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History of The Neck

The following is a "history" of the Northern Neck. Major parts of the following text are taken from books by Miriam Haynie (The Stronghold) and John C. Wilson (Virginia's Northern Neck, a pictorial history). Other parts of the following are written by the author, David Dammer. This work is a labor of love, dedicated to the land and the people of the Northern Neck, and for all to enjoy. It is not for sale or publication in any other media other than that in which it is presented in here. It is an effort to let the rest of the world know about our little corner of the earth, a corner that I am very proud to say that I am a part of now. I only wish I had been born and raised here, as I would have been able to enjoy this land for all my life.

The Northern Neck is rich in history. Among other things it is the birthplace of presidents like George Washington and famous people such as Thomas Lee and Robert E. Lee. The history of the "Neck" runs deep in the history of the United States, even North Amercia. Before 1600, before the first English settlement, the Northern Neck was the land between the "River of Swans" to the north and the "Quick-Rising Water" to the South, two loosely translated Indian terms for the Potomac River and the Rappahannock River. To the east lies the Chesapeake Bay, otherwise known as the "Mother of Waters", the "Great Saltwater" or the "Great Shell-fish Bay", the largest estuary in North America. Captain John Smith visited this country in 1607. He was probably one of the area's first tourists. During his first visit he traveled the "Neck" somewhat against his will, as a captive of the Indian Chief Opechacanoough. He returned in 1608 to explore the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers and the rest of the bay region. He made his first map of the Chesapeake Bay region in 1612. But, I am ahead of myself here. Let's start back at the beginning, or as far back as we can go.

As the seventeenth century dawned, the Indian land of Powhatan was on the brink of a most profound revolution, although its residents could hardly have known it. Generations before them had, perhaps, seen or heard of strange vessels appearing in the Chesapeake Bay. Jesuit priests had sailed up the York River in 1570-71, and French and Spanish explorers had been in the Bay area earlier in the sixteenth century. These sightings may have stirred some discussion and speculation among the Indians at the time, but their infrequency gave little indication of the swift and dramatic changes to come.

Indians had lived in the Northern Neck area for at least ten thousand years. This inhabitation was primarily, if not entirely, nomadic, involving small groups of hunters and gatherers which roamed the land in search of food, camping at many of the same sites over and over again. With the introduction of agriculture, around 500 B.C., came villages of more permanence. Pottery developed then, made from the land's blue-gray clay, which was pounded into powder, mixed with water and crushed shell, then coiled and shaped. By 1600, villages were spread thinly over the terrain, carved from the woods on the waterfront. These isolated clearings were large enough for the Indians' homes (of boughs, covered with bark and woven mats) and their crops, which included corn, potatoes, pumpkins, onions, peas, beans, and tobacco. Berries and certain kinds of fruit were also on hand, while the harvest from the sea, of oysters and fish, had always been a staple of the Indian diet.

So, too, was wild game, although much of the hunting was accomplished farther up the watershed, in the communal deer drives. Many villages were shut down at that time and reopened on the return, when spring planting was begun. While waiting for the first green corn harvest, the Indians would break into small groups, staying for several weeks at temporary riverfront encampments, where they lived off seafood and oysters roasted in shallow pits, into which the shells were returned. The midden found at some of these sites, according to archaeological work done along the Potomac River and elsewhere, has been dated between 6800 B.C. and A.D. 1600.

By the end of that long period, Jamestown was just seven years in the future. The entire Bay area population was twenty thousand, according to Paul Wilstach, or about half of today's Northern Neck population alone. Capt. John Smith's maps, based on his 1607-09 explorations, show 161 villages among the thirty-two kingdoms that made up Powhatan's Confederation. Among those kingdoms were the Indians of the Pissaseck tribe near Leedstown; the Moraughtacunds near Morattico; the Cuttatawomen, on the Corotoman; the Wiccocomoco, on the Wicomico; the Cekacawon, on the Coan; and the Nominies near Nomini Bay. The emperor, from his York River base, had access to twenty-five hundred warriors, while each village in his domain had a local king or "werowance" (Wlstach).

With Captain Smith came the Northern Neck's first recorded history. A revolutionary development in itself, this first chronicle of the land and its inhabitants was born from Smith's being a prisoner of Opechacanough in the Winter of 1607. He was paraded through Powhatan's [empire, including a stop with the Nominies on the Potomac. The following spring, after Pocahontas's famous intervention that reportedly saved his life, Captain Smith explored far up the Potomac, looking for a route to China, and in the fall of 1608 traveled up the Rappahannock.

The notes of Captain Smith and his crew mention the varied and massive trees ("so lofty and erect") in the spacious virgin forestótrees that could provide planks two-and-a-half feet square and twenty yards long, or be fashioned into a forty-five-foot canoe capable of carrying forty men. The land was a mighty forest, towering and expansive, with "sweets and christall springs" and Indian settlements in its midst. On the water, fish were at times so abundant that Captain Smith's party, without nets, tried to catch them once with a frying pan. That didn't work, but they had more success when, during a low tide that trapped some fish in the marsh grasses, they speared them with their swords. The Indians harvested the fish with traps, or weirs. There were plenty to bring in: sturgeon, sheepshead, grampus, white salmon, sole, mullet, eel, perch, carp, blowfish, bass, and flounder, to name a few of the species. During spring migrations, the fish could virtually plug up the entranceways to some of the smaller estuaries. Crabs were large and plentiful, and so were the oyster beds, which were harvested with forked sticks. Flocks of ducks were reported to be seven miles long. Swans, cranes, geese, and herons were all in abundance, for nature itself was abundant, then.

Other adventurers, traders, and interpreters soon followed, exploring the Northern Neck and the rest of Virginia's waterfront frontier. One, Henry Spelman, lived for some time with King Patowmeke's tribe farther up the Potomac. Samuel Argall, and then Henry Fleetówho became a trusted trader and interpreterówere others. But for about thirty years after Smith first sailed here from Jamestown, no settlers came. When the first ones did, John Mottrom is believed to have been the first to leave Maryland, sail the Potomac, and settle at the mouth of the Coan River. Other Kent Islanders, and Protestants and Royalists disenchanted with Catholic Maryland, came too, and for a few years the growing settlement at Coan prospered in peace. By 1646-47, when Mottrom represented Northumberland in the Virginia General Assembly, a tax had been levied on the new settlement, one of fifteen pounds of tobacco for every hundred acres and every cow over three years of age. In 1648 (even then, there could be no taxation without representation) the Chickacoan area and much, much more territory was officially designated the county of Northumberland, with the power to elect burgesses. William Presly of Northumberland House on Cod's Creek became the Northern Neck's first burgess.

In the 1640s and 1650s the nature of life on the Northern Neck was swiftly changing. Indians sold or deeded their river lands to the white settlers. They were pushed inland, into the uncleared forest. In some instances, according to at least one account, they were starved into submission when access to the water and its resources was denied them. Pushed inland, they were also, in short order, pushed out of the area and virtually out of existence.

Early plantations, meanwhile, began to dot the landscape, and county formation was rapid. Out of Northumberland, Lancaster County was created in 165152, and Westmoreland in 1653. From Lancaster came Old Rappahannock County in 1656, which in 1692 was divided to form present-day Richmond and Essex counties (and a bit more). Seventeenth-century courts were held at the homes of justices of the county court, on the shores of the Coan, the Corotoman, and Currioman Bay.

Significant settlements were also being made. The great-grandfathers of three of America's greatest presidents settled in Westmoreland County during the mid1600s. Andrew Monroe patented land in what is now Westmoreland County in 1650; John Washington landed nearby in 1656-57 and was given land by his father-in-law, Col. Nathaniel Pope; and John Madison patented land near Pope's Clifts Plantation in 1658. By 1661 Washington and Monroe were serving on the vestry of Appomattox Church. John Carter had settled in Lancaster County at the other end of the Northern Neck by 1654. Others, including the Lee ancestors, moved in on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and its estuaries. The Balls were soon established at Millenbeck, farther up the Rappahannock, and by the latter part of the century, nearby Chowning's Ferny was in operation across the river. Moore Fauntleroy was among those settling in the Richmond County area, at Naylois Hole, where court was held when that county was formed. What is perhaps the oldest home in Northumberland County still standing, Lynhams on Bluff Point Neck, was established in 1678, on land owned by John Lynum and his wife Jane.

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