Visiting the colonial village that birthed America and gave root to our national traditions would be an appropriate way to celebrate this holiday season. But Plimouth Plantation is the wrong destination, according to many in the Commonwealth – the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Guide Joe Dona began his tour at Virginia’s Historic Jamestowne by asking if anyone in the group came from Massachusetts. He tipped his cap to them and their state’s place in colonial history, but promptly cleared up a few common misconceptions.
In 1607 – thirteen years before the Pilgrims arrived off the coast of Cape Cod – Captain John Smith and his cadre of British settlers stepped onto Virginia soil and established Jamestown. Twenty miles up the river from Jamestown, at a settlement known as Berkeley Plantation, a religious ceremony was held for thanks and good fortune in 1619 – two years before the Pilgrims’ famed Thanksgiving feast.
But before controversy and competition pervaded his tour, Dona engaged the entire group by beginning the tale of Jamestown, set amongst the sun-drenched coastline of the James River and the ever-changing grounds of England’s first permanent settlement in America. Jamestown’s story, debated for four hundred years amidst purportedly lost evidence, became fodder for one of America’s most dynamic tourist attractions.
Similar to Massachusetts, the main attractions in this region of Virginia take advantage of the rich history. Within a few minutes drive of Jamestown is Colonial Williamsburg, a Revolutionary America village that recreates the days before independence was declared. Nearby Yorktown is the site of one of George Washington’s most famous battles.
Jamestown differs in that its history is still being written, and rewritten.
There are two main sites to choose from. Jamestown Settlement, a living history museum and settlement recreation, is reminiscent of Plimouth Plantation. It is a family-friendly stop filled with reenactments, demonstrations and recreations of the ships that transported the settlers across the Atlantic.
But it is the adjacent Historic Jamestowne, located on an island at the actual site where the original town and fort stood, that allows visitors to actually watch the unveiling of American history.
Run jointly by the National Park Service and Preservation Virginia, Historic Jamestowne is a working archaeological dig site. Archaeologists dig most days, except Sunday. In winter, the park is open but work typically moves inside to examine the multitude of artifacts they continuously pull from Jamestown’s history-rich earth.
In the one-acre the park occupies, archaeologists have discovered more than two million artifacts. And visitors have access to the best of it.
Stroll the grounds here and walk past roped off but easily visible excavated plots where stratified dirt gives way to small purple flags marking recent discoveries. Working archaeologists will engage onlookers, eager to discuss their work.
The site’s archaeology tour, led by experts like Dona, is perhaps the best way to dig down into the fascinating story behind the Jamestown colony. The history of the actual settlement, which includes starvation, war with the native inhabitants and even cannibalism, is one of survival.
The guide climbed into several active dig sites, including a subterranean cooking area. Here Dona explained several of the artifacts found and did not shy away from the most eerie one: human remains of a young girl that researchers believe was being used as a food source for the starving settlers. The skull and a bone fragment of “Jane,” as they have named her, can be seen in the park’s on-site museum called the Archaearium. A relatively recent discovery, she represents a dark portion of the fort’s past that raised more questions than answers.
Digging was halted at Jamestown for much of the Twentieth Century when experts believed erosion had long since washed away any remnants of John Smith’s original fort. However, as Dona discussed throughout his tour, that all changed when Dr. William M. Kelso took over the site in the early 1990s. Dr. Kelso unearthed a series of postholes that ultimately led to discovering the original fort, debunking the erosion claim and laying the foundation for the ongoing future discoveries, such as “Jane.”
Though the archaeology tour is confined to the original fort, worthwhile sites spread across the entire island.
Next to the original fort are a series of building remains running in rows. Well-placed information placards tell the story of how Jamestown survived near extinction to grow into a bustling river port.
A five-mile Island Loop Drive curves through forest and over marshland. The island even has its own working glasshouse, built in the style of the seventeenth century, near the ruins of an old glass furnace. Artisans in era garb demonstrate their craft for modern visitors, creating glass pieces reminiscent of those made 400 years ago.
The sites in and around Jamestown have evolved right along with their ever-changing history. Like its fellow early colonial settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Jamestown works daily to keep history alive and well.
But while some in the two Commonwealths still debate which colonial settlement holds more historical significance, Dona made sure to end his tour with one final fact. The body of Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, a Jamestown settler who explored the Atlantic seaboard, was recently discovered at Historic Jamestowne. On his explorations, Gosnold gave Cape Cod its name and dubbed the island off its coast Martha’s Vineyard, after his own daughter Martha.
As Dona said, “you can’t get away from Virginia, folks.”