Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Centuries of settlement
Nansemond still draws waves of visitors
The Nansemond River is a paddler’s paradise sitting on the edge of Norfolk’s westward sprawl. Here, the adventuresome will find more than 4,000 acres of wetlands, national wildlife refuge lands and a water trail that is steadily gaining new canoe and kayak launch sites. Plus, centuries of history enliven the river’s banks.
The Nansemond enters the lower James River just below Ragged Island Creek Wildlife Management Area, near where the James hooks east to join the Chesapeake Bay. It is 3 miles wide at its mouth and fringed by marsh and shoals that reach out nearly a mile from the shores. Ducks rest in rafts, cormorants skim the surface, and workboats and pleasure craft ply the deeper channels. Even under the leaden skies of early spring, it feels spacious here.
Farther upstream toward historic downtown Suffolk, the river is less salty and starts to narrow. The channel jogs between points on each side of the river. Traffic sounds from the Monitor-Merrimack Bridge recede, houses thin out and the marsh fringe becomes continuous.
The landscape rests easy on the eyes: water, sky, trees, a rim of mud marking the tide’s high water on the marsh plants. The river starts to look as it might have when Nansemond Indians (pronounced NAN-se-mund) inhabited the land and fished its waters.
There is archeological evidence that these tidal rivers and creeks along the James were home to native people as long as 10,000 years ago — not surprising, given the abundance of oysters, crabs and fish, and fresh water springs.
The earliest written history of the region and its native people comes from Capt. John Smith, who wrote about his first encounter with the Nansemond in the summer of 1608 as he explored the first third of the 23-mile river. According to Smith, the mouth of the river was “mostly oyster banks,” and he observed Indians fishing with weirs, and large cornfields planted on both banks.
That first encounter between Smith and the Nansemond was not entirely friendly, though in the end, Smith reported, the Indians “agreed” to trade “400 baskets of corn” and the English departed “as friends.”
The landscape — and the Indian’s corn — made an impression on Smith, as did the high ground surrounding the upper reaches of the Nansemond River. In the midst of “the starving times” in 1609, hoping to move the Jamestown settlers to a more favorable location, Smith sent Capt. John Martin and several men to scout the river. The English came upon the Nansemond Indians at what is now called Dumpling Island, a high ground surrounded by marsh — land where the Indian leaders lived and were buried, and that served as a winter storehouse for corn.
It was a brutish encounter, which did not end well for the English.
Over the next decades, the constant press of settlement by the English on native lands forced the Nansemond to retreat and assimilate. They never entirely left, and many scattered into the Dismal Swamp to the south.
Today, the Nansemond River is part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. Information kiosks are being installed at key launch locations. The city of Suffolk and local nonprofits, including the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance, have worked with the National Park Service to complete a water trail plan that will guide investments at future sites.
The Suffolk River Heritage Foundation, a group dedicated to preserving the cultural history and heritage of the villages of the river’s peninsulas, has published several pictorial and oral history books on the region, and was a driving force behind the creation of the Suffolk Water Trails map.
The map shows locations where you can access the river and suggests paddling loop trips and destinations, like the Obici House. Amedeo Obici, who brought the Planters Peanuts Company to Suffolk in 1913, built the Italianate mansion as a clubhouse for his company’s employees.
Ursula Lemanski, Virginia rivers and trail project manager for the National Park Service, said, “The Nansemond offers an incredible array of historic assets as well as natural areas — old wharf sites, Indian village sites, old Civil War batteries, historic plantations.”
“When we were touring the river as part of our survey a couple of years ago, we came to the part of the river where Dumpling Island is,” Lemanski said. “You could just imagine the native Indians over on that shore.”
Traveling the river today with an understanding of its history, one is reminded that each wave of settlement was defined by what the land — and water — offered, from fertile fields, to an abundance of seafood, to strategic advantages for shipping, warfare and eventually industrial development and population growth.
As English colonial settlements became American towns and villages, the river provided sustenance for the growing population and a means of transportation and trade. The river was navigable 20 miles upstream to the center of commerce at Constant’s Wharf — a tobacco warehouse and loading area — in what is now historic downtown Suffolk. A steady stream of tobacco, cotton and peanuts were shipped downriver to the James and ports beyond.
With the head of the river so close to North Carolina, including the headwaters of Albemarle Sound, the Nansemond provided an important route during times of conflict. When Union forces blocked Confederate ships carrying food and supplies from leaving the Chesapeake during the Civil War, the Nansemond provided the starting point for an inland trade route that bypassed the blockade. Ironically, towns along the river also provided a safe haven for enslaved people escaping the South via the Underground Railroad.
But the river itself, which for centuries provided clams, oysters and fish, was the mainstay of residents. Oyster reefs flourished in the brackish water of the lower Chesapeake and tidal rivers like the Nansemond.
Railroad lines conveyed oysters to northern markets as the bucket trade expanded to become the barrel trade. “Oysters, packed in every style and shipped in any quantities, from one to one thousand gallons,” read an advertisement from one of the many oyster businesses.
In 1929, the Lone Star Cement Company began mining marl in the upper reaches of Cedar Creek, a Nansemond tributary. Lime-rich marl was barged downriver to plants in Chesapeake and Norfolk and was used to make cement.
When operations ceased in the 1970s, 12 excavations filled by underground freshwater springs became the Lone Star lakes, now part of Suffolk’s parks and recreation system. Today, the lakes provide opportunities for freshwater paddling and fishing for trophy sunfish, smallmouth bass and perch.
Three tidal creeks — Bennett’s, Cedar and Western Branch — all have boat access and offer opportunities for exploring shorter and shallower portions of the Nansemond. The tidal range here is 2.5 feet, which requires boaters to plan accordingly lest they get stranded in the shallows at low tide.
But that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Kayaks, canoes and paddle boards provide access to muddy banks that offer much in any season. You’ll find the telltale signs of raccoon feeding at the water’s edge, the trail left by a great blue heron stalking its meal and the earthy odor of the marsh.
Today, the Nansemond people have dreams of showcasing their heritage at Mattanock, a new tribal center across the river from Dumpling Island at the mouth of Cedar Creek. In 2013, Suffolk deeded this 75-acre parcel back to the Nansemond Indian Tribal Alliance. That year, the 26th annual Nansemond Tribal Powwow took place for the first time on tribal land. It was the first time since 1650 that the Nansemond could call a place their own.
“Our goal is to build an Indian village comparable to the English village reconstructed at Jamestown,” said Nansemond Chief Earl Bass. The tribe has master plans for an authentic Nansemond Indian village — dispersed along the shore as was the custom in the 1600s — with a museum, hiking trails, tribal center and sacred burial grounds for ancestral remains.
Lemanski recalled her day on the water scouting the river for access points. “We cut the engine by Dumpling Island and just drifted. There was a gentle breeze. Birds were flying overhead. You could just feel that it was sacred. You can’t get that kind of experience or really learn about the river by just reading about it,” Lemanski said.
With new public access sites for canoes and kayaks being developed every year, Nansemond River offers many options for visitors and locals to experience the brackish waters of this Lower Bay river and feel its history.
Grab a Paddle and Explore the Nansemond River
Four launch sites are currently available along Virginia’s Nansemond River for hand-carried boats. (More are planned to open in 2015.)
- Bennett’s Creek Park at 3000 Bennetts Creek Park Road, Suffolk (The 57-acre park has three boat ramps, a nature trail, and a crabbing and fishing pier with handicap access.)
- Constant’s Wharf Park at 100 E. Constance Road, Suffolk (The park is located at the Hilton Garden Inn and Suffolk Conference Center, which hosts concerts, festivals and family-friendly activities.)
- Brady’s Marina at 3464 Godwin Blvd., Suffolk (on the Western Branch)
- Lone Star Lakes Park at 102 Bob House Parkway, Suffolk (This site has 11 lakes for freshwater fishing, nature trails, picnic areas and a crabbing and fishing pier.)
A free Suffolk Water Trails map is available at www.suffolk-river-heritage.org from the Suffolk River Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit group that works to preserve the cultural history and heritage of the villages of north Suffolk.
For information about boating access to the Nansemond River and campgrounds in Suffolk, visit www.suffolk-fun.com/play/fishing.
To learn about the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance, including river report cards, river talks and work with local schools, explore the Alliance’s web site at www.nansemondriverpreservationalliance.org.
Visit the Nansemond Indian Tribal Association at www.nansemond.org and the Mattanock Town at www.mattanocktown.org.
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