WOOSHING OVER HIS EXPANSIVE PROPERTY BY GOLF CART last week, Robert Ripley stopped on an elevated spot of ground and surveyed the land sprawling over an open field and down to the York River. Dragon flies flitted just about everywhere.
“Can’t you just imagine,” he said, “from up here, seeing where the main house sat, seeing the double-ds (trenches that marked off sacred Indian grounds), the agricultural zone and that huge, huge Indian village right up on the waterfront – it’s just fabulous!”
Ripley can be forgiven his enthusiasm. When the one-time Norfolk attorney and now home-builder and his wife, Lynn, bought the 280-acre farm near Gloucester 14 years ago, they had no idea of its historical significance. Sure, there were remnants, both from the Civil War and colonial era. But Lynn, an enthusiastic artifact collector, was finding much older things.
How’s this for old: a quartz projectile point dating to 6800-6500 BC, a quartzite knife and pottery vessel sherd from AD 900-1600, a 17th century copper alloy bead?
They showed it to archaeologists who suggested they have the items examined and carbon-dated. The answer that came back rocked the archaeological world: Their property included no less than the long-lost Werowocomoco, the chiefdom from which Powhatan ruled his vast Algonquin empire.
Since 2003, researchers from the College of William and Mary, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the American Indian Resource Center and the Gloucester-based Fairfield Foundation have been turning spade after spade of earth, gradually coaxing secrets from the land.
The investigations show that Werowocomoco is “a landscape with a deep history as an Algonquin political and sacred center stretching back centuries before the English arrived,” Martin Gallivan, assistant professor of anthropology at William and Mary, wrote in an e-mail.
More than 60 artifacts from the Gloucester site have been placed on exhibit at the Jamestown Settlement. “Werowocomoco: Seat of Power” includes a film, murals and a statue of the great chief himself, wearing, among other things, a copper bead necklace. It was the copper, after all, that clinched the identification. The colonists had eagerly traded it for much-needed food.
We golf-carted down to a flat space near the back of Ripley’s field where there was a patch of new grass, showing where researchers had dug. That was where Powhatan’s house stood, where the captured John Smith was taken and where Pocahontas, Powhatan’s daughter, allegedly saved Smith’s life.
We looked at the religious site, rambled through a grove of pecan trees where the village once stood, then drove down to a pier from which we could look back and see the magnificent property, which sits across the river from York River State Park. No wonder the Indians liked it.
Later, gazing through large windows at the sweeping field looking at the river, Ripley set down his tall glass of ice water and said, almost in a whisper, “Every now and then I’ll walk through that grass barefoot, and you can’t help but think that 400 years ago Pocahontas was walking right through there.
“Can’t you just imagine, Paul, Pocahontas walking through here. You’re sitting right where she walked. That’s exciting, isn’t it?”
It is. Now I’ll have to get over to that exhibit. It runs until Nov. 15.
Illustration: Aerial view of Werowocomoco as it looks today. The archaeological site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. Courtesy Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.
Paddlers on Hoffler Creek, by Ray Strutton. Hoffler Creek Wildlife Foundation
As paddle blades kissed the water, wading birds, intently studying the breakfast menu, barely noticed. A skimmer knifed the rippled surface. A mullet, possibly spooked by the sleek shape passing above, leaped into the light of the June morning.
I had rented a kayak at the Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve and paddled the meandering creek as far as I could go, past docks on the Churchland side and acres of marsh grass on the other. It was high tide and the periwinkle were clinging to the tops of the grass blades.
It was a beautiful sight. Hoffler Creek is a small gem, a 142-acre wilderness preserve in the midst of Portsmouth’s sprawling suburban reaches. It has a lot going for it, including an astounding variety of birds that ranges from chickadees and kingbirds to owls and eagles.
But what it also has going for it is history.
During the War of 1812, sometimes called America’s second war of independence, the British realized that Norfolk and Portsmouth were keys to controlling the region. There was the Gosport Navy Yard, a growing naval powerhouse, to be destroyed. And another prize, the frigate Constellation, then hemmed up in the Elizabeth River and waiting for the taking. But first, they would have to deal with a pesky battery that the Americans had thrown together at Craney Island at the mouth of the river.
The American defenses were under command of Gen. Robert B. Taylor of the Virginia Militia. He assembled a ragtag group of men, including 275 regulars, some light infantry companies and – as luck would have it – the gunners from the Constellation who were keenly motivated to keep their ship from capture.
Taylor did a good job of it, stringing gunboats across the river to thwart the enemy’s passage, and assembling a battery of heavy guns facing the strait that separated the island from the mainland. But it was Portsmouth’s own Arthur Emmerson, son of the rector of Trinity Church, who might have been the real hero of the day. Emmerson, a sea captain who had been idled because of a trade embargo, had assembled a militia company, the Light Infantry Blues, and marched them out to Craney Island where he exercised them for just such an occasion.
On the hazy dawn of June 22, 1813, a sentry came galloping across the shallow-water gap between the mainland and the island. The British were coming, thousands of them. It was a two-pronged attack, with about half of the 2,500 royal marines and soldiers landing at Hoffler Creek. They would march through pine woods and swamp and attack the island from the west. In the meantime, the main force would land from the river side – a neat one-two punch that would wrap things up in time to be in Norfolk by teatime.
But as the invaders attempted to cross the thoroughfare from the west, they were met with heavy cannon fire. The British forces scrambled for their lives and sought the safety of the woods. Meanwhile, 50 barges loaded with 1,500 men approached from the river and ran into the same kind of reception. Emmerson told his gunners to wait until the attackers were within range before giving the command to fire. It was devastating. Three or four of the barges were sunk and the British mowed down as they attempted to get to shore.
The Battle of Craney Island was over within minutes, with 60 to 200 British troops killed but not a single defender. It was stunning loss for the British who, instead of methodically capturing Portsmouth and Norfolk were sent fleeing in disarray. I’m not sure how they explained that to the Admiralty!
In a sort of buildup to the 200th anniversary of the battle, the Hoffler Creek Wildlife Foundation is hosting a celebration today at the preserve at 4510 Twin Pines Road in Portsmouth. Beginning at 10:30 a.m., there’ll be music by Bob Zentz and Jeanne McDougall, speeches by historians Alan Flanders and Chris Dickon, as well as playwright Sheri Bailey, who will speak of black history during the war. There’ll be food, exhibits, crafts and a recreation of the battle by re-enactors.