The York River is arguably the most historically significant location for early colonial history found anywhere in America. European and Native American civilizations collided here. This was the land of Powhatan, Opechanacanough, Pocahantas, and the legendary explorations of Captain John Smith. No wonder this area’s colonial land patents (King’s grant lands) were so highly sought after by the first families of Virginia for the their Colonial plantations. The Washington’s, Lee’s, Anderson’s, Roane’s, Tucker’s, and Taliaferro’s settled its shores. History lives and breathes here. It is woven into the fabric of the estuary and its surrounding lands.
Native American Oyster Middens & Colonial Oyster Rocks
The islands at Anderson’s Neck, commonly referred to as pine hummocks, and the shores of Morris Bay are scattered with prehistoric oyster mounds know as oyster middens. These shell mounds are historical evidence that the oyster was a highly important part of Native American diet and culture. These ancient middens contain shells from thousands of years ago when the Chesapeake Bay and the York River were a much higher salinity. We can tell this is the case because these old shells have drill patterns on them that are only made by marine organisms that can survive in a much higher salinity than what we find on the York River today. As a result, we can conclude that these shell middens are likely tens of thousands of years old and show that oysters were a highly important food source for Native Americans.
When Captain John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay, including the York River he told of oyster reefs that piled up so high they broke the surface of the water and were a navigation hazard. The colonial oyster beds would filter the entire Chesapeake Bay every three or four days, removing phytoplankton, cleansing the estuary, and making the water crystal clear as a result. Sadly, today it would take our few remaining oysters in the Bay an entire year to do what the oysters at Captain John Smith’s time could do in a matter of days.