By: Bryan Watts
We sat together in silence as if in a Quaker meeting. He perched on a limb next to a large nest and me sitting on an earthbound log. Time drifted on. Then, out of silence, a catbird came fussing into a bay magnolia next to me and the meeting was ended. The eagle flew out over the broad marsh and I walked back down the ridgeline to a waiting boat. The bird is the latest in a long line of eagles to occupy a territory on the southeast side of Jamestown Island. During the 1980s and 1990s, we referred to the occupants then as the “Christmas eagles” because they laid their eggs around Christmas day, the earliest clutch throughout the Chesapeake. But the sky overhead has been a place for eagles since before Jamestown Island was formed. They have been the watchers marking time and adapting to whatever change came along.
Eagles and the Chesapeake Bay have grown together. Eagles reached North America more than one million years ago. The Chesapeake Bay formed during the Pleistocene over the past one million years through a series of ice ages. Although the ice sheets never reached the Bay, they drove its development. As the ice caps waxed and waned the Bay drained and filled. Sediments that filled the Bay during one glacial period were flushed out during the next. As temperatures fluctuated, the spruces and firs of the boreal forest moved over the land like waves extending south to replace hardwoods only to retreat again. Jamestown Island was formed from sediments washed from Powhatan Creek and existed through most of its history as a peninsula connected to the mainland. Sea-level rise over the past three thousand years or so separated Jamestown from the peninsula and formed the tidal marshes that we know today. Through all of the changes in prey communities, forest types and water conditions, eagles made their way.
Eagles have borne witness to the long parade of humanity through the area. They were here when the moon and stars were the only lights to break the night. They were here 15,000 years ago when Native Americans arrived and added their cook fires to the constellations. The last of the Native American tribes (Powhatans) to occupy Jamestown Island referred to eagles as “great white tail” (opotenaiok). They valued their tail feathers for arrow fletching stating that “they will not sing in flying” and in the years after the English arrived, an eagle tail was worth as much as a beaver skin. But it was the establishment of James Fort in April of 1607 that would shift the pace of human drama. For the next 400 years, eagles looked down on some of the most significant events in U.S. history. In addition to bearing witness, eagles would frequently be drawn into the drama.
The relationship between eagles and the early settlers on Jamestown is poorly known. Captain John Smith stated that, “Of birds, the eagle is the greatest devourer.” Early colonists referred to eagles are “gripes” presumably from the early English word “grype” meaning vulture or griffin. We know that “their quill-feathers in their wings make excellent text-pens.” Eagle bones have been found in refuse deposits on the island including in the soldier pit. While excavating the second well of Jamestown Settlement, archeologists found 67 eagle bones among hundreds of other skeletal remains. This well was used around the close of the “starving time” (1609-1610) and some bones contained knife marks suggesting that they may have been used for food. Shortly after settlement, the upland forests over much of the island were cleared for farming. However, forests remained on the remote corners of the island that were not favored for farming. These vestiges likely provided eagles with nesting substrates throughout the period of intense human occupation.
Over the next 80 years, Jamestown Island was the seat of colonial government and the site of much activity. The first laws were made in Jamestown Church, the site of the first African American birth in North America, a successful strain of tobacco became the primary export, Jamestown port was the primary site of imports and exports and the colony survived three staged massacres by the Powhatan tribe following breaches of treaties and continued invasion of their lands. On 20 October 1698, the capitol building burned for the fourth time and government activities shifted to the “college building” at William & Mary. Five students presented a well-reasoned plan to permanently move the government to Williamsburg. Their plan was favorably received by the assembly and government operations were permanently moved in 1699.
For the next 150 years, Jamestown Island was operated as a plantation focused on farming. During the mid-1700s, the island was farmed by the Travis and Ambler families. A military post was placed on the island during the Revolutionary War and this was the site for exchanging British and American prisoners. During the mid-1800s, the island was owned and farmed by William Allen. Allen was one of the wealthiest men in the region with 300,000 acres and 800 slaves.
During the Civil War, Jamestown Island was once again a beehive of activity. With the outbreak of war in 1861, Allen established a confederate fort on the island that would eventually support 1,000 soldiers and 20 cannons to control traffic up the James River. Robert E. Lee inspected the fort that summer. Former president John Tyler visited the fort on 4 July. In April of 1862, General McClellan moved up the Peninsula and the confederates abandoned their fort on 3 May. The Union controled Jamestown Island until the end of the war. They established a telegraph station on the island that was a major point of communication with the front line. After the surrender at Appomattox, confederate troops mustered on the island to take the oath of allegiance. At the close of the war, Allen was forced to sell the island.
Following the close of the Civil War, the land on Jamestown Island began to heal. The island would become a focal point for eagle egg collecting by avid collectors Harold Bailey and Fred Jones for more than twenty years in the early 1900s, when clutches brought a premium price. Jamestown Island was included in Bryant Tyrrell’s 1936 survey of eagles throughout the Chesapeake Bay. Tyrrell visited two nests on 8 May 1936 both of which had three young. He found remains of muskrats, turtles, fish and a barn owl in the nests.
By the 1950s, Jamestown Island was primarily forested. In 1962, Jackson Abbott (Grandfather of eagle monitoring in the Bay) would single out Jamestown Island as one of the major eagle strongholds in the Bay because the island supported three nesting pairs. The next spring Charlie Hacker would pick up an adult female eagle under a nest. The bird was having convulsions and died. The cause of death was later determined to be DDT toxicity. By 1965, all pairs had disappeared from Jamestown Island. Twenty years later, the island was eventually recolonized by a pair in 1986. After decades of recovery, the island now supports eight breeding pairs and is once again a stronghold within the Chesapeake Bay.
Like the river itself, the trees and the marshes, bald eagles are a timeless part of Jamestown Island. They have had a front row seat looking out onto our short history. Their own history arcs back hundreds of thousands of years into the deep past. We think of them as symbols of strength, courage and freedom, but they are a better symbol of resilience. Eagles have absorbed insults over the past 400 years and have adjusted and overcome.