Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
- Jamestown History Refresh
- Outdoor Fun brings Jamestown History to Life
- Seaworthy Vessels: Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery
- Eating at Jamestown
- From Jamestown History to Yorktown
- Outside at Yorktown
- Nearby Attractions
- Historic Drives
- Where to Stay in Virginia
- Where to Eat
- Getting Around Jamestown, Virginia
Do your kid’s eyes glaze over when you try to incorporate learning on a family vacation? Don’t despair! Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, both in Virginia, bring history to life. And they make it exciting for the whole family. Whether you are a Jamestown history expert or know nothing about colonial history, you will find plenty of family fun.
Note: I was a guest of Jamestown Settlement & American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, which covered my travel. I was not otherwise compensated.
History is Fun
Jamestown Settlement and The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown are two parts of the “historic triangle,” which also includes Colonial Williamsburg. Colonial Williamsburg was traditionally considered the main event, making for a lopsided triangle. But with enhancements at the other two, the three attractions now more closely resemble an equilateral triangle.
Jamestown Settlement and The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown are so sure that families while enjoy the interactive experience of learning about the first permanent English settlement in Jamestown, and the journey of Revolutionary America that they’ve named their website “History is fun.” The hands-on approach is interesting for all ages. You can take a deep dive into Jamestown history. You can touch artifacts, talk to costumed interpreters and learn about the Virginia Company of London that landed in the New World, brought the first Africans here and transformed North America.
History is not whitewashed here. Those first Africans are referred to as “enslaved people,” not slaves. The treatment of women, from Pocahontas to English girls sent here without consent, is likewise explored. Pocahontas, daughter of the Powhatan chief, married John Rolfe, who planted the first tobacco seeds in Virginia, not Captain John Smith. This is not Disney’s Pocahontas. Some female English settlers wanted to stay with native Americans who captured them.
Why Visit Jamestown, Virginia? For Jamestown History!
Growing up in New York, we wanted to learn more about the Dutch explorers who came to our area around the same time. And we studied the Spanish explorers, who arrived here even earlier. So Jamestown fills in a lot of missing information about the Virginia colony. And although the first English colony survived harsh winter conditions that included a starving time and cannibalism, Virginia’s relatively mild climate makes the historic triangle ideal for year round family fun. Besides the historic attractions, there are outdoor activities and theme parks for the whole family to enjoy.
Jamestown History Refresh
Jamestown Settlement, which opened in 1957, is undergoing a $10.6 million refresh to its permanent exhibition galleries. The dynamic exhibits make the information overload exciting, for young children to adults. I got to preview these changes, along with exploring the special exhibit, Tenacity.
The new permanent galleries add parts of the story you might not know. The Virginia Company of London sponsored the Jamestown colony and threatened several times to pull funding. The English colony almost failed in its first year and several times after. King James I sent supplies from England, along with a charter for harsh military law.
A short film, “Bacon’s Rebellion,” tells the story of Jamestown colonists rebelling against Governor William Berkeley in 1676. The 4 D effects include smoke from gunfire, fire and wind.
Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia explores little-known, personal stories of real women – Indian, English and African – in Jamestown and the early Virginia colony. One enslaved African women not only won her freedom in the early 1600s, she also became a landowner. Tenacity closes in early 2020, but the tales are also incorporated into the rest of the exhibits.
Outdoor Fun brings Jamestown History to Life
The average visit to Jamestown Settlement is four hours, which is easy to understand when you see all the place has to offer. If you have particularly inquisitive kids, you can spend much longer. The outdoor areas can easily eat up a few hours. On a gorgeous fall day, I spent the morning exploring the re-created Powhatan Indian village (named for Chief Powhatan), three replica 1607 ships and a fort representing the early English royal colony in 1610 – 1614.
The fascinating Powhatan Indian village is peopled by native Americans, who dress in period costumes and engage in ordinary 17th century activities. We chatted with one of the native Americans who was cooking a traditional oyster stew, using shellfish he had harvested and vegetables grown on site. Health regulations forbid offering tastes, but nothing goes to waste: the staff eats the stew. The native Americans grind corn, make tools and cure animal skins.
At the English settlement in the fort, you can watch colonists load and fire a musket. James Fort still has a working garden. Like in the Indian Village, you can wander around the buildings on your own, or listen to stories of everyday life, told by costumed interpreters.
Seaworthy Vessels: Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery
Three ships brought 104 men and boys (no women in that first year) from England to Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. The recreated ships are used to travel the James River to special events. When they are on site, you can explore them, from below decks to the top deck. You might also get to help the sailors. We were asked to help raise the main sail.
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Eating at Jamestown
Jamestown Settlement strictly forbids food at its outdoor areas, since vermin have a way of infesting the ships. But there is a large cafeteria, with a good selection of vegetarian and gluten free options. There is also a picnic area where you can eat outside food.
Every Thanksgiving, a three day event, “Foods & Feasts of Colonial Virginia,” showcases 17th century cooking. You can help make shop biscuits, and see demonstrations of open hearth cooking.
From Jamestown History to Yorktown
Colonial Parkway, a 23 mile long National Park Service scenic road, links Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. You can bike along the road. If you are driving, build in time to stop at scenic points.
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown opened about three years ago, replacing the Yorktown Victory Center. So it was totally new to me. The museum is chockful of interactive elements, reminding me of the new-ish Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. The hologram was one of my favorite parts.
You can touch artifacts like a musket and sugar nippers. And ‘test your knowledge’ sliders can help focus kids on facts sprinkled throughout the exhibits.
The museum even has an element of Disney. The Siege of Yorktown, a 20 minute movie, offers a first rate 4D experience. During the battle you feel wind and rain. And the surround sound system make the gunshots pop. I was a little worried that the army’s lice infestation would release itching powder over the audience.
Yorktown has a new special exhibition, “Forgotten Soldier: African Americans in the Revolutionary War.” African Americans actually fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War. Free African Americans were promised land, while enslaved ones were promised freedom. But many of these promises weren’t kept. Yorktown’s permanent galleries also have stories about the role of African Americans in the war. And artist and MacArthur Fellow Titus Kaphar created a sculpture where you can ‘shift your gaze,’ to look at history in a new light.
Outside at Yorktown
The outdoor living history area opened in 2017. You can explore a re-creation of a Continental Army encampment and Revolution-era farm. The farm has chickens running around and grows period crops. This includes Virginia’s cash crop, tobacco. One of the outbuildings has tobacco drying from the ceiling. The house has period furnishings.
There is a daily cannon firing, at 3 p.m., where volunteers can help. You are advised to cover your ears. The cannon fire is quite loud. If your children are sensitive to loud noises, you might want to skip this.
Quieter pursuits include combing cotton and helping the garden.
In addition to Colonial Williamsburg, the theme park Busch Gardens Williamsburg is in James City County. Yorktown has a redeveloped riverfront, Riverwalk Landing, with free outdoor concerts and a Saturday farmers market April through October. There are also free indoor concerts in winter.
Yorktown has a free sandy beach on the York River and a cute shopping district with cafes and local boutiques. There is free parking. And you can leave your car at The American Revolution Museum and take the free trolley into town for lunch, then return for the afternoon.
In warm weather, kayak or stand-up paddleboard on the York River.
And Richmond VA is worth a detour with plenty of free things to do for families.
The Colonial National Historical Park includes Historic Jamestowne, the original site of the first permanent English settlement in America. Historic Jamestowne, on Jamestown Island, includes three and five mile loops that you can walk, bicycle or drive. If you drive, the maximum speed is 15 miles per hour. You can see Civil War fortifications and migratory birds. The Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation supports the ongoing archaeological dig of James Fort and of the first English colony in what became the United States.
The Yorktown Battlefield, a 16 mile battlefield driving tour, can also be seen by bicycle. At the Yorktown Battlefield, George Washington, allied with the French army, defeated Lord Cornwallis and the British. The 1781 battle was a turning point in the American Revolution.
Leashed dogs are allowed at Yorktown Battlefield, but not within the brick wall of the National Cemetery.
Note: all National Park Service sites that charge an entrance fee offer free admission to everyone on 5 days each year. These include Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, in January, the first day of National Park Week in April,; National Park Service Birthday in August; National Public Lands Day in September and Veterans Day, in November.
Where to Stay in Virginia
I stayed at the family friendly Holiday Inn Express Williamsburg Busch Gardens. The hotel has really upped its breakfast game, with healthy options like Greek yogurt, fresh fruit and hard boiled eggs. You can also make your own waffles or toast, or blow your diet with muffins. The coffee wasn’t up to my standards, but there is a Starbucks just down the road.
The dog friendly hotel has an outdoor pool and a small fitness center. If you decline housekeeping, you get 500 IHG rewards points.
Where to Eat
I had lunch at the Jamestown Settlement Cafe, which has a number of vegetarian and gluten free options. There is also a kids menu. The peanut butter soup is based on a historic recipe. It is rich, so try a small cup. The same people who run the cafe own the nearby Second St. American Bistro. Menus change seasonally, but there are always dinner size salads with grains and lots of fresh vegetables. Save room for the homemade cookies, served warm. The chocolate chunk was everything a cookie should be. Don’t plan on sharing.
For a more elegant meal, the Riverwalk Restaurant in Yorktown specializes in seafood. You can et local oysters, she crab soup and local fish. This might be a better choice for lunch if you have young kids. At lunch, you can get a lobster roll, fish and chips or hamburger.
Getting Around Jamestown, Virginia
I flew to Norfolk International Airport, an hour and a $60 Uber ride to Jamestown. If you are going to Jamestown Yorktown, and any of the other attractions, you will probably want a car. Plus you need a car for the driving tours. When I added up time spent getting to and from the airports, I realized that driving from New York City would have taken about the same amount of time. Plus you can stop at Virginia Beach and other towns along the Chesapeake Bay. Jamestown is about four hours from Roanoke, Virginia and Delaware.
I recently had the chance to drive the new Toyota RAV4 hybrid. This is one of Toyota’s most popular cars; my sister had to wait two months for hers. Driving it, you can see why it’s such a hot item. It gets 41 miles per gallon and can comfortably fit five adults AND their luggage.
The RAV4 also has a huge double sunroof. Backseat passengers can enjoy the scenery and fresh air as much as those in the front. And at 15 miles per hour along The Yorktown Battlefield, you don’t have to worry about your hair getting messed up.
The RAV4 has all of Toyota’s safety technology, including pedestrian detection and bicycle detection. Since cyclists share the windy road, this is a critical feature. The car automatically slows down if it detects a person or a bicyclists close to the vehicle. This is no substitute for watching the road, but I wish all cars were similarly equipped.