James and Appomattox watersheds
Source: Middle Atlantic River Forecast Center
The James River is the largest watershed in Virginia. Creeks from as far away as Giles County and Highland County flow down into the tributaries of the river, whose official headwaters is the confluence of the Jackson and Cowpasture rivers near the northern tip of Botetourt County. The James River crosses the Valley and Ridge physiographic province, cuts through the Blue Ridge at Balcony Falls, then crosses the Piedmont before reaching the Fall Line at Richmond.
The first European colonists from Spain in 1570 and from England in 1607 chose to sail up the James River to start their settlements, and only during the Civil War was the state capital (of the Restored Government of Virginia) located away from the James.
When the English arrived in 1607, the local Native Americans had named the river after Powhatan, the paramount chief in eastern Virginia with control of over 30 tribes. John Smith mapped it as Powhatan's flu ("river"). The English renamed it after their leader in England, King James I on May 24, 1607, after Christopher Newport erected a cross at the Fall Line to mark the English claim to the area. As described by George Percy, who served as President of the Council at Jamestown during 1609-10:1
The local geography and actiities of the colonists was communicated back to England when Captain Newport started his trip back across the Atlantic Ocean in June, 1607. When the London Company issued instructions to Sir Thomas Gates before he traveled to Virginia in 1609 to become govenor of the colony, the waterway was still called the Kings River.2
John Smith's map does not use "James River"
Source: Middle Atlantic River Forecast Center
between its headwaters near Iron Gate and its passage through the Blue Ridge at Balcony Falls, the James River crosses the Valley and Ridge physiographic province
Source: USGS National Elevation Dataset, NED Shaded Relief - Virginia
After the Civil War, the Army Corps of Engineers carved artificial channels through several "necks." The new channels shortened the distance traveled by ships going upstream to the port at Richmond. The Dutch Gap Canal, initiated by General Benjamin Butler in 1864, was completed in 1870.3
The river channel is too shallow for modern container ships upstream of Newport News, but barge service still connects the Norfolk International Terminals to Deepwater Terminal.
ships no longer had to travel around Turkey Neck and Jones Neck after the Civil War, once the US Army Corps of Engineers completed new channels
Source: Library of Congress, Map of operations at Bermuda Hundred and Drewry's Bluff, Virginia, 10th May 1864
on the 1751 Fry-Jefferson map, the upper James River was called the Fluvannas
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina (by Joshua Fry/Peter Jefferson, 1751)
Confederates blocked Union forces from advancing up the James River to Richmond, by building Fort Darling at Drewry's Bluff and sinking ships to form obstructions at that spot
Source: The Photographic History of the Civil War, Digging Under Fire at Dutch Gap - 1863 (p.109)
Union forces did not move upstream of Fort Darling and its river obstructions until Fort Darling was abandoned after the fall of Petersburg in April 1865
Source: The Photographic History of the Civil War, James River, Virginia Near Drewry's Bluff, 1862 (pp.110-111)
during the Civil War, Federal forces tried to bypass Confederate fortifications by digging an artificial channel at Dutch Gap
Source: Library of Congress, Butler's Dutch Gap Canal, James River, Virginia
freed slaves as well as Federal soldiers were used to move the dirt during General Benjamin Butler's attempt to dig a canal at Dutch Gap
Source: Library of Congress, Dutch Gap Canal commencement of the work
steam-powered shovels alone were not enough; the Dutch Gap Canal was dug by hand, mule and horsepower as well
Source: Library of Congress, James River, Va. View of the completed Dutch Gap canal
Dutch Gap Canal was excavated through the soft sediments of the Coastal Plain
Source: Library of Congress, Dutch Gap Canal
though the Dutch Gap Canal provided no military advantage during the Civil War, it led to a more-direct shipping channel in the 1870's
Source: National Archives, Dutch Gap Canal in 1865
the Dutch Gap canal was completed after the Civil War
Source: Library of Congress, Military topographical map of eastern Virginia
new shipping channels were cut through old meanders downstream of Richmond after the Civil War, and the Dutch Gap Canal created Farrar's Island
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
in 1783, the "Fluvanna" River was upstream of Richmond
Source: Library of Congress, The United States of North America, with the British & Spanish territories according to the treaty (by Pieter van der Aa, circa 1729)
even into the 1720's, European mapmakers recycled previous assumptions about a large lake at the headwaters of "Powhatan's flu"
Source: University of North Carolina, Partie meridionale de la Virginie et la partie orientale de la Floride dans l'Amerique Septentrionale (by Gerhard Mercator, 1610)