We had a great time playing at the parks last week, but Williamsburg offered much more than your typical amusement parks! Most days, we felt like we were taking a few steps back in time.
The year is 1775 and the people of Virginia need to decide whether to remain loyal to England or to fight for American independence. Like the PA Renaissance Faire, we were suddenly immersed in a different time and culture, where we interacted with townspeople, trades people, shopkeepers, political figures and slaves. In addition to history lessons on the Revolution, there were reenactments, shows and trade shops. We joined an angry mob in storming the governor’s palace, learned how to make clay bricks, observed swordsmanship lessons, danced the formal dances of the time, and I learned how to be soldier when I joined the volunteer militia.
In the town, we interviewed a wigmaker, cooper, tailor and blacksmith. We were amazed at how much work went into making everything by hand, just as they would have done in colonial times. Things like wigs or barrels that one might take for granted suddenly seemed like impressive works of art once we saw the skill and time involved in creating them.
The site of the first permanent English settlement in North America, Jamestown was humbling indeed, for several reasons. The struggles of the settlers were inconceivable, and really put modern day “struggles” into perspective. There was no viable drinking water in Jamestown, yet it was chosen over other landing sites as the “best” option! Early settlers were quickly dying from drinking bad water, disease, famine, and sometimes war with the native Virginians. During the winter of 1609-1610, there was a severe food shortage, causing settlers to eat whatever they could, whether it was unusual animals or animal parts, leather, or even other settlers who had passed.
The settlement survived and eventually grew again, but Jamestown’s history continued to humble us. As the settlers prospered, conflicts with the Native Americans became more frequent, and the Natives definitely got the raw end of the deal, their numbers dwindling. And in 1619, Africans began to arrive, marking the beginning of slavery in English North America.
In 1781 George Washington and his American troops, along with our French ally Count de Rochambeau and his troops, besieged General Charles Lord Cornwallis’s British army. (A note about the French: We Americans make a lot of fun of them these days, but the truth is that we would not have won our independence without them on our side in the 18th century.) On October 19, Cornwallis surrendered, effectively ending the war and ensuring our independence. Yorktown, once a major port and economic center in Virginia, never recovered. Only 70 of its 250 buildings survived the siege.
The site of the last major battle of the American Revolution is impressive indeed. The park is green with sporadic beautiful trees, and encompasses the battlefield as well as a huge land mass around it. We took a tour of the battlefield with a park ranger, who showed us several types of cannons used in the battle. She also explained how the American and French troops set up the first and second siege lines, and we walked out to the two redoubts (small earth forts) that Washington and Rochambeau had to overtake in order to complete the second siege line.
We also took a driving tour on our own, where we saw the American and French field armories, as well as the American and French encampments. We saw the Moore House, where the surrender negotiations took place. As we drove around, I kept finding “great camping spots.” The driving loops are beautiful and serene; it was difficult to imagine this place filled with the sounds, smells and sights of gunpowder and war!