Yorktown, Jamestown and Williamsburg VA - The Historic Triangle

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April 10th 2012
Published: April 19th 2012
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I laid out my route from Wanchese NC to Williamsburg VA on MapQuest and downloaded it to my Garmin so I could avoid the freeway congestion around Norfolk VA. All was going well. Although the backdrop was rural interspersed with small urban pockets, the drive on April 3, 2012 was relaxing and enjoyable. (Informational) Irene was taking me on the route I had planned. I wanted to exit from I-664 onto US 17/VA 626 and take US 17 over the James River via a bridge (where I could enjoy the skyline and the river activity) instead of using the Interstate route via a bridge/tunnel. Since I had been advised that RVs must turn off propane tanks before entering the tunnel, just as must be done on the ferries in North Carolina, I had turned off my tanks just in case.

Good thing! She/I missed the exit (I was trusting her and not paying attention – a drawback of a GPS) and had to pull off to show the officer that my tanks were shut off. That’s no big deal, but there was construction with lane closures just past the inspection point. I had about 100-150 yards to get up to
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Yorktown VA
merging speed, to traverse to the far left lane and to merge into the traffic flow. It’s a good thing the traffic was light and the drivers (at least the one who saw me coming and gave me room) were courteous. Aha, one more reason to avoid the Interstates when pulling the Pilgrim. The rest of the trip to the Williamsburg RV Resort & Campground in Williamsburg VA was unremarkable, but I’m going to have to do some experimenting with Irene to find out what happened to my predetermined route.

After setting up, I spent the remainder of the day with a little bit of this and some of that. I had read about Colonial Parkway which connects the beginning and the end of the British colonial adventure in America - Jamestown and Yorktown; however, I couldn’t imagine a controlled access roadway that could be described as “quaint” or “picturesque.” Colonial Parkway is all of that as it meanders through woodlands and along the James and York Rivers for 23 miles with only a few access points and a few pull-offs. The roadway itself is an atypically textured concrete without painted lane markings, and the overpasses are made of
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Yorktown Battlefield - Yorktown VA
or faced with brick. Most of the three lane, 45 m.p.h. parkway is posted as “No Passing,” and the beginning and ending points of the passing zones are not clearly identified. My recommendation is enjoy the scenery, and don’t even bother trying to pass.

On Wednesday morning, I set out for the NPS Visitor Center at the Yorktown Battlefield. I learned that a ranger presentation was scheduled to begin in a few minutes so I took advantage of the opportunity. I have found that, at National Park Service sites in particular, the combined effect of the ranger presentation and the introductory movie (usually available in the visitor center) provides a comprehensive foundation for the site. Yorktown Battlefield was no different. In his outside presentation, the ranger supplemented the movie, noted additional events that culminated in the Battle of Yorktown and identified physical landmarks that made the actual battle much more vivid and understandable. He offered a “connect the dots” if you will.

Unbeknownst to the participants at the time, the Battle of Yorktown was the last major engagement of the Revolutionary War. In the summer of 1781, British General Charles, Lord Cornwallis moved his 8,300-man force to Yorktown
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Yorktown Battlefield - Yorktown VA
to establish a base of operations with the notion that this location would lead to British control of the southern colonies. During that same summer, General George Washington moved a 17,000-man combined American and French force to Williamsburg while the French fleet prevented resupply and escape of the foe by blockading the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.

On September 28, Washington’s force marched to Yorktown to confront Cornwallis. Earthworks were built in preparation for a siege that began on October 9. The ranger told us that Washington had to wait for the cannon to arrive before launching the siege. Had Cornwallis only known!!! After intense, nearly round-the-clock bombardment, Cornwallis requested a cease fire on October 17 so terms of surrender could be negotiated. I win, you lose – what’s to negotiate? I guess somebody had to brew the tea and bake the crumpets – or whatever one does to crumpets! Two days later, the formal surrender occurred. It is said that when the British Prime Minister, Lord North, learned of the defeat he exclaimed, “Oh God! It is all over!” Historically, it was, but nobody knew it at the time. Washington kept the Continental Army intact until hostilities officially ended
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Yorktown Battlefield - Yorktown VA
with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in September 1783. From the visitor center, I walked a few blocks to the village of Yorktown for lunch.

Having absorbed the events of the battle and assimilated the temperament of the participants, I purchased the “Yorktown Battlefield Auto Tour” audio CD and set out on the seven-mile journey. The narrator is assisted by two “combatants” – one American and one British – who enhance the experience “in their own words.” Looking at the battlefield from various vantage points provides an even better understanding of the strategies of the commanders. “Being there” affords an opportunity to appreciate the emotions of the individual soldier. The CD is well worth the five dollar investment for the battlefield portion of the auto tour but falls horribly short by not providing the same quality experience for the second auto tour – the Allied Encampment Tour. Both tours have numerous stops so the visitor can embark on foot to examine structures more closely and to trek to locations for even better understanding and enjoyment.

It was humbling to walk through the area that was General Washington’s headquarters. It was strange to gain the perspective of
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Yorktown Battlefield - Yorktown VA
a British soldier as Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton’s force overran his fortification. It was sobering to stand at the French Cemetery where about fifty unknown French soldiers are buried. When the time for surrender had arrived, the Americans lined one side of the road from Yorktown and the French soldiers the other. Many of the French soldiers had crisp, clean, white uniforms while most of their American counterparts wore a spectrum of tattered wherever they could find to wear. Washington instructed those with the best uniforms to stand in the first rank and those with torn or tattered uniforms in the second rank. The defeated British troops, some with tears streaming down their cheeks, marched to Surrender Field. While standing there, I tried to visualize a young British soldier clasping his musket to his chest and saying, “May you never get so good a master” before throwing it into the pile of relinquished arms.

Some might argue that Yorktown was the birthplace of America because the success of the revolution had been tentative at best. Washington had kept asking the Continental Congress for more troops, more supplies and more money to pay the troops. The victory at Yorktown instilled
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Jamestown National Historic Site - Jamestown VA
a sense of pride and honor in the American forces while fostering feelings of despair and hopelessness in the British. One irony that has occurred to me is that of a British Cemetery on Ocracoke Island NC where friends are buried and the British cemeteries that speckle the US where the foe has been laid to rest. One inarguable fact is that had it not been for French assistance, the Revolutionary War certainly would have had a different outcome.

On Friday April 6, I took a step back in time about 150 years and some 23 miles down Colonial Parkway to the landing and settlement at Jamestown VA. It looks like I got the alpha and the omega of the British presence in America flipped. Oh, well! On May 13, 1607 Capt. James Smith and 104 colonists dropped anchor in the river named for England’s King James I and established a settlement also in his name. By 1610, only 60 of the 300 settlers who had arrived at Jamestown were still alive. Had it not been for the assistance of the Powhatan tribes, those 60 most assuredly would have succumbed to starvation or disease as well. By 1622 there
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Jamestown National Historic Site - Jamestown VA
were nearly 1000 settlers along the James River. The Powhatan tribes, frustrated by unfair treatment and the expansion of colonial activity beyond negotiated boundaries, attacked the settlements and killed one-third of the population. The first fifteen years after the settlement was founded were not easy, but the colonists persevered.

Tobacco production was refined, slave labor was expanded and foreign trade agreements were made. While remaining loyal to the crown, the General Assembly of Virginia began to pass laws, such as building codes, particular to the commonwealth. As the soils become depleted of tobacco- dependent nutrients, farmers moved westward. When settlers on the western fringes of Virginia felt inadequately protected from Indian attacks, Nathaniel Bacon began an unauthorized military campaign. Virginia Governor William Berkeley raised troops to respond to Bacon; but, before Bacon was killed, he burned a good portion of Jamestown. After the capital building burned in 1698, the capital was moved to Williamsburg. Jamestown never regained its stature.

Other than the historical significance of the geographic site, Jamestown is primarily of archeological interest. About all that remains are the skeleton of the 1907 Memorial Church and the excavated foundations of various buildings. There are statues of Pocahontas
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Jamestown National Historic Site - Jamestown VA
and John Smith and a replica fort is under construction. The resident archeologist gave an interesting program, and a costumed interpreter provided an entertaining historical perspective. The archeology museum has some interesting artifacts; however, photography is not allowed. I truly understand prohibiting flash photography but for the life of me do not understand banning all photography. If I don’t have a photo, I won’t remember the details next week say nothing of five years from now! Maybe that’s the point – I’ll have to return! For those who haven’t seen glassblowing, the nearby Jamestown Glasshouse is worth a 30-minute stop. The NPS has done a nice job with what they have but, in my opinion, there is not much at Jamestown for the average tourist except the historical awe which is, indeed, significant.

I intentionally planned to visit the two complementary state-affiliated attractions, Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center, on the weekend so I could avoid school groups. Jamestown Settlement, a short drive from the National Historic Site, is informative, entertaining and extremely well done. There are five main areas in the attraction – the history center/galleries; the Powhatan Indian village; three full-size replicas of the ships that brought
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Jamestown Settlement - Jamestown VA
the first settlers to Jamestown; the riverfront discovery area; and a 1610-1614 re-creation of James Fort. My first order of business was the visitor center where the movie “A Nation Takes Root” provides a great orientation to the outdoor attractions. Interesting artifacts and dioramas are handsomely displayed.

Outside, under a welcomed, blazing sun on a cool morning, I first went to the Powhatan Indian village. Several sapling-framed huts covered with reed mats contained animal furs of various species, and artifacts depicted life in the native dwelling. The first of three costumed interpreters was showing how the tendons of a deer foot are used to make strong, durable cordage to sew together the seams of garments. The second was cooking a pot of stew as he told about seasonings and ingredients relevant to seasonal adjustments while the third was discussing how tools were made as she used an awl and tendon cordage to join together two pieces of tanned leather.

My next stop was the dock where the replicas of the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery were berthed. Although there was less “action” than in the replica village, each ship was
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Jamestown Settlement - Jamestown VA
open for exploration and costumed interpreters were available to answer questions. Somehow I missed the riverfront discovery area where (according to my brochure) information about water transportation and economic activities including boat building and fishing are highlighted especially as they were related to the three cultural groups inhabiting the area in the 1600s – Europeans, Indians and Africans.

My final order of business for the day was a visit to James Fort. My first experience there was the occasional cannon firing. (In fact, that announcement might have caused me to miss the riverfront exhibit – like, Larry, you’ve never seen a cannon firing demonstration before!!!) Again, there was the proverbial blacksmith at work and the musket firing demonstration. The fort was the least impressive of the areas I visited. Jamestown Settlement is unquestionable more kid friendly, more tourist friendly and more non-archeologist friendly than the more scholarly Jamestown National Historic Site; however, being where history was made is…well, what can I say?

Sunday it was off to the Yorktown Victory Center. Again, this is a state- affiliated facility that is close to its NPS counterpart. In the visitor center/gallery building, the film “A Time of Revolution” depicts a
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Yorktown Victory Center - Yorktown VA
night during the Siege of Yorktown from the perspective of several participants. Other displays focus on the Declaration of Independence, ships lost or scuttled during the siege, a map depicting the routes taken by both forces to get to Yorktown and, most interestingly, the musings from the diaries of several people of diverse backgrounds about the revolution and its impact on their way of life. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed so I would suggest taking pen and pad to record the names of published works or of quoted individuals. A couple of those volumes looked like some very interesting reading. (A few days later, a phone call to the foundation generated an emailed list of those references!)

My first stop outside was at the Continental Army encampment. At the doctor’s tent, I learned several very interesting lessons about 18th century treatments that frequently had the desired effect for the wrong reason. For example, bloodletting was used to treat infection and, erroneously, was thought to be effective since the exsanguination process itself caused an increase in white blood cell production which in turn fought the infection. The camp cook, one of the women that accompanied the army in a supporting
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Yorktown Victory Center - Yorktown VA
role, was explaining the operation of a community kitchen where several soldiers pooled a ration (of beans, for example), cooked them together and then shared the results. The cannon firing had an interesting twist - the first mock “firing” was performed by visitors under the guidance of costumed staff members. After the audience participation exercise, the staff went through the real deal. The 1780s Virginia farm has a house, a detached kitchen, a tobacco barn, crop fields and a garden. The docent was baking sweet rolls on an open hearth in a cast iron Dutch oven. Yorktown Victory Center is an excellent augmentation to (but not a replacement for) the Yorktown Battlefield.

On the way back to the RV park from the Yorktown Victory Center, I stopped at Colonial Williamsburg. I had a late lunch and walked around the College of William and Mary campus. Founded in 1693, it is the second oldest institution of higher learning in the United States – after Harvard which was founded in 1636. The campus is beautiful and interesting and was Sundayishly serene. Williamsburg has some beautiful homes, but downtown is an overpriced tourist trap in my opinion.

As a package, the
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The College of William and Mary - Williamsburg VA
Historic Triangle should be on everybody’s to do list. Unfortunately, the two attractions that deserve the most time are at the Yorktown end of Colonial Parkway. Twenty three miles down Colonial Parkway, Jamestown definitely merits a visit; however, attempting to see both on the same day will probably result in a feeling of emptiness for both. I would recommend starting at the opening bell and giving the three attractions at Yorktown (counting the village) one full day. Then, on a separate day, see the two attractions at Jamestown and take a drive through the historical area of Williamsburg. That, I believe, would be the bare minimum to give this historic area its rightful due.

Additional photos below
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Somerwell House

Yorktown VA
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Cole Diggs House

Yorktown VA
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Custom House

Yorktown VA
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Washington's Headquarters Tent

Yorktown Battlefield - Yorktown VA
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American And French Second Siege Line

Yorktown Battlefield - Yorktown VA
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Firing At The British From Point Blank Range

Yorktown Battlefield - Yorktown VA

20th April 2012

Great blog has always.
Hi; Larry I enjoy your blogs. Keep up the great work. Rving is lot better than being at old station 5, right. We are in Colorado for the summer if you get this way. Until later, John
24th April 2012

Interesting History Lesson
Hi Larry, Sounds like you are having a fun and interesting time. I enjoyed the tour and pictures of a place I have never been to and will probably not have the opportunity to see and enjoy in person. Thanks for your time and effort in making your blogs interesting. Love and miss you Helen

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