Virginia’s Living History Museums
article and images by Carole Terwilliger Meyers
Brushing up on this country’s history is a snap when you step into the past at one of its many “living history” museums. Virginia is home to a plethora of them, and with careful planning you can easily fit the best into a week-long vacation. If you’re coming from outside the area, consider extending your trip to accommodate arriving in Washington, D.C., spending some time there first, and then renting a car and driving to Richmond and on to the Historic Triangle.
Virginia’s Historic Triangle
Located just 50 miles east of Richmond as the crow flies, this compact area is where chapters One, Two, and Three of American History are connected by a low-speed, 23-mile scenic parkway. You can see the beginning and the end of American Colonial history within a 30-minute drive, but I recommend you allow at least three days. You might want to add a few more days to your stay so that you can also visit the three James River Plantations, the Busch Gardens theme park, and the display of intricate miniature ship models at the extraordinary Mariners’ Museum in Newport News.
Positioned at a strategic narrow spot on the James River, this island settlement founded in 1607 is the first permanent English-speaking settlement in North America. It predates the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims by 13 years. A church is the only remaining original structure. The pastoral site is now very quiet, with entertainment limited to singing birds, jumping squirrels, and viewing an active archaeological dig.
Nearby, a new Visitor Center at the Jamestown Settlement features an orientation movie and exhibition gallery. A cafe ensures that now, unlike 400 years ago, no one will starve to death. Outside in the Powhatan Indian village, the cozy round-edged houses resemble Airstream trailers. Costumed interpreters demonstrate rope making, basket weaving, and more—there’s so much to do! In a riverfront area, reproductions of Virginia’s founding fleet are open for exploration, as are the thatched-roof, English-style houses of the re-created James Fort.
Frozen in the mid-1770s, this non-profit educational institution is the largest and oldest living history museum in the U.S. and is a must-see. From 1699 to 1780, it was the political, social, and cultural capital of Britain’s largest, wealthiest, and most populous colony. Today it features 88 original buildings and portrays the town as it appeared on the eve of the American Revolution. Visitors witness the pomp and circumstance of fife-and-drum parades as well as the informal excitement of “Streetscapes,” in which actors portray colorful residents noisily going about their daily lives. Houses and gardens are open for touring, shops purvey era reproductions, and restaurants serve up old-time treats.
There is so much to do and see here that it is crucial to spend some advance time planning your sightseeing strategy. Staying in the Woodlands Hotel adjacent to the Visitor Center is one good idea, as is spending a night in one of the rooms available in colonial houses that are “far from traffic noise but not from the whinnies of horse-drawn carriages.” Viewing The Story of a Patriot at the Visitor Center is another good idea. And do indulge in a meal at one of the authentic town taverns, preferably a leisurely dinner. Costumed waitstaff bring the experience to life, and the fare is bountiful and tasty.
Composed of three sites, this is where the last major encounter of the Revolutionary War took place. You can see where the British surrendered and follow in the footsteps of General George Washington. The 1781 Siege of Yorktown changed the face of the world at the time and is sometimes described as the country’s true declaration of independence.
In addition to the now-quiet battlefield, the monument has a colonial town with historical homes and atmospheric shops and restaurants. The Yorktown Victory Center features an indoor museum plus an outdoor area where a Continental Army encampment and 1780s farm are re-created and brought to life with costumed interpreters. You might see anything from a young soldier dressed in a tattered military uniform busily cleaning his musket to a tired farm wife dishing up a sample of era food.
A worthy destination even without its heavy historical past as the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond today is home to excellent museums and offers many good dining and shopping venues. You can raft on the James River—the city has the only class IV rapids in an urban setting in the U.S.—and stay at the grand Jefferson Hotel, whose staircase was the prototype for the one in Scarlet O’Hara’s house in Gone with the Wind.
●St. John’s Church
The first church built in Richmond, this still-active Episcopal church is also where in 1775 Patrick Henry made his fiery “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. Public reenactments are scheduled regularly on summer Sundays and include costumed actors portraying Henry as well as Washington, Jefferson, and others.
●Henricus Historical Park
Located just 15 minutes south of town, this new park is a reconstruction of the 1611 Citie of Henricus—the second successful English settlement in North America. It is where Pocahontas married John Rolfe, and they are among the residents you might “meet.” The original city was destroyed in 1622, when Indians massacred the settlers and burned the settlement. Like those in the Historic Triangle, this park is also on the James River. It is a work in progress, with new sections planned for completion through 2010. You’ll see thatched-roof buildings, a small tobacco farm, and interactive areas where the past is brought to life by interpreters wearing period clothing and actively involving visitors in making pots, watering gardens, and tending chickens. Additionally, the Audubon Society rates this park as one of the top three birding sites in the nation.