Time and Tides Wash Us All Away

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Time and Tides Wash Us All Away

by Douglas Herman

The rivers of the east are quite peculiar. What is called a creek in the east can be wide and shallow, more like a tidal backwater or bay, unlike the creeks of the west, which are raging little rivulets capable of knocking you off your feet as you try to jump across them, or silvery threads of impermanent moisture. 'Six feet of water, six feet of mud,' said Earl, describing Potomac Creek, Virginia. An obscure backwater not far from Washington DC , Potomac Creek played a sizeable role in America' s history, however, certainly a larger historical role than its area would indicate at first glance. I had sailed around this estuary, a distance of three miles long and a half-mile wide surrounded by low, wooded hills, and then returned to shore where a trio of local commercial fishermen'Earl, Dootsie and Pappy--stood drinking around a pickup truck. They admired the giant fossil oyster'the size of a soup bowl'I had pried from the distant, towering bluff. One of the fishermen, Dootsie, poured me a drink of vodka and cranberry juice and we talked of the vagaries of commercial fishing and the falling prices for our catch. I pulled out photos of the Kodiak fishing fleet and the fishing port where I worked. They admired the scenes of salmon boats, pausing at a picture of captain Tom Dooley's salmon seiner, 'Rebel,' with the Confederate Stars and Bars flying from the mast. Virginians, they swelled with a bit of southern pride, seeing their vanquished banner flying from an Alaskan boat. I asked them where Belle Plain was'I hadn't seen a plaque for the historic Civil War site anywhere'and they pointed to where we now stood, an empty, beachfront lot overgrown with weeds and salt tolerant trees in sandy soil. 'After a storm you can still find old buttons from the uniforms of Yankee soldiers,' Pappy remarked, 'Over on the right side, on that bluff, was where Union troops were camped in 1862, just before the battle of Fredericksburg , and there on the left, on that opposite bluff, Marlboro Point, was where Pocahontas lived in the 1600's.' I squinted and tried to see history as a panorama, in a picturesque backwater the size of a small lake. Unlike her Disney namesake, Pocahontas was far more complex and her personal history considerably more multi-faceted and tragic than the bosomy, cartoon character portrayed in the movie. Whether she actually lived nearby, as Pappy said, was open to conjecture. According to one report, Powhatan presented his daughter, Pocahontas, to a chief of a Potomac tribe as a bond of good faith to cement a loose confederacy of tribes. From there she was bartered, traded, kidnapped or persuaded to go to Jamestown and suddenly found herself at the center of Colonial American history. And yet'inadvertently--Pocahontas had as much to do with the events leading to the Civil War, which unfolded on the opposite bluff across this narrow bay 250 years later, as anyone. Dootsie poured me another drink and we watched the sunset soften the wooded hills, tinting the forest a golden hue that contrasted with the ultramarine blue of the bay. Looking out over the water, past the workskiffs that tugged at their anchors, we could see the Maryland shore from where we stood. St. Clement's Island, just across the Potomac in Maryland , once 400 acres but now reduced to 40 uninhabited acres by tidal erosion, was the first settlement in Maryland . Jamestown , the first settlement to take hold and prosper in Virginia , where Pocahontas was taken, was just south of us. While at Jamestown , John Rolfe met and married Pocohontas in 1614. She was nineteen. Rolfe, a clever fellow who had survived a shipwreck on Bermuda that became the basis for a Shakespearean play, had noticed the local Virginia natives smoking a large leafy plant they had dried and cured. Together with Pocahontas, Rolfe devised a hybrid tobacco, sweeter and more pleasing to English tastes. Sailing with his new wife in 1616'along with several barrels of Virginia tobacco'Rolfe made a splash in London . Whether the hybrid tobacco or his Native American bride made more of an impression is not known. Princess Pocahontas, now Rebecca Rolfe, was presented to King James and charmed the royal court, including Sir Walter Raleigh, who had once hoped to accomplish the same self-sufficiency he saw happening at Jamestown but had failed at Roanoke, the fabled "Lost Colony." Tobacco soon became habit-forming to the English (who smoked it in clay pipes), but Pocahontas never saw Virginia again. On the return voyage she died of a respiratory ailment, possibly pneumonia, and was buried in Gravesend , England . Rolfe lived only five years longer. After the death of Powhatan in 1618, the tenuous peace between the English at Jamestown and native Americans dissolved. Ironically, the tobacco plantation of John Rolfe was destroyed in an uprising, burned to the ground, and some historians say Rolfe was killed in the massacre. Nonetheless, tobacco had become such a source of income that by 1619 a shipload of indentured servant girls'essentially mail-order brides'arrived in Jamestown . The compensation to be paid for each bride was 'one hundredth and fiftie pounds of the best leafe tobacco.' That same year, 1619, a score of African slaves, hijacked from a Spanish ship, were sold to colonists in Jamestown . Before he died, John Rolfe wrote: 'About the last of August came in a Dutch man of warre (armed sailing ship) that sold us twenty negars.' Quietly the seeds of the Civil War were being sown in America , only twelve years after the founding of the Jamestown settlement. Time and tide carries us all away, like the cigarette smoke drifting across Potomac Creek from among our group. Perhaps one of these fishermen was a descendent of the original English settlers'or even a descendent of Powhatan's tribe. Human existence is essentially a series of journeys, wrote William Least Heat Moon. The strange journey that took a simple native girl from her home on the bluff to a neighboring village, where she met an Englishman pivotal in the rise of colonial agriculture in Jamestown, from where they both sailed across the Atlantic with tobacco while the seeds of slavery and, hence, Civil War were being planted in Virginia roughly 250 years later, where an army gathered on the shoreline exactly opposite her birthplace, seems, in a historical sense, greater than the setting itself. Standing peacefully on this shore, sharing a drink, I was aware that the southern ancestors of these men possibly fought my northern ancestors, but now we were gathered in a spirit of friendship. We were fishermen, voyagers on a journey without charts. And on a vast sea of irony, time and tide carries us all away.

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Columns on STR: 136

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman enjoys exploring the occasional ghost town or spooky conspiracy and can be found wandering the back roads of America. Recently Doug finished writing, directing and producing an independent feature film, naturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA.