Oral Histories

The oral narratives from Chief Anne Richardson, John Tippett, and James E. Pitts Sr. collectively tell a complex story about the indigenous, environmental, and historical importance of the Rappahannock River.

In her interview, Chief Anne Richardson, tribe leader of the Rappahannock people contextualized the river from the perspective of the descendent of the original stewards of the land. She does not describe the Rappahannock with a traditional ecological outlook. She says “Rappahannock means the people who live where the water rises and falls.” The Rappahannock people had ambiguous boundaries along the river, going to Tappahannah or as far as the James River. While these people are indigenous to this land and this river, since the Treaty of 1677, Rappahannock people have been forced out of their spaces, forcing them to even go underground in the silent year. Cheif Anne Richarson also highlighted how spiritually important the river was to her people, the river gave the tribe, food, travel, healing, and medicine. However, she stated that the river does not belong to them; it belongs to the creator, so the action of the colonization in the genesis of America’s existence and the usage of fracking in the present day is not just an environmental problem. It does not properly steward the land the way the creator made it. The acts of grants for education to the people of the Rappahannock and the Indigenous Cultural Landscape Project are to not only aid indigenous people in returning to the Rappahannock; it will help them be back the river that the creator used to help them thrive.

John Tippett discussed the Rappahannock through the lens of a former environmental non-profit director. He explained his passion for the water since he was young, and how that aspiration translated into an education at Alleghany College, and Duke University. He showed that his journey to the non-profit sector went through the for-profit sector and the private sector. When he saw that his passions were not being necessarily fulfilled, he thought that he could add action to the non-profit sector that he knew “what they were against.” Working a Friends of the Rappahannock taught him about how to fundraise and cultivate a vision. He saw the hazards within the Embrey Bridge. Through a fishing trip with Mark Werners, Friends of the Rappahannock was about to cultivate a relationship with the Federal government and was given federal money and the aid of the Corps of Engineers to destroy the dam. The breaking of the sediments allowed aquatic habitats to reconnect.

James Pitts Sr. illustrated the first-hand experience of being a non-indigenous person utilizing the river. He was born in the 1920s and lived on a farm with his parent and an older brother and sister. Through telling a personal story about his life as a young person going to watch the steamboats at Colonial Beach, Pitts illustrates how fruitful bodies of water were in the past and how much they have changed now. As a child he was able to fish for shad and herring, but as he got older and environmental issues were propagated, the fish were no longer fishable in his region. Through experiencing so much of the river in his lifetime and through working by the naval bases, he grew with the river and saw its many phases. The river did not just evolve with him but Pitts thought that he’d “have gone hungry if it weren’t for the river.”

Blog Post- Colonization

One aspect of the interview that immediately stuck out to me while watching the interview with Chief Anne Richardson is how Eurocentric their name is. For one, the name Anne has a Latin/French Origin and their last name, Richardson, has a Germanic origin. With the added fact that, as Chief Richardson mentioned, the name “Rappahannock tribe” was coined by the English, not the native born people that were settled there in the first place. These are the horrid results of colonization flourishing in the 21st century. It wasn’t just land that was taken, but also people, culture, and very being of the people themselves are forcibly assimilated into white culture through the decades of raping and pillaging of Native Americans. In short: Natives like Chief Anne Richardson are the product of being bred out of existence.

While I’m not the too familiar with machinery, I can’t help but at least appreciate that James Pitt is really into steam boats. While I’m no expert on the eco friendliness of them and they might be horrendous for the environment, they look really cool. It was pretty cool overall hearing about his story and how much he loved hanging out on the edge of the Rappahannock.

Listening to John Tippett reminded me of when I was in middle school. I had a science teacher in 6th grade that would talk to us about the growing pollution problem in the Rappahannock river from corporations constantly dumping waste and sewage in the river. One day, she took us down to the area to test the Ph balance of the the river. I say all that because I saw some similarities of that experience and Tippett’s conversation of undamming the Embrey river because of the adverse affects.

Oral Histories – Rappahannock River

The Rappahannock is an amazing part of the state of Virginia. It stretches 195 miles through eastern Virginia, creating a beautiful and scenic area for visiting tourists and residents that live near and around it. The river attracts anglers, kayakers, tubers, and beach goers year round in a refreshing day of outdoor fun. Additionally, it is a great resource for agriculture as it acts as irrigation for farms providing clean water for the crops and livestock. One of its most important functions is as a fishery for many of the local fish and marine life that end up in markets. That said, the history of the Rappahannock is deep and important in understanding how it’s shaped the surrounding area today.


In April of 2017 several oral histories were recorded, each participant was asked questions regarding their connection and history to the Rappahannock and the surrounding area. In the first recording we heard from Chief Anne Richardson who is the fourth consecutive generation of her family to lead the Rappahannock tribe. It was extremely interesting to hear how she talked about her tribe’s spiritual connection to the river. It allowed me to understand that outside of being a place to have fun outdoors, there is a connection that her family and tribe felt to the river that is overlooked and taken for granted by casual river goers. The river to them was a place that was blessed and in turn it would support their needs. Chief Anne explained how her ancestors understood that they did not own the land or the river, that life was not about them and lived on land that was not theirs. I felt that this connection to the land and their appreciation for the creator of their home is one of the reasons they fought so hard to protect the environment like the removal of the Embrey Dam.


The River means a lot to different people and to John Tippett, it was important that he protect it. John Tippett served as the executive director for Friends of the Rappahannock for fifteen years. In his time one of his organization’s big accomplishments was the removal of the Embrey dam. While the dam was originally built for hydroelectric power it for a while was not being used for its initial purpose. Mr. Tippet Explains that the reason for its removal was for safety and obstructed some of the recreational activities that carried on around the river. As Someone that enjoys the environment and being outdoors it was touching to see how dedicated he and his team were in making sure the environment around the dam was ok if it were to be removed. Tippet and FOR had to consider everything from the miners that searched for gold and how their methods affected the water that many years ago today.


Finally, the eldest of the participants was James Pitts Sr. His story was especially interesting because it recounts his life growing up near the river. It was amazing hearing the times he caught a ride to see a steamboat arrive. Additionally, his retellings of the river during that time truly show how much the river has changed in the past 80 plus years.

Oral Histories – Rappahannock River

James Pitt

I really liked James, because I too think that large machinery is interesting, I think he story about wanting to see the steam boat is really funny and interesting. I also think it is cool how he was able to catch a ride to colonial beach and bum a ride back home from random people. I like how he discribes walking around colonial beach and looking at all the stores, it is interesting to see these moments through the eyes of someone else. His story about the stock market crash not affecting him as much because he grew up with nothing was aslo interesting to me. He also mentions the shad and herring that used to be very plentiful on the river. During the war he talked about becoming a machinist, which he thought would be hard, but they needed people so he got the job easily.

John Tippet

John was very interesting. His story about working to get rid of the Embrey Dam was interesting. I remember when I was in middle school watching the Dam get blown up on TV. I think it was around 2004-5. The teachers made it seem like a huge deal, but then the explosion was really small and lame and we were all disappointed. We waited for a long time to see it, and then it did not even exlode when it was supposed to, and then when it did, the explosion was really small and underwhelming. Still, it is interesting to meet the guy that was intrumental in that event that I will always remember for the rest of my life.

Chief Anne Richardson

I was interested to hear about Native American life from Anne, I do not know as much about thier culture as I would like, but I thought that she was interesting and clearly has a lot of information regarding her culture and the history of her people. I thougth it was really cool that all the presenters mention similar things about the river and what it means to them. She also mentioned the shad and herring. I thought it was interesting to hear about how her tribe was attacked by the Senaca Tribe and the Susequhana Tribe. I know both of those words since they relate to geographical locations. One is a river and the other is a very cool rock formation in West Virgnia’s Cannan Valley. It was sad to hear about the native american diaspora over the years, what with the wars and then the racism causing a lot of them to depart for the Northern States. I was also cool to hear about how her tribe saved another tribe from slavery by hiding them and helping them escape.

Oral Histories

I enjoyed listening to Chief Anne Richardson’s insight about the Rappahannock River and the fact that it played a huge part in providing for the indigenous people. I’ve learned that she is the fourth generation chief in her family and that women were designated as chiefs in her tribe. Although each chief also had a male assistant to balance gender authority in the tribe. She has lived her whole life in the Indian neck in Queen and King county, which is three miles from the Rappahannock river on the east side. The official name of the tribe is the Rappahannock Tribe. The name was changed due to Indian tribes being separated into different areas then reuniting in the Rappahannock area. I found it interesting that the word Rappahannock means “the people who live where the water rises and falls” (6:12) because of the hardships these natives had to overcome. It would make sense that the river would be used as a boundary between the different native tribes because many people married into other tribes therefore tribes had relatives in other tribes so this was not an issue. The river was used by the natives for travel, food, training warriors, and used to celebrate different seasons. The ancestors of the tribe also had a spiritual connection to the river by using it for bathing and prayers as well as blessings the river for the needs to survive. The Return to the River Project is supposed to immerse the children in their historic culture and teach them about their ancestral background.

John Tippett’s story was interesting because I had heard of the organization Friends of the Rappahannock but I did not know what they did. After watching this video I know what the organization does and how it got started, which is a pretty amazing story. I found it interesting that there are mainly three options for environmental careers which is work for the government, business, or non-profit. I’ve learned that Tippett worked at Research Triangle Institute where he was a water consultant for the state and federal government. After working there for four years, he decided to turn to non-profit work to really make a difference in the environment and this is when he became a part of the Friends of the Rappahannock organization. The first challenge for the organization was advocating for the dam on the river to be removed. The hardest part was to get money to remove the dam, which I didn’t know was so expensive. I found it heartwarming that there were community efforts to do fish lifts in order to get fish to the other side of the dam so that they could make it all the way up stream. This also proved the how destructive the dam was to wildlife in the river. In order to remove the dam FOR needed federal government authorization and appropriation. The federal government eventually agreed to pay 75% of the cost to remove the dam but the local government were not willing to pay their part in removing the dam. Then the senator made a bill that said the court of engineer had to pay for the dam removal at 100% of cost or else the no water resource act approval would not be approved. Therefore, the cost to remove the dam was paid for and the FOR was successful in getting the dam removed. I found it interesting that Tippett didn’t have a lot to say about how the river has changed since the removal of the dam other than the obvious changes like the dam being no longer visible and the change in the fish community.

James Pitts Sr. interview was super interesting to me because I live in King George, Virginia and I often go to the Colonial Beach and Dalgren area so the historic insights really stood out to me. The farm Pitts Sr. grew up on was along the edge of the Rappahannock River. He had told a story he had wrote when he was 11 years old about going to see the steam boats comes in at Colonial Beach coming down the Potomac River. I found this interesting because he told it like he was going into a big city, which at the time it probably was but presently it is not. He also told stories about salt fish, which is actually rabbit, that he ate as a child. The way he told stories about his life growing up on the farm and how the river played a big role in providing food and other things that his family used to live. It really shows how the river can provide and impact small family and landowners that lived along it.

Oral Histories

This week we listened, or read, oral histories about the Rappahannock river shed area. We heard from three people, who each have a unique perspective and relationship on the river and its meaning.

Chief Anne Richardson brought the perspective of her tribe, the Rappanhannock tribe. She discusses the physical and spiritual importance of the river to her tribe and their traditions. Not only did she discuss the history between the river and her tribe, but current importance as well. I was not expecting there to be a current connection between the tribe. Having her perspective on the conservation issues gave me insight into the historical importance of the river.

The next oral history is John Tippett. He served as the executive director of Friends of the Rappanhannock for 15 years. I found his perspective interesting because he looked at the importance of the river in its entirety and from a legal role. Listening this surprised me because I did not realize how much goes into each conservation effort or fracking. Tippet’s logistic side helped me realize how much of a struggle each step with conservation can be.

Lastly, James Pitts Sr. gave his oral history of growing up around the Rappanhannock river. His stories included personal anecdotes and how the river has changed in his lifetime. I found this interesting because it brought life to the river. Unlike the other two people, Pitts is not a representative of a tribe or organization, just an average person. This helped me think of the river as affecting all people not just large parties.

Oral Histories

The Rappahannock River is largely significant to the Fredericksburg area, even more than I realized. After watching these videos I got to understand its importance from three very different perspectives.

Chief Anne Richardson of the Rappahannock Tribe shared lots of insight. This tribe is matrilineal, meaning their leaders are historically women which I find super fascinating. I thought it was interesting when Chief said she thought the name suited her tribe perfectly because they have “ebbed and flowed” with power for many years. Her tribe has used the Rappahannock River to travel, to eat, and to train warriors. I loved her message about the eagles being “messengers from the Creator.” Her views on fracking were exactly what I thought they would be and her words were the perfect choice.

John Tippett brought more of a policy conversation to the table which was very informative. His upbringing of higher education, many internship hours, and experience has shaped his thoughts and actions. While working at Friends of the Rappahannock he shared that the Embrey Dam was quite the fuss due to its safety concerns and financial restraints from the City and state. Tippett said “the most important thing for the organization is to be a proactive force for the river.” I think that with knowledgable individuals like John Tippett the Rappahannock river will see a successful future.

James Pitt brought a more historical view to the Rappahannock river and I enjoyed his stories. I think being able to understand the ways that the river was used in the past helps figure out the best way for it to be used in the present. I thought it was interesting that he said when the stock market crashed his family had no idea because they were so poor already. After he shared his stories of fishing for salt fish and watching steamboats float on the river I can see how drastically things have changed.

Oral Histories– Un-damming the Rappahannock

The most interesting thing from these videos was the different perspectives that each person had. The river meant something to each person, but what they talked about was different. I really liked listening to Chief Anne talk about the history of her tribe and its people. I don’t know a lot about Native American history, so I was excited to learn more about a tribe here in Virginia. I was surprised that the Rappahannock tribe was so involved with John Smith and other colonists. I feel like I learned a lot about John Smith in school, but the Rappahannock tribe was never mentioned. I thought that the learning program that they had introduced for the tribe’s youth was super cool. I thought it was interesting that they found that taking the children to the river was more engaging than having them listen to tribe leaders lecture.
Listening to the story of un-damming the river from someone who worked so closely to the project was really cool. I had never heard of the Embrey Dam before watching these videos. Listening to the bureaucratic steps of what needed to be done to get the dam removed was really interesting. It’s nice that the fish have started to return upstream.
Listening to James E. Pitts, Sr. was my favorite. I thought it was important that he could give a timeline of the river because he lived on the river his whole life. Different species have thrived in the river at different times. One of the reasons I liked listening to it so much was it reminded me of listening to stories told by my Grandma. One of her favorite things to do is drive around town and tell me what things looked like when she was a little girl. It is important to get stories like this from people while they can still tell them. It was interesting to hear what the river meant to him. He said that he didn’t think that his family would have been able to eat without the river, but it also provided different leisure activities. He talks about how much he enjoyed fishing and frogging.
Having lived in Fredericksburg for the past year I have seen the Rappahannock a lot. I have to drive over it to get to school, but I hadn’t realized the major role that it played for so many different people.