Varina Plantation, with mist and the James River beyond its shore., now belongs to Henrico County. Image: Henrico County

VA County Buys James River Former Plantation for $17 Million

The Interstate 295 Highway Bridge over the tidal James River is a spectacular piece of human engineering. Located 15 miles downstream of the fall line at Richmond, the views from the bridge naturally catch the eye of anyone crossing it. You might notice the river far below. But you might not know the centuries of history held by the property next to the river, the expansive Varina Farms.

That situation is going to change. Henrico County, Virginia’s Board of Supervisors has finalized its purchase of Varina Farms, the 2,095-acre former plantation on the north river shore under the bridge. 

The $17.25 million purchase represents the county’s largest investment in land preservation in its history. County ownership ensures preservation for Varina’s historical significance, natural beauty, and sensitive environment. 

“Without exaggeration, Varina Farms represents the birthplace of Henrico County, and it is ground zero for Virginia’s early success and prosperity,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Tyrone E. Nelson, who represents the Varina District. “By acquiring this beautiful, vast and irreplaceable property, Henrico County is making a once-in-a-lifetime move to ensure that our history as a county, a commonwealth and a nation are preserved and that our precious, scenic riverfront will remain protected and accessible for generations to come.”

The property’s documented history goes back to before 1607, when the land and water were the province of the Arrohateck, a strong tribe within Tsenacomoco, the regional confederancy area ruled by the Paramount Chief Powhatan. 

In the spring of 1607, Captain John Smith, Captain Christopher Newport, and several other English explorers made their way up the river past here. Arguably the most significant event occurred five years later when John Rolfe introduced Verinas, a new Spanish strain of mild tobacco that quickly became the crucial export crop for the infant colony. He named this land Varina in honor of the crop and brought his bride, Pocahontas, to it after their marriage in 1614.

Through the past four centuries under a few respectful owners, the land has remained in agriculture and commercial woodland. The property also served as the first Henrico County seat of government from 1632 to 1752, before it moved to Richmond. During the Civil War, Varina served as Union General Benjamin Butler’s headquarters, its landing served for prisoner exchanges with the Confederacy, and a detachment of U.S. Colored Troops posted there. 

Henrico County will carefully research all of Varina’s history and, in time, interpret it with respect for the public.      

“Henrico County is honored and humbled to accept the responsibility of stewardship,” Supervisors’ Chairman Nelson said. “Our efforts will be slow, methodical and respectful, given the property’s rich history and fragile environment. Still, it’s exciting to imagine the possibility of the house and surrounding grounds being restored for historical interpretation, education and enrichment by school groups and other visitors. There’s also much more to discover about this site, including from its time before English settlement and the period of enslavement.”

Varina’s stretch of waterfront holds natural beauty that’s obvious from the 295 bridge, and the river itself has made great strides towards clean water. This correspondent has known the James around Varina for many years and can attest that as the river‘s health has improved in recent years. It has become once again a strong, multi-faceted habitat for everything from rockfish (striped bass), largemouth bass, and blue catfish to bald eagles, ospreys, and arguably the strongest river stock of Atlantic sturgeon on the East Coast. We have personally seen multiple sturgeon breach in the Varina reach of the river.