The Centuries at Falling Creek

  1. The 17th Century
  2. The 18th Century
  3. The 19th Century
  4. The 20th Century

Soon after the settlement at Jamestown began in 1607, exploration of the interior began. The James River was explored to Richmond by Captain John Smith and Christopher Newport. While Captain John Smith was probably accurate in his assessment of some of the settlers, it is highly questionable that such a broad brush can be applied to all. When writing, one perhaps refers to incidents that involve not all of a group. Bill Kelso’s excavations at Jamestown have shed fascinating light on the abilities of some of the people there. Among the fops, dilettantes and other assorted idiots that history has erroneously labeled them, men of science were also included. Looking for the Northwest Passage and for gold were the top orders of the day. People knowledgeable in minerals very early on located iron ore, assayed it and shipped a few tons back to England. Somewhere between 1607 and 1610, Falling Creek was identified as a near perfect place for heavy industry.

Communication back to the Virginia Company in England extolled the virtues of Falling Creek. Venture capitalists of the day were contacted and a Captain Benjamin Bluett (his first name has just been pulled from the newly digitized Virginia Company records) was hired as ironmaster in 1619. Bluett and 80 men were sent an ironworks. The Virginia Company records also indicate plans to send 150 men to establish no less than three ironworks in Virginia. In yet another letter a Mr. Kinge is to go with 50 persons to set on foot iron works. In short, the idea that iron could be smelted to good profit in Virginia was a multi-pronged operation. However, there is no indication of another ironworks apart from Falling Creek being started. Bluett died either on the voyage over or shortly after arrival and others of his men likewise perished from seasoning, a process that killed from 50-90% of the early immigrants. The Virginia Company records have Bluett dying on the voyage over. That appears to indicate that Bluett had made a start on the ironworks and may actually have found the falls at Falling Creek and the ore beds. The death of the ironmaster who was the sole person who knew how to actually run the furnace along with carpenters to build the dam, flume, water wheel, camshaft, bellows and whatever else had to be built from scratch after the wood was sawn and shaped into lumber were severe impediments to doing anything but nibbling around the edges of the project. The remnants were not able to complete the blast furnace at Falling Creek.

Interest in iron making did not stop. John Berkeley was hired in 1621 on the same conditions as Bluett, with the annoying side-note that Bluett’s terms do not survive. With a crew to finish one blast furnace, John Berkeley, with his son Maurice and 25 others, set sail for Virginia. In a letter back, Berkeley promised a plentiful supply of iron by Whitsuntide (June 9, 1622). And the iron works brought after five thousand pounds expenses to that assured perfection, as within three months they promised to send home great quantities. However, the Powhatans had other plans. The death of Powhatan and the ascension of Opechancanough as paramount chief brought an end to any accommodation with the English who had expanded their settlements farther into Powhatan territories. A coordinated attack was planned for all of the English settlements for the morning of March 22, 1622. Hundreds of settlers were killed in the attacks. Their aim was to force the English to leave the Powhatan territory. At Falling Creek, two children survived and the ironworks was destroyed. Or, the other story was that everyone there was killed.

The second iron working venture followed immediately after the 1622 uprising when Maurice Berkeley, who was away from Falling Creek and survived the attack, attempted to restart Falling Creek but was unsuccessful.

The third attempt was in the period 1634 to 1636. Sir John Zouch came to Virginia in 1634. In his 1636 will that was proved in 1639 he lamented that his son had spent upwards of £250.00 plus more of Zouch’s own to no result in getting the ironworks going again. Zouch had sold his English holdings for £10,000. If his expenditure equaled his son’s, putting over 5% of his worth into this venture showed extraordinary resolve.

The fourth and fifth iron working ventures came after William Byrd I accumulated at least part of the original Zouch patent via various transactions. The Higgins, et. al. Report cites Hatch and Gregory who cite Brock (1885) who stated that in 1687 and 1696 William Byrd I undertook the revival of the ironworks at Falling Creek. Unfortunately, the extent of his revival is unknown. He is credited with the erection of a sawmill and tannery on the property.

The many successive attempts to smelt iron on an industrial scale at Falling Creek after the 1622 event were all failures. However, the burning question was whether it got into blast under John Berkley. A blast furnace produces two products: glassy slag that is discarded and pig iron that is the salable product. To date, none of the characteristic glassy slag has been recovered, although one piece might have been. Without this conclusive evidence in hand, it cannot be said that Falling Creek got into blast before its destruction.