Southern Virginia’s Hidden History

The cliffs peel back after a heavy rain, revealing shells that have not been warmed by sunlight in at least five million years. A shard of pottery washes ashore. Thrust into the kiln centuries ago, it was last felt by human hands around the time that John Hancock scratched his name across the Declaration of Independence. The nearby Historic Triangle may grab the press, but a hidden microcosm of American history sits just across Virginia’s James River at Chippokes Plantation State Park.

Established in 1619 as a farm for Jamestown, America’s first successful English settlement, Chippokes offers a rarely visited view of bygone Virginia. Here you can catch a peak of Algonquin homeland while walking the many acres of a 400-year-old working farm. There is the plantation house to tour, a forestry museum to visit, and an English-style garden to explore. The state park also has hiking trails, kayaking routes, and places to picnic.

When I arrive with two friends on a sunny spring day, however, I am completely unaware of Chippokes’ comparatively modern history. What I’ve instead come for are the fossils. Millions of years ago in the Miocene era, much of Virginia and Maryland were under water. Prehistoric marine animals called this area their home, and we’re hoping to find a fossilized remnant of them.

I’ve given the park a call that morning to confirm there will be fossils. When I ask if we can keep what we find, the confused park ranger tells me that so long as we don’t discover an entire prehistoric animal, we can keep it. If we find an intact dolphin skeleton or something, though, the paleontologists are going to want it. We might find a whole animal? Holy crap! We’re giddy.

It’s the weekend, and yet Chippokes is nearly devoid of visitors. We easily find parking and make our way to the James River. In a few minutes, we and a handful of other fossil hunters are along the river’s sandy beach. It doesn’t take long before we find what we’re looking for: a recent rain has stripped off the outermost layer of the modest cliffs along the river, revealing hundreds, thousands, of prehistoric shells.

Picture of Miocene-era fossils found in the cliffs at Chippokes State Park in Virginia

Deposit of Miocene-era fossils, sticking out of the cliffs along the river

We can’t walk but a few feet without tripping over fossils that have not seen the light of day in millions of years. We pick up shells, carry them for a few yards, and then switch those out for better specimens. My friends find a complete clam shell—top and bottom—while I am drawn to fossilized barnacles. What we are most hoping to find, though, are sharks teeth.

Another group of fossil hunters gives us a tip that teeth tend to collect along a sandy outcrop farther down the beach. They tell us they once found a tooth as large as a man’s hand. We’re psyched and traipse down the sand. We search and search, but the only things we find are more million-years-old shells—how blasé we’ve become.

Picture of the beach along the James River at Chippokes State Park in Virginia

Down the river

One run-in with a small water snake later, we give up on this part of the beach and hike down to the other side. Along the way we pass a herd (gaggle? pride?) of sand crabs, who scurry away as soon as they hear our footsteps, and a giant brown snake whose memory will haunt me until the day I die.

At the other end of the beach, we find more excellent shells but sadly, no teeth. Finally we call it a day.

Picture of fossils and other items found along the James River at Chippokes State Park in Virginia

My catch: ancient shells, fossilized barnacles, a piece of metal (naturally occurring, I think), and a chunk of brick.

I am pleased with our discoveries but also secretly heartbroken. We make plans to return and continue our quest for the elusive megalodon.

However, the time to visit these important treasures is fading. Southern Virginia is critically threatened by climate change, and Chippokes may soon be lost to rising tides. If you get the chance to visit Chippokes, don’t wait! There really is something for everyone—camping, historical homes, river walks, and, of course, fossils.

But if you find a shark’s tooth, that bad boy better go in the mail for me.

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3 thoughts on “Southern Virginia’s Hidden History

  1. 😦 😦 :-(… Wow I just left that area this weekend. We went to Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg but did not get a chance to do visit Yorktown. If I had known about Chippokes State Park we may have visited it while there lol.

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