Virginia is loaded with history, or at least sites where history happened. On a recent trip, filled with serendipitous moments, we visited the Williamsburg/Jamestown/Yorktown historic triangle, entering from the Virginia Beach area where the first chance happening occurred.
The path was being laid when we chose to stop at Cape Henry, Fort Story Army Base, 583 Atlantic Ave, 757-422-9421, in Virginia Beach to see the spot where the English settlers stopped in 1607 on their way to Jamestown - the first settlement in America.
Not only was it a stop in 1607, it was between Cape Henry and the cape across the river where French Admiral Comte de Grasse stopped the English from reinforcing General Cornwallis at a tiny little town called Yorktown during the Revolutionary War/War of Independence. As it had been a number of years since American History classes, the importance of this fact didn't register until a few days later while visiting Yorktown Battlefield. What a surprise to find how closely tied this stop would be for the visit to the triangle of America's birthplace and fight for its independent life during the Revolutionary War.
Next stop: the Mariner's Museum, Marinersmuseum.org, 757-596-2222/800-581-7245 in Newport News - home to what's left of The USS Monitor - the first ironclad ship to be commissioned by the United States Navy during the War Between the States/Civil War in 1862. Dubbed "Yankee Cheesebox," "Ericsson's (designer) Folly," and "Cheesebox on a Raft," this "cheese box" went to battle with the CSS Virginia (also called Merrimack from its previous incarnation as a war-sailing vessel).
Using today's technology the museum let us be flies on the wall watching the battle of the U.S.S. Monitor and C.S.S. Virginia; participate in the sinking of the ironclad off the coast of Hatteras, North Carolina in 1862; and feel the excitement at the discovery of her hull in 1973. After walking around a full size reproduction, it was even possible to see her 120-ton wrought iron turret rejuvenating in treatment solution which, someday, will allow it to once again see the light of day. All through the USS Monitor Center were ways to be involved in the activity of this ship's short life - from design to its sinking that stormy day, Dec. 31, 1862.
Participating in the various displays in the Monitor's Center, we continued our journey back in time into America's exciting and confusing history. Icing to the cake was stumbling in to one of the heads of the expedition which retrieved the turret, who just happened to be at the entrance of the center. What an eerie feeling seeing him walk into the entrance to the Monitor's display right after having seen him bringing the ship's turret to the ocean's surface only minutes before on a wide screen movie.
Taking in the rest of the 60,000 square foot museum, discovering all shapes and sizes of ancient ships and seafaring ways, a miniature room with over 30 ships meticulously built over the last 20 years to 1/4 scale, rooms of sea lore and a room full of ships of significance, kept our brains on high alert to absorb the depths of detail put into this museum. Easily accessible to the historic triangle, we were so glad Linda Stanier, communications director, Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance, insisted on a visit.
The next day Linda introduced us to yesteryear as we walked onto the streets of Colonial Williamsburg, visitwilliamsburg.com, 888-881-4156.
"There are 50 buildings within the boundary of the site and many of them have been restored," she said. "Some had to be totally reconstructed during the restoration in the 30s, when John D. Rockefeller agreed to the idea of reenacting the nation's history at Williamsburg. All the buildings belong to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, an educational and preservation entity."
History was tightly wrapping itself around us as we stepped onto the stony paths, viewed the gardens, watched as interpreters explained their "jobs" as a millinery seamstress, a blacksmith, wheelwright, silversmith, and other workers of years gone by.
Dining at a local tavern took us deeper into the ambiance of the time. King Arm's Tavern, complete with costumed settlers/waiters, proffered a rich and delicious Peanut Soupe and Pottage Pye - ah, yes, a scrumptious chicken pot pie.
"I have just opened TAVERN opposite to the Raleigh [Tavern] at the sign of the KING"S ARMS...and shall be much obliged to the Gentlemen who favor me with their company,"
read the ad by Jane Vobe in the February 6, 1872 issue of the Virginia Gazette.
Roaming up and down the streets of Williamsburg, interpreters in costume either in first person - acting as if it were 1800's Williamsburg and speaking in the King's English - or third person - acting out of the 1800's yet speaking in today's English - greeted visitors in every area. An example of music from the 1860's with a pianoforte, a viola de gamba and a transit flute made of wood, all instruments not common today, was one of the many intriguing presentations ongoing throughout the day.
"Revolutionary City" put on a historical street play encouraging all visitors to follow the players up and down the main street of Williamsburg ala Pied Piper. It's easy to say almost any part of the visit is a highlight for everything is so consistently well done. Rockefeller's dream has truly become a reality in this walk into the past.
Night time brings more adventures, more tours and highly recommended was the Civil War Tour (Friday nights only). Gathering by candlelight in the old Williamsburg Courthouse, a costumed historian began with tales of Williamsburg Civil War days. Following the leader out into the candlelit moonless night, the first stop was coming face to face with a rebel soldier, sharing his tale of fear and flight, honor and doubts.
Standing there in the candlelight, watching his eyes dart fearfully here and there, giving quick anxious glances over his shoulder searching out the enemy, time stood still as he wove his tale, pulling the small group into his life. As he shuffled and fidgeted telling his story, the group was caught up by this simple man thrust into the horrors of war. His clothes and rifle, his movements, his trembling voice - so authentic. What year is it - really?
Meeting others who also shared their stories, breathing the night air of aged buildings and their memories, it again was like crossing a bridge to the past. Later, while pondering what we had seen in the past few days, the realization was quite stark of what so many had gone through to make our country what it is today. A deep sense of gratitude began to grow.
Respite from the past was found at the Marriott's Manor Club at Ford's Colony, www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/phfvi-marriotts-manor-club-at-fords-colony/, 757-258-1120, about 15 minutes from downtown Williamsburg, near a golf course, amid immaculate lawns and modern day colonial houses. A time-share property, it also rents rooms (suites) just like a hotel. A full kitchen, dining area, living room with fireplace, screened in porch and one or two bedrooms with baths, comfortable and tastefully decorated, are available.
With pools and activities, for adults and kids, going on all day, if history becomes overwhelming, it's easy to escape into the fun at the hotel. The staff is helpful, warm and welcoming and even their little market place off the lobby is stocked for daily food supplies or forgotten items.
The whole setting is tucked among towering trees and, except for the cicadae who were making their seven year visit, the setting was peaceful, picturesque and convenient to all other sites in the area.
After visiting Williamsburg, it was off to Historic Jamestown, historicjamestown.org, 757-856-1200, a national park, and experiencing the beginning days of this great country. Walking along the paths the original settlers took, seeing how they lived in the reproduced fort, hearing the story of how those brave 104 men started this country in 1607 - well, it was enough to bring on chills.
After that first stop at Cape Henry, the adventurers landed at Jamestown, their hopes and dreams high. Believing they had a clear water resource in the river by their hilltop site, they weren't aware it was snow-melt running against the river. Before the year was over, the water was turning salty and rancid, and 70 percent of the men had died.
Were it not for the men rapidly dying, the Spanish king would have sent in his army to attack the English. Instead, he told his forces not to waste their money. "Let them die," said the king. Just think - America could have been part of Spain. But for the folly of their king!
"Though they are remembered as settlers and military people," said the park ranger, "I call them heroes!"
Local Native Americans, though originally killing some of the men, also helped their fellow humans.
A park ranger, his impelling tale of intrigue explaining how the archeologists found the original fort by drawing on clues from an old cypress tree, the Civil War and a rotting fence, kept the tour following him entranced. Touching the original 1607 church wall was a thrill and looking over the excavation begun last year on the second church built at the fort where Pocahontas married John Rolfe felt incredible. That site was listed in the top 10 archeological sites of 2010!
Standing with closed eyes, it was easy to feel the heat and humidity, smell the swamp and fear as the soldiers began dying off. The Historic Jamestown park ranger had his own theory as to what killed off the men. It all had to do with understanding they had not discovered germs yet, a medical instrument used for both ends of a human and no disinfectant in sight.
"It wasn't the brackish water," he said, chuckling. "It was spreading germs with a dirty medical instrument."
At the Jamestown Settlement, historyisfun.org, 757-253-4838 - a living history museum separate from Historic Jamestown - an indoor theater and gallery exhibits led to the outdoor living history programs. A reproduced Jamestown fort, replicas of the three sailing vessels - the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery and a Powhatan village are displayed with interpreters and demonstrations. Climbing aboard the small, yet seaworthy ships, it was a shock to think of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in those tiny quarters. Many interactive displays with the interpreters are fun and another walk back in time.
Once more breaking up history overload, it was back the short distance to Newport News to visit the Virginia Living Museum, www.thevlm.org, 757-595-1900 on 22 acres. Displaying the various animals of Virginia across a wooded acreage, when the coyote began howling at an ambulance screaming down the road and, across the compound, the red wolves joined in the singing, it was pure joy listening to the impromptu concert.
Inside, an Appalachian mountain cove, cypress swamp, coastal plain gallery and Piedmont and mountains gallery, to name a few, brought the rest of Virginia alive under one roof. "Connecting people to nature through educational experiences that promote conservation" is the goal of the informative, interactive museum. Where else could someone pet a million year old horseshoe crab or take a trip across Virginia skies in the Planetarium?
Yorktown was the last area visited. Though the War of Independence raged before and after the Yorktown Battle, many feel it was the decisive battle of the war. The park ranger at Yorktown Battlefield, www.nps.gov/yonb/index.htm, 757-898-2410, also had a passion for her job and knew the battle and events leading up to it as good as the freckles on her hand. We quickly succumbed to her captivating tale of this vital episode in history.
It seems Cornwallis really blew it and we're so lucky he did. If he had not chosen to go to Yorktown, they might have been somewhere he could have received reinforcements and supplies. Instead he was cut off by land and sea with only a little settlement across the bay to attempt an escape by night. A surprise storm arose at midnight, cutting off his escape route, and Cornwallis was forced to surrender the next day.
The American forces would go on to fight more battles but there's no doubt, history was made during the Battle at Yorktown.
Going over to the Yorktown Victory Center, historyisfun.org, 757-253-4838/888-5934682, was our final educational visit into the past. Housing an extensive museum of the American Revolution, the Center chronicles America's struggle for independence from the beginnings of colonial unrest to the formation of the new nation. Wandering through the outdoor re-creations of a 1780's farm and a Continental Army encampment completed the journey.
Having fallen in love with the friendly people and the beauty of this wooded and luscious green splice of Virginia, we left with a deeper understanding of America's beginnings and struggles to become independent. Time to pack the past away, we returned with a renewed, profound appreciation for this glorious country of ours - The United States of America.
For more information contact the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance, www.williamsburgcc.com, 757-229-3495. Also check out the video on yourvalleyvoice.com.