Jamestown Settlement Overview
Living-history museum recalls America's beginnings
WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – The 1607 founding of America’s first permanent English colony in the midst of Virginia’s Powhatan chiefdom, the ensuing convergence of diverse cultures, and the evolution of the colony throughout the 17th century are vividly recounted at Jamestown Settlement, a state-operated living-history museum located near the original settlement site.
The story of Jamestown’s founders and immigrants and Virginia’s original inhabitants is told through gallery exhibits and historical interpretation in outdoor settings: a re-created Powhatan Indian village, replicas of the three ships that landed in 1607, a representation of the colonial fort, and a seasonal riverfront discovery area that explores waterway transportation and commercial activities.
A visit to Jamestown Settlement starts in the Robins Foundation Theater with a docudrama film, “1607: A Nation Takes Root,” that presents an overview of the first two decades of the Virginia colony. A “great hall” spanning the length of the museum’s exhibition galleries provides, with illustrations and text, a chronological journey from 1600 to 1699, when the capital of Virginia moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg.
Gallery exhibits chronicle the nation’s 17th-century beginnings in Virginia in the context of its Powhatan Indian, English and west central African cultures and examine the impact of the Jamestown settlement. More than 500 artifacts from 17th-century Europe and Africa, including portraits, documents, furnishings, toys, ceremonial and decorative objects, tools and weapons, and Virginia archaeological items are exhibited.
The galleries are divided into three major sections. The first introduces visitors to pre-17th-century Virginia and provides overviews of the “parent” cultures, with full-scale dioramas portraying a Powhatan Indian setting and a dwelling in Angola, homeland of the first Africans in Virginia, and an English streetscape. Exhibits also explore European overseas trade and colonization and advances in shipbuilding and navigation that ultimately led to the formation of the Virginia Company, the English investment group that sponsored the Jamestown colony. A short film, “The Crossing,” describes the 1607 voyage to Virginia.
The second gallery section explores the complexity of the relationship between Virginia’s colonists and the native Powhatans, ranging from trade to conflict, and the role of cultural intermediaries. Exhibits show how the English secured a foothold in Virginia with the establishment of settlements and economic enterprises and set the course of the future with the introduction of tobacco as a cash crop. While the first documented Africans to arrive in Virginia in 1619 may eventually have won their freedom, the emergence of lifetime servitude for later African immigrants was motivated by the demand for labor to produce tobacco. A dramatic presentation, “From Africa to Virginia,” chronicles African encounters with Europeans, the impact on African culture, and the development of the transatlantic slave trade.
The third section provides an overview of the political, social and economic development and expansion of the Virginia colony during the 17th century, while Jamestown served as its capital. The cultivation of tobacco as the dominant economic enterprise, despite efforts to diversify, had a profound effect on the character of the colony, resulting in the emergence of an elite planter class and minimal urban development until the end of the century. Full-scale structures re-created from archaeological sites depict Indian, slave and planter dwellings in the late 17th century. Short films describe the evolution of government in the colony and consider the legacies of Jamestown – cultural diversity, language and representative government.
Leaving the indoor exhibits, visitors arrive at the Powhatan Indian village, based on archaeological findings at a site once inhabited by Paspahegh Indians, the Powhatan tribal group closest to Jamestown, and descriptions recorded by English colonists. The setting consists of several houses made of sapling frames covered with reed mats, a crop field and a ceremonial circle of carved wooden posts. Historical interpreters discuss and demonstrate the Powhatan way of life. They grow and prepare food, process animal hides, build dugout canoes, make tools and pottery, and weave plant fibers into cordage.
From the Powhatan village, a path leads to a pier where re-creations of the three ships that transported the original Jamestown colonists to Virginia in 1607 – the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery – are docked. Visitors can board and explore one of them and talk with an interpreter about the four-and-a-half-month voyage from England. There are periodic demonstrations of piloting and navigation and cargo handling.
Re-created James Fort interprets the settlement during 1610-14, reflecting its predominantly military and commercial character. Inside the triangular wooden palisade are wattle-and-daub structures representing dwellings, an Anglican church, a court of guard, a storehouse, a cape merchant’s office and a governor’s house. Historical interpreters forge and repair metal objects in a blacksmith’s forge and show how matchlock muskets are fired. Seasonally and periodically, interpreters also produce wood products using 17th-century-style tools, engage in domestic activities such as sewing and meal preparation and, outside the fort, cultivate food and tobacco crops.
Between the ships and fort, a seasonal riverfront discovery area highlights the vital role of the James River and other waterways in 17th-century travel, commerce and cultural exchange, reflecting Powhatan Indian, European and African traditions. Discovery stations located along a pathway that winds through the area provide information about water transportation and economic activities, including navigation, boatbuilding, fishing, commodities and trade.
Visitors are welcome to touch and use many of the 17th-century reproduction items that are part of Jamestown Settlement’s living-history program. They may grind corn, climb into a dugout canoe, steer with a whipstaff or tiller, examine the contents of a “see” chest, try on armor, take an inventory of supplies, play quoits and ninepins, and experience a variety of other activities that make the 17th century come alive.
Visitors can expect to spend about three hours at Jamestown Settlement. Additional time should be allowed for the original site of Jamestown, adjacent to the Settlement. Historic Jamestowne is jointly administered by the National Park Service and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (on behalf of Preservation Virginia).
Jamestown Settlement is located at the intersection of Virginia Route 31 and the Colonial Parkway. Operating hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily year-round, until 6 p.m. June 15 through August 15. The museum is closed Christmas and New Year’s days. 2013 admission is $16.00 for adults and $7.50 for ages 6-12. A value-priced combination ticket and annual pass are available with the Yorktown Victory Center, a museum of the American Revolution. Parking is free at both museums.
Gift shops offer a comprehensive selection of books, prints, artifact reproductions, educational toys and games, jewelry and mementos. The Jamestown Settlement Café offers freshly prepared salads, sandwiches, entrees, desserts and beverages.
Jamestown Settlement and the Yorktown Victory Center are administered by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, an agency of the Commonwealth of Virginia that is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. For more information, call (888) 593-4682 toll-free or (757) 253-4838, or visit www.historyisfun.org.
Debby Padgett, (757) 253-4175
Tracy Perkins, (757) 253-4114
Susan Bak, (757) 253-4138