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   Chapter 3 LAND, HO! OUR COUNTRY'S BIRTHPLACE

Virginia: The Old Dominion By Frank W. Hutchins and Cortelle Hutchins Characters: 9519

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


When we hoisted our anchor next day, it came up reluctantly; and we sailed away with faces often turned backward toward the little harbour of Chuckatuck, with its blue of wave and sky, its white of cloud and beach, its green of circling hills, and the picturesque life on its waters.

Out again in the James (still some four miles wide), we felt that Nature had almost overdone the matter of supplying us with a waterway for our voyage. We should willingly have dispensed with a mile or so on either side of our houseboat. There was a wind that kept steadily freshening, so that after rounding Day's Point we noticed that the river was getting rather rough; and we soon found that Gadabout was equally observing. She rolled and pitched; but with both engines and the tide to help her along she made good enough headway.

And in navigating the broad stream what advantages we had over those early mariners upon the Sarah Constant, the Goodspeed, and the Discovery!

Their passage up this river was upon unknown waters through an unknown land. We knew just where we were, and where we were going. They even fancied that they might be upon an arm of the ocean that would lead through the new-found world and open a direct route to the South Sea and to the Indies. Our maps showed us that even this wide waterway was but a river; and that while it flowed some four hundred miles from its source beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains, yet we could ascend it only about one hundred miles, as we should then come upon a line of falls and rapids that would prevent farther navigation.

In the case of those early voyagers, savages lurked along the wooded shores and greater dangers lay in the unknown, treacherous currents and hidden bars of the stream itself. We should have to imagine all our savages; and there, on the table in Gadabout's little cockpit, close to the man (or, quite as likely, the woman) at the wheel, lay charts that told the hidden features of the river highway.

Quaint old-time Sarah and her sister ships could not have sailed up this waterway very far before finding navigation difficult. Even small as they were, they must often have found scant water if the James of that time, like the James of to-day, had its top and bottom so close together every here and there. A majestic river several miles wide, often fifty to seventy-five feet deep, yet barred by such tangles of shoals as one would not expect to find in a respectable creek. And shoals too that the colour of the water hides from the keenest eyes.

To be sure, for us it was all plain sailing. The charts told where the shoals were and how to avoid them. Our chief danger lay in presuming too much upon our light draft and in venturing too far from the indicated channels. But how about those deeper-draft, chartless sailing craft? Well, they managed to get along anyway, and our houseboat must on after them.

One more straight reach of the river, one more great sweeping bend, and we should come upon the site of that old village of James Towne. Still the tawny Powhatan, like many another proud savage, showed small sign of succumbing to civilization. There seemed scarce any mark of human habitation. The life of the people, where there were people, must have been back from the banks. The river itself was empty. Nowhere was there wreath of smoke or shimmer of sail. Just the wild beauty of the shores, the noble expanse of the stream, the cloudless blue of the summer sky, and Gadabout.

Yet, we were not seeing quite the James that those first English eyes beheld. For them the slopes and headlands were covered with far nobler forests and Nature wore her May-time gown. Life and colour were everywhere. In the clear atmosphere of the Virginia spring, the woodland was a wealth of living green radiantly starred with flowers. What a Canaan those weary, storm-tossed colonists must have thought it all!

We can well imagine the little family groups gathered on the decks, eagerly planning for their new life. We can see the brightening in the tired eyes of women and of children as the ships tack near to the flowery shore; as schools of fish break the river into patches of flashing silver; as strange, brilliant birds go flaming in the sunlight; as beauty is added to beauty in this wondrous new home-land.

No! We blunder in our history. There were no women and children on the Sarah Constant, nor on the Goodspeed, nor on the Discovery. The story of these ships is not like that later one of the Mayflower. The colour dies out of the picture; and there remains only the worn, motley band of men-men who have taken possession of the country by the sign of the cross, fit omen of the fate awaiting them.

At last our houseboat came about the bend in the ri

ver and before us along the northern shore lay Jamestown Island, the site of old James Towne. We could make out little yet but the low wooded shore and the wide opening that we knew was the mouth of Back River, the waterway that cuts off from the mainland that storied piece of soil. Now Gadabout's steering-wheel was counting spokes to starboard; she headed diagonally up the river toward the northern shore, and we were soon nearing the historic island.

So, here was where those three little ships, that we had been following at the respectful distance of three centuries, terminated their voyage; here was where that handful of colonists founded the first permanent English settlement in the New World; here was the cradle of our country.

However, the place in those old days was not exactly an island, although even the early colonists often called it so. There was a low isthmus (that has since been washed away) connecting with the mainland; so that the site of the settlement was in reality a peninsula. It was a low and marshy peninsula, an unhealthful place for the site of a colony. The settlers had a hard time from the beginning. They would have had a harder time but for the presence of a remarkable man among them. He was one of the best of men, or he was one of the worst-dependent upon which history you happen to pick up. At all events, he was the man for the hour. But for him the colony would have perished at the outset. This man of course was the schoolboy's hero, Captain John Smith.

The chief hardships of the colonists at first were scarcity of food and frequent Indian attacks. To these were soon added a malarial epidemic caused by the unhealthful surroundings. As if there were yet not suffering enough, the "Supplies" (the ships that came over with reinforcements and food) brought bubonic plague and cholera from English ports. Often, if they had touched at the West Indies, they brought yellow fever too. The sufferings in that little pioneer settlement of our country have scarcely been equalled in modern colonization.

Time went on; and the population waxed and waned as reinforcements built it up and as the terrible mortality cut it down again. All the while there seemed no outcome to the struggle. James Towne had in it not even the promise of a successful colony. The settlers did not find the gold and precious stones that were expected, nor did they find or produce in quantities any valuable commodities. They were not even self-supporting. The colony held on because constantly fed with men and provisions by the "Supplies." There was dissatisfaction in London; in James Towne misery and often despair. The climax of disappointment and suffering was reached in the spring of 1610, ever since known as the "Starving Time." In that season of horror, the settlement almost passed out of existence.

After that matters improved, and chiefly because of a single development: James Towne learned to grow tobacco; Europe learned to use it. From that time the place took on new life and made great strides toward becoming self-supporting. More and better settlers arrived, and the colony even put out offshoots, so that soon there were several settlements up and down the river and upon other rivers. And of all, James Towne was the seat of government, the proud little capital of the Colony of Virginia.

But trouble was still in store for this pioneer village, and this time final disaster. The very cause of prosperity became the chief cause of downfall. Tobacco and towns could not long flourish together. The famous weed rapidly exhausted the soil, and there was constant need for new lands to clear and cultivate. The leading Virginians turned their backs upon James Towne and upon the other struggling settlements too, and established vast individual estates along the river to which they drew the body of the people.

To be sure there still had to be some place as the seat of government; and in that capacity the village hung on a good while longer, though with few inhabitants aside from colonial officials and some tavern-keepers. It was not to be allowed to keep even these. Despite every effort to force the growth of the town, it dwindled; and in 1699 it received its deathblow upon the removal of the seat of government to Williamsburg.

The rest is a matter of a few words. The pioneer village was gradually abandoned and fell to ruins. As though natural decay could not tear down and bury fast enough, the greedy river came to its aid. Besides eating away the ancient isthmus, the James attacked the upper end of the island, devouring part of the site of the old-time settlement. Between decay and the river, James Towne, the birthplace of our country, vanished from the face of the earth.

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