Presquile National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is located on a 1329-acre island in the James River south of Richmond, Virginia. Part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Eastern Virginia Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, it was established in 1953 to protect habitat for wintering waterfowl and other migratory birds, and at the present time is open to the public only on a very limited basis. What is now Presquile (formerly “Presque Isle”, or almost an island) was once a peninsula inside one of the James River oxbows. It became an island when a channel was cut through the peninsula in 1933 to make navigation easier for large boats. The island includes open meadow that was formerly farmed, extensive wetlands, brushy areas, and mixed forest
However, this place is more than just a wildlife refuge: it is also serves as an example of a new concept of place known as an Indigenous Cultural Landscape. Developed as part of the planning for the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the concept is intended to represent large landscapes from the perspective of American Indian nations at the time of their first contact with Europeans. These landscapes comprise the cultural and natural resources that would have supported the historic lifestyles and settlement patterns of an Indian group in their totality. The concept attempts to demonstrate that American Indian places were not confined to the sites of houses, towns, or settlements, and that the American Indian view of one’s homeland is holistic rather than compartmentalized into the discrete site elements typically used in our language today such as “hunting grounds”, “villages”, or “sacred sites”.
The island of Presquile, now protected as a wildlife refuge, was at the time of English Contact a peninsula within the aboriginal territory of the Appamattuck Indians. John Smith mapped an unnamed town near the base of the peninsula. Cultural resource surveys of the refuge have identified a large area considered likely to contain evidence of Late Woodland American Indian occupation and prehistoric archeological sites ranging from the Late Archaic through Late Woodland. The concept of the Indigenous Cultural Landscape looks at the natural resources still present on the land: the good agricultural soil, sources of fresh water, transportation routes on the river, accessible landing places, and the resources still present in the marshes, brushy areas and primary or mixed deciduous forest
These resources along with the documented American Indian presence provide outstanding interpretive opportunities to look at place in a new way. Presquile NWR is currently in the process of updating their comprehensive conservation plan, with the possibility of more public access in the future. An environmental education center for youth, managed by the James River Association, is also being developed on the island. The refuge is one of those increasingly rare places where the landscape of the past merges with the present. The hope is that telling this story will expand our sense of stewardship of place and our understanding of the diverse people that share this space.
Deanna Beacham (Weapemeoc) is the American Indian Specialist in the Virginia governor’s office and serves as an advisor, consultant, and speaker on mid-Atlantic American Indian history and contemporary concerns. She is an Occasional Observer for this web site.