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On the Rappahannock at Portobago

This is the second part of a kayak exploration I took up the Rappahannock River earlier in the fall, with the goal of learning more about the land and river which was once part of, and now again belongs to, the Rappahannock People of Virginia.

Before anything else, I’ll say that I’m not an ethnographer, a historian or an expert on writing or researching early American history or Native American culture. I came to this area of the Rappahannock with the intention of learning about the history and the people, with the hope to do so more intently by exploring the land and river itself. The research I’ve done before and after my trips has all been for my own intentions of understanding the Rappahannock River as a novice. Like most of the stories from One Hundred Shores, my goal is to share what I’ve learned and experienced without any claims to my expertise on the above mentioned topics.

I originally started my Rappahannock trip down river at Fones Cliffs. I’d spent limited time on the Rappahannock up until this point, and none of that time was explicitly focused on getting to know the river itself.

The river is precious in how undeveloped these areas remain, despite being triangulated between two major US cities. It’s listed as the longest uninterrupted river on the East Coast, which is an impressive distinction for both good and unfortunate reasons if you think about it. Naturally, it reminds me of the Potomac though, if you were to shrink it by maybe 15-20%. The area made some National headlines and even prompted a visit from a sitting US Cabinet Secretary when ownership of the cliffs were returned to the Rappahannock People after centuries of being privately held.

Now I’d traveled a few miles up this relatively remote stretch of river to an open bend in the area of Portobago. Today, the Portobago Bay has a long stretch of a dozen or so modern homes which you can see from the water. They’re modern, relatively recent builds by the look of them, in contrast to the rest of the basin which is agricultural and riparian buffer.

I was led here from the reading I’d been doing on the Rappahannock people at Fones Cliffs. When I first heard about it, I wondered whether there's any relation between Portobago here on the Rappahannock and Port Tobacco on the nearby Potomac. It's not a far stretch, linguistically or geographically for that matter. The story of the Rappahannock winds this way up the river from Fones Cliffs, during a forced relocation in the 1600s, almost 200 years before the trail of tears.

After John Smith made contact with the Rappahannock in 1607, much of the land in the Northern Neck of Virginia remained in the hands of the Rappahannock and other native people until the late part of the 17th century. With Jamestown and surrounding settlements to the south, and St. Mary’s and Kent to the north, many of the first people in this part of the Chesapeake region started grouping more into the Northern Neck area.

Despite having a sizeable area of land recognized by the early Virginia government in 1682, the Rappahannock were forcibly removed from their villages in Fones Cliffs in 1683. Their new home would become the bay here in Potobago. The land here was far from empty though, with the Rappahannock, Nanzatico, Patawomecks and others being forced into less and less territory each year.

By 1704, the Nanzatico had had enough. After petitioning their rights with no success, they started a small, and ultimately unsuccessful rebellion against those who were encroaching on their land. Following the killing and enslavement of the remaining Nanzatico “belligerents”, the remaining groups were eventually forced back off the very land they were forced onto to find a new home once again.

For the Rappahannock, that meant a return to Fones Cliffs from Portobago. Today, the Rappahannock Indians are still living on their ancestral homelands downriver from Portobago along the Rappahannock River and Chesapeake Bay. Despite the displacement of their people to Portobago 300 years ago, the Rappahannocks have managed to maintain their unique culture and identity as a recognized tribe. The Rappahannock's connection to Portobago remains an important part of their story.

With the importance of the waterways as a mode of transport in the 1600s, I imagine the river between Portobago and Fones Cliffs was traveled heavily by the Rappahannock and by early Virginians. It’s not a short paddle by any means though. You’d be looking at about a 12 mile paddle, upstream if you start at Fones Cliffs. Luckily, there’s a public access ramp at Fones, and one at Toby’s Point NWR, which is across the river from Portobago.


One Hundred Shores acknowledges that the lands and waters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed are the homes of the Chesapeake’s first peoples. The recovery of the Chesapeake Bay and the preservation of its stories is the recovery of the land and the rivers which once belonged to the people whose rights to the watershed were ignored or betrayed, and continue today to be overlooked.

One Hundred Shores believes that the land itself has the right to live, breathe and heal. One Hundred Shores believes that the bounty the Chesapeake provides is a fraction of what it could provide with proper stewardship, along with an acknowledgement of all those people who have cared and continue to care for the Chesapeake.


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