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Blue Ridge Naturalist: A Visit to Henricus Historical Park and Dutch Gap Conservation Area

© Marlene A. Condon

The re-created village of Henricus in Chesterfield County provides us with insight to the lives of colonists in the second successful English settlement of the New World. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

The re-created village of Henricus in Chesterfield County provides us with insight to the lives of colonists in the second successful English settlement of the New World. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

People who read this column regularly may remember that I find history as fascinating as nature. Thus when I first heard about Henricus Historical Park and Dutch Gap Conservation Area in Chesterfield County several years ago, I couldn’t imagine a better situation. There is no fee for parking in a lot located between both areas, which meant I could easily enjoy history and nature all in one day!

In September, I finally got the opportunity to visit both sites. Because the nature area opens at 8 a.m., two hours earlier than the historical park, my hubby and I first hiked the 4.5 mile loop trail that is free of charge, but not free of effort!

We were on our feet almost four hours to go all the way around because there were so many places to stop to look at the scenery, or to examine and photograph plants, or to identify birds, spiders, and insects.

A manmade subject of interest is the Dominion Virginia power plant that is located right outside the natural area. The station itself covers a fair bit of ground, with what must be miles of electrical wires. But what especially draws your eyes over there are the three huge stacks creating water vapor clouds that were very impressive to view and photograph.

When we first arrived, early on a somewhat chilly morning, there were numerous vultures flying around those stacks. The big birds looked like they were trying to warm up by getting close to the steam.

If you’ve ever spotted vultures at the tops of trees or on a fence with their wings outstretched to catch the morning rays of the Sun, you know they like to get the morning chill off by intercepting photons (packets of energy sent to Earth by the Sun).

The trail in the conservation area is very accessible. It’s almost completely level and there are plenty of benches along the way where you can sit to rest, if you wish.

You should download a trail map before visiting, as none may be available on site to carry with you. Having a map allows you to measure your progress around the loop as there are marker posts every tenth of a mile.

Waterways, woodlands, and wildlife comprise the Dutch Gap Conservation Area, which borders the James River. It’s a lovely and peaceful place to walk.

The Chesterfield Parks and Recreation Department also offers guided kayak tours of the Tidal Lagoon to discover the natural and cultural heritage of the site. These tours usually run from mid-April to mid-October. If you are interested, you can call 804-318-8735 for more information.

There is a reasonable fee to visit Henricus Historical Park ($8 per person when we visited), which includes a fascinating re-creation of the second successful English settlement of the New World, the Citie (its historical spelling) of Henricus, along with the Virginia Indian community of Arrohateck. Historical interpretation and reenactments take place to honor Virginia’s Indians and the English settlers who lived in what was, at that time, Virginia’s western frontier.

I find it odd that Virginians who have learned the history of the United States and Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement, learned little, if anything at all, about Henricus. Yet this was the English home of the famous Pocahontas, the Native American woman of the Powhatan tribe who saved Captain John Smith’s life.

How is it that we have all heard of Pocahontas, but we were never told about this location in Virginia where she was taught English customs and took the baptized name of Rebecca before marrying John Rolfe?

Henricus was founded in 1611 by Sir Thomas Dale who led 300 settlers upriver 80 miles from Jamestown, which had been started as James Forte (its historical spelling) in 1607. Jamestown was located in a swampy area not particularly suitable for humans, so the idea was that Henricus would replace Jamestown as the principal seat of the English colony.

However, following many trials and tribulations, James Forte became Jamestowne and served as the capital of Virginia until 1699 when the capital was moved to Williamsburg. That spelled the end for Jamestown, which now exists only as an archeological site that is well worth visiting.

Henricus was named for the eldest son of King James I, Prince Henry. It was sited in an unknown wilderness where the people could be attacked not only by Indians, but also by Spaniards.

In Henricus, people owned their own property, a unique concept 400 years ago. The first English college and the first hospital in the New World were built here, and tobacco became established as the first cash crop.

In other words, the successful permanent colonization of North America by the English really took root here, which led to the eventual establishment of the United States of America. Thus it’s very puzzling to me that Henricus has not been more publicized in American history books or articles.

This highly significant destination, located between Richmond and Petersburg, is about a two-hour drive from Crozet. A living-history site for Colonial Virginia, it provides a view of life between the years of 1611-1622.

It’s a hands-on kind of place, which is always delightful for children. I highly recommend a visit.

More information can be found at www.henricus.org/aboutus/about-us.asp

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1 Comment

  1. I live one mile from Henricus and visit weekly. I too am amazed so little is mentioned about it. But lately many elementary students are visiting on a daily bases, during good weather. Another secret is the citie of Bermuda Hundred, just a few miles down river from Henricus. Sir Thomas Dale est. the first city and college and John Rolf married here. thanx B. Tucker