Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Bend in the River

Lynnhaven Sunset, 2007

We live on a river that is just a couple of miles in from where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, not far from where the first permanent English settlers planted their flag in the “New World” in 1607. The area is rife with history. Prior to the arrival of European settlers, members of various Algonquin tribes lived here for thousands of years on what is known as the Great Neck. Up until now, though, I hadn’t really thought that the exact place where we live had much more than a peripheral role in local history.

One of our neighbors fancies himself as quite the historian. I say “fancies” because some of the things he says about modern history are so incorrect that I’m compelled to take some aspects of his accounts of Colonial history with a grain of salt.

This is what he told me the other night at a party:

The river that runs past us was a bustling thoroughfare in Colonial times. At the upper reach of the river, just a mile from us, is a busy shopping center. In Colonial times, what is now a big asphalt parking lot, a Food Lion and a TJ Maxx was a port known as London Bridge. Among the cargo that landed here during the mid-to-late 1600s were slaves from Africa.

Slave traders were taxed on the number of live slaves they brought into the colonies. The tariff was collected at the port of entry. Captains seeking to minimize slave taxes made deals with landowners along the river to offload some of their slave cargo and hide them out of sight of the tax collectors in temporary cells in the basement of Rose Hall. On nights when the landowners knew a slave ship was expected they would burn fires along the river to indicate readiness to accept slaves. The ship would pause in Lynnhaven Bay long enough to offload a goodly number of slaves and then continue around the bend to the wharf at London Bridge, where taxes would be paid on the remaining slaves left aboard.

I don’t know if this is true or not. Rose Hall was torn down a few years ago. One of the coves just down from us is known as Hall Haven. The neighbor swears his ironmonger reliably confirmed the age of a ship’s anchor uncovered in the marsh beside his house at something between three and four hundred years. Even if the anchor does date from the 1600s, that doesn’t prove anything about hiding slaves along the Lynnhaven River.

There are a lot of places where the bloodstains of American history remain close to the surface. I just never thought of them as running through my backyard.


  1. Wow! I wonder if there's truth to it? And I also wonder if there's any way to research it further. Fascinating. It sounds like it could be plausible. How does he claim to know all this?!

  2. I lived most of my life within a mile of the Lynnhaven River and never heard about this. I'm retired now, a history buff as well and you've just given me something to sink my teeth into. Thanks Chris!