The following speech was delivered on the occasion of christening the James River as our National River in connection with the Jamestown Exposition of 1907 by Lawrence Decatur Davis (1836-1911), second great grandson of Major George Marable of James City. I am indebted to Mr. Frank Chilton of Porter, Texas, the author's great grandson, for calling this speech to my attention and providing me with the text, as well as these delightful photographs of Lawrence Davis and his wife, Mildred Eldridge. Mr. Chilton has the good fortune to have in his possession a copy of the speech in the author's own hand.
It has ever been the consensus of the more advanced Nations of the Earth, to regard some river of the Fatherland with peculiar esteem and veneration, so that the title "sacred" can hardly be called a 'misnomer;" as witness, the Parphar of Damascus, the Euphrates of Persia, the Jordan of Galilee, the Nile of Egypt, the Tiber of Rome, the Rhine of Germany, the Thames of England, the Clyde of Scotland, and the Shannon of Green Erin. Even the little Principality of Wales boasts its Severn famed in story and song.
In canvassing the claims of our many Rivers, to National honor and distinction, the James stands pre-eminent. Named at first the Powhatan in honor of that "Montezuma" of the East, whose blood still flows in the veins of Virginians, by descent from the gentle Pocahontas, the early settlers, to flatter the "House of Stuart," changed it to the "James."
Let us examine some of its claims to priority. It perhaps is the only river in the World that resembles the River, which watered Eden. Stand at Henrico on the upper James, and to a stranger the illusion is perfect, that there are four (4) rivers, worth a long and weary pilgrimage to behold.
Shall tragedy which alone consecrates be the test? For crowns of roses fade, but crown of thorns endure; then listen. It witnessed the landing of the first permanent English settlers, it heard the ring of the first axe, the crack of the first rifle, and it caught the glimmer of the first camp fire. On its banks rose the first altar to Almighty God, it caught the sweet strains of the first Alleluia, and on its heaving bosom floated the first Doxology.
It witnessed the building of Jamestown aptly called "The Nest of Empire;" built by a flock of Eagles from the Old World, and watched over and nourished by Pocahontas, the woodland nymph of Virginia.
Yes, when famine and pestilence were thinning the ranks of the settlers, the "Blessed Pocahontas," as she was called by the Colonists, came with her maidens loaded with corn and venison to relieve their distress; in other words, she, prompted by the "Great Spirit" as they called their God, aided Captain John Smith in laying the Corner-stone of this Republic.
All honor to this Indian maiden, and who shall say her "Nay?" Here during their darkest hour, when the inevitable seemed impending, they kept a lonely vigil by day and beacon-fire by night, watching down that long vista of waters, trying to catch a glimpse of the white sails of Newport, with tidings from home; and when at last she hove in sight, their glad hears rang with "Hosannas" loud and long. Hence the name of the present "City" called in his honor.
Here was the scene of the activities of Capt. John Smith, the intrepid explorer, sage and knight-errant. His memory is held in such reverence and veneration, that at the family re-unions of the Smiths, he is toasted as their great "Progenitor," though believed to have died childless.
Here at Jamestown was witnessed that strange anomaly and melo-drama when the Colonists came flocking in, to exchange their leaf-tobacco, for that beautiful boat-load of women, who were to become their future wives, and from whom have sprung a race of women the envy and admiration of this broad land.
Ah! then and there was hurrying to and fro, and all went merry as a marriage bell. That was the richest Argosy that ever floated; Jason pales into insignificance before it, for if not exchanged for the "Golden Fleece" they were for the "Golden Leaf," and all being sought with equal avidity, the inference is, that the envious "Pulcherrima" was claimed by none. Mohammed's dream of dark-eyed Houris, realized on Earth. History fails to furnish a parallel; where soft and tender females have faced the terrors of the Deep, and the hardships of the Wilds, in order to alleviate the cares and sorrows of the Colonists, and to light their homes with cheer and comfort.
Here at Jamestown were celebrated the nuptials of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, a worthy Englishman, from which union sprang a race of men and women unique in itself, the "F.F.V.'s of Virginia." Hence the strange device upon their Escutcheon, "Novo cincta ab Antiquo, the New World linded with the Old."
This same river has borne upon its bosom many a friendly and hostile craft; from the frail canoe of Powhatan's dusky warriors, to the first "Iron-clads," that ever engaged in the death-grip and grapple. It took to its embrace, and claimed as a victim to its swollen waters, Alexander Whittaker, the "Apostle of Virginia," that great and good man, whose heroic life and tragic death, should be commemorated in unwasting marble.
On its banks two Presidents first opened their eyes. William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, whose campaign gave rise to the National slogan, "Tippa-canoe and Tyler too."
At Brandon on the James, stands the great (Presidential) Caravansary, where all the Presidents from Washington to Buchanan have feasted in the Baronial halls; and that too in the halcyon days of the Republic, when "man was the gold, for a'that, for a'that". It has caught the strains of martial music, and echoed Lee's salute to Grant from hill to hill. And in that conflict of the "Titans" the earth was rent, and on the waves of this River, leaped the "live thunder" from Piedmont to the sea.
On its banks stands our Mecca, once so difficult of approach, now readily accessible to all the "devout;" and pilgrims to that shrine, to view the "Penates," Virginia's household gods, no longer fall by the wayside, as do the Mohammedans, striving to kiss the tomb of the Prophet, but are met by a big broad welcome, proverbial of Old Virginia.
Upon the bosom of this River, in the hands of Governor Spottswood, was first borne that great "Writ of Human Right," which when transplanted to Virginia, the habeas corpus, soil, brought forth thirty (30), sixty (60), yea an hundred fold.
But hastening by many things dear to the heart of the "Antiquary." the "Scholar," and especially the "Agricola," as along the banks of this River, was first grown for Commercial purposes of the World's great "Panacea," we turn from the past of this River baptized in fire as it were, preparatory for that bright future, which awaits it, when crowded with the sails of Commerce, it will spread "its white arms to the sea." And as intercourse has a tendency to unify and fraternize the race, may we not hope (without being too optimistic) that this gathering of all Nations, at the mouth of the majestic River, is but the harbinger of that "Better Day" predicted by sages and prophets, when none will be left "to cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war," but peace, universal peace, shall reign among the sons of men; yea, "the wolf and lamb shall feed together, and a little child shall lead them." "Then with gladness, shall man draw water from the wells of Salvation."
Now in anticipation of that happy era, after a lapse of three hundred years, I, as representative of the youngest State, come, bearing love and greeting to Virginia, the oldest State, the mother of States and Statesmen, whose flag still bears the "sic semper" intended of George III. And now by way of rendering fealty and homage to my native State; and animated by the fervor of the Old Roman when standing on the banks of the Yellow Tiber, and in order to "christen" this, the James, as our National River, never more to bear upon its bosom a hostile fleet, I pour this libation, take from the Mississippi (the father of waters) into the fast moving current of the James, to be borne among, and finally to mingle with the Chesapeake (the mother of waters). "Drink ye all of it" and "Drink ye all of it."
In conclusion, may His blessing rest upon this people, this function, and this day, who caused the stormy Galilee to slumber and rest, and amongst whose last commands, was the injunction, "Cast your net upon the right side of the ship, and ye shall find."