Updated: Jan 10
I’m out on a chilly fall morning, paddling in the middle section of the Rappahannock river. It’s the kind of fall morning when you’re out after a big weather front blows through. The wind has taken with it a big chunk of fall foliage, as well as any remembrance of warm summer days. The water is chilly with a wind coming from the northwest, but I’m in the lee of the wind, protected not by a point or a forest, but by 100 foot tall exposed silica bluffs at Fones Cliffs.
Protection is a new theme to emerge at Fones Cliffs. This past spring, 465 acres of land atop the cliffs was purchased and reacquired by the Rappahannock Indian people of Virginia. The Rappahannock people, with the Chesapeake Conservancy over the past few years, have worked to have their rights to the land recognized and protected as the descendants of the first people to live on this land- well before John Smith ever sailed up the river in 1607. Fones Cliffs, like many Chesapeake shorelines, have passed through many hands and ownership since those early days.
As recently as 2015, 1000 acres of land atop the cliffs and surrounding them was purchased by a New York development group with intentions to bring tourism to the riverside. The plans they pitched included hotels, townhomes, spas, restaurants and shopping. A golf course as well. It all sounded a bit like a Rappahannock version of National Harbor, which is hard to picture in this relatively quiet area of the Northern Neck. That firm put the horse before the cart by illegally clearing some of the Fones Cliffs lands without approval. They were slapped with some pretty hefty fines, enough to file for bankruptcy protection.
At one time, there were at least 3 Rappahannock villages atop the cliffs. Throughout the late 1600s and into the 1700s, the Rappahannock villages were forced to consolidate for their own safety, and eventually forced to relocate further up river. But this spot never lost significance and in fact it has gained significance. The cliffs are now part of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
The land is a critically important bald eagle habitat, and holds one of the largest populations of eagles here in the mid-Atlantic during the summer months. Even now in November, a number of juvenile bald eagles were still hovering around the cliffs, most likely wondering where the party went. The land is designated by the Audubon Society as an area of importance due to the bald eagle population.
Fones Cliffs is also part of the John Smith National Historic Trail. Captain Smith was held here as prisoner, briefly, on his journey to map the Rappahannock. He was held for questioning to determine whether he was an Englishman who was known to have killed a previous tribal chief of the Rappahannock tribe. According to one source, he was released after being deemed to short and fat to match the description of the murderer.
The land has been sought to be returned to its original people by the leaders of the Rappahannock for years. In 2018 the Rappahannock received federal recognition in the region. Over the past decade, with the help of the Chesapeake Conservancy, more parcels of land have been steadily returned to the Rappahannock. Earlier this year, the cliffs caught some national headlines as a major tract of 465 acres of land was returned to its first owners here on the river. The impressive success here on the Rappahannock has been seen in a few other areas outside the region as well.
Plans for their new (old?) land include preservation of the wildlife habitat, public access and learning opportunities regarding the Rappahannock history on the shore here, as well as an interpretive village. A nearby public boat ramp currently provides easy access to see the cliff faces from the water. Best to stay in your boat however, as there’s no explicit access permitted as of now, and the cliffs continue to show significant signs of degradation, thanks in part to the illegal clearing of the land by the now bankrupt development company.
The cliffs were referred to recently as the Yosemite of the Chesapeake. The cliffs may not be quite as tall, nor are they a mecca for rock climbers, but with the Chesapeake watershed being described as America in miniature, you can see how the Earth itself is distilled into miniature scenes of wonder like here at Fones Cliffs.
One Hundred Shores acknowledges that the lands and waters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed are the homes of the Chesapeake’s first peoples. The recovery of the Chesapeake Bay and the preservation of its stories is the recovery of the land and the rivers which once belonged to the people whose rights to the watershed were ignored or betrayed, and continue today to be overlooked.
One Hundred Shores believes that the land itself has the right to live, breathe and heal. One Hundred Shores believes that the bounty the Chesapeake provides is a fraction of what it could provide with proper stewardship, along with an acknowledgement of all those people who have cared and continue to care for the Chesapeake.