The James River forms in the Appalachian Mountains, near Iron Gate on the border between Alleghany and Botetourt counties, from the confluence of the Cowpasture and Jackson rivers, and flows into the Chesapeake Bay at Hampton Roads. Tidal waters extend west to Richmond, the capital of Virginia, at the river's fall line (the head of navigation). Larger tributaries draining to the tidal portion include the Appomattox River, Chickahominy River, Warwick River, Pagan River, and the Nansemond River.
At its mouth near Newport News Point, the Elizabeth River and the Nansemond River join the James River to form the harbor area known as Hampton Roads. Between the tip of the Virginia Peninsula near Old Point Comfort and the Willoughby Spit area of Norfolk in South Hampton Roads, a channel leads from Hampton Roads into the southern portion of the Chesapeake Bay and out to the Atlantic Ocean a few miles further east. Many boats pass through this river to import and export Virginia products.
The Native Americans who populated the area east of the fall line in the late 16th and early 17th centuries called the James River the Powhatan River, named for the chief of the Powhatan Confederacy which extended over most of the Tidewater region of Virginia. The English colonists named it "James" after King James I of England, as they also constructed the first permanent English settlement in the Americas in 1607 at Jamestown along the banks of the James River about 35 miles (56 km) upstream from the Chesapeake Bay.
The navigable portion of the river was the major highway of the Colony of Virginia during its first 15 years, facilitating supply ships delivering supplies and more people from England. However, for the first five years, despite many hopes of gold and riches, these ships sent little of monetary value back to the sponsors.
In 1612, businessman John Rolfe successfully cultivated a non-native strain of tobacco which proved popular in England. Soon, the river became the primary means of exporting the large hogsheads of this cash crop from an ever-growing number of plantations with wharfs along its banks. This development made the proprietary efforts of the Virginia Company of London successful financially, spurring even more development, investments and immigration. Below the falls at Richmond, many James River plantations had their own wharfs, and additional ports and/or early railheads were located at Warwick, Bermuda Hundred, City Point, Claremont, Scotland, and Smithfield, and, during the 17th century, the capital of the Colony at Jamestown.
Navigation of the James River played an important role in early Virginia commerce and the settlement of the interior, although growth of the colony was primarily in the Tidewater region during the first 75 years. The upper reaches of the river above the head of navigation at the fall line were explored by fur trading parties sent by Abraham Wood during the late 17th century.
Although ocean-going ships were unable to navigate beyond present-day Richmond, portage of products and navigation with smaller craft to transport crops other than tobacco was feasible. Produce from the Piedmont and Great Valley regions traveled down the river to seaports at Richmond and Manchester through such port towns as Lynchburg, Scottsville, Columbia and Buchanan.