Time traveling to Colonial America
In Virginia's Historic Triangle, you can particpate in early history

By Laurel Kallenbach


Colonial America

Imagine you could journey back to Virginia in 1607. You could see how people dressed, share an ale with them, listen to their political views. Well, 400 years of American history are literally living, breathing, tasting and singing in a colorful corner of Virginia—and you don’t need a time machine to get there.

Linked by the 23-mile scenic Colonial Parkway are the Historic Triangle’s three sites. At Jamestown, the first permanent English settlers put down roots in the New World in 1607. Fast forward to the 1770s, when Williamsburg was a Revolutionary hub. Just down the road at Yorktown Battlefield, America won its independence in 1781.

Each of these destinations features state-of-the-art museums, hands-on period activities and historically accurate, costumed interpreters enacting day-to-day life. You can learn the African-inspired dances of enslaved people in the Virginia Colony, see how Pocahontas’ people turned deer hides into clothing or ask a Continental soldier what he eats.

Colonial Williamsburg

“Please clean my room. Mr. Jefferson is stopping by later for some intellectual conversation.” So reads the housekeeping sign at Colonial Williamsburg’s Colonial House. My husband and I lodged in authentic 1770s accommodations—complete with canopy bed—in a 230-year-old kitchen building. (In those days, kitchens were detached from the main house to reduce fire risk.)

In this 301-acre, restored colonial city within modern Williamsburg, the only obvious evidence of 21st-century technology is electric bulbs in the street lamps. We mingled with long-skirted ladies shopping at the millinery for bonnets, and cheered as fifers and drummers marched by.

You pick up interesting 18th-century trivia visiting Colonial Williamsburg’s many trade shops and homes. At the wigmaker’s, we learned those curly hairpieces were a status symbol. At the Peyton Randolph house, we were amused that chubby Mr. Randolph’s portrait was a hunky depiction (his double chin was a sign of wealth) and that he padded his stockings with “falsies” to create sensually bulging calves.

History’s dark side isn’t ignored. In 1775, 52% of Williamsburg’s population were slaves. We chatted with the character Will, who shared a few words from African languages, passed down through the generations. We told him we lived in the western Indian territories, because the future state of Colorado didn’t exist in Will’s time. The Great Hopes Plantation illustrates the stark existence of slaves, working dawn to dusk daily from the age of five. Interpreter Robert Watson asked for volunteers to role-play fieldwork: each person is responsible for planting, weeding, hoeing and de-worming an acre of tobacco; if they don’t perform, the master might sell them.

"Field slaves were treated like animals,” said Watson. “It’s hard to talk about, but it’s real. We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it."

Additional activities:

Historic Jamestown and Jamestown Settlement

Yards from the Historic Jamestown statue of Captain John Smith, archaeologists are excavating a well dug in 1607 by English colonists sent from the Virginia Company, which wanted to capitalize on New World resources. “This is as close to time travel as you can get,” said archaeologist Danny Schmidt, fingering a broken bottle that has just come to light after 400 years underground.

The current artifacts date to the “starving time” (the winter of 1609–1610), when hundreds of the colonists died from hunger and disease. Desperate, they ate dogs, rats, horses—and possibly their own dead. “Historic records claim there was cannibalism at Jamestown, but so far there’s no archaeological evidence,” Schmidt said.

Whatever archaeologists do find, Jamestown visitors can share the discovery with the field crew, who answer questions as they dig up and wash artifacts. They’ve already cataloged 1.5 million bits of the past from the excavation of the original James Fort, thought to have washed into the James River until it was rediscovered by Preservation Virginia archaeologists in 1994.

Near the archaeological area is Jamestown Settlement (with a separate entrance fee), which transports you into 17th-century Virginia life through films, museum exhibits and living history. While roaming the re-created Algonquian Powhatan village, I envisioned Pocahontas’ forest-centered life. Although it’s uncertain whether or not the 11-year-old daughter of the chief spared John Smith’s life, she did befriend the colonists and married tobacco farmer John Rolfe in 1614.

Next we boarded a replica of the ship Susan Constant, where interpreters described a grueling four-and-a-half-month sail in 1607 from England to Virginia. Then we explored the re-created Jamestown fort. Hands-on activities for young and old abound at Jamestown Settlement, including using oyster shells to hollow a tree into a canoe, grinding corn, and donning iron helmets and armor.

Bike or walk the three- or five-mile Jamestown Island Loop Drive, which passes through forests and swamps. Interpretive paintings along the way show how the settlers made pottery from clay, traded with the Powhatans and grew native squash.

Yorktown Battlefield and Yorktown Victory Center

“Welcome to the birthplace of the United States,” said Colonial National Historic Park ranger Ted Fort, gesturing past Revolutionary War cannons and across the siege-line bulwarks of Yorktown Battlefield.

Remembering the boring textbook version of England’s Lord Cornwallis’ surrender to George Washington on October 19, 1781, I was surprised by Fort’s riveting account of the battle. “It’s old news that we won the Revolution,” he explains. “I like to tell the story in Cornwallis’ words.”

Our group of 30 visitors was spellbound as Fort described how Cornwallis tried to escape the French and American forces and dispatched desperate messages to New York begging the British naval fleet for aid—but he was hopelessly surrounded. Fort finished by quoting a French soldier, Gaston de la Baste: “I have been an actor in events that the world and history will never forget.” There wasn’t a dry eye on the field.

Afterwards, my husband and I drove the seven-mile, self-guided Battlefield Tour. As we overlooked serene Surrender Field, we tried to imagine the chaotic Yorktown Siege with soldiers firing 1.2 cannonballs per minute for eight solid nights and days.

Later we learned firsthand how a single shot from just one gun sounded—deafening!—at the Yorktown Victory Center, another living-history museum (separate entrance fee). During the artillery demonstration in a re-created Continental Army camp, volunteers learned to load, light and fire a 1,200-pound cannon. Afterwards, the real crew stepped in and lit the fuse.

Additional activity: Relive sailing’s golden age by cruising past Yorktown Battlefield aboard the Alliance, a three-masted schooner.

Writer Laurel Kallenbach has been traveling back in time to Colonial Williamsburg for 35 years.

If you go

From March through October, a free shuttle bus operates between Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown. Buses depart every 30 minutes from the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center.

Williamsburg is home to three AAA Four Diamond accommodations (Kingsmill Resort & Spa, Liberty Rose B&B and Williamsburg Inn) and two AAA Four Diamond restaurants (Fat Canary and The Regency Dining Room). Talk to a travel agent for more information.

Colonial Williamsburg: 757-229-1000, www.history.org.

Colonial National Historical Park: 757-898-3400, www.nps.gov/colo.

Historic Jamestowne: 804-648-1889, www.historicjamestowne.com.

Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center: 888-593-4682, www.historyisfun.org.

Schooner Alliance: 800-979-3370, www.schooneralliance.com.

Flavors of Virginia

Hog Wild Smokehouse: Start with Redneck Nachos (potato chips with pulled pork and cheese) and move on to melt-in-your-mouth beef brisket and Pot Licker Collards. 8864 Richmond Rd., Toano. 757-741-2515; www.hogwildsmokehouse.com.

King’s Arms Tavern: Enjoy 18th-century-style food (try the Peanut Soupe) in a period setting. Mrs. Vobe, the tavern keeper, updates diners on the colony’s latest gossip. Save room for pecan pie. Duke of Gloucester Street, Colonial Williamsburg. 757-229-2141; www.history.org.

Old Chickahominy House: Homemade biscuits, Virginia ham and grits served in a plantation house. Need I say more? 1211 Jamestown Road, Williamsburg, 757-229-4689; www.oldchickahominy.com.

The Riverwalk: Sunday brunch and seafood are favorites at this waterfront restaurant on the York River. 323 Water Street, Yorktown. 757-875-1522; www.riverwalkrestaurant.net.

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