Henrico County is celebrating it’s 400th. anniversary this year. It’s history is directly tied into the founding of Jamestown and the city we know as Richmond, capital of the Commonwealth. Little known is the fact that the ‘Towne of Henrico’ was the second settlement to be established in Virginia, after the Jamestown colony. All stories have to start someplace, and Henrico’s story started with the founding of the first permanent English settlement in Virginia, Jamestown.
The Chesapeake Bay and the James River
On April 26, 1607 three ships sailed into the Chesapeake Bay. After four months at sea, it must have been an awe-inspiring sight to see this great stretch of water. 200 miles long and 60 miles wide, the bay afforded a safe haven and natural protection. They could also see vast stretches of fertile soil, and edible plants, game in abundance and shellfish in the shoals. On the western shoreline they found four rivers, which they named the James, the York, the Rappahannock and the Potomac.
What the English didn’t know was that this bountiful land was home to 24,000 native people, a tribe called the Algonquins. The confederacy was broken up into about 30 tribes, all speaking a common language and ruled by a charismatic and powerful chief, Powhatan.
Finding the James to be navigable, they went upriver, searching for an appropriate place to start their settlement. Coming to a point of land beside a large marsh, the colonists decided it would be defensible from indian and Spanish attack because the marsh would act as a natural barrier. One of the first things that they did after coming ashore was build a triangular stockade. The reasoning behind getting the defensive walls up was actually twofold. One, of course was for defense, but the second reason was rather interesting, to say the least. When they were getting ready to leave London for the New World, the leaders of the expedition were told to not let the Indians see any Englishman dying or dead. They wanted the native peoples to think that the white man was ‘immortal’.
Disease and Death follows
Little did the settlers realize that the selection of the site for their settlement would turn out to be a very bad decision. The James was a tidal river and brackish water came up and past their settlement, so the marsh was full of the salty river water. Not having dug wells, the English drank this water from the river and became ill with the ‘salt sickness’. With summer apon them, the heat and humidity of the region brought out the mosquitos in swarms and they also contracted malaria. To add to their woes, the colonists dumped their garbage and excrements into the marsh, and, they drank that water. They came down with dysentary and Thyphoid Fever. Of the initial 104 Englishmen that came over, only 38 were alive after 9 months.
Travel up to the falls
That first year, 1607, Christopher Newport took a contingent of 20-25 men with him and went up the James, hoping to find the source of the river. He was also hoping to find gold or minerals to send back to England. After traveling 60 or so miles, they came to the falls of the river, and were met by a group of Indians, along with their chief. Powhatan. They were able to communicate after a fashion, and Chief Powhatan treated the English with courtesy and constraint. Newport and his group stayed two days with the village and learned that the region above the falls was the home of a hostile tribe known as the Monacans. Powhatan urged Newport to stay away from that region. He gave instructions to outfit Newport and his men with corn and game to take back to their settlement, and they reluctantly turned back down river to Jamestown. Before leaving the falls, the English constructed a wooden cross and enected it on an island in the middle of the river, proclaiming the river and all that surrounded it as now belonging to England. Historically, they were the first white men to set foot on what is now known as Henrico today.