If, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, we are not makers of history, and rather are made by history, learning more about what came before us could be the most important step in appreciating what lies ahead of us.
When is the last time you spent a few minutes to think about, read about, or absorb some of the rich history that makes up the Middle Peninsula in rural coastal Virginia?
The Middle Peninsula is so chock-full of it that you’d be doing yourself a disservice not to learn a little before you start traveling down Virginia’s water trails.
Sit back, relax, and enjoy a few little lessons on some of the Middle Peninsula’s landmark waterways (and towns) and how it has made its people, and this place, what it is today.
Full disclosure: this is not a complete history by any means. But these are some interesting factoids that we hope you’ll enjoy, share and can be used to entice you to visit.
Let’s start at the beginning. The VERY beginning. As in a VERY long time ago.
In the case of the Chesapeake Bay, the beginning starts 12,000 years ago when the last ice age ended and the desolate and barren waste of the Bay and Virginia’s peninsulas at the time gave way to a thriving and sprawling expanse of woodlands, marshes and swamps.
Over the next 9,000 years, the region would continue to grow more and more sustainable to human life and the earliest nomadic hunter-gatherer types slowly settled in the area.
Native American tribes began taking advantage of the area’s abundance of flora and fauna and lived happily. Animals were domesticated, tools were shaped and invented, and basic political structures were created. Life slowly became modern (within a modern context, of course).
Enter Captain John Smith. Not the first European to travel the Bay (that title goes to Italian explorer Giovanni de Verrazano about a century earlier), however, Smith was by far the most prolific.
Commissioned by the Virginia Company in London to visit the “New World” in search of riches, Smith’s detailed descriptions and drawings of local areas were some of the first true explorations of the region and the Chesapeake Bay.
In 1607, the colony of Jamestown was settled on the James River, named after King James.
Over time, having survived hard times and weathered the eventual arrival of more supplies and people, the colony finally became sustainable and real cities were built in the “New World,” some of the first of being Baltimore, Richmond and Alexandria.
The landscape didn’t change, but history changed forever.
A NEW CENTURY
Cut to the 18th century.
It is 1781 and you are a young American soldier on the sandy banks of the York River. As you look out across the York, you can see a French cannon decimate the HMS Charon, an immense British warship. The ship finally falls under the murky depths as a battle rages around it.
What you don’t know is that this battle, fought on the shores of the York River and in the fields and streets of the small town of Yorktown, all within view of Gloucester on the Middle Peninsula, will be the catalyst that marks the end of the Revolutionary War.
The Crown forces surrender and several years later, the United States gains its long-awaited independence.
Now, remember the HMS Charon? As the mammoth of a ship went down, she took several other smaller British ships along with her on the Gloucester side of the York River.
As recently as 2019, British cannons from the colonial period have been raised from the York’s murky depths.
A NATION DIVIDED
Speaking of the shores of the York River, the first shot of the Civil War to be fired in Virginia happened in, you guessed it, Gloucester on the Middle Peninsula. Today, the site is a public park called Tyndall’s Point.
A GROWING INDUSTRY
Following the end of the Civil War, destruction caused by the many battles of the war left many southern towns and cities in ruin both physically and economically. The late 1800s saw the beginning of the reconstruction movement; however, the industrial boom didn’t hit many of the regions of the south until several decades after many of the northern states.
One of the first and most prominent symbols of the growing south and the post-war industrial boom took place in West Point thanks to a paper mill.
Before the construction of the mill, West Point had been a sleepy resort town, until fire ravaged many of its facilities. The mill, built in 1914 by the Chesapeake Corporation, sits where the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers meet – a perfect port location, to be sure.
The arrival of the massive mill revitalized West Point, but not as the sleepy town it once was. Bringing about a stable means for work and income, West Point became a model for many small southern regions for the future and ushered in a new era.
A TREASURE HUNT
In 1979, Urbanna’s residents prepared to celebrate their tricentennial.
Local lore celebrated the town’s most famous resident, John Mitchell. In the 17th century, Mitchell was recruited by the Earl of Halifax to produce a map of the American colonies as many of the maps at the time were insufficient or inaccurate.
Not only did he succeed by studying and utilizing some of the most accurate regional maps available at the time, Mitchell made what is arguably the most perfect work of mapmaking in American history, even being used up through the 20th century.
Known simply as “The Mitchell Map,” it was, and is still considered, a masterpiece.
A first edition copy of the Mitchell Map is still on hand in Urbanna at the town’s museum thanks to several involved residents making it their mission to procure a copy.
Ultimately, they would track down a map dealer and purchase one for $7,500 – a large sum back then. Today, that same map remains a priceless piece of history and art.