The James River has served as a major water highway since before the settlement of Jamestown. As early as 1728, Atkinson's Ferry transported people and goods across the river. Today, Maidens Bridge is located not far away from where the ferry operated.
Batteau boats, some up to 60 feet in length, were designed to carry twelve hogsheads (very large wooden barrels) of tobacco downstream to Richmond to be sold at the market. For many batteaux, the trip to Richmond was one-way; with some dashed to pieces in a rapid or dismantled for lumber in Richmond. Most likely, only a third of the boats would be poled back upriver to bring the crew home with supplies shipped from outside the colony.
Batteaux were still used on many of the smaller rivers, and in some cases, used until the twentieth century. African-American slaves often navigated the bateaux and canal boats, also provided the labor for the construction of the canal.