During high school I spent a good deal of my time hiking and biking, often with my dog, Sandy, through Seashore State Park. It’s a beautiful wilderness stretching between the Chesapeake and Broad Bay in Virginia Beach. Even today I have friends who bike or run the trails under Spanish Moss and across bridges through marshlands. But it’s not called Seashore State Park anymore, it’s First Landing State Park because John Smith first landed there on the Atlantic beach. A cross marks that spot.
Talk about arrogant and, well, wrong. It was not the first landing, and not only because of the Icelandic peoples up north or the Spanish in Florida (San Marco Fort in St Augustine was built before John Smith was born), but also not even the first Brits, with some vicious colleague of Smith’s arriving several years earlier.
So when tourists arrive from Pennsylvania or Quebec they marvel at standing on the first spot in the New World. The name needs to be changed back, either to Seashore State Park again, or something historically apropos, like “Seventh Landing State Park” or “Greedy Bastard’s Landing State Park,” (my personal favorite).
This rebranding isn’t unusual in human history. Before the Romans were in Italy it was the Etruscans; before England it was Engla Land, “Land of the Angles,” a Germanic tribe; and before Virginia was even the Old Dominion, it was Tsenacomoco; and this region of the Chesapeake known today as the Middle Peninsula had been Powhatan land, ruled by Chief Powhatan, father of Pocahontas, who grew up not far from here.
My point is names change. I don’t tell anyone, “Oh, I live in the former Powhatan Lands on the once-hunting grounds of the Rappahannock Indians, long before John Smith was stung by a Stingray at the mouth of the river in the Chesapeake, but the Greedy Bastard survived.” No, I just say Deltaville. It’s easier to find on a map.
I was out on the former hunting grounds (my backyard) and walked to the river (still called the Rappahannock, I’m glad to say, as opposed to the freaking James River (the Powhatan River), and the York River (The Pamunkey River). Even the Chesapeake has had some identity issues. Before the English called it The Chesapeake (two versions exist: Great Shellfish Bay and Mother of All Waters), the Spanish called it Bahia de Santa Marie, or Bay of St Mary, but the Powhatan, who certainly had first naming rights, called it, “Chesepian,” which is an Algonquin word meaning “Village at a Big River,”
This brings me back to me. When I was in high school not far from Greedy Bastard Landing State Park, we lived in a beautiful neighborhood, Chesopian Colony. We had just moved from New York where growing up I was Robert to everyone. Everyone. My family, my friends, teachers, strangers, and had I been able to have run into any Native Americans—and there were many on the Island—I’m sure they would have also called me Robert.
When we moved I decided to call myself Bob. Only my Uncle Bob ever called me Bob (he knew), but at the high school, everyone called me Bob because that was how I introduced myself. This started my struggles with multiple personalities. You see, when I got home I had to slip back into Robert mode. I tried telling my parents I was now Bob and Robert decided to stay in Great River on the Island, but it didn’t take. Once, a girl I knew well and had a serious crush on called my house looking for me. My mother answered the phone and said, “Oh no, I’m sorry, there is no Bob here,” and hung up. “MA!!!! NO!!!” Damn. My father was good about introducing me to his co-workers or golf buddies as Bob, but he always said it was a small sneer, like I was adopted or something.
Very few people call me Bobby. A friend in Albany, a priest in western New York, and another friend who floats around the eastern United States. No, I’m solidly Bob now. In fact if you Google me, Robert comes up mostly in reference to collegiate issues, like Rate My Professor, but if you Google Bob, I’m the only one, making it easy to find most of what I’ve written. That’s good. I’d hate to be a writer with a common name like Tom Williams or Robert Frost.
I suppose nothing is what it once was, and even our memory only goes back so far. What were these lands twenty-thousand years ago, before the Algonquins, before the other peoples crossed land-bridges or built reed boats? Do we have to return to Pangea to understand? Is it possible that the “original peoples” were themselves Greedy Bastards? Probably not since the population was so much smaller. I like knowing that these lands above the Rappahannock River were only previously occupied by animals. I like animals way better than nearly all people I’ve met.
When I sit out near the river at night and look across the Bay, I forget that people everywhere are not only replacing people everywhere, but we’re also simply passing through, guests, temporary settlers in a land that was green for millennia before us and will return to her natural state pretty much as soon as we’re gone. Somehow this brings me peace. I still don’t understand why people everywhere don’t understand this—that we must remain connected, learn each other’s names and ways, histories and hopes. It is so much harder to invade a place when you know their names.
My roots are not Native American; they’re, in descending order of percentage, Irish, English, German/Italian, French, and Neanderthal. I have felt equally connected to the people of Connemara as I have those in Brooklyn. The Celts of the Wild Atlantic Way are there now and go back a long time, much longer than the four hundred years of the people on Long Island’s western tip. Those names have been changed so many times it would be difficult to keep track.
My son’s middle name is Frederick, after my father, who was named after his grandfather, whose father came from Germany. My brother, too, is named for my father.
I’m not named after anyone. I suppose that’s good; it’s like I’m the first visitor creating my own identity without previous inhabitants of my name setting some sort of expectation. I’m the original Bob in the paternal line of my family.
Hmmm. I think I’ll go with it for now.