Diving Into History: Williamsburg, Jamestown

Two of the three ships that carried the first English colonists to Jamestown in 1607

I wrote last week about Chincoteague and Assateague, Part One of the “just the two of us” vacation that Sandra and I took in May. Here’s Part Two. It’s about our visit to Virginia’s “Historic Triangle” of Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown, where much 17th and 18th century history was written.

Jamestown, founded in 1607, is the site of the first permanent English settlement in the Western Hemisphere. Yorktown is the location of the 1781 battle that won the American Revolution. Williamsburg was Virginia’s colonial capital, where several of our founding fathers – most notably George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – discussed many of the key ideas in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

We couldn’t have combined visits to Chincoteague and the Historic Triangle if not for the nearly 18-mile (28-km) Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel that spans the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, linking Virginia’s Eastern Shore to the rest of the state. While most of the roadway is carried on bridges, artificial islands enable the road to plunge beneath the waves to create mile-wide channels that allow access between the Chesapeake and the Atlantic Ocean for ships bound for Baltimore as well as the Navy’s Atlantic fleet headquarters in Norfolk.

We arrived in the area near Yorktown* and drove directly to Williamsburg on the National Park Service’s Colonial Parkway, a gorgeous 23-mile road no visitor to the area should miss.

Williamsburg street life today

It was in Williamsburg, in May 1776, that Virginia declared its independence from Great Britain. This was about six weeks before the Continental Congress, in Philadelphia, declared the independence of all 13 colonies. Sentiment for cutting Virginia’s ties to Great Britain had been building for some time, and Patrick Henry, a member of the colony’s legislature (then called the House of Burgesses), fanned the flames in 1775 with his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. The Virginia Declaration of Rights – which provided much of the language later used in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – was debated and adopted in Williamsburg in June 1776.

Coopers make barrels (not chicken coops!)

By the 1920s, since Virginia’s capital had long since moved to Richmond, Williamsburg seemed destined to lose what little remained of its colonial character and charm. But then a major restoration effort was launched, funded primarily by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Many of Williamsburg’s buildings are now restored – not only the Capitol and Governor’s Palace, but several taverns, a barber shop-wig maker, tinsmith, blacksmith, apothecary, printer, bakery, cooperage and much else. People clothed in period costume ply these old trades much as they were practiced over two centuries ago. When they respond to visitors’ questions, it is clear they are expert interpreters of the time.

Our short visit gave us an eye-opening glimpse of colonial life. We attended a brief concert of period music, played on instruments such as the viola da gamba and harpsichord; we participated in a program in the Capitol in which independence and human rights were debated; and we listened to a young woman portraying Martha Washington who spoke to her audience, as though to old friends, about the astonishingly eccentric family of her first husband (widowed at an early age, Martha took George Washington as her second husband). It was a richly entertaining dose of 18th-century gossip.

And we ate like royalty, having lunch and dinner in several taverns, each with a distinctive menu. Among the colonial delights we sampled were peanut soup (a cross between split pea soup and peanut butter), venison-duck-and-rabbit pie, “bubble and squeak,” a refreshing brown ale, and a mint julep (iced to combat the afternoon heat and humidity).

In Jamestown, your faithful blogger, clad in aloha shirt and armor, wields not pen but sword

On our last morning in the area, we drove to Jamestown and visited a reproduction of a Native American village from the time of Jamestown’s founding, a reproduction of the English settlement, and full-scale reproductions of the three small ships that had carried the first colonists to Virginia. As in Williamsburg, people in period costume were ready to explain their roles to visitors. Sandra was fascinated to watch an “Indian” using fire and seashells to hollow out a log and turn it into a canoe. I watched another “Indian” use a sharp-edged rock as a knife to skin and prepare a squirrel for cooking.

Our visit was as close to “time travel” as you can get.


* Since time was limited, we skipped a visit to Yorktown. I had been there in 1981, however. I was working then at the U.S. Information Agency’s Foreign Press Center, and several of us were asked to go the area to assist foreign journalists who were covering a pair of events – the re-enactment of the Battle of Yorktown on its 200th anniversary (the final event of the U.S. Bicentennial commemoration) and the summit meeting in Williamsburg between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and French President François Mitterrand, which had been arranged to honor France for the key role that French troops and the French fleet had played in winning that 1781 battle and helping secure American independence.

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