A POTOMAC RIVER HERSTORY

by keith harmon snow

 

She could never be sure who betrayed her. Lured by her trusted friend Japazaws, Chief of

 the Pawtawomeckes, the legendary golden goddess boarded an English sloop captained by Samuel Argall, moored on the Potomac River near what would later be Mount Vernon. It was 1613. The abduction of the Indian princess sealed the doom of the Algonquian nation. Her name was Pocahontas. She was betrayed for a tarnished copper kettle and some measly English toys.

Months earlier Captain Argall sailed up the Potomac to forge a military alliance with Japazaws. Bonfires lit along the river announced the coming ships, while 500 bowmen gathered to meet them. The pact of friendship was sealed with an exchange of hostages. Argall also won 1,100 bushels of maize in the deal. But kidnapping Pocahontas was the coup de grace: She was the daughter of the mighty Powhatan, and the English were at war with the Powhatan chiefdom.

Nearly 400 years later, on the Nightingale II, a breezy D.C. tourist boat, I am sailing smoothly up the Potomac. It is August, and Washington is an oven. Because I am his only passenger, Captain Skip Shankle is disconsolately wilted. “Even the fish are complaining,” he mutters, wiping the sweat off his brow. (Captain Shankle is dreaming of his annual off-season dive trip to the Caribbean.) The flat, gray Potomac seems ready to boil.

I have met families on vacation, power boaters, students, museum buffs, cigar-puffing diplomats, and historians. Built on the birthright of native Americans and the backs of African slaves, having seen a revolution and a civil war, and with its White House and Pentagon and Watergate, Washington is a vortex of power. Most who come here come to mingle with power. That is the seduction of this city.

I have come to explore the river and discover her story. Like the cypress forests and the stately swans, once abundant on the Potomac, the Algonquians are mostly gone. The frosted winds blow out of the northwest every autumn, driving the blue crabs down into their hidey holes, and geese loom in the sky. In the capital’s halls of power, treaties are ever forged and broken. And the mighty Potomac -- undaunted now as then -- flows silently through it.

CO-HON-GO-ROO-TA

Free Africans sailed the Atlantic to trade with the Indians long before Columbus, but the conquistador Admirante Pedro Menendez was the first European known to have navigated this river (1574). Captain John Smith named her the Elizabeth after his ship was halted by Little Falls, 10 miles north of the Lincoln Memorial site known to the Indians as “fish plenty of” place.

“Otters, Beavers, Martins, Luswarts, and Sables we found,” Smith wrote of this place, “and the abundance of fish lying so thicke with their heads above water, as for want of nets we tried to catch them with a frying pan, but found this a bad instrument to catch fish with.” Smith stood in the shallows spearing fish with his sword until he was stung by a ray and given up for dead.

Under the “Chain” Bridge near Little Falls I find a burly Scott Roberts teaching his son Adam to fish. Half a dozen catfish are strung over the side of the boat. “Row, row, row your boat,” Scott sings, laughing. A retired soldier, Scott has worked this river for years. “The river is sweet,” he says, “you never know what gift it will give you.”

The river is dark and silent. I see fat old fish lurking in black currents. Cypress behemoths, their gnarled roots clutching the shore, bespeak the tidewater swamps of a bygone era. There are children hiking and swimming, kayakers and canoers challenging the canyons and rapids. Rock walls climb to 250 feet, a buffer to the noisy metropolis.

From rocks that the locals call the “Hens and Chickens” I drop into a blackwater pool. Like an otter I soak and bask in hours of sunny river solitude. A bald eagle soars overhead, and a great blue heron works the shallow pools. By sunset I am sinking back into herstory in a plush chair at a Washington Pier juice bar. My book is Pocahontas by historian Francis Mossiker. The Potomac shimmers under the moon.

The natives knew the wild Potomac as Cohongoroota. Some 5,000 Algonquians had peopled the Potomac Valley for 10,000 years. They celebrated the bounty of the earth and her rites of passage. They traded in beads and pearls, dyes and copper, hides and furs of beaver, mink, otter and bear. They hunted communally. Wild creatures proliferated.

The Potomac filled their bellies with oysters, clams, turtles and crabs. Herring ran in March, sturgeon and shad in April. They feasted on maize, beans, squash, pumpkins, gourds, sunflowers, nuts and berries. Indian tobacco was sacred. Ceremoniously puffed, rarely inhaled, it was magic and medicine, and Algonquian tradition put tobacco fourth in the order of creation: God first made woman, second man, then Indian maize, and then tobacco. Their tobacco would be their undoing.

Trade grew along the Potomac from the Chesapeake Bay to the Appalachian Mountains. Like her fish, smoked and dried, Potomac maize was the lifeblood of harsh winters for the English colonists. These they took, by legislative fiat, by fooling the natives, by force.

Armed with gunpowder and bibles, Europe invaded Turtle Island (America) via the Potomac River valley. Natives were forced off lands they had cleared; maize, cattle and tobacco spread with the English plague. Herds of buffalo, rare on Potomac shores, perished altogether. Whole tribes fled, north to the Great Lakes, west over the mountains, pursued into oblivion.

By 1750, the valley was explored and settled. “During the 62 years following the settlement at Jamestown [Virginia],” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “two-thirds of the Indians of 40 tribes disappeared because of smallpox, spirituous liquors, and the abridgment of territory.”

To the lushness of Turtle Island, the Europeans just kept coming. Some came for gold and silver, some for adventure. Religious sects came to escape the witch-hunts of the Reformation. Convicts came with the promise of freedom. The poor purchased passage as indentured servants. Of all the reasons to risk the deadly Atlantic crossing, however, greatest was the call of King tobacco. Here was the gem of the British Empire.

KING TOBACCO RULES

On the shack at Jack’s Boats, a Georgetown waterfront institution hidden for 55 years under the Francis Scott Key bridge, I find a painting honoring “Ak Wan Hee: Last of the Analosan [sic] indian tribe... circa 1697.”

“I don’t know anything about that,” says Frank Baxter, partnered with brother Bill at Jack’s Boats. “Talk to Tom Woodward.” Jack’s is busy with people checking canoes in and out. Frank and Bill are sad, their father Jack having just died, and Frank sends me off to Roosevelt Island. “Take a canoe over to that beach and have a swim.”

From Jack’s I paddle a canoe to Analostan Island, an 88-acre nature reserve with a monument to Teddy Roosevelt and his passion for wilderness. President Roosevelt rode horseback along the Potomac from Little Falls to Great Falls, 15 miles upriver, hiking and rock-climbing almost daily.

“Jack and I built that shop and I painted the murals,” octogenarian Tom Woodward later told me. Tom has canoed the Potomac all his life. “We learned how to swim on the Potomac too,” he recalls. He chuckles. “Analosan [sic] is the indian name for Roosevelt Island. I made up all that other stuff about Ak Wan Hee. It was a joke: Who’s gonna know about some Indian who lived 300 years ago?”

A boardwalk over the island’s wetlands offers a glimpse of the Potomac’s former wildness. With three miles of trails, it is another soothing respite from sun and city. I read Pocahontas under a giant cedar on a sandy Potomac beach. Ducks paddle in the marsh and butterflies flit by. An occasional tourist drifts through.

“The Confederates camped out on Analosan Island during the Civil War,” Tom Woodward said. “I took a metal detector out there looking for Confederate army trash. Jack’s sons found arrowheads over there, but I never found anything. The river is not what it was but it’s still beautiful. You can be only two miles from the White House and you feel like you’re out in the wilderness.”

As irony would have it, it was the widower John Rolfe who pioneered tobacco production (1615) in the New World wilderness. Under the keen eye of his second wife, Lady Rebecca Rolfe, John experimented with the golden weed Nicotiana tabacum, an exotic Brazilian tobacco that grew sweeter, less harsh and more resilient in the American soil than the rank native species Nicotiana rustica. His new wife -- the recently Christianized Pocahontas -- advised him in planting in the traditional native way.

John Rolfe’s crop came in. By 1617 the Virginians had exported 20,000 pounds of leaf; by 1618, 40,000 pounds. To King James I, however, only a witch was more odious than a smoker was: none dared puff in his presence. Smoke would “infecte the aire,” his majesty predicted. It was “dangerous to the lungs” and “hurtful to the health of the whole body.” King James levied a stifling tax on tobacco. He wrote and railed against it. But even the King of England could not stop the burgeoning trade in tobacco. By 1722, Potomac tobacco was man’s meat, his drink, his clothes and his future.

Man’s past lives on in the colonial architecture of Alexandria and Georgetown -- towns that grew into bustling international ports for the budding colonies. Wealthy traders built mansions in Georgetown, today the center of Washington nightlife. Walking the cobblestones of Alexandria, I find the boyhood Home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. There is the Alexandria Archaeology Program, which houses colonial artifacts, and the Black History Resource Center, which tells the story of African-Americans here. The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary was the corner drugstore for the Lees and Washingtons.

Plantations sprouted out of the Potomac wilderness, sprawling Victorian mansions at their hearts. Here lived the planter elite – the Washingtons, Lees, Jeffersons and Hamiltons; the Lords Fairfax and Baltimore and Calvert. They built elaborate heated greenhouses; their gardens were stocked with exotic plants, wild animals and peacocks. Orangeries bespoke prestige and power; magic was invoked to plant and harvest. Laborers were not allowed to water the gardens, where a woman’s touch was a deadly hex. Almost everyone lived on plantations; almost everyone farmed tobacco. Almost everyone claimed the Pocahontas bloodline.

The Potomac was a bond, a light in the wilderness for these planter elite. Bewigged and bespectacled, men in split-tails, women in hoops, with servants and livery and lace, they partied on sloops and ferries that plied the river to the tunes of Beethoven and Mozart. They traveled Europe, their children in its top schools. They read Shakespeare and Goethe, their brass telescopes turned to the heavens.

Conversation ran on tobacco, horses, hunting and more tobacco. Ships from Europe and the West Indies brought sugar and spice and everything nice -- presses and books, copper and silver, Oriental porcelain, exotic woods and aromatic herbs. All ships that sailed for merry England were loaded with tobacco. They sailed down the Potomac and into the Chesapeake and out across the hostile Atlantic.

MERRY, MERRY, QUITE CONTRARY

The father of King Tobacco and the husband of Pocahontas, John Rolfe witnessed another portentous event -- one that would similarly dictate the fate of millions and the next 400 years of history -- the first cargo of African slaves to be sold on America’s shores.

“However far the stream flows,” says an old Yoruba proverb, “it never forgets its source.” For the slaves whose lives were shattered for the plantation economy, the source was the African hinterland. Washington was a metropole of slavery.

From 1675 to 1708, the Potomac valley drew over 300 slaves a year; the trade then increased. “To sell slaves,” wrote Anne Elizabeth Yentsch, in A Chesapeake Family and Their Slaves, “traders brought prospective buyers out to their ships on the Potomac, took slaves ashore, exhibited them in dark smoky taverns, and sailed up creeks and bays marketing their wares.”

The plantation elite partnered in slaving voyages to Africa: Jails and whipping posts, stocks and pillories and gallows rose from the red Potomac dust. Luxury and profit were won as the dark horses of tobacco and slavery harnessed all -- Africans, indentured servants, hired hands, wives and children -- to the land. Tobacco is “ the crop that wears out men and land,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, who called it “a culture productive of infinite wretchedness.”

Every rich planter who lived on the river had his own sloops and barges rowed by trained and often uniformed black slave crews. White children were suckled by slave women, reared by black nurses, trained by tutors and governesses. The gentry gathered for lavish banquets. They fox-hunted and cock-fought, matched horses, bullets, wits and swords. They feasted, they drank and they toasted, “our Land free, our Men honest, our Women fruitful.”

Their philosophy was riddled with contradiction. Washington and Jefferson denounced slavery in print, but defended its practice. On the eve of Independence, Jefferson owned 383 slaves. “What is there to be done?” said George Washington, unwilling to free his slaves. At his death (1799) he owned 316 slaves. He never set them free.

Like the 555-foot spire in his name, George Washington was a force that loomed over the Potomac. Born and raised on the river, he was hired out of boyhood to survey the million acres of Potomac country granted to Lord Thomas Fairfax by King James I. Great-grandfather John secured the tracts that the industrious George grew into a 7,600-acre tobacco plantation.

Surveyor, statesman, soldier -- George Washington’s greatest love was farming. This I see revealed in the motifs painted on the ceilings of his Mount Vernon estate, 16 miles south of the capitol. I walk the stables, the mansion, the expansive gardens and fields planted with Washington’s favored trees. “Rode to my Mill Swamp,” Washington wrote (1785), “and to other places in search of trees I shall want for my Walks, Groves and Wildernesses.”

There were 150 horses at Mount Vernon, as many cows, 500 sheep, and 200 oxen. To breed mules, the King of Spain sent a jackass. George sent to England for deer, to France for hounds and partridges, to China for pheasants and pigs. There was carpentry, blacksmithing and wagon making; milling, distilling and shipbuilding; spinning, weaving and knitting.

Seated on the high-columned piazza overlooking the river, I can imagine Washington’s romance with Mount Vernon. The rolling green slopes down to the water under ancient trees. Here, overlord to miles of Potomac shore and a river four miles across, Washington secured a delightful and happy life. “I can truly say I had rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me,” he wrote (1790), “than to be attended at the seat of government by officers of State and representatives of every power in Europe.”

Unlike Mount Vernon, nearby Gunston Hall is not often crowded with tourists. Here lived gentleman farmer George Mason, the second largest slaveholder in Fairfax County. Mason helped draft the U.S. Constitution, but refused to sign the final copy because it did not prohibit the importation of slaves, did not adequately restrain the powers of federal government, and it lacked a bill of rights.

“Gunston Hall is truly remarkable,” says Education Coordinator Denise McHugh. “When I lead tours here, I address Mason’s position on slavery.” Denise quotes Mason’s 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights: “All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights. Namely: the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

POTOMAC WAR HISTORY

At Independence, all roads crossed the Potomac. Annapolis and Philadelphia lay to the north, Williamsburg and Charlestown to the south. Taxed to the limits of their enlightened tempers by mother England, the colonists were liberty mad. The tea dumped at Boston led to a British blockade and to war. Companies of soldiers formed rapidly along the Potomac, men arming and training everywhere.

“I believe we must defend our plantations upon Potowmack with our Musquets,” reported Washington’s farm manager (1775), at a council of war. “The gentlemen are ready and willing to turn out to defend any man’s property -- but the common people are most Hellishly frightened.”

Transoceanic trade ground to a halt as British ships raided Potomac shores in 1776. Racked with disease, short of fresh water, food and munitions, harassed by the Patriots, the Brits raked the shore with canon. They landed sporadically, hit and run, torching houses and barns in a guerrilla campaign that terrified the Americans. They looted plantations, pillaged slaves and provisions.

By 1783, and war’s end, King Tobacco was dead. Peace could not restore it; the land could not take it. People moved away, plantations collapsed, slaves and land were sold. Anticipating tobacco’s demise, Washington had diversified his Mount Vernon industries by 1766, phasing tobacco out, churning profit out of his granaries, his Potomac River fisheries and his textiles. With wife Martha’s death in 1802, even Mount Vernon succumbed to decay.

In 1791, the farmland near Georgetown was purchased as the Capitol site, and a pugnacious little Frenchman named Pierre L’Enfant was commissioned by George Washington to lay the plans for the future capital. The city was built out of the forests and quarries of the Potomac Valley. Like Fort Washington, built for defense in 1808 (across the Potomac from Mount Vernon), the city was burned in the War of 1812 by marauding British ships.

During daily walks and runs I explore the monuments, the athletic fields and tourist attractions, but what is today’s Potomac Park was once an apocalyptic hellhole. Malarial swamps were dredged and filled to create the “tidal basin,” which rings the monuments. The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials were erected on the sites of the holding pens and auction blocks of slavery.

While Potomac trade prospered mildly, and the city grew, life along the Potomac bottomed out. “Nothing can present to the eyes a more dreary and miserable aspect,” wrote one traveler (1820), “than the condition of the river counties of Maryland, a landscape of dreary uncultivated wastes, barren and exhausted soil, houses falling to decay, fences wind-shaken and dilapidated.”

In 1830, more than half the population was enslaved. By 1844, the Potomac was a mainstay for the Underground Railroad. In 1848, for example, 76 house servants belonging to local families attempted to escape by boat to the Chesapeake Bay. Slavery shuddered as the U.S. Congress passed the “Compromise of 1850,” but it was not until 1862 that it was officially abolished. Liberties granted to blacks were quietly dismantled under Reconstruction a few years later.

The few wealthy landowners who questioned the institutions of planter society and freed their slaves were harassed and threatened; some driven out. With civil war in 1861, battle lines were drawn. Confederates marched against Yanks, the Potomac and slavery between them. Troops amassed at the bridges. No longer a unifying force in the wilderness, the Potomac was synonymous with war.

THE PEACE OF POCAHONTAS

It is another day and I am out in a canoe battling the river’s currents and then drifting lazily under a scorching sun. Skull boats and crews race by. At sunset I paddle back to Jack’s -- the only place in Washington where they remember my name each time I come. Frank and Bill are friendly, and Jack’s is peaceful. There is a shady river hammock, and Pocahontas calls to me. The Potomac takes me there.

As for the pagan princess – native nymph of grove and stream, that great Earth Mother of the Americas -- her efforts to negotiate the clash of civilizations failed. She betrayed her people in this, and was herself betrayed. Her marriage to John Rolfe in 1614 secured the survival of the English colony. They called it the Peace of Pocahontas. It would not last.

Pocahontas fell ill on a ship leaving England. Taken ashore, purged and bled, she died an alien in an alien land. Buried in an unmarked grave on English soil, denied the forests of her Potomac paradise, she had lost her self and perhaps her soul. It was March 21, 1617. Pocahontas was 22. She was the made-to-order American heroine, the amorous native who risked her life for the bold, blond Englishmen. Here was born the legend.

March 22, 1622 -- five years and one day later -- the Algonquians united to massacre hundreds of colonists. Hundreds more perished of hardship. Yet the Europeans kept on coming. The Crown ordered “a perpetual war without peace or truce,” an organized extermination of the natives. The indefatigable Captain John Smith volunteered for the job. Twenty-four years later, the half-breed son of Pocahontas assisted. The rest is History.        ~end