At Colonial Williamsburg, known as the Revolutionary City, kids love hangin’ with the locals, especially Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. They pepper the country’s founding fathers with questions about everything from daily life in the colony to whether their feet hurt in those crazy shoes. The kids think the stately gentlemen’s early 18th century garb is pretty cool, and when one grade-schooler learns he can buy a hat like Henry’s at the gift shop, he demands that his mom take him there right now.
Colonial Williamsburg is the country’s largest living history museum, featuring 300 acres of exhibition halls, gardens and historic buildings, including the Capitol and the opulent Governor’s Palace.
For many, it’s the first stop on a tour of the Historic Triangle: Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown. This triumvirate of communities tells the story of the founding of the United States from its origin as a fledgling colony to its fight for independence and finally, its triumphant emergence as a democracy.
With so much to do at Colonial Williamsburg, it can be hard to know where to start, so pick up a map and program guide at the visitor center as soon you arrive and note the times of age-appropriate activities for your crew.
You can check out the colonial era’s latest dance craze, practice your swordsmanship or play hoop and stick, a popular children’s game.
For an African-American perspective on life in the colony, tour the Peyton Randolph House. Randolph, a leading Virginia politician, owned 27 slaves, and the tour is led by an interpreter representing one.
Afterward, take a coffee break at Charlton’s Coffeehouse. You will get much more than a cup o’ joe. During the Revolutionary era, this was a hotbed of political debate. In 1765, an angry crowd protesting the Stamp Act, the first direct British tax on American colonists, cornered the Virginia tax collector on the coffeehouse steps. Costumed interpreters will tell you all about it.
Not all of the movers and shakers of the colonial period ended up in the history books. Visit the work places of ordinary townspeople – coopers, bookbinders, wigmakers, and milliners - who didn’t necessarily wield great political influence, but lived their daily lives in the midst of momentous, world-changing events. Sometimes these ordinary citizens become extraordinary when you hear their stories.
Take William Prentis, for example. At the Prentis Store, a chat with a costumed sales clerk reveals that the store’s namesake was an English orphan who came to the colony in 1715 as a lowly indentured servant. He was put to work in his master’s store and proved to be an astute businessman. At the end of his indentureship, he became store manager, and eventually, the principal owner. He imported goods from around the world, selling everything from utilitarian housewares to luxurious Chinese silks. The teenage boy who arrived in the New World without a shilling became the wealthiest merchant in Virginia. If Forbes Magazine had existed at the time, Prentis probably would have made the cover.
Historic Jamestowne, the site of James Fort, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, is so tranquil and rich in natural beauty, it’s hard to believe anything bad ever happened here.
This is where Pocahontas befriended Capt. John Smith, one of Jamestown’s founders, and married John Rolfe. For kids, statues of Smith and the diplomatic Powhatan Indian girl inevitably bring to mind the animated movie “Pocahontas,” ( a trip to Jamestown may rectify Disney’s revisionist version of history) but the winter of 1609-1610, known as the “Starving Time,” was more like a horror movie than a Disney film.
“Jane’s Story,” the newest exhibit at the Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archarareum, an archaeology museum, offers an unflinching look at the desperation of the colonists and the unthinkable extremes some were driven to by hunger.
Last year Jamestown archaeologists unearthed the cannibalized remains of a 14-year-old girl from a trash heap in the cellar of a home that would have been inside James Fort during that winter. Her identity is unknown, but researchers named the girl “Jane.”
Under siege by the Powhatan Indians, the settlers were barricaded inside the fort without provisions. They were reduced to eating cats, dogs, horses, and even the corpses of other settlers who succumbed to disease or famine, like Jane.
Jane’s likeness is on exhibit at the museum – alongside her butchered skull that was used to re-create her features through computer modeling.
In terms of historical significance, the discovery of Jane is second only to the discovery of the fort itself in 1994, which many experts believed had washed into the James River.
Several historical accounts written by Jamestown colonists reference cannibalism, but until the discovery of Jane, they could never be verified.
Archaeologist William Kelso, director of research at Historic Jamestowne, always had serious doubts about these grisly stories, but a leading forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History confirmed the girl’s corpse was cannibalized.
“I’m a believer now,” Kelso said. “It’s gruesome, but it’s also significant because it shows how close the first permanent English settlement came to being not the first permanent English settlement. If it had failed, American history would be so different.”
Of the 300 settlers who inhabited the fort in the fall of 1609, only 60 survived until spring.
The colony was saved by the arrival of Lord de la Warr in 1610. Three well-provisioned ships carrying 150 healthy settlers heralded a fresh start for Jamestown.
Yorktown Battlefield, part of Colonial National Historical Park, is one of the most historically significant sites in the country. The last battle of the American Revolutionary War, (1775-1783) was fought here in 1781, an American victory that won independence from Britain.
Before beginning the Battlefield Route driving tour, stop by the visitor center museum to brush up on your American history and watch a brief film, “Siege at Yorktown.”
Foremost among the museum exhibits is George Washington’s field tent. Visitors can actually stand beneath a portion of it while viewing the rest through glass.
A seven-mile driving tour through picturesque countryside showcases key fortifications and siege lines, including the Grand French Battery, the largest gun emplacement on the first siege line.
A highlight is the Moore House where the terms of British Gen. Lord Cornwallis’ surrender were negotiated. Park the car and go inside for a tour.
One of the most momentous events in American history took place on Surrender Field on Oct. 19, 1781. Cornwallis’s army laid down its arms in the presence of George Washington and French Gen. Comte de Rochambeau. Cornwallis himself was a no-show, saying he was ill.
Where to Stay: Williamsburg Lodge is just steps from Colonial Williamsburg. 310 S. England St., Williamsburg, 757-220-7976, www.colonialwilliamsburg.com/stay/williamsburg-lodge
Where to Eat: The Cheese Shop serves salads and sandwiches garnished with a variety of fine cheeses. 410 W. Duke of Gloucester St., Williamsburg, 757-220-0298, www.cheeseshopwilliamsburg.com
Colonial Williamsburg Visitor’s Center: 101 Visitor Center Drive, Williamsburg,
Historic Jamestowne: 1368 Colonial Parkway, Jamestown, 757-229-9776, www.historicjamestowne.org
Jamestown Settlement: 2110 Jamestown Road, Route 31 S., Williamsburg, 888-593-4682, www.historyisfun.org
Yorktown Battlefield and Victory Center: 200 Water Street, Yorktown, 888-593-4682, www.historyisfun.org