What does a historic landmark have to do to get some respect? When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they were not, as many still mistakenly believe, the first settlers to sow the seeds of democracy in the New World. A group of English adventurers who sailed into Chesapeake Bay and up Virginia’s James River bested them by more than a decade. Jamestown, the island settlement they founded and named in honor of their king, James I, was well on its way to becoming the cultural, social, and political nexus of the New World by the time of the Pilgrims’ arrival. Jamestown served as the colonial capital for nearly a century, but in 1699 the seat of government moved to nearby Williamsburg, which has overshadowed poor Jamestown ever since. Eventually, the residents of America’s birthplace abandoned its buildings and deepwater port.
By the mid-1700’s, “James Towne” was no longer a town at all, but a patchwork of tobacco fields. In the late 19th century, the family that owned Jamestown Island donated to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities about 22 acres at the site where the first permanent English settlement in North America was established on May 13, 1607. Archaeologists uncovered the foundations of many 17th century brick buildings, but Jamestown’s saviors gave up hope of finding any trace of the original fort erected by Captain John Smith and the other colonists, which was thought to have eroded into the river.
In April 1994, however, a new excavation project began, which led eventually to a startling find: evidence of postholes outlining the triangular wooden fort’s south (riverfront) palisade.
“There was a really heavy-duty celebration when we found that,” an APVA volunteer tells a group of us gathered around the ongoing James Fort excavation at Historic Jamestowne, the site run jointly by the APVA and the National Park Service.
They will be partying even harder on the island this year, in honor of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown and the nation it begat. In anticipation of this year’s festivities, Jamestown’s two historical attractions, Historic Jamestowne and Jamestown Settlement, have been extensively renovated; land has been purchased near the latter for the creation of Anniversary Park, a staging area for the celebration’s biggest bash.
On May 11, 12, and 13, Jamestown will mark America’s 400th Anniversary Weekend with pomp and pageantry, reenactment voyages, special historical exhibits featuring artifacts rarely seen in the United States, performances by big-name entertainers, other concerts and cultural events, remarks by a bevy of visiting VIPs, and a fireworks finale over the James River. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip have accepted an invitation to visit England’s former colony in honor of the occasion (though the exact dates of the trip are still being worked out). Other dignitaries, including President Bush and the First Lady, have been invited as well. Anniversary Weekend highlights 18 months of festivities that began last year in honor of America’s quadricentennial. (It takes awhile to blow out 400 candles.)
So even if you can’t snag one of the 90,000 date-specific tickets for Anniversary Weekend’s three-day glitzy gala, you can still travel to Jamestown—as I did last fall—to visit the birthplace of American democracy. Most of Jamestown Island has reverted to a wilderness state similar to the one encountered by the initial 105 colonists dispatched by the Virginia Company of London. Watch the sunlight sparkle off the river, or spot a deer stepping shyly from the woods, and you can imagine the promise it must have held for them and those who soon followed. The only edifice still standing from that time is the remains of a brick church tower built in the 1690’s.
Stroll scenic riverside paths and you’ll encounter other powerful evocations of the past, however: the reconstructed Anglican church where the first representative assembly of the New World convened in 1619; bronze statues honoring John Smith and Pocahontas; the foundations of 17th-century brick homes, now filled with neatly mown grass; and the slow, delicate unveiling of James Fort itself. Many of the weapons, armor, personal objects, coins, tools, stoneware—even human remains—recovered since the fort was discovered are showcased a short distance away in the new $4.9 million Archaearium (ark-ee-air-ee-um), a gleaming, modern museum built atop what remains of Jamestown’s last statehouse. Portions of the museum floor have glass portals through which visitors can see the statehouse foundation. Among the grimmer relics in the Archaearium’s collection is evidence of “The Starving Time”: the winter of 1609-1610, when three-quarters of the fort’s inhabitants perished. Snake vertebrae, a turtle shell, and rat claws testify to the survivors’ diet of “rats, mice, snakes or what vermin or carrion soever we could light on.”
Historic Jamestowne also features glassblowing demonstrations, held near the ruins of the settlement’s first glass factory, self-guided driving, cycling, and walking tours through the island’s 1,500 acres of woods and grassy marshes, and a new $7 million visitor center whose multimedia orientation program immerses visitors in the colonial experience. A new restaurant, the Dale House Cafe, offers light (and snake-free) fare in a building overlooking the James River.
Once a busy port, Jamestown is now devoid of docks and boat traffic. That absence will be filled on the morning of May 12, when a crew of latter-day explorers will board a reproduction of the small open boat or “shallop” used by John Smith to explore the Chesapeake. In it, they will embark on a 121-day voyage under sail and oar power, retracing Smith’s 1608 Chesapeake expedition and making dozens of stops at ports around the Bay, including Baltimore’s (www.johnsmith400.org).
In December 1606, when they boarded three ships in London to begin their historic trans-Atlantic voyage, Jamestown’s first colonists had little idea of the cultural and social impact they’d make on the New World. Smith, one of their leaders, deemed the uninhabited, marshy island on which they settled “a verie fit place for the erecting of a great cittie.” Owing to harsh living conditions, fractious relations with the Native Americans, and the colonists’ failure to accomplish their entrepreneurial goals (finding gold, silver, or a route to Oriental riches), Jamestown never realized its urban potential. The small community of no more than 200 residents eventually turned to tobacco farming to sustain itself, using as field hands indentured African servants who first arrived here aboard Dutch ships in 1619.
The story of the Virginia colony is told at Jamestown Settlement, a living history museum just north of Historic Jamestowne. Operated by the commonwealth of Virginia’s Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, the museum (originally known as Jamestown Festival Park) opened in 1957 on the 350th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding. Like Historic Jamestowne, Jamestown Settlement has undergone extensive renovations in recent years to expand and enhance its indoor exhibits and outdoor living-history attractions. The most impressive addition is the new 30,000-square-foot exhibit gallery, which compellingly chronicles the colony’s history and the three cultures—Powhatan Indian, European, and African—that interacted there. After viewing a docudrama orientation film, visitors take a chronological tour of Jamestown and the Virginia colony in the 17th century. (If you need to take a break midway through your visit, fear not; the Great Hall that spans the length of the gallery provides a timeline that will enable you to resume your journey at the precise “decade” in which you left.)
“The World of 1607,” a special yearlong exhibit opening April 27, will bring to the gallery several rare treasures from museums, libraries, and private collections around the world. Among these are a 15th century copy of the Magna Carta, a hunting gun given to King Philip III of Spain by King James I to mark a peace treaty allowing the English to establish the colony, an early 17th century Persian dagger and other artifacts lent by a Russian museum, and a French ivory compass/sundial believed to be nearly identical to one used by John Smith. Jamestown Settlement truly comes to life outdoors, where visitors can mingle with costumed interpreters as the latter go about their 17th century chores—thatching roofs, feeding poultry, forging metal tools, preparing meals, scraping hides—in authentic re-creations of James Fort and a Powhatan village. Nothing conveys the colonists’ experience more vividly, however, than a visit to the museum’s pier. Here you can board replicas of the ships that delivered the original colonists—the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery—imagining the hardships of a typical passenger, confined below decks for most of the five-month voyage to America.
There are dining options here as well: Jamestown Settlement Cafe, a cafeteria near the exhibit gallery, and outdoor picnic tables, offering a view of flag-bedecked Quadricentennial Plaza. Most quadricentennial events focus on Jamestown, but the celebration is inextricably linked to the other two corners (Williamsburg and Yorktown) of what’s known as the Historic Triangle, where a new nation learned to walk, stand up for itself, and eventually win its independence. Williamsburg, about nine miles east of Jamestown, offers the nearest lodging and services.
Virtually synonymous with its 300-acre preserved historic area, Colonial Williamsburg, the city also boasts excellent restaurants, accommodations for every budget, modern and retro-colonial shops, the campus of one of the nation’s oldest universities (the College of William & Mary), golf courses, two popular theme parks (Busch Gardens and Water Country USA), Virginia’s largest winery, and—trust me, I’ve researched this—the best chocolate desserts you can imagine. Visit the taverns and shops of Colonial Williamsburg these days and you’ll hear talk of insurgency—not in the Middle East, but right here at “home” in mid-18th century Virginia. A year ago, Colonial Williamsburg launched “Revolutionary City,” a daily, two-hour program that interactively draws visitors into the emotional events leading up to the American Revolution. To participate in “Revolutionary City”—and to gain entry to such preserved and re-created 18th-century buildings as the Governor’s Palace (home of Virginia’s last royal governor), the Capitol (where Virginia cast its vote for independence), and various tradesmen’s shops—purchase Colonial Williamsburg passes at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center or other ticket outlets.
Reservations are recommended for the recently opened Spa of Colonial Williamsburg, (307 S. England Street, 800-688-6479 or 757-220-7720). At this posh facility, therapists not only offer the latest in facials and massages, but employ historically recognized regimens such as 18th-century botanical body scrubs and 19th-century Virginia springs treatments.
The dozen or so shops in the Historic Area purvey everything from heirloom plants to pewterware and historically accurate apparel. Several square blocks of additional shopping are available just west of the Historic Area at Merchants Square, a “colonialized” commercial district of shops selling gifts, food, clothing, toys, books, and home furnishings.
A full day of tromping in the colonists’ footsteps will work up anyone’s appetite. Dine on tomato-rosemary ravioli with smoked duck confit and other new American cuisine at the highly acclaimed, jacket-and-tie Regency Room in the Williamsburg Inn (136 E. Francis Street, 1-800-TAVERNS or 757-229-2141). The Trellis (403 Duke of Gloucester Street, Merchants Square, 757-229-8610), is another Williamsburg culinary institution. Try the pan-seared Smithfield pork tenderloin or the cinnamon-dusted salmon fillet, but whatever you do save room for a slice of chef/co-owner Marcel Desaulniers’ seven-layer Death by Chocolate cake. (The less suicidal can opt for the restaurant’s rich house-made ice creams.) A new addition to the fine-dining scene is the chic Fat Canary, (410 Duke of Gloucester Street, Merchants Square, 757-229-3333). If you’re waiting for a table at this intimate space, pass the time browsing the impressive selection of cheeses, wines, and gourmet foods at the restaurant’s sister establishment, The Cheese Shop, (410 Duke of Gloucester Street, 757-220-0298). Fat Canary’s kitchen has a way with cheeses, like the house-made mozzarella, paired in a salad with Virginia ham, arugula, roasted tomatoes, and pesto. We thoroughly enjoyed our lunch at Blue Talon Bistro, (420 Prince George Street, Merchants Square, 757-476-2583), where the wide-screen TV features re-runs of The French Chef. (Closed by fire damage shortly after our visit, the cheerful French cafe is scheduled to re-open this month.)
If you’re hankering for something less nouvelle, the Historic Area has its famous colonial taverns, including Christiana Campbell’s, (Waller Street), serving crab cakes and other “surf” specialties, and The King’s Arms, (416 E. Duke of Gloucester Street), a chophouse featuring such favorites as peanut soup and prime rib. Reservations (recommended) for Colonial Williamsburg taverns can be made by calling 1-800-TAVERNS or 757-229-2141. One of the nearest restaurants to Jamestown is The Gabriel Archer Tavern, set among vineyards at the 340-acre Williamsburg Winery (5800 Wessex Hundred, 757-229-0999, ext. 117). Sample a glass of the winery’s award-winning John Adlum Chardonnay as you dig in to a luncheon salad dressed with the tavern’s Raspberry Merlot Vinaigrette. (Lunch daily; limited dinner seatings available April through October only.)
Colonial Williamsburg operates several lodgings in the Historic Area, including the elegantly restored Williamsburg Inn (136 E. Francis Street, 757-229-1000), the hotel of choice for visiting royalty, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. If you’re looking for somewhat cozier accommodations, some two dozen bed-and-breakfast inns are scattered throughout the city. We stayed at Williamsburg Sampler Bed & Breakfast Inn (922 Jamestown Road, 800-722-1169), which offers four tastefully appointed rooms and suites in an 18th century-style brick Colonial west of the Historic Area. Greater Williamsburg offers more than 10,000 rooms for visitors and some of the most scenic are at Kingsmill Resort & Spa (1010 Kingsmill Road, 800-832-5665), a 2,900-acre golf and tennis resort on the James River that offers complimentary shuttle bus service to Colonial Williamsburg. (For other lodging options, consult www.VisitWilliamsburg.com.)
The 23-mile-long Colonial Parkway links Jamestown and Williamsburg with the easternmost Historic Triangle destination, Yorktown, site of the decisive battle of the American Revolution. Two primary attractions, the battlefield and its visitor center (run by the National Park Service) and Yorktown Victory Center (a living-history museum administered by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation) tell the story of the British defeat here and Lord Cornwallis’ subsequent surrender to General George Washington.