O Bloody Run, where art thou?
Sometimes history becomes a matter of opinion, rather than a matter of fact. This is especially true when the facts are hard to come by, and that goes double for the Battle of Bloody Run.
in 1654, a tribe of Indians, known as the Ricahecrians, settled on the James River near Richmond. Even though Richmond was little more than a village at the time (it would not be incorporated as a town until 1742), it was still too close for local comfort. To the modern reader, this might seem like a head-scratcher. The New World was a pretty big place in the 17th century, with plenty of room for everyone. Where’s the harm with new folks moving into the ‘hood?
To understand the attitude, look no further than Anglo-Powhatan Wars, of which there were two, both long and bloody. The first one ran from 1609–1614 (anyone remember John Smith and Pocahontas?), and the second from 1622–1632, which kicked off with Powhatan’s massacre of anyone who looked remotely English. No surprise that these events were still fresh in the colonial memory, even by 1654. (Encyclopedia Virginia)
Enter the Virginia General Assembly, and Colonel Edward Hill, the representative from Charles City County. In 1656 Act XV was passed, granting Hill permission to move on the Ricahecrians.
WHEREAS information hath bin given that many western and inland Indians are drawne from the mountaynes, and lately sett downe neer the falls of James river, to the number of six or seaven hundred, whereby upon many severall considerations being had, it is conceived greate danger might ensue to this collony, This Assembly therefore do Think fitt to resolve that these new come Indians be in noe sort suffered to seate themselves there, or any place near us it haveing cost so much blood to expell and extirpate those perfidious and treacherous Indians which were there formerly, It being so apt a place to invade vs and within those lymitts which in a just warr were formerly conquered by us, and by vs reserved at the last conclusion of peace with the Indians, In pursuance whereof therefore and due respect to our own safety, Be it enacted by this present Grand Assembly, That the two upper countyes, under the command of Coll. Edward Hill, do presently send forth a party of 100 men at least and they shall first endeavour to remoove the said new come Indians without makeing warr if it may be, only in a case of their own defence, alsoe strictly requireing the assistance of the all the neighbouring Indians to aid them to that purpose, as being part of the articles of peace concluded with us, and faileing therein to look duely to the safety of all the English of those parts by fixing of their arms and provideing ammunition, and that they have recourse to the Governour and Councill for further direction therein, And the Governour and Gov. to send Councill are desired to send messages to Tottopottomoy and the Cluckahomynies and other Indians and treate with them as they in theire wisdoms and discretions shall think fitt. [TSAL]
Unfortunately, Hill was an asshat. Although his orders clearly directed him to fight only if necessary, he got cocky, confident that he and his pal Totopotomoi could brush off the invaders. Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, right?
On an unknown date in 1656, 100 Colonial Rangers and 100 Pamunkey warriors took on between 250 and 300 Ricahecrians at the Battle of Bloody Run. The Ricahecrians did not go down like Hill expected. Choosing discretion as the better part of valor, he retreated with what remained of his force, hanging his allies out to dry. The Ricahecrians knew what to do with English sympathizers, and slaughtered nearly all of them, including poor Chief Totopotomoi, a sacrificial lamb to English arrogance.
It was a First World embarrassment, and the English had to go sniveling for peace. Later that year, the General Assembly censured Hill unanimously, stripped him of his rank, and made him pay for the treaty. [RSC]
So what’s the problem? The fact we don’t know where the battle took place!
You’d think that an engagement worthy of not one (above), but three historical markers would be a place we could spot on a map. Not so, as it turns out. Consider:
We have no records of the fight, except that the Rechahecrians, probably well entrenched on the summit of Richmond Hill, succeeded in defeating the English and their allies with much slaughter, killing Totopotomoi and nearly all his warriors. [HSR]
The fight took place in 1656 in the vicinity of a small stream that rose at the juncture of what is now Marshall and Thirty-first streets, in the city’s East End, and ran southeasterly around the base of Chimborazo into Gillies Creek. In modern times, it has been enclosed in a culvert. The sanguinary encounter caused the little stream to be named “Bloody Run.” [RSC]
or even this:
Colonel Edward Hill, with 100 militiamen and 100 Pamunkey Indians, (previously members of the Powhatan Confederacy) were sent to dislodge the alien intruders. The Richahecrians resisted, fighting and defeating Hill’s detachment at the battle of Shockoe Creek, probably near the base of today’s Capitol Square. [RIH]
That last one stings a bit, because Dr. Ward was a professor of history at UR, but his depiction is clearly an outlier. Perhaps he had superior knowledge, but it went unreferenced in his book; kinda makes you think a research assistant let him down.
Nor is this all! Tricia Noel from the Library of Virginia published an article in 2014 where she states:
Over three hundred and fifty years ago, the area now occupied by the 200 and 300 blocks of North 30th Street was the site of a mostly-forgotten colonial battle called the Battle of Bloody Run. (CPHN)
But the icing on the cake comes from Robert Krick, historian at Richmond National Battlefield Park:
I cannot help you with the Bloody Run portion of it, and it seems unlikely at this late date that any decisive information will emerge. I have seen a few modern analyses that suggest the battle that gave its name to Bloody Run actually occurred out in Hanover County, at some vague location. To my knowledge there is no especially trusty source and no superior interpretation that should be preferred to all the others. [RELK]
So in the absence of a definitive answer, Rocket Werks hereby plants its own opinionated flag. In 1842, Charles Dickens published his book American Notes, where he provides this surprising commentary:
In a low ground among the hills, is a valley known as ‘Bloody Run,’ from a terrible conflict with the Indians which once occurred there. It is a good place for such a struggle, and, like every other spot I saw associated with any legend of that wild people now so rapidly fading from the earth, interested me very much.
That makes TOTAL SENSE!
Let’s walk through this.
- The base of Shockoe Hill would have been right in the heart of the Richmond settlement, and if the battle had occurred there, you’d think we’d know a lot more about it. Besides the creek there was called Shockoe Creek, and this is the Battle of Bloody Run!
- Hanover is too far north. Edward Hill came from Charles City County, and was likely assigned to lead the force because his neck of the woods was directly affected by the Ricahecrians.
- Places take names for a reason. Both the Bates and Ellyson maps identify the road that became Williamsburg Road as Bloody Run Road. Bloody Run Road crossed Bloody Run stream. QED.
- In order to have 500 – 600 combatants face off, you need elbow room, not just so that people can murder each other more easily, but also for any animals (horses?) that also attended the slaughter. Soldiers and animals need food and water, the logistics of which imply additional requirements for space, even in colonial times. Given the topography of Church Hill in 1656, it would have made an engagement at the top of the hill, at the mouth of Bloody Run, a bit challenging.
Granted, Dickens was writing about Bloody Run 186 years after the fact, but aside from the state record, American Notes is among the earliest mentions of the event. The grounds on which the ruins of Fulton Gas Works lie do form a low ground between Libby Hill and Chimborazo, and seem an ideal spot on which to give battle.
(Bloody Run is part of the Atlas RVA Project)
- [AMN] American Notes. Dickens, Charles, 1842.
- [HSR] History of Richmond. Little, John P. 1851-1852.
- [RELK] Email. Robert E. L. Krick, Historian, Richmond Natl. Battlefield Park. 10 April 2018.
- [RIH] Richmond, an Illustrated History. Ward, Harry M. 1985.
- [RSC] Richmond, Story of a City. Dabney, Virginius. 1976.
- [TSAL] The Statutes at Large Being a Collection of the Laws of Virginia From the First Session of the Legislature in the Year 1619. Henning, William Waller. 1823.
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