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History of Henricus

In May 1611, Sir Thomas Dale arrived in Virginia with instructions from the London Company to find a secure and healthy area to establish a new town and principal seat for the colony. In September 1611, Sir Thomas Dale moved up the James River to establish Henricus, the colony’s second settlement.

Archaeological evidence indicates that Native Americans were living in what are now Chesterfield and Henrico counties at least 10,000 years ago. Known as Paleo-Indians, these early inhabitants of the area were loosely organized into bands in which people were related by kinship ties. Leadership was acknowledged on the basis of ability. Being few in number, they typically occupied small, seasonal camps, subsisting by hunting, fishing and gathering wild plants.

By the Woodland Period (1000 B.C. – A.D. 1600), major changes were taking place in the lives of local Native Americans. Most importantly, agriculture first appeared and gradually became increasingly important. Plants cultivated included corn, beans, squash, pumpkins and gourds. Because an agricultural way of life produces far more food, semi-permanent villages, occasionally containing as many as several hundred persons, appeared for the first time.

In A.D 1607, the Native Americans living in the area near today’s Henricus Historical Park were known as the Arrohateck and numbered perhaps 250. Captain John Smith’s famous 1612 Map of Virginia shows one major village and five smaller settlements situated on both sides of the James River.

The Arrohateck were one of over 30 groups in the Powhatan Chiefdom whose population exceeded 13,000 and occupied most of coastal Virginia. According to early accounts written by the English, the paramount chief Powhatan inherited six to nine groups along the James River and York River basins, including the Arrohateck. He acquired the remaining portions of the chiefdom through warfare or threat of warfare during the late 1500s and early 1600s.

By 1607, the Powhatan Chiefdom had developed into one of the most complex societies then existing in the Middle Atlantic region of North America. One of the original groups, the Arrohateck undoubtedly occupied a privileged position. They were named for their head chief, Arrohateck, who met the English during their initial exploration of the James River in 1607 and who was described as treating the English with much courtesy.

In May 1611, Sir Thomas Dale arrived in Virginia with instructions from the London Company to find a secure and healthy area to establish a new town and principal seat for the colony. In September 1611, Sir Thomas Dale moved up the James River to establish Henricus, the colony’s second settlement.

Sir Thomas Dale was an experienced officer, having served as a captain in the Netherlands. He had been knighted at Richmond (England) on June 19, 1606, as Sir Thomas Dale of Surrey. With the help of friends, Dale was appointed High Marshall of the colony.

As High Marshall, Dale was responsible for enforcing the laws, determining punishment and leading military expeditions. As Commander, Dale was also responsible for overseeing the construction and defense of the city.

Men were assigned specific tasks. While some cleared the land, others began construction of the palisades and buildings, while still others kept vigil over hostile Native Americans. He already had “timber, pales, posts and railes” prepared “for the present impaling this new Towne to secure himself and men from the malice and trechery of the Indians.”

Henricus stood “upon a neck of very high land, three parts thereof environed with the main River.” As a defensive measure, Dale erected a long fence known as a pale across the narrow end of the neck of land to make it an island. Powhatan’s skilled bowman harassed the Englishmen as the fort and palisades took shape, sending arrows over the walls.

Dale confidently expected that the new town would replace Jamestown as the principal seat of the colony. The location upriver provided security from possible Spanish attack (Britain was hostile with Spain at this time); and the high bluffs provided a healthier environment than the swamps of Jamestown.

The introduction of private land ownership, instituted by Sir Dale, drastically altered the development of Henricus. By 1616 it is believed that approximately 50 persons were all that remained within the Citie walls. Others also established their own private farms along the James River.

As the colonists began to prosper, their increased numbers and aggressive expansion further strained the relationship between the English and the Native Americans. On March 22, 1622, Opechancanough, Powhatan’s younger brother and successor, led a raid against English settlements up and down the James River. During this uprising, the Citie of Henricus was destroyed. Although Opechancanough did not succeed in driving the English from the area, some of the settlements were abandoned, including portions of Henricus.

Subsequent efforts to reestablish the town of Henricus failed. In May 1625, more than three years after the devastating attack, only 22 inhabitants were reported residing in ten “dwelling-houses” at Henricus.

In 1637, fifteen years after the uprising, the site was included in a 2,000 acre tract patented by William Farrar. Because it was owned by William Farrar, Sr., the peninsula became known as Farrar’s Island.

A truly remarkable woman, Pocahontas helped ease tensions between Native Americans and English settlers.

Named Matoaka upon her birth in the 1590’s, Pocahontas (her tribal nickname) was reportedly one of Chief Powhatan’s favorite children. She first captured the attention of the English when she and other Native American children began visiting Jamestown in 1607.

John Smith was intrigued by the presence of this young lady, and described her as playful, spirited and smarter than the other children. Later, Pocahontas was credited for saving Smith from death at the hands of her father.

Captured by Captain Samual Argall in 1613, Pocahontas was initially taken to Jamestown. Sir Thomas Gates was fearful of reprisal from Powhatan, and turned her over to Sir Thomas Dale at Henricus.

Dale instructed Reverend Alexander Whitaker to care for Pocahontas and instruct her in the ways of Christianity. While living at Henricus she converted to Christianity, was baptized and took the Christian name Rebecca.

She met and was courted by John Rolfe, whom she married in April 1614. After their marriage, Powhatan signed a peace treaty with the English settlers which lasted until March 22, 1622.

In 1616, Pocahontas traveled to England with her husband and infant son Thomas. While there she contracted an illness, possibly tuberculosis or smallpox, and died at the age of 22. She remains buried in Gravesend, England.

The river around Farrar’s island played an important role in the American Revolutionary War.

On April 21, 1781, British General Benedict Arnold surprised the Virginia Navy at Osborne’s Landing in the old river channel by Farrar’s Island (the site of today’s Henricus Historical Park).

Though the American fleet consisted of approximately 20 ships, they were no match for the cannon fire from the river banks on Farrar’s Island. It soon became apparent to James Maxwell, the American commander, that the Americans could not remain where they were and expect to survive the onslaught. He ordered a retreat. Those vessels that could not be moved were set afire. As the British continued to fire upon the American ships, some crew members tried to escape in boats, while others jumped overboard in an attempt to swim to the opposite shore of the James River.

Without any ships of their own to pursue the escaping vessels, the British had to content themselves with the nine ships they either sank or captured. Listed among those vessels lost at Osborne’s Landing were the flagship Tempest and the lesser ships Apollo, Jefferson, and American Fabious. The hulls of several of these are believed to remain in the silt on the river bottom.

The James River at Henricus played an important role during the American Civil War. In 1864, Richmond, the Confederate capital, was the focal point of Federal strategy. The fall of Richmond would ensure the end of the war, and the river around Farrar’s Island held the key to a safer, shorter route up the James River for Federal naval forces.

General Benjamin Butler devised a plan to build a canal at Henricus. Construction began in August 1864. Federal soldiers at Dutch Gap (mostly from black regiments) faced continuous fire from Confederate sharpshooters and artillery. With bullets whistling and shells exploding over their heads, their job was increasingly hazardous. These soldiers also succumbed to fever and disease requiring an ever-ready flow of replacements.

By mid-November 1864, the canal was two-thirds finished. Manpower alone had removed 15,000 cubic yards of soil in addition to that removed by steam dredge. The bulkhead proved difficult to destroy. Six tons of gunpowder was placed throughout its carefully dug channels.

On New Year’s Day, 1865, General Butler and his staff assembled at the site of Dutch Gap Canal to watch the explosion. Twelve minutes before 4 p.m. the fuses were lit. Amidst a thunderous roar, the bulkhead blew up and earth was sent flying almost 100 feet into the air, ultimately falling back into the gap and foiling the canal project.

Ironically, the explosion gave Confederate gunners a better view of their targets! The project was temporarily abandoned as other Federal military gains in the area negated the need for the canal. Two weeks after the explosion, pressure from heavy rains that had been swelling the James River forced a 10-foot gap through the remaining part of the bulkhead. This opened the Dutch Gap Canal for limited use to small vessels.

Long a fertile waterway for the Powhatan Indians and other tribes, the river became the cradle of English settlement in 17th century Virginia and the New World beginning with the Jamestown settlement. When the Virginia Company of London sought to find a more advantageous location to replace Jamestown as the seat of English colonial life, they chose an area west of Jamestown just below the falls of modern-day Richmond, and called it the Citie of Henricus. This settlement became the beginning of the American way of life we know today. Other settlements such as Bermuda Hundred, Upper Hundred, Digges Hundred, Sheffield Place and the Falling Creek Ironworks were all formed during the early 17th century around what would become Richmond.

The James River flows differently today than when the Citie of Henricus was founded. Sir Thomas Dale began to transform the land at Henricus in 1611 when he employed a Dutch fortification technique to dig a ditch, or moat, and construct a paled fence behind the ditch to protect the Citie. The land masses on either side of the ditch became known as Dale’s Dutch Gap.

The river at Dutch Gap again made history during the Revolutionary War when Benedict Arnold, then a General in the British Army, captured or sank the Virginia Navy at a site known as Osborne’s Landing.

In August 1864, Federal troops under General Benjamin Butler began the arduous job of digging a canal to divert the river from Confederate cannons firing on the Union troops from Farrar’s Island.

After Butler’s failed attempt to divert the river’s course during the Civil War, the James River returned to commercial and private use. In 1870 the United States government appropriated funds for improvements to the James River and the Dutch Gap Canal. In 1870, the river was sufficiently diverted and widened to allow the steamship Sylvester to travel up to the Port of Richmond.

Later, in 1930, the river underwent further improvements to straighten its course. At that time, the Dutch Gap Canal was extended to where the Dominion Virginia Power plant is today. This work, completed in November 1933, provided a more efficient waterway. It eliminated another large loop in the river and created Hatchers Island to the north. These two channels significantly reduced the navigable length of the James River.

Beacons and a Light Keeper’s house were installed in the 1870s to protect ships traveling upriver. Today, portions of the brick foundation and chimney still remain at Henricus Historical Park as a reminder of the James River’s importance to travel and commerce throughout the ages.

Today, this vast river offers, in addition to commercial traffic, many recreational opportunities for the casual visitor. Dutch Gap Boat Landing, located a mile from Henricus Historical Park, is accessible to the public and is the perfect boat launch. The floating boat dock at Henricus and the lagoons in the Dutch Gap Conservation Area provide wonderful fishing opportunities. The serene and beautiful riverside trails along the James in Dutch Gap provide a lovely view for nature enthusiasts, walkers and bikers.