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From the Field

Exploring Jamestown


A Note About COVID-19 and Visiting Parks Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.

Virginia’s Historic Triangle of Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown is an extremely well-travelled destination for visitors from around the globe. Jamestown is an essential element of the Historic Triangle, though many visitors are not aware that there are two separate experiences within a stone’s throw of each other  --  Jamestown Settlement, owned by Preservation Virginia, and Historic Jamestowne, managed by the National Park Service. I visited both within the same week, though it is entirely possible to visit these complementary neighboring sites in one full day of living history education and family fun.

At Historic Jamestowne, I recommend starting with a 20 minute orientation film that describes the relationship between Virginia Indians, Africans, and English Colonists. Next, spend time with the indoor exhibit and its immersive historical timeline. Key social and political elements since 1607 are featured throughout this exhibit to provide multiple perspectives upon life in Jamestown. From the extensive interpretations within the museum, a brief, though lovely, boardwalk stroll leads you to many outdoor features including foundations of English homes, a 17th-century brick church tower, the Archaearium, and the remains of the Ambler Mansion. One has the option to explore such places independently or to join an enthusiastic tour guide for a narrated tour.

Practically next door, the Jamestown Settlement serves as an educational and interpretive center which provides a hands-on opportunity to learn about life in Jamestown 400 years ago. A recently renovated extensive indoor exhibit with comparative material from Virginia Indian, Angolan, and English cultures interprets the early 17th century. Additionally, a brief documentary provides historical context for the Virginia Company of London’s mission, and rotating special exhibits are available for viewing. Different content and interpretation is offered here than at Historic Jamestowne, though there is of course some overlap.  The outdoor section of the Jamestown Settlement provides an interactive experience for visitors. You can try working on a dugout canoe and ask questions to passionate interpretive staff at each site.  Enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guides lead 90 minute walks through the recreated Powhatan Indian living history area, the James Fort, and don’t miss the replica ships!

Both places are accessible by the scenic Colonial Parkway, a roadway connecting culturally distinct places in the Historic Triangle while crossing several pristine natural environments. The Colonial Parkway ends with an exploratory driving route around Jamestown Island. The scenic Island Drive, with historical markers and wildlife habitat, is an excellent completion to your visit. Black Point was my favorite stop along the drive, where a wooded foot path (Tip:  bring bug spray!) leads to an incredible view of the James River. I also learned a lot from the 11 different interpretive road markers that bicyclists and drivers can pull over to read.

The amount of available historical information and interpretation was very impressive to me. There is still so much we will never know about this land prior to 1607 but the exhibits bring in primary source material to fill in some gaps. I gained a much clearer understanding of America’s early history by attending both sites and speaking to friendly staff and tour guides. Considering the interactive component of recreated historical sites at the Jamestown Settlement, this may be more desirable for young children. Historic Jamestowne hosts a great sum of artifacts and, with ongoing excavation projects on site, there is always an archaeologist around to answer broader historical questions and explain the preservation process.

Carolyn Black

Carolyn was born and raised in Massachusetts and graduated from UMass Amherst with a BA in Social Thought and Political Economy and a Minor in Natural Resource Conservation. She is interested in the human and economic impact of conservation and climate change mitigation. 

July 29, 2015

Main image: A view of Historic Jamestowne (Image courtesy: Starke Jett / National Park Service)
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