Forgotten Mulberry Island

On the north shore of the James River, 20 miles west of the Chesapeake Bay, the marshy plains of Mulberry Island rise above the gentle tide. Actually a peninsula bound by the James and Warwick Rivers. Mulberry Island is a picturesque fixture of Virginia’s Tidewater region whose natural beauty is enriched by thousands of years of human history.

But, let’s start at the beginning going back 8,500-10,000 years when Native Americans first migrated to Mulberry Island during what archaeologists call the Early Archaic Period. More than 230 known archaeological sites on Mulberry Island speak to its storied past, revealing the traces of those who have called its shores home throughout the millennia. Tales of war, rebellion, and conquest stand alongside those of peace, cohesion, and innovation.

17th Century

And, it was about 400 years ago, when my 12th great-grandfather colonist John Rolfe tilled its grounds, planting some “sweet scented tobacco seeds” that saved the struggling English pioneers from economic ruin. Two-and-a-half centuries after that, Capt. Humphrey Harwood Curtis was laid to rest in a tomb that still pokes through the rough, recalling the days when Mulberry Island, known now as this peninsula, played a key role in the Confederate defense of Richmond.

Mulberry Island, originally part of the Powhatan chiefdom’s Kikotan territory when the colonists arrived, may have occasionally been visited by Algonquins. The English named it Mulberry Island for its vast numbers of mulberry trees along its banks; included it as part of the James City Corporation by 1624/5; and by 1634 as part of Warwick River County, known now as Warwick.   

In 1611 John Rolfe began to experiment with cultivating tobacco. Introduced to England perhaps as early as 1565, tobacco had found a ready market there by the 1610s, making it a tempting crop for Virginia farmers. Rolfe, who reportedly was a committed smoker himself, easily could have purchased the leafy plant from Virginia Indians, but Jamestown’s First Secretary, William Strachey, described the native variety, Nicotiana rustica, as being “poore and weake, and of a byting tast.” This did not recommend it to English smokers, who preferred high-quality Spanish tobacco from the West Indies. As a result Rolfe looked south, obtaining from a shipmaster seeds from Trinidad and Caracas, Venezuela, so that by July 1612 he was growing the Spanish tobacco Nicotiana tabacum.

Colonists may have first come to Mulberry Island in hopes of starting silk plantations. Silk is produced from mulberry trees, and Tidewater’s plentiful supply made it attractive to colonial powers. It was illegal for Virginians to destroy the trees, and in 1619, the Virginia General Assembly required all colonists to plant six trees by 1626. Yet the industry failed to flourish, and vast fields of tobacco soon replaced the ancient mulberry groves.

It was 1613 when Captain Robert Adams of the ship Elizabeth delivered samples of Rolfe’s tobacco to England. Although considered to be of excellent quality, it was still not considered comparable to the Spanish product. Nevertheless, Rolfe believed that “no doubt but after a little more trial and expense in the curing, it will compare with the best in the West Indies.” He was proved correct in 1617, when 20,000 pounds of his tobacco arrived in England, and in 1618, when the amount delivered there doubled. Rolfe’s success in growing a profitable tobacco crop transformed the colony, leading directly to Virginia’s most successful cash crop and forming the basis of the colony’s economy.

John Rolfe received a patent for 400 acres near Hog Island on the south bank of the James River (with William Pierce and others) and an additional 1,700 acres near Mulberry Island on the north side of the James sometime thereafter.

In 1617 or 1618, indentured servants first arrived on the 1,000 acres of the Stanley Hundred plantation. Within the system of headrights under the Great Charter, William Spencer, John Rolfe, and William Pierce all patented several hundred acres on the island in 1619. There is no evidence that wealthy landowners initially lived on the island, but instead sent servants to work their enormous plots. These men and women were vulnerable in the harsh, alien wilds of Virginia, cut off from power and protection. Initially, the Native Americans did not react to their presence, but whatever semblance of peace lingered in the marshes vanished one terrible Friday morning.

Opechancanough recruited Native Americans from Powhatan, Chickahominy, Wicocomoco, Piscataway, and Macotchtank groups to launch an unprecedented attack. Within the approximate 80 contemporary English settlements, Native Americans were considered trusted neighbors and often freely entered colonial homes during several relatively peaceful years. Opechancanough used their neighborly relationship to conceal his desire to expel and force the colonists back to England.

Opechancanough’s recruits entered colonists’ homes and fields on March 22, 1622. They then launched an attack. In one hour, nearly 350 colonists were slaughtered, including women, children, and men. There were five people killed at Thomas Pierce’s house that morning: his wife and child, two men, and a French boy. They abandoned their fields, and the English attacked any Native Americans they could find. Mulberry Islanders were ordered to attack nearby Native American groups throughout the summer of 1630 . “Like river fogs,” the peaceful cohabitation on Virginia’s “Peninsula” gradually disappeared.

Mulberry Island’s settlers returned three years after the attack with 42 swords, 27 guns, and 22 pieces of armor. The 1624/5 Muster recorded 30 people in 13 households, including 13 of William Pierce’s servants, and the population slowly grew. While they may have found some solace in the island’s new religious presence, new arrivals lived much like previous generations. Near Mulberry Point on Baker’s Neck, a church was erected before September 1627. Probably a modest timber chapel, it was likely destroyed by a frightening hurricane in 1667. At the north end of the island, a brick church was built after a law was passed in 1661/2 requiring each parish to have a decent church, and this church lasted until the 20th century. A religious life may have eased fears of living in such a defenseless place, as well as coping with the conditions such a life entailed.

Those who resettled Mulberry Island largely consisted of slaves and servants who worked the fields and lived a rustic, modest lifestyle. Tobacco crops were labor-intensive, living conditions were poor, and the prospects for improvement were dim. Few details of their lives are recorded, although one account speaks to their occasionally harsh treatment. In 1640, six of William Pierce’s slaves were convicted of attempting to flee to Dutch plantations, a sign of the hardships they endured on Mulberry Island. Some of them were whipped, others had their throats cut, and some had their cheeks branded.

Mulberry Island’s population was large enough by 1629 to send two representatives to the House of Burgesses, but its society did not significantly change until the 1630s and 1640s. After William Pierce moved to Mulberry Island in 1635, wealthy landowners began settling on their tracts. A new class of elite planters joined indentured servants and slaves, causing differences between social classes to widen rapidly. Tobacco led to the birth of such a society that was built on the need for cheap labor.

Tobacco was Virginia’s foundation for success, but it wasn’t without risks. The colony’s primary export could be severely threatened by volatile markets or poor harvests. The colony’s economic lifeblood was poisoned by a series of disasters within one year.

Virginia’s fortunes were threatened by the Navigation Acts, passed by the English Crown in 1651 and 1660. During 1664, the Dutch began retaliating, and the General Assembly ordered 25 Warwick County men to build a fort at Point Comfort to defend against a Dutch naval attack. 115 men lived in accommodations built by Miles Cary and his son Thomas, who held landholdings on Mulberry Island. By the time they were finally put to the test in 1667, Virginia was already in a state of disaster.

In April 1667, a catastrophic hailstorm ravaged tobacco and corn crop plantings. Most of what survived the icy bombardment perished from the rain that followed for 40 straight days. Virginians faced a tough year exporting what little they could due to a weak economy. Once the rainclouds cleared, violence loomed over the horizon.

Point Comfort, a fort along the James River, was attacked by the Dutch in 1667. The Virginians captured the British frigate Elizabeth by flying deceptive British flags and burning six Virginian ships. In the attack, one of Virginia’s wealthiest landowners, Miles Cary, was killed. It became even more difficult to export crops after the loss of the ships, but half of the year had still passed. One final demoralizing blow came in August when a destructive hurricane descended upon the James River, leaving settlements in ruin and spirits discouraged.

18th Century

Mulberry Island remained largely agrarian for most of the 18th century. Large and small farms turned to grain crops and animal husbandry, leaving tobacco cultivation to the elite planters. During this time, Mulberry Island was home to scattered farms and plantations, many of which clustered around the waterways.

After the Revolutionary War, tobacco cultivation and pillaging depleted the land. This led to the removal of the capital from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1780, relegating Mulberry Island to the margins. Tidewater’s political influence and wealth buckled, and many emigrated to the west for better opportunities. Mulberry Island’s elite landowners followed suit, subdividing vast estates and leasing smaller parcels to tenant farmers.

19th Century

Approximately 200 residents were relocated to Jefferson Park in nearby Warwick County when Mulberry Island was purchased by the Army for $538,000 in 1918, as part of the build-up for World War I. Camp Abraham Eustis was established as a coast artillery replacement center for Fort Monroe and as a balloon observation school. It is named for Brigadier General Abraham Eustis, the first commanding officer of Fort Monroe at the mouth of Hampton Roads, about 15 miles (24 km) east at Old Point Comfort in what is now Hampton.

In 1923, Camp Abraham Eustis became Fort Eustis and a permanent military installation. Eustis National Forest was established on the installation in 1925. The post was garrisoned by artillery and infantry units until 1931, when it became a federal prison for bootleggers during Prohibition. With the repeal of Prohibition, the number of prisoners declined and the post evolved into a variety of non-military activities, such as a WPA camp that used some of the barracks on the post during the Great Depression.

20th and 21st Centuries

A portion of the U.S. Maritime Administration’s National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) is anchored in the James River adjacent to Mulberry Island. Known locally as the Ghost Fleet, some of these inactive ships have become too old and deteriorated to ever be reactivated and have become environmental hazards, as they still hold fuel oil and other hazardous substances.

Since the start of the 21st century many of these ships, some dating back to the World War II era have been removed under contracts with scrapping companies.

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