Colonial Virginia

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Thirteen years before the Pilgrims had even set foot in Plymouth, Massachusetts, 104 English men and boys, representing the Virginia Company of London, had made the four-and-a-half month ocean voyage in three ships designated the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed from London, and landed on the banks of the James River in current-day Virginia, establishing the first permanent English settlement in North America.  The date, May 13, 1607, can be considered “one small step for European-kind,” but had ultimately served as the threshold to the United States of America.

                The group, however, had not made the journey for colonization purposes, but instead to search for gold and other valuable commodities with which they could make a profit for the Virginia Company’s shareholders in England.  The trip had rapidly changed from one of adventure to one of endurance and sheer survival, with more failures than successes.

                Jamestown, founded by Captain John Smith under charter to James I in London, had become the scene of disease and starvation during the very first summer, but only under his leadership and with help from native Powhatan Indians did any survive at all.  Winter conditions had only escalated the mortality rate; indeed, during the winter of 1609-1610, only 90 of 300 colonists had actually lived to experience spring, and without an infusion of new settlers and supplies from arriving ships, the settlement would not have continued.

                The seeds of US government had been planted here in 1619 when elected burgesses had met for the first time in a church to create its framework, while the economy had been established round tobacco as a lucrative cash crop.  Tobacco plantations, spreading throughout the fields like wildfire, had necessitated slaves to maintain them, and with that need, the first, from Angola, in Africa, had been transported here, sparking the establishment of the slave trade.  This small patch of land had thus become the meeting point of three cultures: European, African, and Native American, all of whom had represented the initial seeds of the US population.

                The first battle on American soil had also occurred here in 1622 when members of the indigenous Powhatan chiefdom had attacked settlers along the James River, killing 347.

                The settlement, neither autonomous nor American Indian, continued to seek its identity and ownership.  Two years later, James I had revoked the Virginia Company’s charter and sublimated it into a full-fledged royal colony. 

                Vulnerable to both local Indian attacks and elements such as fire, the town had been required to build its structures from brick according to a 1662-enacted law, fostering increased permanence and strength.

                In 1667, two forts had been erected in Jamestown to protect it during the Anglo-Dutch Wars and by 1690, with slavery having permanently taken root on North American soil, the ratio of Africans to whites had been 9,300 to 53,000.

                Aside from the Anglo-Dutch Wars, internal strife in the new homeland had also occurred: back country settlers, led by Nathaniel Bacon, sparked military campaigns in response to perceived weak governmental efforts to counter Indian attacks against their farms.  Bacon, setting fire to the town, had ultimately been killed in a rebellion, and, although it had been partially rebuilt, it had never truly regained its former prominence.   When the government’s pivotal statehouse had been reduced to ashes in the struggle, it had relocated Virginia’s capital to Williamsburg in 1699.

                Although Jamestown had never developed into John Smith’s envisioned “great city,” it had served as a small colonial settlement which had become the main port of entry and the center of government with taverns and a handful of residences which had housed officials, their families, merchants, innkeepers, indentured servants, and slaves.

                In 1994, archaeologists had begun a search for the settlement’s original location and two years later they had uncovered sufficient evidence to determine that the James Fort had been built on a small island on the banks of the James River originally separated from the mainland by a narrow isthmus.  The site, designated Historic Jamestowne and administered by the National Park Service, can be visited.

                Subdivided into Old Towne and New Towne sections, the former contains the site of the original, 1607, triangular-shaped fort whose foundation is roughly outlined by brick, and a 17th-century church and tower, while the latter, located past the Tercentenary Monument, sports brick replicas to mark excavation foundations of the expanded settlement.  An “Archaerium,” opened in 2006, displays a thousand of the more than one million artifacts since unearthed, and a trail leads to the important locations.  From the ground, history is in the process of being resurrected on to the surface.

                Jamestown Settlement, located a mile from the original site, recreates several key features of it.  A huge, red brick Visitors Center, with reception, cafeteria, gift shop, interpretive galleries, and films, leads to the outdoor path which winds its way to the docks on the James River.

                The first of the recreated scenes, a Powhatan Indian village based upon the archaeological findings of a site once occupied by the Paspahegh tribe, features hide-covered sleeping and storage houses, a ceremonial circle, hide-tanning frames, and planting fields. 

                The triangular-shaped James Fort, located further down the path, had been the first home of the original settlers and features recreated, wattle-and-daub, thatched-roof structures, a storehouse, a church, a guard court, and three bulwarks.  Daily reenactments demonstrate carpentry, agriculture, rifle shooting, blacksmithing, and cooking.

                The Riverfront Discovery Area offers insight into how water had provided the core of commonality for different 17th-century cultures, all of which had relied upon it for fishing, transportation, boat building, and trading.

                The three ship replicas docked in the harbor represent the lifelines of the English colonists, the largest of which is the 110-foot-long, square-rigged Susan Constant.  Crew had lived and worked on its main deck, while passengers and cargo had been accommodated below.

                Jamestown Settlement complements Historic Jamestowne with visual, full-size replicas of excavations just rising from the ground at the original site. 


                Williamsburg, Virginia’s second colonial capital after Jamestown, had been founded in 1699 and conceived as a prestigious, sophisticated gathering place because of its chosen location next to the 1693-established College of William and Mary by Governor and Annapolis, Maryland, designer Francis Nicholson.  Its French layout had been centered round the one-mile-long, 99-foot-wide Duke of Gloucester Street bordered by the College of William and Mary’s Wren Building on its west side and the Capitol on its east, while the Governor’s Palace had been constructed perpendicular to it at the end of a green grass mall.

As in any town, its citizens had pursued daily mercantile activities, providing functions, goods, and services in exchange for the salaries they themselves had needed to purchase those goods and services.  Craftsmen had practiced their trades: blacksmiths, coopers, shoemakers, printers, gunsmith, cabinetmakers, and wigmakers had all made vital contributions to the community’s continued existence, while the remainder of the people had engaged in military and governmental pursuits.

Transportation had been provided by horse-drawn wagons and carriages whose persistent clompings had been ubiquitous.

Many residences had featured separate kitchens, smokehouses, and dairies.

Several buildings had been nucleic to life.  The Peyton-Randolph House and kitchen, for example, had once been the home to one of Virginia’s leading politicians and the scene of numerous social and political gatherings.  Civil and criminal cases had been tried at the Courthouse.  The circular, brick Magazine had served as Williamsburg’s arsenal and had stored arms and gunpowder on its upper level.  The Printing Office and Bookbinding shop had been instrumental in pre-Revolution information distribution.  The James Anderson Blacksmith shop had repaired arms for American forces.  In 1776, the patriots of Virginia had voted for independence in the Capitol and a new state constitution had been drafted there.  The government had conducted war over a five-year period from this location and legislation had created the Republican party within its walls.

The Governor’s Palace, the city’s most opulent structure, had been the residence of several royal governors and the first two elected governors of the new sovereign state of Virginia, and today retains the appearance of the home of Lord Dunmore, the last British governor to have lived there on the eve of the Revolution.

As in the current day, men often met in taverns to drink and discuss business.

The town, associated with such names as Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, and George Washington, had offered little manufacturing, but instead had acted as the political and economic center of Virginia for 80 years, having been England’s largest and wealthiest colony–the location of enacted laws and administered justice, and the site where the seeds of democracy and political independence had been planted in an ultimate attempt to separate itself from its source.

Williamsburg had thrived until Virginia’s capital had been relocated to Richmond in 1780, whereafter it had declined to a backwater town.

The town’s slow rebirth began in 1926 when the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation had been established to excavate buried foundations and reconstruct the crumbling buildings which had still stood, ultimately transforming it into the world’s largest, 18th-century living history museum comprised of 88 restored structures and some 500 other reconstructed ones spread over 301 acres.

Colonial Williamsburg is once again alive: the buildings can be visited; the pounding of the glowing anvil can be heard in the blacksmith shop; cases can be heard in the courthouse; costumed interpreters reenact scenes from earlier life; soldiers march down Duke of Gloucester Street; meals can be eaten in four historic taverns; 18th-century goods are made and sold in the numerous shops; and horse-drawn carriages still clomp down the unpaved streets.

Jamestown had served as America’s origin.  Williamsburg had served as the pivot of governmental development, the cradle where the American Revolution’s forefathers had been nurtured.  One more location, however, would serve as the point where that Revolution had led to victory, separation, and independence. 


While the French naval fleet had sailed southward toward the Chesapeake Bay during the latter portion of 1781, General George Washington had believed that the optimum opportunity for a decisive land-and-sea battle had been at hand and, in cooperation with French General Rochenbeau, had quietly relocated both American and French troops from New York to Yorktown, Virginia.

Intercepting British ships outside of the Virginia Cape on September 5, the French had succeeded in blockading them and causing their subsequent retreat.  Arriving in Yorktown later that month, Washington and Rochenbeau seized the town, surrounding Lord Cornwallis’ British troops.

In early October, Washington dug trenches from which to launch an out-and-out attack, American and French detachments subsequently cornering the two British redoubts on October 14, which had rapidly exhausted their ammunition supplies.  Defeated, Cornwallis surrendered five days later, ending the six-year Revolution and effectively beginning a new nation and a new government.

The settlers who had put the first English footprint in Jamestown had now just put the first American one in Yorktown.

Yorktown Battlefield, the actual site of the historical event and reconstructed with the aid of 18th-century military maps and excavations, accurately depicts Washington’s siege, pinpointing British and American troop locations.  The nearby Moore House had been the location of the surrender term negotiations.

Life during and after the Revolution can be gleaned from the Yorktown Victory Center which depicts a recreated Continental Army encampment and a 1780 tidewater Virginia farm.  The former encompasses commanding officer and regimental surgeon quarters and several soldiers’ tents, while the latter features dwellings, a tobacco barn, a kitchen, a herb and vegetable garden, and an agricultural field where corn, tobacco, cotton, and flax are grown.

Yorktown, the third of the three locations after Jamestown and Williamsburg, forms an integral part of Virginia’s “Historic Triangle” which is connected by the 23-mile, James and York River-paralleling scenic byway and is part of Colonial National Historical Park.  Established in 1893 when the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities had acquired 22.5 acres on Jamestown Island, it had created the Colonial National Monument incorporating Jamestown, Yorktown, and the connecting parkway in 1930.  The National Park Service had acquired the remaining 1,500 acres of the island four years later.

From the first footsteps of Jamestown in 1607 to the last gunshot of Yorktown in 1781, a path had been forged through 13 colonies, independence, history’s greatest migration, and a new nation, the United States of America.  The story of Colonial Virginia’s Historic Triangle is, in essence, that of US history, world history, and human history, having encompassed curiosity, exploration, discovery, struggle, ownership, identity, and independence, the same sequence of events which has been acted out by every soul which has ever separated from the whole above in order to pursue autonomous existence below.  That we all stem from the same source and therefore reflect it, could the outcome have been expected to have been different?


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