|Posted by chowanoke on July 30, 2013 at 2:40 PM|
Ever since I first began researching the Choanoac, Roanoke colony, and my own family roots in the region, I have always wanted to explore the tidewater mid-Atlantic region. Truth be told, I’ve been there as a kid when we had family out there, but at the time the significance was lost to me. We were recently able to plan a visit out there, so me, my dad and three kids loaded up the car and took off for a road trip. I couldn’t see absolutely everything that I would’ve wanted to see, but with we were able to check out some amazing stuff, plus some fun and unexpected side stops along the way.
Our first night out was about as poor an introduction of camping to my three year old daughter as could be imagined. We kept our spirits up, but starting from Chicago in the morning, we made about an eight hour drive with three very bored kids to the foothills of the Appalachians in Keystone State Park in Pennsylvania. It was a downpour. We pitched our tent at an incline on the side of a mountain while making a pathetic attempt at roasting marshmallows and hot dogs in the rain. That night our sleeping bags kept sliding down the tent to a growing puddle at our feet. The bags would be damp for the rest of the trip. Surprisingly, the kids found the whole experience funny (as did the grown-ups) and they weren’t turned off to camping just yet.
The next day the clouds cleared and we had an awe-inspiring drive through the heart of the Appalachians to Washington D.C. We could’ve driven right past but I couldn’t resist at least driving by the monuments for the kids’ sakes and visiting my friend Marvin Jones at his house. After a great conversation with Marvin on his finely crafted gliders in the open air, we drove back through the city to be on our way. Marvin told us, “Just go down 14th street, it’ll take you right out of the city past some great monuments,” which we did at first, but we really wanted the kids to see the White House before we left, which wasn’t visible from 14th street. The next two hours were among the most frustrating driving experiences of my life as the one-way streets and heavy traffic seemed determined to eject us from the city without seeing the White House. After several hours of stop-and-go traffic, helping push a stranded car and failing with directions from the GPS, we finally admitted defeat and left without seeing the White House. We looked so lame it was almost funny.
The end of the day was really special, making us forget about the traffic of Washington. The drive into Tidewater Virginia was nice, and I really enjoyed noting the various place names and rivers I had read about. By evening we reached our camp on the Chickahominy River. We were right on the river’s edge, which was alive with animal sounds and surprisingly few mosquitoes. The weather was perfect and the camp was great. We enjoyed telling ghost stories, and of course I couldn’t resist telling the kids about the history of the place, such as the capture of John Smith near that spot, though naturally they just rolled their eyes at me. It was fun that night, watching the kids use flashlights to catch the frogs that were hopping everywhere.
While most of the previous two days were spent driving, the next was spent finally enjoying the local sites and bringing the real fun into the trip. Only forty-five minutes from camp was Jamestown Settlement, which has an outstanding recreated fort, Powhatan village and tall ships. As we entered the village area, which was really accurately portrayed, a fully clad Powhatan Indian in full paint and regalia came into view. My four year old son exclaimed, “Dad! That’s an Indian! A real Indian!” I replied, “Yep, that’s right.” With a puzzled look he said loudly, “I thought they were all dead!” I laughed and said that it was a common misconception. In the village we helped scrape out a dugout canoe, explored the Yeahockans, and were taught all about village life by our guide, who was a Saponi man (the same one that awed my son earlier). It was a very special time.
From there we went on to the fort, which was based on how it looked by 1610 under the administration of Governor Dale (during the First Anglo-Powhatan War). It was expertly constructed by raw materials using original techniques and was very authentic. The “Englishmen” who manned the fort were very knowledgeable and taught us a lot. Near the fort were the tall ships, based on the original three that first settled Jamestown. They demonstrated a cannon shot, which the kids loved. On the way out I was able to purchase a beautiful pot crafted on the Mattaponi Reservation which I now have on display in my living room.
We couldn’t resist visiting the actual archeological site of Jamestown afterwards, and I’m glad we did. Actual archeological digs were going on as we were visiting, so I was very fortunate to see them at work in the pits. They were at that moment unearthing a horse’s skeleton just outside the fort walls. The rest of the area was outlined as to exactly where the original walls stood with a palisade and interpretive signs. It was really something else to stand on the very ground where so much took place.
Having subjected the kids to enough history for one day, we went from there to First Landing State Park (the site of, you guessed it, the first landing). Just inside the lip of Chesapeake Bay, it was the first time my kids had ever seen the ocean. The water was pretty warm, shallow and calm, though the waves were giants compared to t Lake Michigan. We found seashells, chased crabs, examined washed-up jellyfish and of course, splashed in the waves with body boards. Our camp was within walking distance of the beach, which was nice, though we were next door to a military installation which was conducting loud helicopter exercises long into the night.
The next morning we geared up for something I had always wanted to see: the Great Dismal Swamp. Because it was closer than the National Wildlife Refuge, we opted to see it from the east side in the Dismal Swamp State Park on the North Carolina Side. Entering was something else. Much drier than I pictured because of draining operations, it was more a dense forest than a swamp, though from what I understand this varies from place to place throughout its hundreds of square miles. Though disappointed of seeing a bear or rattlesnake like I hoped, we saw some incredible forest and other wildlife such as deer, amphibians, lizards and insects. Oh man, the insects. There were a lot. Not really mosquitoes or flies like I had figured on, we were covered in ticks and mites. Covered. We could see them crawling up our legs by the dozen, and there wasn’t anything we could do about it. As I write this I am still scratching at the bites.
The bugs notwithstanding, the swamp was a special place for me to visit. Not only was it a common hunting ground to the Choanoac, Nansemond, Chesapeake and Weapemeoc people, but my ancestor John Bass, a mixed blood Indian, African and European man, lived on the western edge of it for a long time before moving further west to the Urahaw Swamp. It was a special thing to see my ancestors’ former home.
After the swamp adventure we went to the Outer Banks around the Kill Devil Hills where we had a hotel room near the ocean. The plan was for another evening of beach fun, but the wind was so strong and chilly that we had to retreat from the beach after a half hour. In our hotel room, I thoroughly enjoyed a long hot shower. Having been camping and swamping for several days, I was getting pretty ripe and needed further delousing. Plucking the last of the ticks and mites that I had missed earlier was no small task, and something my kids really did not relish as I purified them as well. We couldn’t leave the Outer Banks without having some of the seafood, so we had a great dinner of crab, fried oysters and various other sea creatures. My older daughter loved it, especially the squid. Wierdo.
The next morning we had a good hot breakfast and set out for something I had always wanted to see, Roanoke Island. We had a choice, for time reasons, between the Roanoke Festival Park, where there were recreated villages and such things, or the Fort Raleigh archeological site. Since we had already seen the Jamestown recreation, which was very well done, we opted for the original Fort Raleigh. It was one of my favorite parts of the journey. After looking at the reconstructed earthworks of part of the colony, we went on the Thomas Hariot nature trail, which had interpretive signs on the native vegetation that Hariot wrote about. At the end of the trail, we reached the beach, where the kids played while I looked around. This north side of the island was eroding into the Sound, and occasionally yielded new artifacts. Unable to resist, I looked along these low cliffs, not expecting to find anything, but right at the base of a sand cliff was a very old looking and corroded, unrecognizable metal object. While very round and oblong in shape (it looked like a turd) it was rusted into the sand to the point that it was larger than its original shape. It was not necessarily of Roanoke age, and may have been, say 19th century as a Civil War battle was fought there, but I thought it was very cool to find and turned it in to the ranger at the visitor’s center. A few minutes later another park visitor turned in a piece of metal she had found, so I imaged a bin of old, worthless metal there must have been under the rangers desk from “artifacts” found by the public. But you never know.
From there were drove on the south side of the Albemarle Sound through Alligator River. Though we saw no gators it was neat to see the place where the last holdouts of the Mattamuskeet people hid during the Tuscarora War. It wasn’t long before we reached the bridge that took us north to Edenton, which was a lovely town, and then on to the main objective of the drive: Bennett’s Creek. We crossed Catherine’s Creek, which was a very swampy little river, and came to Indian Neck Road; the approximate border of the reservation. It was easy to see why the Choanoac pleaded for different land at first: it was all sand. It must have been very difficult to grow anything on. We know they eventually managed to grow orchards and other crops, but it was no easy task. After a few wrong turns, were finally managed to find a route through dirt roads to a boat launch at Bennett’s Creek near where old Chowan Town stood. As soon as I got out of the car I saw a large conch shell laying on the ground, so I snagged it; I great souvenir. It is a very nice river. The foliage was divers. There was lots of sassafras, loblolly pines, sweet gum and many other trees and plants I’m not familiar with. Finding a large skink, we scrambled to try to catch it, but the thing went up my dad’s leg without him knowing it. It crawled out of its hideaway later when we were in the car which created quite a scene. The Chowans must have fished this river frequently, and though most of the reservation area was bad for planting, there was much possibility in terms of hunting and gathering. In fact, much of it is reserved as hunting lands today for the locals.
Leaving Bennett’s Creek we went north and crossed the Chowan River, which was very neat. Once we were on the Winton side of it we parked the car so I could go down to the bank and take some photos. I had to scramble down a sand cliff to get to it. It’s apparent to me why the capital town was on this side. The banks are very high, much higher than the east side, which was low and swampy at the bank. Upsetting a hive of wasps, I had to clear out of there really fast but made it back to the car without being stung. Our last stop for the day on the way to the campground was the home of my ancestor, John Bass, at Urahaw Swamp. I am proud to say I set my feet down into the muck of the swamp and took some great pictures, as well as retrieved a branch of Cyprus wood that I’m gonna craft into a walking stick.
That was the last of our time in Algonquian territory. That night we stayed at a really nice spot at Medoc Mountain State Park, (yes we climbed the mountain), and began our route home the next day. Though long, we stopped along the way at some great spots. We saw a zoo for the kids, and also saw Mound City at the Hopewell Culture National Park in Ohio. We also saw some sites related to my personal hero, Tecumseh, at the place of his birth near the Scioto River, the battle of Tippecanoe as well as Prophet’s Rock. Altogether, I cherished my time out east. The kids have some great memories, and I feel like I can picture in my head the history of the place much better. Anyone with roots in this region should try to make the pilgrimage. It’s worth it.
Note – On the trip, I was able to gather some interesting natural materials, such as leaves from the Yaupon Holly, Yucca (silkgrass), and river cane, which I will be experimenting with to try and imitate the handiwork of my ancestors. Once I figure out how to craft them, I will send out another blog-post of how to make some crafts.