Often described as one of the most pristine of the waterways making up the
Chesapeake Bay river system, the Mattaponi takes its name from the tribe of
Native Americans that lived along its banks when the English settled the
Jamestown colony in 1607. The people of the Mattaponi considered the river
sacred, believing that the stream gave rise to life itself, and even today
their tribal descendants depend on the river as the cultural lifeblood
of their community. Captain John Smith became the first Englishman to see
the river when the Chickahominy Indians who had taken him prisoner used that
water route to deliver him to Chief Powhatan in December 1607.
The Mattaponi is one of the two tributaries (the other being the Pamunkey)
that meet to form the York River at the site of the old Indian town
Cinquoteck (present-day West Point, Virginia), about halfway between
Richmond and Tindall's Point, the important commercial center that developed
at the mouth of the York. Robert Beverley, in his History and Present
State of Virginia (London, 1705) included the Mattaponi in his list of
about a dozen "lesser rivers" capable of receiving the largest merchant
ships of the period. Beverley, in fact, resided near the head of the
Mattaponi, cultivating on his plantation a variety of native and French
grapes in a three-acre vineyard from which he produced as much as 400
gallons of wine annually.
The Mattaponi stretches about the Virginia landscape for about 85 miles
before emptying into the York. The river and its freshwater tidal wetlands
are home to many species of plants and a variety of birds and fish,
including ducks, geese, herons, osprey, bald eagles, blueback herring,
striped bass, shad, and shellfish. It is good for canoeing as well as
recreational and commercial fishing.
For two decades, the city of Newport News has been attempting to build a
reservoir in King William County, with the water coming from the
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