This year, 2019, we mark 400 years since four major events came to pass here in Virginia that would shape our young nation. Basket & Bike will be reflecting on these events as our historical and environmental excursions take us right through the heart of their beginnings, mindful of the oftentimes uncomfortable truths of our history and the power of a river to echo with remembrance and promise.
In the Virginia Capital Trail, we have a truly unique American resource. This 52-mile bike/pedestrian trail, that runs parallel to historic Route 5 and the James River between Jamestown and Richmond, ties together our beginnings as a diverse and democratic nation; our continuing struggle to build a more just and equitable society, and our urban-to-rural roots in one of the most scenic stretches of riverside woodlands anywhere in the country. Riding along the Virginia Capital Trail today we follow the course of the James River, the most historic waterway anywhere in America. It was along this river after all that Native Americans built their villages, raised their families and inspired a civilization 15,000 years ago. It was up this river that the English came, in 1607, to establish the first permanent English settlement in America at Jamestown. And 400 years ago, in 1619, it was on these shores, 20 elected burgesses met in the rustic Anglican church in Jamestown as the Virginia General Assembly; the first representative body of government anywhere in the western hemisphere. It was up these waters that the first Africans to arrive in English America came, in chains, just 3 weeks later. Astoundingly, the seeds of American democracy and the seeds of American slavery sown side by side within 3 weeks of each other, on the banks of the James River. It was also along the banks of this river that same year, the largest group of women yet to arrive in Virginia would set foot as would-be brides, hands given over in exchange for 400 pounds of tobacco. And in early December 1619 the first English Thanksgiving was observed at Berkeley, in Charles City County, by the river’s edge.
For all the celebrated triumph and glory of our beginnings, it’s a tough history that means something different to every American. We know that history this hard has the power to tear people apart, and yet, history this hard also has the power to pull people together. One way to do that is to begin to recognize the contributions of all our people. Those who’ve been here for thousands of years, and those who risked their lives to come here in leaking wooden boats, driven by the wind and guided by the stars. Those who came here against their will and still helped to build this great nation from this riverside world and those who struggled and sacrificed to secure on the battlefield what they enshrined in parchment; the rights, freedom, and independence of a free people who dared to believe that all men and women were and are created equal.
The land along this riverbank has seen heartache on a scale and along a timeline unsurpassed anywhere else in the country. As as result, as Virginians, as Americans, the James River flows through all of us and the epic national journey we share. For better or for worse, It’s the place where three ancient civilizations - African, European, and Native American - first were thrown together to form an entirely new civilization that would change the world.
Placing the past on the landscape is a powerful reminder of who we are and who we can become. If we listen closely enough, we just might hear a native mother cry to see her riverfront homeland invaded, the Englishman pass secrets from British loyalists to General Washington through an intricate spy network, or the African family run swiftly through the trees trying to escape the nightmare of slavery. It’s a land that today we, all of us, so easily bike, and run, and drive past, but if we take a moment and get close enough to nature, it is speaking to us, not only about yesterday, but about today, with hope for tomorrow.
So, as we journey together along the Virginia Capital Trail, the Colonial Parkway, the avenues of Richmond, or any other place our wheels take us, we reflect this year not only on our past but on how far we have come since then. A nation of people who have changed the world. Not because Americans are some chosen race, but because we are all Americans regardless of gender and race. That, is what, we’ve been struggling to learn for the last 400 years. That we take our strength as a nation from the diversity of our people, as a river gathers strength to flow from her tributaries and streams. It's a fitting way to reflect; with the freedom of a day outside, sun on our faces, wind in our hair, exploring the land and the river that came long before any of us, and which we must protect and replenish so that our human race can enjoy nature’s healing freedom generations from now. When we take time to honor nature, the rivers and her shores, and our role as stewards, we nourish ourselves from all of its waters and all of our lands. That is where our true destiny lies. Carrying us, all of us, and all of us together, into a brighter, more just 400 years.
Adapted from a 2007 talk by Bob Deans, Author of “The River Where America Began: A Journey Along the James”