America’s Story from the Struggles of the First Colony to Her Fight for Independence
How did you enjoy your July 4th holiday? Do you know and understand the over 150-year chain of events that led up to the Declaration of Independence? We thought we did, but that was before we visited the Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown in Virginia.
Approximately an hour’s drive east south east of Richmond, Virginia, lie two living history museums that will take you back in time to meet the settlers and revolutionaries who helped conceive and give birth to the United States of America.
The Jamestown Settlement, established in 1607, was England’s first permanent colony. Here you’ll find films, exhibits, replicas and activities depicting life in the 17th century.
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown brings to life the revolution from which a new nation emerged. If you’re wondering what role Yorktown played in England’s defeat, there is no better place to satisfy your curiosity.
The Jamestown Settlement
Although not exactly on the spot where the first English settlers put down roots, the Jamestown Settlement lies in close proximity to the original “Jamestowne”. This historical park offers the opportunity to walk through reconstructions of the 1610 triangular fort surrounding thatch-roof houses, the colony’s church, armory, governor’s dwelling, blacksmith’s forge and other structures.
Meander through the Powhatan Indian village and observe the skills and customs of the people who, for a time, welcomed the newcomers. The village is – as much as possible – a historically accurate reproduction of the way it might have looked in the early 17th century.
Along with a variety of interactive demonstrations representing daily life, you can get the scoop on the real – not the Disney – Pocahontas and her role in bringing peace to the settlers and the Indians.
We spent most of the morning conversing with “settlers” and “Indians”. The latter showed us how to treat animal skins, make rope from organic materials and the former demonstrated the 17th century method for concocting gun powder. They had much more to show us, but time was not on our side. Safe to say, there is much in the park to fascinate visitors of all ages.
Jamestown came about when a group of investors known as the Virginia Company of London, saw an opportunity to profit from the establishment of a colony in Virginia. In December, 1606 three ships carrying 105 passengers and 39 crew began their long voyage across the Atlantic.
On May 14, the settlers, all men, came ashore and began to build their new colony on the banks of the James River. There they encountered the native Algonquin Indians and their chief, Powhatan.
Relations between the settlers and the Algonquins blew hot and cold. Periods of trading were followed by periods of discord. By 1610, the colony, ravaged by drought, disease, starvation and lack of safe drinking water was on the point of extinction.
But before the last candle could be extinguished, relief for the colony came with the arrival of two ships carrying new settlers, fresh supplies, a replacement governor and strict rules.
The colony struggled to thrive for several years. Then in 1619, the capture of a Portuguese slave ship brought the first documented Africans to Virginia, and slavery took root. It would take nearly 250 years and a bloody civil war before this abomination would finally be abolished.
Also in 1619, the first representative government in British America was established at Jamestown. The Virginia Company was dissolved in 1624. Virginia became a royal colony, and in 1699, the seat of government moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg. By the middle of the 18th century, Jamestown was no longer a town. Still her legacy lives on in the nation she spawned.
The Three Ships
After leaving the village, we strolled over to the pier and replicas of Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery. These were the three ships that brought the first settlers to Virginia. Feel free to go aboard. The ships are all interactive exhibits where you can ask questions of passengers and crew and participate in demonstrations of 17th-century seamanship.
We had an informative and pleasant conversation with a lady who had come to the new Virginia colony aboard Susan Constant. She described life aboard the ship in the 1600s and how the ship replicas are currently being utilized.
Most of the year, all three ships are at the Jamestown Settlement, but occasionally, one may be absent. She might be part of a commemorative or community event, or she might be serving as part of a student program. The three ships have been designated “the official fleet of the Commonwealth” by the Virginia General Assembly.
Before heading into the fort area we stopped at the garden. Various plants, herbs and vegetables that were grown in the 17th century are constantly being planted, nurtured and harvested.
The morning we visited the Jamestown Settlement, we seemed to be doing everything in reverse order, and so it was with the 30,000-square-foot museum. Somehow, we ended up entering through the exit, thus going back in time from the 18th century to the early 16th. No matter, the experience was fascinating.
If you want to visit the museum the right way, I suggest you start with the film “1607: A Nation Takes Root”. This documentary is shown every 30 minutes in the museum theater. It tells the story of the Virginia Company that sponsored the Jamestown Colony and the ensuing consequences for both settlers and natives.
The museum’s exhibits – if you wander through in the correct order – document Jamestown’s beginnings from a business venture to a permanent colony. Hundreds of artifacts trace the colony’s progress, the relationship between settlers and natives, the arrival of African indentured servants/future slaves and Jamestown’s decline in the mid-18th century.
The collection of 17th-century English and Indian weaponry was impressive and disturbing, as were the displays of artifacts from the slave trade.
Pottery, cooking utensils, clothing, tools, toys and a myriad of other objects caught our attention. They reminded us that 17th century life involved hardships, conflict, and disease, as well as family ties, friendships, learning by trial and error and the overpowering will to survive in a new land.
The historical interpreters we met during our visit to the Jamestown Settlement were attired in period costumes. They were friendly, knowledgable and added hefty doses of reality and fun to our entire experience.
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
We were on a schedule, so we reluctantly left the Jamestown Settlement and headed 20 miles down the road to spend the afternoon at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Located a short distance from the battlefield where, in 1781, the outcome of the American Revolution was sealed, visitors are invited to volunteer to enlist in the revolutionary army, parade around with wooden muskets and/or participate in firing a cannon.
Yorktown has gone down in history as the site where the game-changing battle of the American Revolution was fought and won.
In the fall of 1781, five bloody, war-torn years after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, Generals Washington and Rochambeau had the upper hand. The British army was trapped along the shores of the York River. The allied American and French armies had blocked all the land routes, and the French navy had successfully prevented escape by sea with a blockade. There was nothing General Cornwallis could do except to surrender. What had begun as a rag-tag assortment of revolutionary up-starts had evolved into an army of seasoned freedom fighters that had just defeated one of the most powerful armies in the world.
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown held its grand opening from March 23 to April 4, 2017. The museum’s location, adjacent to Yorktown Battlefield where America finally won her independence from England, was no accident. The battlefield may be silent, but the museum tells the entire story through films and exhibits housed in an 80,000-square-foot building.
The outdoor living-history Continental Army encampment and revolution-era farm, which were completed in the Spring of 2017, feature the kind of hands-on experiences and demonstrations that make visitors feel as if they are taking part in a piece of history.
The Outdoor Museum
We arrived at the re-creation of a Continental Army camp just in time to watch musket and cannon firing demonstrations. The procedures for loading each weapon under battlefield conditions were carefully described and demonstrated.
After a misfire the soldier was able to discharge his musket safely.
For the cannon firing, while I tried to take in as much as I could with my remaining senses, audience volunteers were being primed for their parts in the reenactment. I don’t want to give too much away, but everything leading up to the actual firing – no, there was no ball in the cannon – was both fun and fascinating. The firing itself was loud to the sixth power, but we had been warned. I had to wonder if hearing loss was common among our revolutionaries.
Hearing still intact, we wandered over to the revolution-era farm. The site included a house, an external kitchen, a tobacco barn, and a garden. There, you might be offered the opportunity to help tend plants, play 18th-century games or watch demonstrations of how things were done long before computers, instant pots and John Deer. We had just missed a cooking demonstration, but I did have the opportunity to smell and handle a tobacco leaf for the first time.
The Indoor Museum
Before we began roaming through the museum, we rested our now tired feet and watched two films that set the stage for what we would later see on display. The first was “Liberty Fever.” This film presented stories from events leading up to and including the Battle of Yorktown through the people who experienced those turbulent times.
“The Siege of Yorktown” was less of a film and more of an experience. It featured a 180-degree screen, surround sound speakers and a slew of special effects. But it didn’t stop there, the floor vibrated with every cannon shot and artillery blast, and I could swear I smelled smoke. If you have small children who tend to be frightened by loud noises, you might want to give this one a pass.
We took our time exploring the galleries. They contained 18th century military equipment, maps, paintings, furniture and personal items. Among the most valuable exhibits were a Declaration of Independence broadside from July 1776 and a rare early American long rifle.
The exhibits kept us busy until it was time to attend a presentation by a museum volunteer on the history of the American Revolution. Again, I don’t want to spoil the experience of learning for you, but I’ll tell you that you will be entertained and will learn a great deal about this period in our history you probably didn’t learn in school. One bit of information I will pass on is that the British did burn churches, but they didn’t lock townspeople in them before they torched them. This definitely lightened my mood, because that horrific scene in “The Patriot” gave me nightmares for a week.
Simon, Otto and I spent a half day at each venue, but I would recommend a full day exploring each one, especially if you’re traveling as a family with children. Both the Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown are highly interactive with lots of hands-on activities and historical interpreters in period dress.
Throughout the year, both museums offer special exhibits and events. The American Revolution museum holds an annual “Liberty Celebration” event on July 4. And in October, the museum takes part in an annual celebration commemorating the decisive victory over the English at Yorktown.
The Jamestown Settlement will actively participate in 400th anniversary celebrations of key historical events in Virginia scheduled to take place throughout 2019. The museum will also host a yearlong special exhibition, “TENACITY: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia”. The exhibition will open to the public on November 20, 2018.
If you’re planning a visit, be sure to check the website (insert link) to see what’s coming up at the Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Both are packed with so much to see and do, one visit won’t be nearly enough. Whether you’re a history nut like yours truly or not, these museums will make you and your family fall in love with the early history of the United States of America.
Have you visited a museum that incorporated so much realism it took you back in time? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.
If You Go
- Jamestown Settlement is located on Route 31 South at the Colonial Parkway next to Historic Jamestown.
- The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is located on Route 1020 in Yorktown near Yorktown Battlefield.
Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from June 15 through August 15.
Jamestown Settlement and American Revolution Museum at Yorktown Combination Ticket: $25.50 for adults, $12.25 for ages 6-12. Children under 6 are free.
This combination ticket saves 20% off the price of an individual admission to each individual venue. Also, this ticket can be used to visit each museum on different days.
Visit the History is Fun website for packages, special discounts and annual passes for Virginia residents.
The Jamestown ‘Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown are both wheelchair accessible.
For more information:
- Phone: (888) 593-4682 toll-free or (757) 253-4838.
- Website: http://www.historyisfun.org.
Disclaimer: Our visit to the Jamestown Settlement and the Revolutionary Museum at Yorktown was complimentary. However, all opinions, as always, are entirely my own.