Secrets of the James: Native American Fishing Weirs Near Richmond City

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View of the James River at the Falls (Photo by Ellen Chapman)

The James River is full of mystery and intrigue for outdoor adventurers of Richmond, and while you may have already explored around the bridge ruins there’s a few places not so obvious unless you know what you’re looking for. The next time you’re out in a canoe, or tanning on the rocks on Belle Isle, keep a look out for rocks organized into a V shape close to the shore. These are quite possibly the remnants of ancient Native American fishing traps called weirs.

Theodore de Bry’s depiction of a Native fishing weir (1590). [Click to enlarge]

At the falls of the rivers, where the Water is shallow, and the Current strong, the Indians use another kind of Weir, thus made: They make a Dam of loose Stones, wereof there is plenty at hand, quite across the River, leaving One, Two, or more Spaces or Trunnels, for the Water to pass thro’; at the Mouth of which they set a Pot of Reeds, wove in the Form of a Cone, whose Base is about Three Foot, and perpendicular Ten, into which the Swiftness of the Current carries the Fish, and wedges them so fast, that they cannot possibly return.

– Robert Beverly, 1705

It is uncertain how many fishing weirs are currently left in the James, or even how many there were to begin with. Some of these sites have undoubtedly been destroyed through a variety of processes such as construction, granite quarrying, and floods.

Potential for Further Study of the James River’s History

The fishing weirs which are not currently in use within the Richmond City area that are most well known to the general public are the remains by the Pump House Park and Boulevard Bridge. The exact date of construction is unknown, but at the time of use, they would have caught a variety of different fish such as shad and sturgeon. Bill Trout, maritime archaeologist and author of Falls of the James Atlas, suspects that one of these weirs is the same one that colonist Robert Beverly (quoted above) wrote about in the 18th century.

When Native Americans used fishing weirs – both in pre colonial and post contact eras – they would typically be located near the fall lines as they were ideal habitation for fish populations. The fall lines also have better drained sediments than coastal areas, which would make the borders of major rivers and streams ideal locations for Native settlement.

With this knowledge and the fact that John Smith mapped many villages along Virginia rivers and streams, Bill Trout and fellow archaeologist

Lyle Browning have extensively studied the James River and canal systems in Richmond, and were able to determine over 400 potential archaeology sites along the James. However, as of 2015 little to no archaeological work has been done with these identified sites.

If archaeological work were completed on weirs in the James, likely artifacts might be found would include spear points and stone fishing net weights. In the surrounding wooded area it would be possible to locate firecracked rock where fish would have been cooked and dried – indicating a potential village site.

In terms of the existence of other Native fishing weirs along the river systems, many of their locations are recorded in the oral histories of tribes still in Virginia – like the Pamunkey. In many cases they are kept a close guarded secret in order to preserve the cultural integrity of the sites and practices.

Support for the Environment

The Pamunkey are well known for their dedication to the protection of their natural environment within their reservation on the Pamunkey River, a tributary to the York River. This environmental commitment is what Ashley Atkins Spivey (director of the Pamunkey Indian Museum and Cultural Center) determines as the leading factor to why the tribe’s reservation has not been as severely impacted like the rest of the river area.

While the James River – as well as the rest of the major Virginia rivers and tributaries- were once abundant, overfishing has taken its toll on the river ecology. After the European colonists arrived, they adopted Native methods and built extensive weirs and slat traps – large wooden boards set at an angle with the upper half facing upriver, and drilled into surrounding rock to secure it.

It cannot be determined who actually used this particular weir (left), but the earliest date of construction is the 19th century which can be determined by the presence of drill holes in some of the rocks (right). Found on my hike along the Buttermilk Trail with Jason Lunze from the Virginia Maritime Heritage Society and Conservation Association. [Click to enlarge]
Fishing Restrictions

The slat trap method is now illegal, and fishing in the James has been generally restricted due to depleted fish populations. From the contact period until the late 19th century too many young sturgeon were caught, and as they are a slow maturing fish the sturgeons went under threat of extinction. Shad mature faster than sturgeon, but even so the overfishing has had a severe impact on shad population as well.

Despite fishing laws, the Pamunkey and several other Virginia tribes are allowed to continue fishing without license due to their treaty status.

That the said Indians have and enjoy their wonted conveniences of Oystering, Fishing, and gathering Tuchahoe, Curtenemons, Wild Oats, Rushes, Puckoone, or anything else (for their natural support)…

Article VII of the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation

The Pamunkey tribe has upheld the Treaty of Middle Plantation since 1677 through their annual treaty tribute, which is presented to the governor of the Commonwealth.

Hatcheries Assisting Nature

The Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes are the only organizations (tribal or otherwise) that actively attempt to assist nature in increasing the fish population. This has been achieved by use of hatcheries, which operate specifically to increase the shad population. Shad in particular are very important to the Pamunkey cultural identity so they do their best to maintain the natural resources found in the Pamunkey River.

 

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US Geo View’s picture of the Pamunkey Hatchery established in 1918. [Click to enlarge]
While the cultural integrity of local tribes should be respected, there is likely a great opportunity to work with these groups to learn more about pre-contact Native life expanding from the fishing weirs in Richmond that are already known to the general public.
I haven’t heard of any current plans to excavate the James’ weir sites or any Virginia fish processing sites, but until this changes Richmond can help conserve the James by not adding to the already high pollution levels and by leaving rock alignments in place when enjoying the river.
 
Sources for further reading:
“Falls of the James Atlas” by Bill Trout
“Native American Sites in a Fall Line Transition Study Area” by Keith Egloff
“The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture” by Helen Rountree