May 1611—Jamestown was a floundering colony. Supply shortages, famine, disease, starvation, and Indian warfare constantly burdened the settlers. All of these hardships culminated in the winter of 1609-1610, known as “The Starving Time,” during which Jamestown lost over 80% of its population. High death rates and desolation placed England’s claim to the New World in jeopardy. More importantly, the colony’s disappointing profits and economic uncertainty meant a poor return on investment for the Virginia Company of London. Anxious to generate revenue, the Virginia Company dispatched Sir Thomas Dale—a decorated English naval commander—to their struggling New World enterprise in the hopes that his leadership would bring about much-needed sustainability and order.
The Virginia Company instructed Dale, upon his arrival to the Americas, to establish another colony further inland, as Jamestown’s location was believed to be untenable. The primary reason behind this expedition was not necessarily to find friendlier native tribes or more arable land, but to seek refuge from the Spanish, whose ships regularly patrolled the Chesapeake Bay in search of European “trespassers.”
In September 1611, Dale and his 300-man militia departed Jamestown and trekked nearly fifty miles up the James River to an abandoned Algonquian village. Here, Dale established the ‘Citie of Henryco,’ named after King James I’s eldest son, Prince Henry Frederick. As ‘High Marshal of Virginia,’ as so declared by the Virginia Company, Dale instituted martial law and ordered his men to construct a fort enclosing seven acres of land. The project—which consisted of vertical palisades, watchtowers, a church, and warehouse—was amazingly completed in a mere ten days, much to the disdain and disgruntlement of his militiamen.
Over the next several years, Henricus evolved from what was essentially a military outpost to a bustling frontier settlement, and there were talks of it eventually replacing Jamestown as the principal governing body of the Virginia Colony. Henricus certainly seemed to be trending in that direction after Mount Malady—the first English hospital in the New World—was constructed behind its walls in 1613. The hospital was a sanctuary for weary travelers and offered colonists medical care for ailments such as dysentery and saltwater poisoning. Records indicate that Mount Malady had enough room for forty beds and eighty patients.
Henricus’s greatest growth came after the successful cultivation of tobacco by John Rolfe in 1612. The cash crop generated substantial revenue for its planters and the Virginia Company, which prompted Dale to acquire additional tracts of land (such as the Bermuda Hundred) outside of the original settlement and institute a policy of privatized land ownership. Colonists left the wooden confines of Henricus proper in droves to pursue these new profitable agricultural enterprises, which caused the settlement’s total land area to expand from seven acres to several square miles.
Henricus was also the setting for one of America’s most fabled stories: the legend of Pocahontas. Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, was born in 1595/6 and originally given the name ‘Amonute’ (‘Pocahontas’ was a nickname meaning “playful one”). She was viewed as a heroine by many an English settler after reportedly saving Captain John Smith from execution. By his own account, Smith recalls Pocahontas physically intervening between him and his would-be executor; however, the historical accuracy of Smith’s recollection remains an intensely debated topic among scholars today.
Pocahontas falls out of the English record in the years following Smith’s dramatic rescue, but her name resurfaces during the First Anglo-Powhatan War when she was kidnapped by Captain Samuel Argall in 1613. She was brought to Henricus and held for ransom. As Chief Powhatan negotiated for his daughter’s safe return, she was placed under the charge of Reverend Alexander Whitaker, from whom she learned the English language, Anglicanism, and western customs. Whitaker later baptized Pocahontas into the Christian faith and gave her the name ‘Rebecca.’
On April 5, 1614, Pocahontas married John Rolfe. Their union led to the “Peace of Pocahontas,” an eight-year truce between the Powhatan Indians and English settlers. In January 1615, Pocahontas gave birth to her only child, Thomas. One year later, the Rolfe family moved back to England on the behest of the Virginia Company, who used Pocahontas as an example of how English colonization and religious conversion could “tame the savages.” Pocahontas’s arrival and subsequent tour of England generated considerable interest, albeit for some very condescending reasons; however, her new-found celebrity status would not last very long. In March 1617, Pocahontas fell seriously ill while with her family on the Thames River. She was taken ashore to the town of Gravesend where she died of an unspecific illness.
Pocahontas was an important figure in English settler society. Not only did she foster healthy Anglo-Powhatan diplomatic relationships, but she also embodied the potential of cultural and religious assimilation. Her “success story” encouraged colonists to make greater efforts to Anglicize the indigenous population. In 1619, George Thorpe established the College of Henryco, the first English institution for higher learning in the New World. The College was situated on ten thousand acres of land just outside of Henricus and was designed to instruct English and Powhatan males in schools of trade, agriculture, and Christian education. However, not all Native Americans were on board with assimilation, especially Opechancanough, Chief Powhatan’s youngest brother and successor following his death in 1618. He believed that peaceful relations with the English could not be maintained and that cultural integration would mean the demise of Powhatan society.
Years of territorial encroachment, trade disputes, and unwanted cultural conversion finally boiled over on March 22, 1622. In what’s known as the Indian Massacre of 1622 (or Powhatan Uprising), Chief Opechancanough launched a series of vicious attacks on English settlements across the Tidewater region, killing over 350 settlers (about one-quarter of the population). Henricus was not spared from the slaughter. Five colonists were killed inside the settlement’s walls while another seventeen were murdered at the College. All buildings on the College grounds were destroyed. Those who survived the attacks were ordered by Sir Francis Wyatt—the first governor of Virginia—to move back towards Jamestown. The Citie of Henricus was left abandoned, never to be re-established. Its exact location remains unknown today.
Shortly after the Indian Massacre, Captain William Farrar and a group of forty settlers recolonized the lands of the old Henricus settlement. While no formal towns were ever developed, the area gave rise to some of the most profitable tobacco plantations in Virginia.
Due to its strategic location on the James, Henricus was a desired point of contention for the armies of the American Revolution. On April 27, 1781, turncoat Benedict Arnold and members of the 76th and 80th Regiments of Foot launched a surprise attack at Osborn’s Landing—a loading dock near the old Henricus settlement utilized by the Virginia State Navy. Arnold ordered the Continentals to surrender, to which they replied, “We are determined and ready to defend our ships, and will sink them rather than surrender.”
Arnold ordered his artillery to open fire on the American ships. The Continentals offered return fire, but they were heavily outmanned and outgunned and could only muster a weak defense. The crews of the Virginia Navy decided to abandon their vessels, scuttle them, and set their cargo ablaze (most of which was valuable Virginia tobacco); however, the British were able to board some of the larger ships and extinguish the flames before they could cause too much damage. Neither side listed any casualties in the action, but Virginia suffered a severe economic blow with the loss of the cargoes.
Military action returned to the Henricus settlement during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign of the Civil War. During the summer of 1864, Major General Benjamin Butler and the Union Army of the James were pinned down on the banks of the Bermuda Hundred, surrounded by Confederate pickets and artillery outposts. That August, Butler ordered his men to construct the Dutch Gap Canal, which would connect a large bend in the James River and allow Union ships to bypass the rebel shore batteries. Many of the men who worked on the canal were colored troops or liberated slaves, all of whom were subjected to harsh working conditions. Scorching heat, infectious disease, and constant Confederate artillery and sniper fire ravaged the Federal troops. By the time the 200-yard canal was completed on January 1, 1865, changes in strategic lines made it obsolete. The canal wasn’t utilized until 1872. Today, it is the primary James River Channel.
From January 23 – 25, 1865, the Battle of Trent’s Reach—one of the last major naval engagements of the Civil War—raged near the shores of the old settlement. Warships and ironclads in the eleven-vessel James River Squadron, under command of Commodore John K. Mitchell (CSA), were tasked with breaking the Union naval blockade on the James and destroying the Federal supply headquarters at City Point. If the Northern supply lines could be broken, so could the siege of Petersburg. Defending the James and City Point were Union land batteries at Fort Brady, under command of Colonel Henry H. Pierce (1st Conn. Artillery), and the James River Flotilla—a five-ship squadron commanded by Captain William A. Parker.
On the evening of January 23, as Mitchell’s James River Squadron advanced toward its target, guns from Fort Brady erupted onto the flotilla. Poor gun range and decreased visibility made the Union guns wildly inaccurate. Whatever ordinance did land was ricocheted off by the near-impervious armor of the ironclads as they returned fire. Confederate land batteries also offered covering fire as the Union guns were eventually silenced by the cannonades. The rebel gunboats passed unharmed and reached Trent’s Reach at 10:30 p.m. where they encountered numerous river obstructions and mine fields. Mitchell dispatched reconnaissance teams under cover of darkness to defuse and eliminate any obstacles. Union shore batteries fired upon the Confederate ships, but like their counterparts at Fort Brady, their rounds were rarely ever effective.
General Ulysses S. Grant received word of the impending Confederate attack the following morning and ordered Captain Parker, who was aboard the USS Onondaga, to engage the rebel fleet with support from the USS Massasoit and USS Hunchback. Parker refused the direct order due to poor maneuverability of his fleet at its current position. Grant, outraged by the refusal, appealed to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to have Parker removed from command. Welles promptly approved the order and placed Commander Edward T. Nichols in charge. However, the change in command was quite temporary as Parker reassumed authority later that day.
While the rebel reconnaissance teams were hard at work clearing the waterways, the Confederate command was completely oblivious to the changing tides. Consequently, four of their gunboats ran aground during the operation. The stranded vessels were easy targets for the Union land batteries, and with daybreak came more accurate fire. Members of the CSS Drewry, an unarmored gunboat, decided to abandon ship at 6:55 a.m. and join the crew of the ironclad CSS Richmond. Not nearly 15 minutes later, a Union round detonated the Drewry’s gunpowder magazine, causing the ship to explode in spectacular fashion. Shrapnel from the obliterated ship killed two crew members aboard the CSS Scorpion, a torpedo ship a couple hundred feet away from the Drewry. The Scorpion was so badly damaged that it, too, had to be scuttled.
With two wooden ships destroyed, two ironclads remained stranded in the river. Captain Parker advanced the monitor Onondaga and torpedo ship USS Spuyten Duyvil closer to the Confederate vessels hoping to land some crippling, heavy-ordinance blows. However, before the Union flotilla was in range, the high tides returned and lifted the stranded ships off the silty river bottom. The CSS Virginia II reared its cannon and fired a single shot at the Onondaga, which “observed to take effect” according to Mitchell. The James River Squadron retreated to deeper waters while the land batteries dueled until nightfall.
With the loss of two ships and damage to several others, Commodore Mitchell surmised that the mission was a failure. He ordered his squadron to withdraw back to friendly waters. As the Confederates retreated, they engaged the Union gunners of Fort Brady once more. The ironclads fired between 1,000 and 1,500 rounds before action was finally broken off. The Union managed to defeat the superior Confederate naval forces, suffering three dead, forty wounded, and no ships sunk. The rebel casualty report lists anywhere from four to ten crewmen dead, fifteen wounded, and two ships sunk.
The end of the Civil War did not mean an end to warfare at Henricus. From 1917 to 1918, the former settlement’s land was utilized as an artillery range for the 80th Division of the United States Army. Members of the 80th were deployed to France during the waning months of World War I and fought in battles such as The Somme, Saint Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. And out of all the United States troops deployed during WWI, the 80th Division saw the most consecutive days of action.
Since the 1970s, several archaeological expeditions have been conducted to try to uncover the original Henricus settlement. All have had very little success since the land has been significantly disturbed over the past four centuries by disruptive agricultural practices, warfare, or gravel mining by Dominion Energy.
Today, the legacy of Henricus is exemplified by the living history at Henricus Historical Park. After watching a short video on Henricus’s history at the Visitor Center, guests can explore the reconstructed Powhatan town of Arrohateck on the outskirts of Henrico Fort. As many as 13,000 Arrohateck people occupied this land in the years preceding English colonialism. Visitors are encouraged to interact with the knowledgeable reenactors who explain native agricultural practices, significance of Powhatan culture, and how Indians interacted with the English.
Inside the wooden palisades of the fort is the reconstructed settlement of Henricus. Much like the Indian Village, Henricus is abundant with historical reenactors who help visitors interpret the struggles early colonists faced under martial law, typical colonial practices and trades, and how settlers went about their daily lives. Visitors are also encouraged to explore the numerous reconstructed architectural features of Henricus, such as the Church and Meeting Hall, Court de Guard, Mount Malady, Rocke Hall (Reverend Whitaker’s place of residence), and Proctor Plantation.
Out the rear exit of the fort are two additional points of interest. The first is a set of shallow depressions near the James River Bluff almost completely obscured by vegetation. These divots were once the graves for fifty Union soldiers who died while digging the Dutch Gap Canal. Most of these men were members of the 1st NY Engineers, 169th NY Infantry, and 116th USCT. Towards the rear of the bluff are the ruins of the Lightkeeper’s House. This structure was originally built in the mid-1870s to maintain the gas-powered navigational lights on the bluff and warn passing ships of treacherous river conditions.
The Citie of Henricus is incredibly significant to Virginia’s early colonial history, and it’s a shame that it has largely been forgotten by mainstream academia. The settlement was a site of several monumental firsts for English colonization—the first hospital, first college, and first settlement to cultivate tobacco, Virginia’s most lucrative cash crop. The historical park does a great job in communicating these attributes, relating them to the historic narrative, and providing visitors with multiple viewpoints on the motivations and consequences of colonization.