The earliest European settlers of the Lower Potomac were fur traders, who usually lived a rustic frontier existence in proximity to the American Indians with whom they traded. By the mid 17th century, there was a thriving, growing society of planters who modeled their culture and economy on the England they had left behind. The tobacco plantation soon became the distinguishing economy of the Tidewater region. Each was more akin to a farming village than a single farm, on which dozens of servants and, later, slaves, lived out entirely lives on the land of one landowner. These are the people we learned about as school kids.
There is more to the historic economies of Virginia’s Lower Potomac than the plantations of long ago. There is a fascinating industrial heritage that stretches to modern times and can be explored by travelers.
Menhaden may not be the region’s best known fish, and not one you’ll find sautéed on a supper plate. But it is certainly among the most important economically. Its meal is used primarily in livestock feed; menhaden oil is used in everything from margarine, cooking oils, cosmetics and vitamin supplements. It accounts for about 40 percent of fish exports today. Virginia’s Lower Potomac historically has been one of the world’s leaders in menhaden catches. Its influence on the people who lived on the Northern Neck during the heyday of the fishery is a great American story. It’s a tale that unfolds at the Reedville Fisherman’s Museum, in scenic Reedville near the mouth of the Potomac.
The Potomac’s earliest explorers observed an wealth of trees suitable for building ships and ship masts. By the late Colonial period, the Potomac shores had become a shipbuilding center, especially in the Tidewater region. In time, more skilled craftsman were trained in or drawn here, making the Lower Potomac one of the premiere shipbuilding regions of the eastern United States.