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Birth of a Nation - Colonial Williamsburg and Surrounds, by Shyam Amladi

George Washington                       Colonial Coffee House, Williamsburg

The Colonial towns of the United States—Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown---are a crucial testimony to pioneering, valor and intrepid exploration of immigrants’ efforts to tame an unsettled land.

WHERE IS IT?

Williamsburg is 153 miles SE of Washington DC, in the state of Virginia. The two surrounding historic settlements of Jamestown and Yorktown are, respectively 8 miles S and 13 miles E of Williamsburg. The drive from DC is pleasant, particularly when you get into the lush foliage of Southern Virginia, known for its sub-tropical weather, lots of vineyards and full-four season climate.

HISTORY

In 1606 King James I of England, in support of new English efforts to establish colonies along the coast of America—after the first effort in 1584 failed, gave land grant to a company of London merchants (called the London Company, until its successful colony causes it be known as the Virginia Company). A company based in Plymouth is granted a similar charter for the northern part of this long coastline, which as yet has no European settlers. So, contrary to some history books, the first colony in the Americas was not Plymouth, but Jamestown, which flourished as a British colony until the war of independence, 1776-81. This is how Virginia became a British colony.

Williamsburg was founded in 1632 as a capital of Colonial Virginia, as a fortified settlement between the James and York rivers.  It remained substantially in British hands as a colony until 1680, when the British lost the revolutionary war to the erstwhile British settlers.

Jamestown was established May 6, 1607 on the banks of the 348-mile long James River by about 100 settlers who came from England in 3 ships. Today, the colony is undergoing extensive excavations to find both the foundations and other artifacts from the colonial era. What has survived are the fortifications of the fort and the church, both restored or being restored.

Yorktown was established as a port in 1691 on the banks of the 34 mile long river that meets the Chesapeake bay. It flourished as a trading town and soon after it was established, hosted a large population and multi-storied buildings as well as docks and warehouses.

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

Williamsburg: “A town where the past is the future” is how someone described Williamsburg. It is like Disneyland for history buffs. Rich with historical enactments, Williamsburg has the old capital building, the British Parliament (called the House of Burgess), exhibits depicting life in 17th century British colony—e.g. a Tavern, a Coffee house that lets you sample how coffee was prepared, political debates, even a kitchen replete with the preparations of the day. Another must-see: the 1750 George Wythe house. George Wythe was a scholar and a mentor to Thomas Jefferson. His house is well preserved and the enactment of slaves and indentured servants by actors wearing period costumes and talking as they did in the 18th century feels as real today as it must have been nearly 300 years ago.

Jamestown: the settlement, first established in May, 1607 and named “James Cittie” is on Jamestown island which has an area of 1,560 acres, As the first British settlement in the Americas, as well as the seat of the British government for a century thereafter, Jamestown has a rich past—and an awesome view, as it sits right by James river. Early settlers fought Indians, disease, fires and invaders. It features the colony’s first industry, glass-blowing. The 35 square-mile area today has just a handful of remnants from the 17th century, when it was a thriving settlement and trading town of thousands of residents. Major things to see are:

  • the tercentenary tower which resembles the Washington monument and was built in 1907
  • the church, also built in 1907 on the site of the original church built first in
  • the glass house where they turn out beautiful vases and glass in all shapes that you can buy as a memento
  • The 1639 Church is the original building still standing from the early days.
  • The 1608 Glasshouse, the site of the original industry in the Colony, was rebuilt in the 1970’s; it still mixes and makes glass the same way settlers did.
  • The Archaearium, a large collection of period pieces dating back from the earliest days of the settlers—weapons, tools, the original State House and many more—there are over 4,000 artifacts.
  • Other things to see are the fortifications of the original fort the settlers built, the museum that stores the Chesapeake Indians’ heritage and

Yorktown: This town will forever be linked with the revolutionary war, rather than a city and a port, which it originally was settled as. This is where the War of Independence (the Revolutionary War) of 1776 ended when George Washington, aided ably by the French naval fleet and its commander, Major Rochambeau, defeated the British military and laid siege to the town of Yorktown. Some of the sites to visit:

  • Yorktown battlefield:  the site of last major battle of the Revolutionary War.  Here at Yorktown, in the fall of 1781, General George Washington, with allied American and French forces, besieged General Charles Lord Cornwallis’s British army.  On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered, effectively ending the war and ensuring independence. This seven-mile drive takes you to the key fortifications, ramparts and other war sites.
  • Hiking along the colonial trail: Explore a coastal estuary hiking a dozen short trails at York River State Park. In Williamsburg, Freedom Park, a historic area dating to the 1650s, offers 2 miles of forested multiuse trails. Waller Mill Park, also in Williamsburg, offers winding hiking trails, one paved, leading through stands of hardwood and pine with the occasional views of the water. Finally, walking trails along the historic Civil War grounds of Park include two of the 14 Confederate earthwork forts, or redoubts. 
  • Yorktown Victory Monument:  was built to commemorate the decisive victory at Yorktown—100 years later! It was constructed between 1881 and 1884. It is a very impressive, majestic monument, made of Hallowell Maine granite in its shaft.
    The star-studded column is 84 feet tall, supporting thirteen female figures representing the original States or Colonies. The Goddess of Liberty, extending another 14 feet, is balanced with out-stretched arms at the top of the shaft. 
  • Grace Episcopal Church: originally built in 1697, this church is a silent witness to 300 years of American history. It has survived fires, two wars and has been restored in the Greek Revival architectural style.
  • Wine Country: Virginia, like California, has several wine regions, which are distinct from each other relative to soil, sunny days, rain and topography. For instance, the Central region boasts of 200-day growing season, while the eastern coastal region has sandy soil, which makes for great wines. Overall, though, the wines generally do not measure up to those in California and Oregon.

We could go on, but suffice it to say, Colonial Virginia should be on your to-do-and-see list.