Exploring Western Tidewater

Culture & Identity

by David Bearinger

If you follow the James River down from Richmond, past Hopewell and the great river plantations—Shirley, Evelynton, Westover, Berkeley, Sherwood Forest—eventually, you pass the northern-most tip of Surry County and enter a region known as Western Tidewater.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, VFH formed a series of local advisory groups—Regional Councils—to help guide and create stronger local platforms for our work statewide. Four years ago, the VFH launched our fifth long-term regional initiative, the Western Tidewater Council, serving five counties and two independent cities in this mostly rural southeastern corner of the state.

Virginia is a state of immense variety. Each place, each region is different, rich in its own webs of tradition, identity, history, and distinctive local cultures. The question, the challenge for VFH, or any other statewide organization for that matter, is how to know these places, really know them, on their own terms.

One obvious answer is, through the people who know the region well already.

Each of the five Councils has been different from the others, but one feature is always the same: their members’ deep attachment to their communities and a belief that the humanities have something important, something indispensable to contribute to the life and long-term future of the places they love.

Deadrise at Mariner's Cove Suffolk_rev_opt
Deadrise, Mariner’s Cove at the Dock in Eclipse, Virginia. Photo by Karla Smith

The Western Tidewater region is shaped like an irregular pentagon, and the James, which widens steadily as it flows east from Claremont in Surry County to the I-664 bridge, is its northern rim.

Moving downriver, you pass the former Chippokes Plantation, now a state park, Bacon’s Castle, the town of Smithfield a few miles inland, and finally Chuckatuck Creek and the Nansemond River, a still largely undeveloped waterway connecting downtown Suffolk to the James.

Three small historic villages— Crittenden, Eclipse, and Hobson, each with its own traditions of farming, fishing, and boat building— rest unsteadily on the cusp of redevelopment, at the tip of a narrow peninsula looking out across the James River at its widest point, over to the shipyards at Newport News. The view is loveliest at night.

John Smith explored the Nansemond and surrounding waterways on his second voyage in 1608. Later, shortly before the so-called Starving Time, a quick series of violent encounters between the English settlers and the Nansemond Indians took place on Dumpling Island, out in the river, where the Indians stored their corn and buried their chiefs. Lives were lost on both sides, and the incident soured relations and set the stage for deeper, bloodier conflicts to come.

Suffolk is the largest city in Virginia geographically and by far the most rural. It’s been a center of commerce and trade since 1712 when John Constant built a tobacco rolling house at Constant’s Wharf, and later, a warehouse for tobacco, grain, and salt.

Constant’s Wharf was re-named Suffolk Town in 1742, and in 1974 the town of Suffolk merged with Nansemond County, turning what had been a tightly knit small town into a sprawling independent city, much of it actively farmed, even today.

Baldcypress in Lake Drummond, Great Dismal Swamp. Photo by Robert Llewellyn
Baldcypress in Lake Drummond, Great Dismal Swamp. Photo by Robert Llewellyn

The eastern border separating Suffolk and the City of Chesapeake is straight as a surveyor’s iron. It cuts through the Great Dismal Swamp, now a 111,000-acre preserve stretching into North Carolina.

The Swamp has its own deep history, hidden sometimes under layers of mythology, like leaffall— tales of lost communities, fugitive slaves, and get-rich development schemes run aground.

George Washington hoped to drain the swamp, harvest the lumber, and convert the land to farming, and he was a partner in two investment syndicates formed for this purpose. The logging operation was successful, but the larger effort failed. Washington himself directed the surveying and digging of a five-mile-long canal from the western edge of the Swamp to Lake Drummond. The canal is known today as Washington Ditch.

Improbable that such a vast expanse of undeveloped land would lie within the borders of Virginia’s largest expanse of city, Suffolk. But this is just one of the many ironies and surprises of this complex region. Turning back toward western Suffolk, then up into Southampton and Sussex counties, across the border into Isle of Wight, you’re in peanut country. Other crops are grown here—cotton, field corn, soybeans, wheat, even mushrooms— but the peanut, especially the large, high-value “Virginia peanut,” is king.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing up to the present day, peanuts have shaped every part of life in the Western Tidewater region. This is true especially in Suffolk, which has been the center of peanut processing and marketing since the 1880s, and in Southampton county, which is the undisputed heart of peanut farming country in Virginia today.

There are nearly 200 “Century Farms” in Western Tidewater (farms in continuous operation by the same family for 100 years or more), eighty-five in Southampton County alone; and much of this land is devoted to growing peanuts, which are ideally suited to the sandy loam soils in the region.

Stacking Peanuts. Photo courtesy of Southampton County Historical Society.
Stacking Peanuts. Photo courtesy of Southampton County Historical Society.

Peanuts remain the most reliably profitable crop, even for smaller-scale producers. But the same pressures that are changing agriculture and farm life throughout the United States are also changing the farm-related economy and culture of Western Tidewater.

China and Brazil are now dominating the global peanut markets, profit margins are thin and growing thinner, the pressures are toward consolidation and large-scale production, and one bad growing season can put even a solid familyrun farm business in jeopardy.

In Western Tidewater, the connections between the land and human history are visible everywhere, and sometimes in surprising ways.

For example, Courtland is home to the Southampton Agriculture and Forestry Museum and Heritage Village, which includes one of the finest farm-related museum collections in the state, as well as a restored grist mill, saw mill, one room school building, ice and smoke houses, and other artifacts of the region’s rural heritage.

It’s also the interpretive hub of the recently designated Nat Turner Heritage Area, which is part of a larger effort to create balanced educational programs focusing on the history of the insurrection and its meaning in Virginia and American history.

To preserve and interpret the history, one could argue that it’’s necessary to preserve the surrounding land, much of which appears essentially as it did when Turner launched his raid on the night of August 21, 1831.

Only two buildings directly connected to the history of the insurrection survive. One of these, the Rebecca Vaughan House, has been moved from its original site onto a tract near the museum and is being restored.

The challenge is how to present the history of a bloody incident, inseparable from the most difficult questions about the history of human slavery in America, in a way that acknowledges and heals old wounds without reopening them.

As it happens, Southampton County was the home not just of Nat Turner, but also of two other important figures who resisted slavery in very different ways.

Dred Scott challenged slavery through the courts. Anthony Gardiner emigrated to Liberia under the sponsorship of the American Colonization Society. He served as Liberia’’s first attorney general and its ninth president.

Interpreting the lives and separate destinies of these three men, all of them directly connected to Southampton County, is part of a broader effort by the county’’s Historical Society and others to promote heritage tourism and a more complete understanding of the region’’s past.

Human History, Land, and Water

Rail lines hauling timber out of Dendron in Sussex County. The old paper mills in Franklin, shut down by economic forces created thousands of miles from home.


The Meherrin. The Blackwater and the Nottoway, both designated ““wild and scenic.”” All three draining into the Chowan Basin and the Albemarle Sound, not the James River or the Chesapeake. In some parts of Western Tidewater, the line between Virginia and North Carolina hardly seems to mean anything at all.

Jeff Turner, local hero and a founding member of the Regional Council. Jeff started the first Riverkeeper Program in Virginia, as a way of expressing his own love for the Nottoway and the Blackwater. A community historian of the first rank, by any standard you could apply.

Jeff’’s pontoon boat is like a floating classroom; and there’’s no other word for his knowledge of these rivers but ““profound. ”” Unless it would be ““irreplaceable.””

Wharf Hill in Smithfield

The center of business life and entertainment for African Americans in Isle of Wight County in the decades prior to integration. A long, slow decline, then pressure to redevelop and rebuild under new ownerships.

But it’’s no longer the same. James Thomas, journalist and Council member, is working to document what he can, so the old Wharf Hill will be remembered, not forgotten.

Remarkable Trees

Ancient stands of baldcypress along the Blackwater River and the shores of Lake Drummond in the Dismal Swamp. Atlantic White Cedars. Water Tupelos. Overcup and Sand-Post Oaks.

Cypress Bridge, the “Lost Forest,” rediscovered and now protected thanks to the efforts of Byron Carmean, another founding member of the Council.

Within this 300-acre enclave are ninefoot cypress “knees,” more than a dozen “champion trees,” the largest of their kind; and, the largest of them all is the “Big Mama” cypress. Some experts think she may be 2,000 years old, possibly more. Or may have been, because she died soon after she was discovered.

Ancient Sites

Cactus Hill in Sussex County, which proved conclusively that there were human beings in what is now Virginia more than twelve thousand years ago. Every year for generations, new artifacts—banner stones, axe heads, spear and arrow points—would come up out of the fields. Horse-drawn plows left these intact. Heavy equipment breaks them to pieces.


Hogs once foraged through the fields and woodlands in much of Western Tidewater. Today, at Darden’s Country Store, Tom and DeeDee Darden smoke 900 hams a year, using more or less the same techniques that people in Isle of Wight County would have used in 1780.

The difference is that it’s 2013, and the “market” for Darden hams extends throughout the U.S. and even beyond.

Wide Expanses and Endangered Species

The Big Woods and Joseph Pines Preserves in Suffolk, more than 3,000 acres total. The Blackwater Ecological Preserve near Zuni. Hog Island Wildlife Refuge in Surry. The Dismal Swamp.

The Virginia-Native Long Leaf Pine

The Yellow Pitcher Plant. The Atlantic White Cedar. The Golden Puccoon. These, too, are links to the past. The Long Leaf Pines went for ship masts, tar and pitch. Cedars were cut for roof-shingles. Feral hogs rooted up the pine seedlings to get at the tasty roots underneath, making the Long Leaf rare where it had once been plentiful.

The Native Presence

Three of Virginia’’s state-recognized Indian tribes have their ancestral lands in Western Tidewater; the Nansemond in what is now Suffolk; the Cheroenhaka Nottoway and the Nottoway of Virginia tribes in Southampton. Their influence, once very strong, is strong again. And growing.


The Sebrell Historic District in Southampton. The downtown renaissance in Boykins. Boykins is about as close to North Carolina as you can get without being inside. Brett and Phyllis Bunch, Council members, are at the heart of what’s happening there, building on the history, looking ahead.

The Untold Stories

Black oystermen and boat-builders in Hobson, Sandy Bottom, and Oakland in Northern Suffolk. Wharf Hill. A thriving African American Heritage Preservation Society in Surry County. The former Rosenwald School in Smithfield, now the Schoolhouse Museum.

Benjamin Hicks, an African American from Southampton County, invented a gasolinepowered machine for stemming and cleaning peanuts. The picker he invented helped to modernize peanut farming, and he successfully defended his patent for the device in court.

Peanuts and Folk Art

The Miles B. Carpenter Folk Art and Peanut Museum in Waverley. Carpenter’s work, strange from one perspective, highly respected from another, is found in national collections of folk and “outsider” art. He was once invited to the White House to meet President Reagan. Shirley Yancey, a founding member of the Regional Council, also founded the Museum.

The Obici House  and Planters Club in Suffolk

Built by an Italian immigrant named Amedeo Obici, who founded Planters Peanuts, developed it into the largest peanut empire in the world, created a charitable foundation with the profits, and along the way produced one of the most iconic symbols in American business history—the dapper Mr. Peanut.

Local Historians

Living bridges, keepers of the flame. Lynda Updike, president of the Southampton County Historical Society. Sue Woodward, historian with the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society. Bess and Bill Richardson, presidents of the Surry County and Dendron Historical Societies. Jane March, president of the Zuni Historical Society. Karla Smith, founder and president of CE&H Heritage (now Suffolk River Heritage) and the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance. All members of the Council.

Felice Hancock, the Council’s founding chair, and her husband Bill Hancock, a Southampton native. Both solid local historians in their own right. We couldn’t have begun our work in Western Tidewater, much less brought it to this point, without them.

Every place, every region in Virginia has its own layers waiting to be peeled back, its own stewards of the history of that place, the doers, the people who are living links between the past and whatever comes next.

But all this is especially true in Western Tidewater, partly because the incursions of development have so far been relatively small, and few, and far between. There’s still not much that separates a visitor today from the dreams of George Washington, the footsteps of Nat Turner, the smell of peanuts drying in the field, or a Nottoway Indian family walking through the forest at Cypress Bridge, before the English settlers arrived.

In Western Tidewater, history is a living thing; which is not to say the region is still living in the past. It’s changing. Very fast in some places.

The VFH is working here, as we are and have been and will be working across Virginia, wherever and however we can, to make the picture more complete; to make the links between the past, the present, and the future easier to see; and to use the tools of the humanities, local knowledge, local organizations, local energy, and the resources of our own programs to enrich the fabric of the Commonwealth.

The Western Tidewater Regional Council is our vital, indispensable partner in this work.

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