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January 29, 2012

The Historic Triangle: Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown

by Anne Paddock

During my daughter’s primary and middle school years, history was part of her curriculum every year. She spent a year studying Spanish history and memorizing the 17 autonomous communities in Spain (and had the wisdom at age 7 to ask me “why do I have to learn these?”), another year devoted to the Middle Ages (6th grade) and a semester on Greek history which culminated in a class trip to Greece to see the sights they had been studying. At the time,we didn’t think twice about her history curriculum although my husband was on a quest to show her as many ruins as possible.

One of the great benefits of living in Europe was how easy travel is from one country to the next – most major cities are less than two hours away by air and because most had long eventful histories, there was much to see. But after eight years of emphasizing European history, and plans to return to the United States, we realized our daughter had never learned about American history. So, during a Spring Break, we decided to spend a few weeks taking her to important historical sites in the US and we began our trip in Williamsburg, Virginia.

iStock_000018352374SmallWilliamsburg, Virginia is best described as a living history museum unlike any other “museum” you’ve ever seen.  Instead of one building dedicated to the history of the town,Colonial Williamsburg is a 300 acre area completely dedicated to the recreation of colonial American life in the 18th century.  Walk through the streets and the colonial houses (both authentic and recreated) and you will feel like you stepped back in time. Period costumes are the norm at the 35 exhibition sites, 16 trade shops, gardens, and museums.canstockphoto8222993

Most visitors spend 3-4 days in the area because there is so much to see and do.  The choices can be overwhelming so with that in mind, there are five places that should be on most everyone’s list:

  1. Explore Colonial Williamsburg (by foot)
  2. Attend and Participate in “Order in the Court”
  3. Attend and Participate in “Cry Witch”
  4. Visit Jamestown
  5. Visit the Yorktown Victory Center
Explore Colonial Williamsburg

Part of the charm of historical Colonial Williamsburg is the whole approach to providing the visitor with an authentic experience of what life was like in the early years of our nation. With employees dressed in period costumes living life as colonialists did, visitors experience colonial life instead of reading about it.  Children with a limited attention span don’t have to be quiet, not touch, or walk down the streets. They are free to ask questions, participate, and run, skip, or chase each other down the historical streets as there are few vehicles on most of the roads.

iStock_000018491778SmallStart your visit at the “Colonial Williamsburg Visitors Center” at 101A Visitor Center Drive” and then take an “Orientation Walk” – a 30 minute walk that provides an overview of the sites and programming. These walks are generally offered five times a day (10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 2:00, and 3:00).  A general admission ticket is required and can be purchased on-line at the official website or at the Visitors Center. The website also offers a complete list of programming by month, week, or day.visitorcenter1

 Attend and Participate in “Order in the Court”

Order in the Court” is a 30 minute program that offers visitors the chance to take on the roles of attorneys, justices, defendants, petitioners, litigants, or audience member where “lives, liberties, and property” rights of Virginians are played out.  An enormous amount of fun for all family members, this show is not to be missed.Order_in_the_court

The program is offered Tuesday – Saturday at 10:30 am. at the Courthouse in Colonial Williamsburg (refer to the map that can be obtained at the Visitors Center).

Attend and Participate in “Cry Witch”

Cry Witch” is an evening program that takes place at the Capital building (refer to the map of the historic area that can be obtained at the Visitors Center) in a candlelit courtroom.  Appropriate for kids (8 years and older,) and adults, the hourlong show is a reenactment of the “Virginia Witch” trial of 1706 when witchcraft charges were brought against Grace Sherwood.

iStock_000006547362SmallThe audience is the jury and they are invited to ask questions of the witnesses, weigh the evidence, and determine the innocence or guilt of the defendant.  A fun-filled high energy program that is especially enjoyed by older children that have a strong sense of the importance of individuality and personal freedom.

This show requires reservations and the purchase of a ticket for $12, all of which can be done on-line at the official website ticket link.

Visit Jamestown
Jamestown was the home of the first English settlement established more than 400 years ago in 1607 and was the first capital of Virginia.  Located approximately 10 miles southwest of Williamsburg on the Virginia peninsula, Jamestown is a historically significant site to see.Historic_Triangle_Virginia

Start your visit at the Visitors Center where tickets can be purchased and an overview of the site is provided in the theater. The 90-minute outdoor guided tour is highly recommendedand begins hourly starting at 10:30 am with the last tour at 3:30 pm.

 There are three parts to the site:
  1. Historic Jamestown is the archaeological site where excavation started in 1993.  Visitors can view the original James Fort and the 17th century church tower.
  2. The Jamestown Settlement is a living history interpretation site one mile from the original location of the colony.
  3. The Archaearium Museum showcases the artifacts of the James Fort. Excavations are ongoing which make this museum so relevant.archaearium_museum
Jamestown is open every day (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day) from 8:30 am – 4:30 pm. There is also a cafe – The Dale House Cafe on the riverfront –  and the Jamestown Settlement Cafe (located inside the museum) that are open everyday.
Jamestown Settlement
2110 Jamestown Road
Route 31S
Jamestown, VA 23185

Visit Yorktown Victory Center
The Yorktown Victory Center is a about 15 miles southeast of Colonial Williamsburg just off the Colonial Parkway on the York River.  Yorktown is most famous for the battle in which the British surrendered to General George Washington in October, 1781.  Today, the Yorktown Victory Monument (shown below) commemorates the battle.Yorktown_monument1
Start at the Visitors Center where tickets can be purchased.  A 30-minute film entitled “A Time of Revolution” provides an introduction to the site although the 60-minute guided tour of the Army encampment and the 18th century farm provide a great deal of detail on the battles fought at this site.  We all learned how the French provided a great deal of assistance to the Americans in winning the Revolutionary War.  The tour begins every day at 10:05 and continues hourly until the last tour at 4:05 pm.

Yorktown Victory Center
200 Water Street
Route 1020
Yorktown, VA 23690

Helpful Hints
  • Geographically, Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown are referred to as “America’s Historic Triangle” but in reality, Williamsburg straddles the two other sites:  Jamestown is about 10 miles southwest and Yorktown is about 15 miles southeast, both off the Colonial Parkway.  To do both in the same day will require backtracking so better to do Jamestown one day and Yorktown the next.
  • There are an abundance of sites in Williamsburg so if your visit is limited to a few days, plan carefully. Pick the sites you want to spend time at and make reservations or buy tickets on-line.
  • Whenever possible, make dinner reservations.
  • If possible and for convenience, stay in one of the local hotels in Williamsburg. There are six official hotels: The Williamsburg Inn (very nice), Williamsburg Lodge, Providence Hall, Colonial House, Williamsburg Woodlands, and the Governor’s Inn.  For reservations go to:
  • All three sites (Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown) require the purchase of a pass which can be purchased on-line at the sites listed above or in person at the Visitor’s Center.
  • If time permits, consider stopping by the store called La Tienda at 1325 Jamestown Road in the heart of Williamsburg. The store (and website) is one of the best sources of Spanish foods in the US.

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