When I was a child there were two key dates I was taught about the (as it was then called) “discovery” of America: 1492 and 1620. I remember no mention of 1607 and the colony of Jamestown, with the possible exception of Pocohontas who in the story I was told rescued John Smith and then married him.
My two boys, now in second and fifth grades, have already been taught a very different type of American history. For one thing, the word “discover” has been replaced with “encounter” or “made contact”. And the story of Jamestown figures prominently in the new narrative. So we were all very excited to visit the Jamestown Settlement and the adjacent Historic Jamestowne site on a January visit to Colonial Williamsburg.
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We started our day at the Jamestown Settlement exploring its indoor museum (where photography is not allowed, so no pictures). The exhibit here has the mission of telling the story of Jamestown in as many ways – and from as many viewpoints – as possible. It dedicates equal time and space to the three cultures that played a role in the creation of Jamestown – the Powhatan, the English, and the African. Points of comparison include family and social structure, economy, clothing and tools.
After offering outlines of each culture and telling stories of what they were like, the exhibit then moves on to share how they all intersected on this small Virginia island and explores what happened as a consequence of their encounters. The short version is that the English arrival to this island in the James River in three small ships in 1607 was a purely mercenary concern: The Virginia Company was out to make money. The settlers were originally friendly with the Powhatan, who traded food and local knowledge for weapons, but the relationship soured during a serious drought when there was not enough for anyone to eat. After nearly abandoning the settlement, the English discovered the lucrative nature of growing tobacco, the labor-intensive nature of which led to a marked increase in the number of slaves brought to live there and also to the success and eventual relocation of the colony inland.
Included are reinterpretations of well-known stories like that of Pochohontas, who may or may not have saved John Smith’s life, and certainly didn’t marry him. Her actual husband John Rolfe was the man who brought some fancy new tobacco varieties to Jamestown and started the successful farming of this cash crop.
I knew very little of the Jamestown story before I arrived and was fascinated by its many intricacies. I loved how careful the exhibits were to offer multiple viewpoints and even language. For example, a case displaying weapons offered “a vocabulary of war” with English words alongside their Powhatan counterparts (musket is pawcussack; axe is tomahawk; armor is aqwahassun).
We spent almost two hours looking at the indoor exhibits, some of which include short films or interactive elements designed to engage children in the story of how these three distinct groups of people came to live in one small place.
The outdoor exhibits at the museum are immersive and tactile – they show what has been told inside. We started in the Powhatan village, where the boys discovered to their delight that they could grind corn and touch the baskets and skins and arrows and nets and tools inside the dun-colored tents. The air smelled of smoke and it was striking to realize how much of the native world was shaded brown in the winter.
We explored a canoe under construction and skins being dried and Teddy tried his hand a tying knots to make a net. Baskets of shells and gourds and smaller woven baskets were an invitation to ask what might these be used for?
Next to the native village, inside a tall stockade, sat a recreation of the English settlement called James Fort. What an effective way to demonstrate the contrast between the two cultures – it is so utterly different in style and scale that one wonders how the English and Powhatan were able to ever achieve any kind of mutual understanding.
Our first step was to don the helmets and chest shields that colonists wore when they were on patrol. They were heavy, although not as heavy as the yoke used to carry water.
Then we spent some time exploring the colonists’ living quarters and watching the blacksmith making nails.
After a visit to the simple church, we poked our heads into the armory to see the array of weaponry. Outside, a friendly soldier explained to us how his gun and sword worked and also demonstrated what it would be like to be on the receiving end of a pike (no thanks!).
Then we saw where the tobacco was dried and stored before heading down to the river’s edge to explore recreations of the three boats that first arrived in Jamestown, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery. We went below deck to see where the colonists spent the four and a half months that it took to cross the Atlantic and also climbed onto the decks and looked out at the river, trying to imagine what these boats must have looked like to the Powhatan as they arrived.
Can you believe that these three small ships carried 144 people?
After we were finished exploring the Jamestown Settlement, we drove about a half a mile to Historic Jamestowne where the National Parks Service administers the site of the actual original settlement. There’s a small museum here as well (although it doesn’t really offer any information that you won’t find at the Jamestown Settlement). We chose to start our visit with a guided ranger tour, which begins next to a large monument to the settlement, stops by a statue of Pochontas, and ends in a church (the original portion of which was built in 1639) inside the settlement boundary. Along the way our ranger offered an overview of the history of Jamestown, which he told with humor and verve and some surprising details.
We learned about the “Starving Time” when the settlers resorted to cannibalism to stay alive, about the fact that Pochohontas was known to spend time in the settlement village as a child and possibly even to turn exuberant cartwheels (all the more of an image given that she was likely not wearing much in the way of clothing as she did so, nevermind that her statue shows her fully clad in a dress). We also learned that the Powhatan most likely had skin that was less brown naturally than perhaps we all think, since they rubbed themselves continually with black walnut oil to keep insects off of them.
We ended our tour sitting inside the church, where our guide ran down the long list of martial laws put in place in the colony between 1609 and 1612 to enforce order. He shared the rules with great relish and we learned fun tidbits such as the fact that cursing or taking the Lord’s name in vain would lead to a bodkin inserted through the tongue or that failure to attend church could result in execution. Another dramatic moment came when he asked us to imagine 1619, which is when the first representative legislative council met on the very ground where we sat.
After the tour, we wandered out to explore some of the settlement, including a rather imperious statue of John Smith that overlooks the river he sailed up four centuries ago. Then we quickly walked over and through the nearby Archaearium, a museum displaying artifacts that have been excavated from the settlement. It was the end of a long day, however, and the boys were ready to leave, so we will definitely need to return to see this small but impressive space more carefully.
I’d definitely like to return to Jamestown and further explore the national park – we only saw part of the settlement, and there’s a drive through the island with interpretive signage that we didn’t even attempt because we had such a full day (I’d love to return and ride it on our bikes). But even the short time we spent there was deeply satisfying. In fact, our last excitement of the day was spotting one of the nesting bald eagles flying overhead as we walked back to our car.
Jamestown is one of those rare places that offers a true chance to re-imagine the past and our conceptions of it. Rarely have I felt like I learned so much or so fully experienced history through a place – I can’t wait to go back and see what we missed.
- When planning your time on a family trip to Williamsburg, I’d allot at least an entire day day and possibly two to visiting Jamestown, depending on how old your children are and how ready to explore museum exhibits. We arrived at 9:30 (the museum opens at 9) and left at 4 and could easily have spent another day there checking out the national park.
- During the winter months you may be required to see the outside exhibits at the Jamestown Settlement via a tour; on less busy days during the offseason there are not reenactors.
- If you visit Historic Jamestowne from spring through fall you can take a tour focusing on the archaeological dig or one led by a costumed interpreter.
- The Jamestown Settlement offers kids’ guides and scavenger hunts that you can print off at home and bring with you. At Historic Jamestowne, kids can complete a Junior Ranger booklet or participate in nature programs.
- There is a cafeteria at the Jamestown Settlement, but during the winter, it operates on a limited basis. What food there was didn’t look all that great and was expensive, so I’d recommend packing a picnic lunch, perhaps sandwiches from The Cheese Shop.
- It took us about 15 minutes to drive to Jamestown from the Williamsburg Residence Inn; from March to November, a free shuttle will take you to and from the Williamsburg Visitors Center.
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- Tips for visiting Colonial Williamsburg with kids
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- More places to eat out with kids in Colonial Williamsburg
- Williamsburg: The Last family road trip of summer
- Colonial Williamsburg: One last look
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