Location and Construction
Some of the recorded bridges were located along major arterial paths, or roads, where a long detour around a stream's headwaters would be too onerous. An example of this was the "Indian bridge" that crossed one of the headwaters of the Corotoman River in Lancaster County in 1664. Meanwhile, other bridges connected adjacent parts of towns separated by water, like the bridge across the head of Occohannock Creek in Accomack County in 1650. The Occohannock Indians' main town was located far upstream and apparently built on both sides of the creek, necessitating a lot of coming and going. In such an instance, a bridge made sense.
Smith's description of the bridge is terse: "grained stakes and rails." This means that trees with distinct forks ("grains") were laboriously cut, trimmed, brought to the site, and rammed upright into the mud, probably requiring a massive community effort. Poles ("rails") were then laid between pairs of forks. Their length and diameter are unknowable; if they were long and not thick enough to withstand a certain weight, they would have sagged considerably in the middle when trodden on. There is no indication in Smith's account of any kind of handrail, and the tops of poles were not leveled off. Such finishing would have required metal planing tools the Indians did not possess. As a result, crossing the bridge required good balance, and was much more easily done barefoot or in moccasins than in the thick-soled boots worn by Europeans.
Smith's 'Dreadful Bridge'
When Newport and Smith's ship arrived at the bay on the York River near Werowocomoco, Indian guides, according to protocol, accompanied them in a large rowboat the rest of the way to the capital. However, the town was difficult to see from the water. Unlike English settlements, Indian settlements were not easily spotted clusters of waterside houses but a mixture of trees, gardens, and houses covered in bark or reed mats that were hard to distinguish from bare trees in the wintertime. Perhaps because of this—or perhaps because the Indians wished to play a joke at Smith's expense—the rowboat went to the wrong neck of land: a reception party that included a son of Powhatan directed Smith and his twenty-man landing party to the side of Leigh Creek that contained the fields, not the side with the houses and Powhatan's compound. To their chagrin, Smith and his men soon found that they were expected to cross Leigh Creek by bridge.
Smith interspersed half of his men amongst the Indian escort and ordered the other half (with their firearms) to remain behind until the first contingent had reached dry land again in safety. As the procession started across, a substantial proportion of the town's population likely watched in fascination from the other side of the creek. Clad in their heavy winter clothing and soldiers' boots, Smith's men found their footing precarious and their weight dangerous. The "dreadful bridge," as Smith called it, sagged so low that Powhatan's people took pity on them and removed them into a canoe.
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First published: July 27, 2010 | Last modified: May 30, 2014