Pagan Creek helped Virginia commerce thrive in late 1700s

Published 5:25 pm Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Prime real estate lots in the town that Arthur Smith envisioned in 1752 were those located on the Pagan Creek, but not because waterfront lots were aesthetically desirable back then. Waterfront property was a potential commercial moneymaker, and that was the primary reason Smith thought his proposed town would be successful.

The Pagan Creek had been an important shipping port well before Smith began contemplating the town that would bear his name, and the section of creek along what is now Church Street was the primary deep-water landing site on the Pagan.

That stretch of land was exceptional in that it had deep water up to the shore and a low shoreline area below a tall hill — land that was perfect for shipways, where ocean-going vessels could be constructed and launched, and warehouses where goods could be received either from arriving ships or from farms for export.

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Scottish shipbuilders and merchants were among the early buyers of lots. They purchased land on which they built maritime-related businesses, with homes atop the hill overlooking their businesses.

Smith’s vision paid off and, for the remainder of the Colonial period and during the early years of the republic, the Pagan was important to the commerce of Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson, who understood the importance of water travel in his time, extolled the worth of Virginia’s rivers in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” which he wrote in 1781. He included the Pagan Creek in those notes. “Pagan Creek affords 8 or 10 feet water to Smithfield, which admits vessels of 20 ton,” he wrote. It was the only mention Jefferson made of Isle of Wight County.

Mallory Todd, who emigrated to Virginia from Bermuda, was among the merchants who centered his business interests on Pagan Creek shipping. Among the products he exported was locally cured ham.

Far more romantic was the swashbuckling career of another early resident of the Pagan, Capt. John Sinclair. As a youth, Sinclair crewed on ships owned by his father, and as a young adult he purchased his own vessel. He married an Isle of Wight girl, moved to Smithfield and became a successful privateer during the American Revolution, harassing British shipping and bringing badly needed supplies to the Revolutionary Army.

After independence was obtained, America declared itself neutral in the ongoing war between Great Britain and France, but the profits of privateering were hard to forego, and in 1794, Sinclair was stockpiling cannon, gunpowder and shot, ostensibly to outfit the former privateer Unicorn, which was anchored in the Pagan behind his home.

British Consulate officials in Norfolk got wind of what was happening and filed a formal complaint. Sinclair threatened anyone who tried to come onto his property and Isle of Wight officials were reluctant to act against a prominent local citizen.

In the end, it took a cavalry unit led by Brig. Gen. John Marshall — later to become Chief Justice Marshall — to confront Sinclair.

Sinclair was charged with violating the congressionally ordered neutrality, but the charges were later dropped. That didn’t soothe his bruised ego, however, nor did his daughter’s decision to elope with the man who appears to have provided evidence of his privateering plans.

Sinclair left Smithfield never to return. He died in 1820 in Gloucester County.

By then, ocean-going vessels could no longer navigate the silting channel of the Pagan, and trade was confined to regional shipping. The steamboat era would soon dawn but would not flourish until after the Civil War. That would open a whole new chapter in the life of the Pagan.

 (NOTE: This very brief summary of the Sinclair standoff was taken from a far more detailed chapter in Segar Cofer Dashiell’s “Smithfield: A Pictorial History.”)

(Next week: A creek becomes a river)

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is