Explore the History of the James River

Few places are as central to our complex American story as Jamestown, situated along the James River in Virginia. Here in 1619, our aspirational American experiment in democracy began; here too, the roots of slavery first took hold in North America.

As we mark the 400th anniversary of these seminal events, we're exploring their complicated legacy through the places along the James River where history played out in dramatic, challenging, and inspiring ways.
  1. Three massive power lines cut across the James River.

    Photo By: Sam Kittner

    James River

    The James River flows through a collection of nationally recognized cultural, historic, and natural resources in Virginia’s Historic Triangle—a region that receives more than 3.5 million visitors annually. A part of the nation’s first nationally designated water trail, the waterway has been the site of significant historical events that stretch back before the founding of the United States, including the convening of the first elected legislative assembly and the start of the transatlantic slave trade, both beginning in 1619.

  2. Surrender Road, Yorktown, Virginia

    Photo By: Ken Lund/Flickr/CC by SA 2.0

    Colonial National Historical Park

    Colonial National Historical Park comprises two of the most historically significant sites in English North America: Historic Jamestowne, the first permanent English settlement in North America in 1607; and Yorktown Battlefield on the York River, the final major battle of the American Revolutionary War in 1781. Situated on the Virginia Peninsula and connected by the 23-mile scenic Colonial Parkway, these two sites represent the beginning and end of English colonial America.

  3. Photo By: James River Association

    Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail

    Four hundred years ago Englishman John Smith and a small crew of adventurers set out in an open boat to explore the Chesapeake Bay. Between 1607 and 1609 Smith launched multiple trips from Jamestown Island during which he mapped and documented nearly 3,000 miles of the Bay and its rivers. Today, the first national water trail lets you experience and learn about the Chesapeake Bay through the routes and places associated with Smith’s explorations.

  4. Historic Jamestowne Archaeological Dig

    Photo By: Preservation Virginia

    Historic Jamestowne

    Here, at the original site of the first permanent English settlement in America, three cultures--Native American, European, and African--came together to lay the foundations of modern American society. Today, at Preservation Virginia's property, Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation supports the preservation, education, and archaeological investigation of Historic Jamestowne.

  5. Bacon's Castle, sourced from Flickr (Jimmy Emerson, DVM)

    Photo By: Jimmy Emerson DVM, Flickr

    Bacon's Castle

    Built in 1665, Bacon's Castle is the oldest brick dwelling and the only surviving example of High Jacobean architecture in the United States. Originally the home of prosperous planter Arthur Allen and his family, the building was occupied during the political uprising of 1676 led by Nathaniel Bacon, known as Bacon's Rebellion.

  6. Thumbnail view of historic Cape Henry Lighthouse

    Photo By: m01229/Flickr/CC by 2.0

    Cape Henry Lighthouse

    The Cape Henry Lighthouse, ca. 1792, silently guards the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. It stands near the "First Landing" site of the Jamestown settlers where in 1607, Captain Newport raised a cross to offer thanks for their safe crossing of the Atlantic.

  7. Smith's Fort

    Photo By: Smith's Fort

    Smith's Fort Plantation

    Situated on the south side of the James River, Smith’s Fort Plantation is located on the site of Captain John Smith’s planned “New Fort,” nestled in the land given by Chief Powhatan as a dowry for his daughter, Pocahontas, upon her marriage to John Rolfe in Surry County. This one-and-a-half-story brick house was built sometime between 1751 and 1765.

  8. Shockoe Bottom

    Photo By: Morgan Riley

    Shockoe Bottom

    Shockoe Bottom was the center of Richmond’s slave trade, second only in importance to New Orleans between 1830 and 1865. Here, slave-trade auction houses, offices, slave jails, and residences of the most prominent slave traders were scattered throughout the a creek valley flowing into the James River. While much of Shockoe Bottom has since been razed and paved over, for many descendants of the enslaved, it remains sacred ground associated with suffering, injustice, and resistance to slavery.

  9. Aerial shot of Ft. Monroe.

    Photo By: Fort Monroe Authority

    Fort Monroe National Monument

    In 1619, the first slave ship to arrive in the English-speaking New World deposited its cargo of enslaved human beings where Fort Monroe now stands. In 1861, as the Civil War raged, three enslaved African American men sought protection at Fort Monroe, a Union stronghold. Union General Benjamin Butler declared them “contraband” of war. As word spread of the freedom seekers at Fort Monroe, more than 500,000 enslaved people followed their footsteps, leading to one of our nation’s most extraordinary and overlooked chapters, and heralding the end of slavery in America.

Now that you know more about the James River's significance in American history, you might be surprised to learn that this bedrock location is threatened. Americans visiting the iconic waterway along Colonial Parkway near Jamestown will find it marred by 17 power transmission towers—reaching heights nearly as tall as a 30-story building and damaging the historic landscape that has served as a backdrop to Jamestown for centuries.

Join the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Virginia, and 30,000 other Americans who’ve added their voice to ours in recent years and urge Dominion Energy to take down the towers—to end this national disgrace and help us protect this irreplaceable landscape.

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