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   Chapter 5 FANCIES AFLOAT AND RUINS ASHORE

Virginia: The Old Dominion By Frank W. Hutchins and Cortelle Hutchins Characters: 16033

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


It was midday when we tied Gadabout to the pilings beside the bridge, and the weather was hot and sultry. So, we deferred until evening the long walk across the island. But already, sitting under our own awning, we were in the thick of historic association.

Where our houseboat lay, the early colonists used to find haven for their vessels, "lashed to one another and moor'd a shore secure from all Wind and Weather Whatsoever." As they found Back River at this point so we found it, a stream without banks; instead, on either hand stretched lonely marshes, jungles of reeds and rushes, now as then more than man high.

But our thoughts, busy with scenes two or three centuries gone, kept stumbling over two features of the landscape that were out of keeping with those old times. Back of us, where an isthmus should be stretching from island to mainland, was the open water gateway through which we had come; and in front of us, where there should be nothing but river and marsh, that modern bridge reached from shore to shore.

Our quickened fancy made short work of such anachronisms. We promptly raised the submerged isthmus, tying the island to the mainland once more. Then we attacked the bridge; and, as the pilings to which our boat was fastened did not have any connection with that structure, we felt no misgivings as the troublesome modernism faded away.

The bridge disposed of, we bethought us that the road with which it had connected was also a latter-day feature. To be sure, our maps showed us that in colonial times too a road had crossed the island, and along much the same lines; but it had come out a little farther down Back River, at the point already referred to as "Friggett Landing."

To put the roadway right, then, we had first to locate the site of the old landing. And in this important matter what painstaking archeologists we were! Not by guesswork, but by a long string, did we locate "Friggett Landing." After reading all that our authorities had to say on the subject (and understanding part of it), we sent our man down stream in a rowboat, confident that he would find the landing at the end of the measured string. When the string ran out, the rowboat was opposite a point on the marshy edge of the island about one hundred feet below the present-day road.

The correctness of our work was at once evident. All the indications pointed to that; for the place showed not the slightest sign of ever having been used as a landing-place-which is just what you would expect after the lapse of two or three centuries.

After that, it was but the work of a moment to crook the end of the modern road, where it approached the river through a bit of elevated woodland (the only piece of solid land anywhere near us), and so make it come out, like the road of old, at the "landing." Now, our man held aloft a stick with the houseboat's burgee on it, and a photograph was taken that we might not forget where our diverted road came out and where to go to meet the "friggetts" that might be coming in almost any time.

Our trifling bits of restoration made all satisfactory: an isthmus more, a bridge less, a crook in the end of a road-and the scene went back, as our thoughts went back, to those old James Towne days. To be sure, the village itself was still clear across the island on the "Maine River" side, and we could not catch a glimpse of the colonists in their little streets nor even of the English colours flying over the fort.

However, there was enough taking place on our own side of the island. We had no sooner got the isthmus up out of the water than figures began to move across it. But such figures! Was there a mistake somewhere? These were not Englishmen, and they were not Indians. Behold, crossing our isthmus, Dutchmen, Italians, and Poles! Suddenly, from the midst of the group, came a glint and a flash of blue. Then we understood. These were the "skilful workmen from foreign parts" early sent over to the colony to make glass beads, preferably blue ones, for barter with the Indians.

Now, there were only two people on our isthmus-an Indian and a red-headed man. The Indian was tall and "a most strong stout Salvage"; the red-headed man was short but a most strong, stout Englishman. The Indian was Wowinchopunk, chief of the Paspaheghs; the red-headed man was Captain John Smith. A desperate hand-to-hand struggle ensued. We remembered that fight in the school-books, but we had never expected to really see it. Our sympathies were of course largely with the Captain, but more with the isthmus. We had raised it out of the water for temporary purposes only, and with no idea of its being subjected to a strain like this. It was a relief when the two fighters rolled off into the water. By the time they had struggled out again, the white man was victor. As dripping captor and captive set off toward James Towne, we saw Fame stick another laurel leaf in the wet, red hair in commemoration of the single combat in which Captain John Smith defeated the "strong, stout Salvage," Wowinchopunk, on the James Towne isthmus.

For a while after that, nothing much happened over our way. Indians occasionally passed and repassed; now striding openly across to the island on friendly visit, now skulking over to pick off unwary settlers. Once we caught, in a hazy way, the most touching picture associated with the old isthmus-the little savage maiden, Pocahontas, with heart divided between her own people and the pale-faces, crossing over at the head of her train of Indians bearing venison and corn for the half-famished settlers. Pathetic little figure! Often all that seemed to stand between the colonists and destruction.

It was the sound of voices that now made us turn and look the other way. Many people were following the crook in our road, passing through the bit of woodland and coming out at "Friggett Landing." We had heard no "musical note," but evidently the townspeople had; and there, surely enough, was a queer little vessel stopping right where we had marked the spot. It was a pleasure to see that she so readily took our measurements for it. But how she got there perplexed us not a little, as we remembered the row of pilings across the stream that had stopped the houseboat, and which, even in our ardour to restore the colonial setting, we had not once thought to remove.

Back and forth across our isthmus played the old-time life of the colony. Rather sombre figures for a while, and all afoot. Then colour came, and colour on horseback too. They were seeing more prosperous times in the little village across the island. Prancing by went the "qualitye" in flaming silks, and high dignitaries in glittering gold lace. There was even a coach or two. That one attended by soldiers in queer "coats of mail" must belong to Sir William Berkeley, governor of the colony. However, we watched and waited long before anything of importance happened-probably several years.

But time does not count for much in house-boating.

At last, some soldiers marched across the island from the James Towne side to ours, and built a fort near the isthmus. Some more soldiers appeared on the mainland and began to build a fort on their side, near the isthmus. Then we knew that James Towne was seeing its most stirring days. Stubborn old Governor Berkeley and hot-headed young Nathaniel Bacon had fallen out over the Indian question. The people were divided; and here were the preparations for the trial of arms. While the Bacon fort, the one on the mainland, was yet incomplete, we beheld a strange line of white objects fluttering from the top of it. With the aid of field-glasses and some historical works, we at last made out that it was a row of women in white aprons. As our eyes became accustomed to the trying perspective of over two hundred years, we were able to recognize the charming wives of some of the most prominent men in the other fort. The ungallant Bacon had sent out and captured these excellent ladies, and now

placed them in plain sight of their husbands, thus preventing the other fort from opening fire upon him until he had his fortification completed.

After the ladies had been helped down from the rough earthworks and had spoken their minds and taken off their white aprons and gone home, the battle began. Soldiers from the island fort made a sally across our isthmus, were repulsed, and later abandoned their works and fled pell-mell toward James Towne.

At the height of our interest, the flow of life across the historic isthmus lost colour, then died away. No more painted savages; no more soldiers; no more gay groups of mounted men and women in bright London dress; no more worshipful personages in rich velvet and gold lace. Instead, a slow sombre train crossing heavily over and disappearing along the forest road on the mainland leading to Williamsburg. Here, colonial records going by, telling that the brave little capital is a capital no more; there, a quaint church service, bespeaking abandoned holy walls and sacred doors flapping in the idle wind; and all along, those shapeless loads, telling of forsaken firesides, empty streets, a village deserted. After that, came only an occasional ox-cart, a load of hay, or (from the other direction) a carryall filled with strangers curious to visit the site of a little village that was once called James Towne.

Sadly we let our isthmus sink back beneath the waters; we straightened the old roadway, and rebuilt the bridge. Then we went ashore to visit the island, knowing that we should find only a few ruins and one of the best truck farms on the river.

Landing from our shore-boat near the end of the bridge at a little cove that made in through a greenery of fox grape and woodbine, we reached the road and started off through the woodland. It was a pleasant walk among the fragrant pine trees and in the soft light and the lengthening shadows of the waning summer day. Abruptly the grove ended, and thereafter the road led across a succession of marshy hollows and cleared ridges on its way to the other side of the island. About midway in its course it divided; one branch passing into a large enclosure, the other making a detour around it.

The enclosed land, twenty-three acres at the southwest corner of the island, belongs to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. It was given to that society by the present owner of the island, Mrs. Edward E. Barney.

Passing within the enclosure and following the caretaker, we approached with interest, and something of reverence too, a grove near the river bank. It was a grove in whose shadowy depths is all of James Towne that remains above ground-a ruined church tower and some crumbling tombs. As we walked along the curving road, we caught glimpses now and then of the venerable tower; and gradually it emerged as out of the shadows of the past, and we stood facing it. Silently we gazed at the ancient pile, the most impressive ruin of English colonization. A hollow shaft of brick, with two high arched openings, a crumbling top, and a hold on the heart of every American.

How fitting that the four little broken walls alone remaining of all that the colonists built, should be not the walls of house or tavern or fort, but of the tower of the village church! Almost with the solemn significance of a tomb above the ashes of the dead, stands the sacred pile over the buried remains of old James Towne.

The ruin is about thirty-six feet high, though doubtless originally several feet higher. Near the top are loopholes that perhaps suggest the reason why the tower is of such massive build; in those days the red man influenced even church architecture.

Excavations to the east of the tower have disclosed the foundation walls of the remainder of the church, and have helped to fix the date of erection as about 1639. Within these foundations, the ruins of a yet older building have been unearthed. They are doubtless the remains of a wooden church with brick foundations that was built about 1617. So, in the contemplation of these little ruins within ruins, the mind is carried back to the very beginnings of our country, to within ten years perhaps of the day when those first settlers landed.

What this old wooden church looked like probably nobody can tell; but much has been determined as to the general appearance of the brick church, that to which the venerable tower belonged.

The visitor will not be far wrong if, as he stands in the presence of these ruins, he sees in fancy a picture like this: the old tower with several feet of lost height regained, and with a roof sloping up from each of the four sides to a peak in the middle surmounted by a cross; behind the tower, those crumbling church foundations built up into strong walls, bearing a high-pitched roof; each side of the church with four flying buttresses and three lancet windows; the entrance, a pair of arched doorways, one in the front and one in the back of the tower; above the doorway in the front, a large arched window; and, yet higher, the six ominous loopholes; all the walls of the structure composed of brick in mingled red and black, and the roofs of slate.

Now, if the visitor will enter the quaint old church that his fancy has thus restored-moving softly, for truly he is on holy ground and every step is over unknown dead-he may see in vague vision a very little of the ancient interior: the nave lighted by diamond-paned windows, not stained; the aisles between the rows of pews paved with brick; the chancel paved with tile; a gallery at the end next the tower; and, over all, the heavy timbers of the high-pitched roof. Perhaps beyond this fancy can not safely go.

Pilgrims to this broken shrine will be of two opinions as to a work of preservation that the Society owning this part of the island has entered into. About and within the church ruins, we saw evidences of building in progress, and learned that preparation was being made for a memorial structure or chapel, to be erected not on but over the old church foundation walls, to preserve them from the elements. It was to be a gift to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities from the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. Within the building, the ancient church foundations were to be left visible. Though the broken tower was to be untouched, yet this building was to be placed practically against it-to be, in fact, a restoration of the main body of the church.

From what we learned then and later, it was evident that the work was undertaken after the most careful study and in the most painstaking spirit. The structure has since been completed, and is doubtless as desirable a one as could be erected for the preservation of the church foundations. Still, there will be the difference of opinion as to the wisdom of placing a building of any kind close to the old tower. And this, even though the hard alternative should be to preserve the foundations with a cement covering merely, and to place some inconspicuous protection over the chancel.

To the unimaginative visitor, the plan that has been adopted will appeal. To him the ancient broken tower, standing alone, would have little charm in comparison with this faithful restoration of the old church, that enables him to see what he never could have seen but for its being shown to him in brick and mortar. But to the pilgrim of the other sort-day-dreamer, if you will-there must come a sense not of gain but of loss. He will feel that, for a questionable combination of a restoration with a ruin, there has been sacrificed the most impressive spectacle on the island-the ancient church tower of vanished James Towne, standing in the shadow of the little grove by the river, broken, desolate, alone.

As we stood amidst ruins and building stuff, we tried to bear in mind that, of the two pilgrims, the unimaginative one is much the bigger; but we were so hopelessly a part of the other fellow.

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