Virginia’s Historic Triangle brings history to life through excellent museums and open air, living history on or near the sights of Jamestown, Yorktown and Colonial Williamsburg. During my April trip, I toured the very grounds where Captain John Smith and colonists established the first English settlement in the New World at Jamestown in 1607. Rugged wooden ramparts on the Yorktown Battlefield clearly mark where General George Washington’s Continental Army and the French navy surrounded the British to end the American Revolution. And I walked in the footsteps of Washington and Thomas Jefferson in Colonial Williamsburg, once Virginia’s capital.
Jamestown Settlement and the recently opened American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, both operated by the state-funded Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, and Colonial Williamsburg highlight these key historic periods with artifacts, interactive digital technology and outdoor living history exhibits manned by costumed interpreters.
Jamestown Settlement Museum and Historic Jamestowne
Three 17th century wooden ships sit berthed along a quiet cove on the James River. Actually, they’re fully operation replicas – with rope ladders, sails and creaking wooden floors – of the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, the three ships that brought the first English Settlers to Jamestown. Small and even a touch claustrophobic once you descend into the lower decks, the ships offer a glimpse of the hardships endured during the four and a half months by the 144 colonists who dared to cross the Atlantic.
“Crowded, cramped, boring and relatively miserable,” says Lara Templin, the Assistant Interpretive Site Manager at Jamestown Settlement, a living history museum detailing England’s first permanent settlement in North America. “You’re eating pickles, salt pork, salt fish, dry bread, hard biscuits. And the water turned green and smelled so foul that no man could abide it. So they drank beer because that’s what would last.”
With 900 or so original 16th and 17 century artifacts including portraits, muskets, tools, furniture and more, Jamestown Settlement’s main museum building highlights the early colony’s complete history through the entire 17th century – from the 1606-1607 voyage, confrontations with local Powhatan Indian tribes, Virginia’s first Africans and the burgeoning tobacco trade. There’s a replica 17th century London street and reconstruction to scale of the Susan Constant’s bow. “The illusion is you’re coming down a London street toward the docks and the ship is being loaded,” says Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation’s Senior Curator Tom Davidson.
Another exhibit explores the life and legend of Pocahontas. “She’s the one 17th century Virginian everyone knows,” explains Davidson. “Pocahontas was the linking personality between the English and the Powhatan and becomes a kind of cultural emissary between the two peoples.”
Outside the museum building are recreations of the colonists’ fort with an Anglican church, Governor’s House and other buildings, and of a Powhatan Indian village with huts recreated with water reeds weaved into mats and secured on a framework of sapling branches.
Just a five minute drive away is Historic Jamestowne, part of Colonial National Historical Park and the actual James Fort settlement site. Excavations on the grounds reveal signs of an often brutal and grisly quest to survive harsh winters and starvation, especially when surrounded by hostile Indians, with archeologists locating many graves and evidence of cannibalism.
A statue of John Smith stands over the grounds adjacent to the outline of the church where Pocahontas, daughter of the Indian chief Powhatan, married planter John Rolfe in 1614.
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