Historic Virginia's Patriots and Pocahontas - My Family Travels

A Virginia family takes you behind-the-scenes at Jamestown, Yorktown, and Colonial Williamsburg to learn the true story of Pocahontas.

Families who enjoy combining time travel with vacation fun will find an abundance of both during an outing in the Colonial Williamsburg-Jamestown area (2-3 hours south of Washington, D.C. by car) Here, they will discover the “real story” of America’s first genuine heroine, Pocahontas. And in this area chock-a-block with early American history, families can walk on well-trodden paths in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Patrick Henry, and many other colorful leading citizens of the 18th century.

Jamestown: Where It All Began

Contrary to some impressions, the history of America did not begin in 1620 with the Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower to the shores of Massachusetts. These settlers were johnny-come-latelies when compared to the founders of Jamestown who forged the first permanent English colony in North America in 1607. Virginians even lay claim to this country’s first official celebration of Thanksgiving, held nearby at Berkeley Plantation in 1619. The celebration usually takes place the first week of November and the day long festivities include authentic food, tours of the 1726 mansion and a living history program.

The early days in Jamestown were filled with hazards, starvation and illness. The disorganized colonists were clearly ill-prepared for their venture to the New World. Many believe that England’s settlement would have failed without the gifts of food brought by a Native American child (see Pocahontas, below) to the famished colonists.

Today, walking and biking trails wind through quiet forests on Jamestown island, beside historic markers and the graves of settlers whose lives were cut short by numerous hardships. The Jamestown-Scotland Ferry carries visitors (people, cars, tour buses and campers can all be accommodated on the ferry) free of charge (expect a 15 to 30 minute wait) across the James River to the beginning of the Colonial Trail, to see Civil War era plantations and other historic sites. Boat ramps and scenic picnic spots are also available.

During the year, several themed special events are scheduled at Jamestown Settlement. Call for information about Thanksgiving and Christmas events (888/593-4682).

Pocahontas: The Real Story

The real-life little Native American girl enjoyed doing cartwheels nearly naked along Jamestown’s streets, amusing the settlers with her carefree antics and outgoing personality. Named Matoaka at birth, she was given the nickname Pocahontas, meaning “little plaything” or “little wanton” in her native language.

Within two years after arriving in Jamestown, Captain John Smith credited Pocahontas with rescuing him twice from her hostile clansman — once from a possible clubbing in her father’s court and later from a rumored stealth attack. While she likely was fascinated by the charismatic, white-skinned foreigner, she was a mere girl of 11 or 12, a preteen hardly likely to engage in the kind of romance depicted in the inane Disney film. (Unfortunately, the Walt Disney Company also missed a glorious opportunity to get the facts straight about her remarkable life and distinctive homeland.)

In 1609, Smith sailed to England from Jamestown’s waters without saying goodbye to his young Indian benefactress. Pocahontas would not see him again until her triumphant visit to England in 1616. By then, she had married another English settler, John Rolfe, and given birth to their child Thomas, from whom a long line of Virginians and others are descended.

During these important years, she also adopted English customs and dress, converted to Christianity, and was instrumental through her marriage in creating the “Peace of Pocahontas,” a window of opportunity which allowed the English to establish a desperately needed foothold in hostile Indian territory. (These events in her life are commemorated in the Citie of Henricus, a 1611 English settlement currently being recreated on the banks of the James River about an hour from Jamestown). In England, Pocahontas was entertained by royalty and received as a “princess.” After contracting an illness in London, she died on her return voyage, and was buried in the village of Gravesend, England, at about the age of 21.

A life-size statue of an older Pocahontas in Indian dress, with arms outstretched in peace and friendship, was placed at the entrance to the Jamestown historic area in the early 20th century. On Jamestown Island, visitors can explore the peaceful ruins of the once-bustling English settlement along the banks of the wide James River.

Favorite tourist attractions in this area are a museum with 16th and 17th-century English and Indian artifacts (including items believed to have belonged to Pocahontas), a 15-minute docudrama film, and re-creations of a Powhatan Indian village, a colonial fort, and replicas of the three ships that brought the English colonists to Virginia. Ongoing archeological excavations are of the original site (Jamestown Island.) Descendants of the tribes ruled by Pocahontas’s powerful father Chief Powhatan still live in eastern Virginia on reservations and in communities within a short drive of this area.

Colonial Williamsburg: Time Travel

After the low-lying, malaria-ridden Jamestown settlement was abandoned for the relatively wholesome atmosphere of inland Williamsburg, life for the English colonists became more comfortable. Taverns, inns, shops and fine homes lined the town’s streets in the 18th century. Thomas Jefferson, among other well-to-do sons of Virginia planters, studied at Williamsburg’s College of William and Mary. Seeds of the Revolutionary War were planted during lively discussions at taverns in the burgeoning town.

Thanks to the vision and great generosity of the John D. Rockefeller family in the 20th century, many of the handsome buildings of this important era were saved from destruction and were beautifully restored. Today, a visit to Colonial Williamsburg is a trip through time to one of the most charming and interesting areas in America. This is a must-see territory.

Restored as they were 220 years ago are more than 500 buildings in the Historic Area, many of the quaint shops offer fascinating lessons and hands-on demonstrations of trades, crafts, cooking, fashion, and daily living practices of the 18th century. For an extra fee, children can even become “apprentices” of various tradespeople. Costumed guides and horse-drawn carriages fill the immaculate hard-packed dirt streets, and the “Revolutionary City” living history show brings interwoven stories to life as visitors walk along. Early American cuisine in authentic 18th century taverns can be savored at lunch and in the evening (reservations usually necessary), often to the accompaniment of lovely period music. Other attractions include the wonderful Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center and a highly rated 18-hole golf course, available to guests staying overnight in Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Hotels, as well as relaxing spa and games and activities for kids. You can call 757/229-1000 for more information.

Within minutes of Colonial Williamsburg are historic Yorktown, site of one of the most crucial battles of the American Revolution, and numerous fine James River plantations filled with exceptional 18th century furnishings. Westover and Brandon, along with private homes in Colonial Williamsburg, are open only during Virginia’s beautiful Historic Garden Week (804/644-7776), the last week of April each year. Westover’s gardens and grounds are open to the public daily, however, and Belle Air is open to the public by appointment. Also note that some plantations, such as Shirley and Berkeley, are open year-round.

In a region celebrating patriots, Pocahontas, and a rich history at every opportunity, your family can count on an unforgettable vacation any time of year in America’s hospitable First Colony. 

Other Essentials in Williamsburg

Numerous excellent hotels and motels make Williamsburg, VA a convenient headquarters for visits to Jamestown, historic Yorktown, stately James River plantations, Indian reservations, and dozens of other attractions. At Colonial Williamsburg, special events are staged during all major holidays and throughout the year. Thanksgiving and Christmas especially abound with colonial cheer and color. Numerous child-friendly activities are offered, along with opportunities to learn more about the contributions of African-Americans in building early America.

Fun-filled 20th century attractions close by include Water Country USA and Busch Gardens, frequently voted “Most Beautiful Theme Park” by the National Amusement Park Historical Association. Both open in May; the water park operates until early September and Busch Gardens until late October. For a comprehensive tour kit with information on travel packages, call the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (757/229-1000). You’ll find it packed with savings and great ideas.

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