fitting time when they least dreaded any danger" the Indians "did fall upon them." Only Dowse the drummer escaped. Fleeing to the boat, he used its rudder both as a shield from arrows and to scull, and "little by little got out of their reach."
Despite that setback, Percy reported that in autumn 1610, "Capt. Bruster was sent up to the falls with a Certain number of men To Attend there for my Lord's Coming, who purposed to procede in the Search of minerals." Bruster, wrote Percy, "had diverse encounters and skirmishes with the Indians, At Length arriving at the falls where my Lord did shortly after Come unto him."
"Now my Lord being at the Falls and winter Coming on," continued Percy, "he Caused A fort to be builded there both for their defence and shelter and named the same Laware's fort." Lord Delaware was "Intending to have Reposed himself there all the winter and to have proceded upon the discovery of minerals the next Spring." The settlement did not have an easy time, for "neither sickness nor scarcity was wanting," said Percy. Lord Delaware's settlers "had diverse encounters with the Indians, some of his men being slain," and "Captain Bruster narrowly escaped." William Strachey wrote that the Powhatans "killed Capt. William West, our Lord General's nephew, and 2 or 3 more, and took one Simon Score, a sailor, and one Cobb, a boy, prisoners."
Percy wrote of Lord Delaware that "growing very Sick he was inforced to Alter his former determination and to return to James town," but even there "his Sickness nothing abated but rather increased." The governor returned to England. (A few years later, in 1616, Lord and Lady Delaware were participants in the presentation of Pocahontas to the royal court. His greatest legacy to the colonies may have been names: a bay up the east coast and its river were named in his honor, and his family name West appears in Westover and West Point.)
No further attempt to settle at the falls seems to have occurred for several decades. When Sir Thomas Dale arrived in Virginia in 1611 he reconnoitered the river and selected a site some ten miles below the falls for the new settlement of Henricus.