In DepthAmerica's history lives in this triangle of sites in southeastern Virginia. A visit to Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown is very much like a history lesson—American History 101, so to speak.
Open the book to the beginning pages. Chapter 1 starts in 1607 when the first English settlers reached these shores, predating the Pilgrims at Plymouth by 13 years. When The Virginia Company of London sent the Susan Constant, Discovery and Godspeed to this new land, the intent was to establish a permanent British colony in the New World.
After a 5-month journey across the Atlantic, 104 Englishmen landed on the banks of the James River. These colonists were ill-prepared for what awaited them, and disease and a severe drought took a heavy toll. The harsh winter of 1609-10, which came to be known as the “starving time,” claimed the lives of two-thirds of the colonists. With the arrival of much-needed supplies, more settlers, and a successful crop (tobacco), the colony of Virginia and its first capital, Jamestown, survived. Thanks to the efforts of such familiar names such as Pocahontas, John Smith and John Rolfe, the seeds of a nation were sown.
After the Colonial capital was moved farther inland to Williamsburg in 1699, the settlement at Jamestown fell to ruins. Diligent work by archeologists at Historic Jamestowne, as it's now called, has unearthed the location of the 1607 fort, and ongoing digs continue to provide insights into the hardships and lives of those earliest settlers. At nearby Jamestown Settlement, costumed historical interpreters at three re-created sites—a palisaded Colonial fort, a Powhatan Indian village and reproductions of the ships that brought the settlers to this continent—bring 17th-century American history to life.
The Williamsburg chapter of American history defines the years when that city was the political, social and cultural center of Virginia. It's easy to return to the 1770s here, to relive those fascinating times when our country's future was being debated and decided. Should the Colonies remain part of Great Britain, or should the rumblings of independence be seriously considered?
Stroll among townsfolk, dressed in clothing appropriate to their status in life, as they go about their daily business. You're just as likely to mingle with an aristocrat in powdered wig, ruffled shirt and knee breeches as a tradesman who might have fashioned that wig or tailored those breeches. Follow a fife and drum parade as it marches down Duke of Gloucester Street. Dodge a horse and carriage as it clip-clops its way along a dusty road. The restoration is so realistic you halfway expect to encounter Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry engaged in a discussion about liberty and personal freedom.
Among the fun things to do: Stop in some of those tradesmen's shops and see how gunsmiths, printers, shoemakers, wheelwrights, basketmakers and weavers created their goods. Dine in some of the Colonial taverns and sample Brunswick stew, peanut soup, oyster fritters, spoon bread and syllabub. See where justice was meted out at the courthouse. Contrast the lifestyle of the royal governor and his “palace” and the home of a craftsman.
Separation from Great Britain proved to be inevitable, though, and the conclusion to our history lesson involves the final chapter of the Revolutionary War and the third part of Virginia's Historic Triangle, Yorktown. The long road to independence essentially ended here in 1781 when Gen. Charles Cornwallis, greatly outnumbered by troops led by generals George Washington and Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, surrendered.
Those heady days are remembered by two driving tours that trace the progression of the battle and include such important sites as Washington's headquarters and the site of the surrender. And history comes to life here as well, at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown's Continental Army encampment complete with musket and cannon firing demonstrations and a farmstead typical of the 1780s.
All three sites are linked by the 23-mile-long Colonial Parkway, a scenic, winding road through the Virginia countryside.
After you've immersed yourself in the historic area's trifecta of Colonial experiences, venture out on picturesque SR 5 (also known as the John Tyler Highway) to see some of the James River plantation homes, elaborate 18th-century estates built along the curving river by many of the region's most prominent families.
Virginias Historic Triangle, VA
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