Looking out over golden marshes and sparkling tidal waters one sunny October day, it was easy to see why people have been drawn to Chesapeake rivers for millennia. This was my first visit to Machicomoco, a new Virginia state park in Gloucester County that aims to tell the region’s story from the perspective of its American Indians.
I’d just walked through an outdoor exhibit that described thousands of years of local Indigenous history. Afterward, I happened to run into present-day leaders of the Chickahominy tribe who were also on a Sunday visit to the park. We chatted for a few minutes about everything from fishing spots to the return of tribal land. That serendipitous encounter along Machicomoco’s interpretive trail was a reminder of how the rich history of Virginia’s tribes continues today.
The wide-open vistas along that trail invite reflection, with benches overlooking meadows that roll down to meandering waterways. Taking a break there for a few moments, I thought about the exhibits at the interpretive area’s entrance, which are centered around a pavilion inspired by a traditional dwelling called a yihakan.
“The Native Chesapeake comprises waterways as the main pathways for travel, wetlands as a primary source of food, and riverfronts as principal places of residence,” one sign states.
On that fall afternoon, I saw waterfront homes across the creek, boats plying the water, and mussels, oysters, and fish teeming in the creek. It was easy to feel a sense of timelessness, but the exhibits remind us that change is constant – from the meteorite that shaped the Chesapeake 35 million years ago to a post ice-age warm period 10,000 years ago that filled out the Bay and its rivers with rising seas.
For 18,000 years, people have been drawn to these waters. At Machicomoco, a timeline stretches along the ground through the exhibits, with key facts and dates marked among oyster shells. A walk along the timeline’s roughly 200-foot length highlights the vast span of human history here long before European arrival.
Machicomoco’s location is central to this story. By the early 1600s, the Powhatan chiefdom had grown to 32 tribes, and its most important town was located just a few miles upriver at Werowocomoco. During that same period the English established their first permanent settlement at Jamestown, just over a dozen miles from Machicomoco as the osprey flies.
This marked the beginning of a period of immense upheaval for the Powhatans. “Virginia Native peoples have responded by innovating and enduring,” states the exhibit. “Their memories of traditional customs and connections to ancestral places continue today.”
While tourists have long flocked to hear the story of the English colonizers in Virginia, this is the first Virginia state park dedicated primarily to the American Indian perspective.
“Our Native history, our culture has been sidelined, and the dominant culture story has just been repeated and repeated,” Chief Stephen Adkins of the Chickahominy tribe said at Machicomoco State Park’s dedication in April, 2021. “This offers a unique, unprecedented opportunity to tell the stories that have been held hostage for so long”
Today, there are 11 tribes in Virginia recognized by the federal or state government. Members of several of these tribes, including Chief Adkins, were consulted in the development of Machicomoco.
This is a brand-new park that, at least in its first year, hadn’t yet reached its full potential. A weathered historic farmhouse overlooks the river, closed to visitors but with plans for restoration. The property was slated to become a housing development shortly before the 2008 economic crisis, and the park’s main road winds through open farm fields planted in crops.
But, like the young tree saplings all around, there is hope for the future. “This offers us a foothold. It offers us a launching point to ensure that our story continues to be told,” Adkins said.
Machicomoco is just across the river from the historic triangle of Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown, and is a great complement to visiting these English settlements. It is also an easy day trip from Richmond and Hampton Roads.
The state park totals 645 acres of land on a peninsula surrounded by Timberneck Creek, Cedarbush Creek, and the lower York River (known as the Pamunkey River to American Indians). It is a wonderful brackish landscape of loblolly pines, marshes that sway with the tides and mud banks pocked with fiddler crab burrows.
The park’s facilities have a brand-new, modern feel to them that still blends into the landscape, constructed with timber and metal. Tree cover is limited along many trails, so there is little shade. During the hotter months, consider visiting during the cooler early morning or evening hours.
The park’s centerpiece is the one-of-a-kind interpretive area, but it also offers a great experience for paddlers. There is a car-top launch area about a 100-yard walk down from the parking area along a new dock, with a handicap-accessible launch at the end. Here you can explore the protected waters of the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. On the reserve you must stay in your kayak or canoe, as the marshes and islands are off-limits to visitors. Keep in mind that the car-top launch is closed from November through January to protect wintering waterfowl.
While water abounds, there are no swimming areas in the park and fishing is only permitted at the floating boat slips located on Timberneck Creek. For hikers there is a 2.7-mile forestry trail that follows the woodline and a 3.1-mile paved loop trail paralleling the road that circumnavigates the park. Much of it rings planted farm fields.
For visitors looking to stay longer, a campground has 27 campsites, including 13 with electric and water hookups. There are also three yurts available for rent.