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.

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