National Geographic : 1942 May
Tidewater Virginia, Where History Lives BY ALBERT W. ATWOOD N TIME of war it is inspiring to go back to the beginnings of the American nation, not only in memory but through visits to venerable landmarks which still remain. Down in Tidewater Virginia, not far from crowded Washington, history seems to fairly live on. This is especially true on the Peninsula, a small, narrow strip of land between the James and York Rivers. For here, within a few miles, are Jamestown, where English civiliza tion secured its first permanent foothold in North America, and Yorktown, where the sur render of Cornwallis ended the Revolution and ushered in American independence. Near by lies Williamsburg, capital and me tropolis of the first of the Colonies and for nearly a hundred years proud center of its cul tural and social life. Tidewater Virginia saw the New World's first legislative assembly, it produced daring patriots and political philosophers, and it laid the constitutional foundations of the Republic. Five of the early Presidents of the United States, including George Washington, were born here; and the third President, Thomas Jefferson, attended its college, the second in all the Colonies. A Land of Many Waters Nature intended that Tidewater Virginia should fill a romantic and stirring part in the great drama of national life. It is a land of many waters, of broad estuaries, long, deep, tidal rivers, and spacious, naturally protected harbors.* Four major rivers-the Potomac, lying be tween Maryland and Virginia, and the Rappa hannock, York, and James, all in Virginia tumble over the "fall line" and are merged into the tidal waters of the estuaries of Chesa peake Bay. They cut, or separate, the low lying plain into three long, narrow strips or peninsulas, known locally as "necks," which, taken together with the peninsula of the East ern Shore and part of the "Southside," consti tute Tidewater (map, page 621). The Northern Neck lies between the Po tomac and the Rappahannock; the Middle Neck between the Rappahannock and the York; the "Virginia Peninsula" between the York and the James; and the Southside below the James. Until comparatively recent years there were few bridges across the wide rivers, and to span the James required a structure 4/2 miles long. Formerly one had to travel a hundred miles up the three longer rivers before find ing a bridge. Today, all the rivers except the York are crossed by bridges, and from Baltimore and Washington one can go directly south by mod ern highway straight across Tidewater (618). But physically the region has changed little in more than 300 years. The broad stretches of silent waters are the same. Cities, great and small-Washington, Fredericksburg, Rich mond, Newport News, and Norfolk-are on the rim of Tidewater. Peninsulas Still Rustic At heart the peninsulas are still townless and rustic in their simplicity. One travels the whole 80-mile length of the Northern Neck without encountering a railroad, and there are ten counties in the Northern and Middle Necks which have not been entered by the iron horse. Indeed, some magic touch seems to have turned time back to colonial days. This is partly due to the historic landmarks of James town, Williamsburg, and Yorktown; to the quaint, tiny county seats, with their pictur esque old courthouses and clerk's offices; to the storied churches, in their remote but beau tiful sites, and to the many scattered planta tion mansions. Each spacious river estate and home has its own proud family story, and not a few of them are shrines. To Jamestown Island, first of all, the visitor must go if he is to sense all this. For here, if anywhere in America, is hallowed ground. About this quiet little island there is a strong emotional quality and a spiritual appeal. If the crowd is not large, there is a feeling of sacred calm, especially near the old, ivy covered church tower, a ruin whose thick walls of handmade brick, original and unrestored, have stood for more than three centuries. This tower was part of Jamestown's fourth church whose construction began about 1639. Around its walls and in the floor where the church building stood are many gravestones and even more graves of the very early set tlers. For reasons not easily put into words *See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "Approaching Washington by Tidewater Potomac," March, 1930, and "Jefferson's Little Mountain" (Mon ticello), April, 1929, both by Paul Wilstach; "Roads from Washington," by John Patric, July, 1938; "Home of the First Farmer of America" (Mount Vernon), by Worth E. Shoults, May, 1928; "Restora tion of Colonial Williamsburg," by W. A . R. Good win, April, 1937; and "Virginia-A Commonwealth That Has Come Back," by William Joseph Showalter, April, 1929.