Virginia is for History Lovers – Williamsburg, Virginia

Virginia is for History Lovers

Williamsburg, Virginia, USA

Jamestown Church Tower - 17th Century
Jamestown Church Tower – 17th Century
Apparently this was one of many slogans for Virginia that was dropped in favor of the simpler “Virginia is for lovers” but an apt slogan just the same. Sure, as an archaeologist at the site of Jamestown fort pointed out, you hear more in the popular culture about the pilgrims in Massachusetts, but the first permanent English presence in the Americas was in Virginia. And they beat the pilgrims by over a decade. The really incredible thing is that if one is staying in the Williamsburg area, you have the full width of Colonial American history at your disposal within the so-called Historic Triangle of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown.

Colonial America’s Beginning
We are within a year of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of those first settlers at Jamestown, which took place on May 13, 1607. England was seeking to get a toe hold in the so-called New World despite the fact the Spanish had already staked their claim. One could also comment at length that the land was already occupied by indigenous peoples, but that’s a subject that most modern Americans should be familiar with. At any rate, those first settlers, whether you regard them as pioneers or intruders, did not seek the easy life. The early settlers considered the first year after arrival a seasoning time. Those that survived had acclimated to the New World’s diseases and other dangers. However in those first decades, only about one in seven colonists survived.

When visiting Jamestown today, there are two places to visit. The first site is managed jointly by the National Park Service and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. This encompasses the actual site of the fort and the later settlement that grew outside it. The second stop, managed by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, primarily features a re-creation of the first settlement, an Indian Village, and copies of the colonists ships.

Jamestown’s life was brief. Less than a hundred years after the first representative government in the New World met in Jamestown, Colonial Virginia’s capital was moved to the new city of Williamsburg, and the old city was gradually abandoned and fell into larger farm holdings. Near the 300th anniversary, interest in the old site began and preservation activities began. By that time, what had once been an isthmus had become an island due to the changing shape of the James River. And it was believed that the old fort site was entirely underwater. However, by the late 20th century, archaeologists digging at the site discovered the fort site was mostly intact. At this time, a visit to Historic Jamestown is probably of most interest to people who want to stand where those first colonists stood, as little is left to see above the land.

At one end of the site, one gets to see an exhibition detailing the first attempt at a colonial industry, glass making. Although it was a failure at the time, after viewing the physical remains of that attempt, one can watch glass workers and buy modern examples of glass blown on site. The nearby fort site itself includes a portion of the rebuilt palisade and the remnants of the last Anglican church built there (only the tower is original). One may watch and speak with the archaeologists on site who are quite happy to educate visitors on the history of the site and how modern day digs are conducted. There are also walking trails and driving trails around the island, but the newest attraction at the time of this visit was the Archaearium, a 7,500 square foot facility. Transparent floors in sections allow one to view the foundations of the first state house that rest beneath. Large glass walls allow views of the James River and the fort. The windows include a modern take on the telescope viewer seen on many observation decks. This one allows the user to toggle between a current view of the site and a digital recreation of what once stood there, including an audio narrative about what is being viewed. These were a big hit with the kids present. This isn’t even mentioning the wealth of treasures on display from more than a decade of digs at Jamestown. Bits of armor, buckles, and bones may not seem like much, but the method of display is everything. The interpretations at this state of the art facility really allow the viewer to get a glimpse of a way of life four centuries gone.

Nearby Jamestown settlement, while not the original site, does afford one a much more three dimensional feel for the times. Worries that it would be a little too much of a theme park were largely unfounded as it was fairly balanced. The first stop, when visited at the right time of the year can be a little overwhelming. That stop is at the main center. This is where one will pay admission, buy souvenirs, grab a meal, or view various introductory films. A few hundred school children can make or break this place depending on your outlook. Nevertheless, this is both the beginning and ending point of your visit, so choose your activities as you may. There are frequent orientation tours leaving from the center to tour the re-created colonial sites. At the Powhatan Indian village, one may notice that most of the actors are pale faces, but they are all knowledgeable about the way of life they are illustrating.

A short stroll away is James Fort (much closer than it would have been in reality). Inside the fort, the buildings look typically English, primarily being of stick and mud construction with thatched roofs. Later buildings at Jamestown contained more wood as the settlers realized that the supply of wood was abundant, and those buildings are also represented. Here, too, you can talk with actors who represent the type of people who would have lived there at the time. I think the most impressive thing was that adjacent to the church within the recreated fort was a new foundation. When asked about it, one of the re-enactors explained that digging at the original site had shown that the church was in the wrong location in their fort. Rather than just noting this inaccuracy, the foundation is in the process of correcting it.

Williamsburg Magazine
Williamsburg Magazine
The last re-creation is of the three ships that brought the original men to Jamestown in 1607. Only the Susan Constant is built on the same scale, but even it looks small for crossing an ocean. The other two ships, Godspeed and Discovery (the latter of which stayed in the Americas) are being replaced shortly with new ships of the same size as the originals. All three ships are fun to meander through and imagine being on board them for several months. What must have gone through the minds of those first colonists as they faced such uncertain futures? Leaving the ships, a chance conversation was overheard between a teacher and her elementary aged students. Who amongst them would want to be one of those first pioneers? Even at an age when people are often at their most adventurous, there were very few takers. Most could not fathom the privations that so many of our ancestors, the lucky ones who survived, had endured.

Colonial America – A Turning Point
Further up the Colonial Parkway, a low speed federal highway connecting sites on the historic triangle is the middle of Colonial history, Williamsburg. The city is both a modern home to people of the area as well as a place where the American Revolutionary era really comes to life. The city thus affords a nice base of operations to spend time in the area. Even if one decides not to stay within walking distance of the Colonial city itself, one can still drive to the visitors center where there is ample parking and walk or ride a bus from there. The buses, which make other stops around the city as well as up and down the Colonial Parkway, are included in the cost of admission. In fact, the visitor center is an excellent first stop in the area as one can purchase discount admission to the main historic sites in one stop, as well as making reservations for walking tours and other day and night activities..

Williamsburg was a planned city, laid out on the site of what was called Middle Plantation. It was built to replace Jamestown as the center of the colony and home of the royal governor. The seeds of the revolt in Virginia, the most English of the colonies, were sown here when the governor attempted to remove the supply of gunpowder in reserve for the colony’s militia in the Williamsburg magazine in 1775. The unrest that was already there was sparked into full-fledged revolt. By the end of the Revolution, the capital was removed to Richmond and Williamsburg’s star declined. In the 1920s, the minister at the parish church, sought assistance from John D. Rockefeller to preserve the historic buildings that remained in the sleepy town. Initially, Rockefellers’ involvement was kept a secret so as not to escalate the price of the property.

What began as a simple preservation eventually evolved into what one sees today. Most of the original land the colonial city inhabited was purchased. Original buildings were restored to their colonial appearance, and where the originals were absent, the land was excavated and authentic reproductions of the colonial buildings were rebuilt, often on original foundations. The challenge seems to be figuring out which ones are original and which ones are reproduction. Talking to the guides and re-enactors, all dressed in period appropriate clothing, seemed the best way. While nothing is the same as being in the actual era they are recreating, colonial Williamsburg does a good job of striking the balance. There are daily performances of actual events that took place in the city during the revolutionary period. But there are also tours where one can learn about such diverse subjects as archaeology at the site, preserving heirloom plants and animals nearly lost to history. In this last regards, the foundation does not just limit to colonial era animals. They are actively preserving what many of our grandparents would have considered mundane plow animals. Visitors can even take part in, for example, a witch trial that took place in the 1700′ and choose what verdict to render. The list of tours are staggering and reservations are recommended as during high season, they are typically full days in advance.

Colonial America’s Ending
The last stop on the historic triangle is Yorktown, where the last major battle of the American Revolution took place. It was here in 1781 that the allied forces of the American Colonies and France won a decisive battle against the British under General Cornwallis. Although an official treaty recognizing America’s independence was two years down the road, the war was largely over as the British turned to other issues in Ireland and India. Like Jamestown, there are two sites at which to get a feeling for the period. The first site, managed by the National Park Service is the actual site. The Jamestown-Yorktown foundation also manages a nearby re-enactment site. With limited time, this visitor chose the actual battlefields.

While Jamestown is undergoing massive renovations in order to be ready for the 400th anniversary, the NPS Yorktown site is fairly typical as battlefield sites from the American Revolution and Civil War go. A wealth of information that many Americans have probably left behind in high school and college history classes can be had, but a lot of imagination is required to imagine the battles that took place. The park service has a film presentation and employees give periodic orientation tours near the main office, pointing out the sites to visit and giving a brief overview of this last battle.

Yorktown's Surrender Field
Yorktown’s Surrender Field
During the course of a visit, one can visit Yorktown proper perched above the York River. Several vintage buildings dot the otherwise sleepy village. Once a major seaport, it never quite recovered after the war. This was where the British Army under Cornwallis was entrenched in 1781. The battle here was a siege war, something the French knew much about. Although there was some fighting over territory surrounding Yorktown, the main battle was about position and artillery. And one can visit both the earthworks of the British and the allies. It was from those American and French siege lines that the allied forces successfully overwhelmed the now-trapped British with sheer artillery power. And it was thus that Yorktown took such a pounding. The last site one can visit is Surrender field, where the official surrender took place. British and Hessian soldiers marched onto the field and threw down their weapons here before returning to Yorktown. One can only imagine the sight that day as one stares across the bucolic field.

The Future – America’s Colonial Heritage
To say that there’s much to see and do in the Historic Triangle is something of an understatement. In a five day visit, there were still sights unseen and places unvisited. But the mark of any good trip would seem to be such a wealth of options. And given time, the nature of these sites will only yield more to see. While the changes at Yorktown will probably be fewer, its sister NPS site, Jamestown, will complete renovations by early 2007 for the anniversary. And as continued archeological digs, historical research, and interpretations continue to take place at all three sites, one can rest assured that things will not be the same on a later visit. In fact, a trio of ladies who had visited Williamsburg periodically over the past 30 years commented that there was always something new to see, which seems ironic when one is visiting a shrine to the past. If history interests you, plan at least one visit here, allow yourself time to experience it, and be ready to discover you want to return one day.