1. Introduction. The Northern Neck is surrounded by two rivers, the Potomac on the north and the Rappahannock on the south, and at the eastern tip by the Chesapeake Bay. The Northern Neck is a peninsula. No spot on the peninsula is more than ten miles from one of the two rivers. In this section, I will try to provide assessments of the Northern Neck natural characteristics and how those characteristics might have influenced Northern Neck development and the lives of the citizens who lived there during the 1600s and 1700s.
2. Forests. When the first European settlers first came upon the Northern Neck, they found a land that was probably greater than 90% covered with thick tree growth. Today, tree coverage in the Northern Neck is estimated to be around 55%. And currently (2021) tress along routes 3 and 360 are impressively tall. During the 1600s and 1700s, trees were one of the Northern Neck greatest natural resource, in addition to the land with an ability to support a strong agriculture economy and the waters that surround the Northern Neck, providing great seafood productivity and water routes to markets. What forest clearage the settlers found was done by the Indians, for the Indian needs. There was a wide variety of tree types in the forest, with pine, oak, and American chestnut predominating. This large forest coverage was likely the cause for early settlers (those in the 1600s) to live mostly along the two major rivers, the Potomac and Rappahannock, and the many smaller rivers that crisscross the peninsula. Few 1600s settlers would venture deep into the forests to set up home sites. By the later part of the 1700s, significant amounts of the forests had been cleared.
The forests would become an important economic resource as the trees were of excellent quality for shipbuilding. Shipbuilding become an active industry in support of the great amount of tobacco that would be exported to England, and elsewhere, and to serve the transportation needs of the residents, who primarily used the waterways to travel about. Trees, as a source of wood, would also be in great demand for making barrels from the wood. Barrels would be seen in large numbers throughout communities, as they were necessary for storage, shipping, and other uses (functions taken over today by metals and plastics). Trees were the largest export to England until tobacco took over as the 1700s approached.
Trees might have been one of the most important “national security and welfare” benefits of England’s investments in the American colonies. By the 1700s, England was mostly devoid of forests and their trees, which a strong 1700s navy would need. England’s sea power of the 1700s was a critical contributing factor to the development of its 1800s empire, and without America’s trees, its strong navy may not have been possible.
3. Land. Northern Neck soil is sandy with few stones and rocks, flat and supporting of tobacco growing, and later of grains. The soil that the first immigrants found in the 1600s was fertile, good agriculture soil. Water springs were present. The land supported well the growing of fruit orchids, which was common. Many Northern Neck native gardening plants were eventually exported to England, not previously available in England.
Visitors in the late 1600s and 1700s would see cleared land populated with tree stumps, as the settlers copied the Indian practice of leaving the stumps alone (saving on labor), planting and growing around the stumps.
As the settlers increased their tobacco growing (they eventually would be the largest Virginia exporter of tobacco to England in the 1700s), forest clearing became a major occupation, needing lots of labor, which supported the need for more and more indentured servants and African slaves. Unfortunately, the soil would become badly damaged by the over-growing of tobacco, which would impact Northern Neck economics.
4. Rivers and Waterways. The Northern Neck has many rivers crisscrossing the peninsula with several being Indian names such as: Chickacoan; Nomini; Yeocomico; Wicomico; Corrotoman; and Tutosky. The rivers served for transportation and often as property lines. Settlers in the 1600s were shown by Indians how to build and use canoes. Later specially-designed flat-bottom boats were built for river travel. Also dozens of creeks and coves along the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers (these rivers are also Indian names) served especially well as locations for wharfs and other facilities useful for loading ships with the tobacco and other goods exported to England, and elsewhere, and unloading the English imported goods that settlers purchased and depended upon. Plentiful coves provided good protection for boats. The Northern Neck has over 1,000 miles of Rappahannock and Potomac River shoreline. In the 1700s, visitors would see dozens of boats and ships of many sizes and purposes on the rivers, creeks, and coves; many more than would be seen today. Small craft and larger ships were a primarily means of travel and of moving goods, unlike today. The use of these rivers, creeks, and coves likely provided a much different perspective to these natural resources and to life in the Northern Neck compared to today.
Ancestors (in the ancestor tables in Section I, Introduction) known to have owned sailing craft included:
Robert Carter (1663-1762)
John Garner (1633-1702)
Richard Kenner (1635-1692)
John Mottrom (1610-1655)
One of my ancestors, Robert Carter (1663-1732) (see ancestor tables , Section I, Introduction), had his plantation on the Corrotoman River (that flows into the Rappahannock). Carter was a huge tobacco exporter to England and certainly would have used the river extensively for loading and unloading goods. Another ancestor, Nathaniel Pope (1603-1660), lived on what today is called Pope’s Creek, where he had a wharf and warehouse. Pope’s death date suggests that Northern Neck trade with England began early in the 1600s.
Many creeks along the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers are name after a landowner farmer who lived along the creek. Creek names, with ancestor names in Section I, Introduction tables include:
Ball's Creek - Lancaster County
Carter's Creek - Lancaster County
Claughton's Creek - Northumberland County
Cralle’s Cove - Northumberland County
Garner's Creek - Northumberland County
Pope's Creek - Westmoreland County
Other ancestors known to have other than creeks name after them include:
Ball – a mill
Carter – a bridge, a mill, a ferry, a wharf, and a tavern
Washington – a mill
Having creeks and/or other places, such as ferries, wharfs, and mills, named for an individual is an indication that the individual has attained a certain position in the community through land ownership and/or in other ways.
The Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers widen considerably from their fall-line headwaters to where they flow into the Chesapeake Bay. By the time the Rappahannock flows into the Chesapeake, it is about three miles in width and the Potomac is about seven miles in width. By comparison, the James River width, when it flows into the Chesapeake, is about four miles and the York River is about two and a half miles. And the Rappahannock from its fall line to the Chesapeake is about 80 miles in length; the Potomac, about 105 miles in length; the James, about 65 miles; and the York, about 30 miles. Along with the Chesapeake Bay (about 70 miles distance from the James to the Potomac Rivers and about an average of 20 to 30 miles across to the Eastern Shore, these measurements give some perspective on the magnitude of the waterways that the Virginia Colonists needed to master, use, and try to benefit from.
5. Weather. Records indicate that the Northern Neck in the middle 1600s experienced extremely cold weather causing many rivers to freeze over, with ships captured in the ice. Also, 1780 was reported to be an extremely cold winter, colder than anyone could remember and with freezing rivers. Hurricanes and hot, humid summer days occurred then as they do today, but perhaps then not as hot and hurricanes less frequent. A 1775 hurricane reportedly caused severe economic damage in the Northern Neck.
Weather could be severe then as it can be today. A difference is the effects on the people then were much more severe than today. They simply did not have the building construction, the heating systems, the air conditioning, and other developments that protect us today from extreme weather. This likely caused their perspectives about weather to be much different, compared to today, and in ways we probably have a difficult time understanding.
6. Wild Life. The waterways around and through the Northern Neck were abundant with seafood. Large amounts of fish (many types), oysters, and crabs were present upon which the Indians depended, and the settlers would also. Wolves, cougars, bobcats, and foxes were present in noticeable populations, especially wolves. Wolves were of such a problem killing the settlers’ livestock (and attacking people) that a wolf bounty was enacted in the 1600s, essentially wiping out the wolf population. Recently, wolf protections have resulted in an increased wolf population, an indication of differences in how people then and now view animals. Beavers were also present in the 1600s in sufficient numbers that the Indians conducted a beaver fur trade with the settlers.