Colonial Highways: Virginia Rivers as Trade Routes

Legend has it that the Native American name for the Potomac River is ‘place where people trade.’ It is this trade that made Thomas Lee and his son, Phillip, very wealthy in colonial Virginia. The fastest and cheapest way to send large quantities of materials was by ship, so having access to navigable waters was key for large plantation owners and businesses.

When Thomas Lee first bought the land-from Nathanial Pope- that would become Stratford Hall in 1718, the shoreline was predominantly steep cliffs and he only had a site for a small landing. In 1743, Thomas Lee bought the property adjacent to his landing from Jeanne Waddey. A mill pond had been constructed and a small grist mill had operated. In 1745, Thomas Lee had rebuilt the mill dam and was again operating a gristmill.

Over the following years, the landing at Stratford would become a hub of activity. As the tobacco markets flourished, a tobacco warehouse was built at the landing. There, Westmoreland growers would bring their hogshead barrels of tobacco to be inspected and prepared for shipment to the English and Scottish markets. Finished goods and supplies would be dropped off at Stratford, to be used by either the Lee family or for their plantation workers. There are even records indicating that shipbuilding even took place at the Stratford Landing.

The rivers of the Chesapeake continued to be an economic asset well into the 20th century, with steamships carrying cargo and passengers all over. Towns that had ports were some of the richest around, as can be seen by the wonderful houses that still stand today. But the aftermath of World War II quickly brought that to an end, with the mass development of over-the-road trucks and the creation of the Interstate Highway System. Thus, ending the Potomac’s great days of being a ‘place where people trade.’

-Chip Jones, Farm Manager