When Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation offered to host our family on a weekend getaway, we were happy to pack our car for the 4 hour drive. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation covered our gas, hotel, some meals, and tickets. Opinions are all ours.
You’d think that living in the DC metro area meant we’d spend time exploring the area’s historical sites and museums. Life gets in the way and most weekends we just want to chill at home. Plus it’s hard for me to gauge my teen and tween’s interest in museums, but my little Hamilton the Musical fans perked up at the mention of Yorktown.
If you’re worried about traffic, we found the drive to Jamestown, Virginia relatively easy. We left on Friday after morning rush hour and didn’t hit any major traffic except for leaving northern Virginia. Even the drive home on Sunday afternoon was uneventful.
We spent one day each at the Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. There’s so much to share so I’ll focus on Jamestown Settlement for this post.
About Jamestown Settlement
Jamestown Settlement tells the story of 17th century Virginia, around the time when the British attempted to colonize the area. Jamestown is considered the first permanent English colony in America. The gallery exhibits and living history both document the Indigenous peoples and the British colonist at the time.
Jamestown Settlement consists of two major areas
- Traditional museum exhibits, which is inside
- Interactive living history, which is outdoors
Both areas provide history about the British and the Powhatan and other Indigenous tribes that lived in the area.
- Youth (8-12) $8.25
- Adults (13 and older) 417.50
- Kids under 5 are free
You can also save by purchasing combination tickets for both Jamestown Settlement and American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.
As the mother of Black and Vietnamese kids, I’m wary of museums about European colonists, but some aspects of the museum were a pleasant surprise. On the drive down, my family discussed expectations and how history is usually recorded by the “winners.” We all wondered how the Indigenous tribes would be represented.
I didn’t do a ton of research before we set foot in the Jamestown Settlement besides visiting the website. The first thing that caught my attention was their Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia, an exhibit that shares personal stories of real women in Jamestown and the early Virginia colony.
We weren’t able to take photos in the exhibit area, but our family spent the most time in this gallery. Through artifacts and interactive elements (like short films and interactive apps), we learned about women from that time. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of written history about women in this time period (thanks patriarchy), but historians gleaned fascinating details from the info that exists.
For those with younger children or are hands-on learners, the living history part of Jamestown Settlement is a must do. It was a blustery November weekend, but we bundled up and managed to stay warm.
The outdoor exhibits consists of 3 main areas: Powhatan Village, British Ships, and the Jamestown fort. All were replicas.
Most of my photos are from the replica of a Powhatan Village. None of us knew much about the tribe that lived there before it was colonized by the British. The village consisted of a ceremonial circle of carved wooden posts and several reed-covered houses.
Walking up to the village, we were greeted by Powhatan Indian village ceremonial circle. The carved wooden posts were beautiful and mesmerizing. I would have loved more information about the ceremonial circle because the faces were so arresting.
Inside the different houses were staff members who dressed in Powhatan style clothing. They answered our (many) questions about the Powhatan way of life. We might have also stayed in this house longer than the others because there was warm fire!
We also learned how the people made bows and arrows.
The staff even let the kids try pull the bow. We also learned how the Powhatan used local yucca leaves to weave baskets.
I appreciated that every staff member we spoke with was very patient and answered all the kids’ questions. I think even my kids were surprised by how much they enjoyed this part of Jamestown Settlement.
There are three replica ships in moored at the Jamestown Settlement pier. Only two of them were open for self-guided tours that weekend due to work replacing the planking on the pier.
I was surprised how small the ships were and most of the space underneath was for cargo! Travel in the 17th century had very little (if any) luxuries.
Next up we ventured to a recreation of the Jamestown Fort. We walked through small homes, a church, even a working kitchen!
My son’s all time favorite was watching the blacksmith in action.
He demonstrated how nails were made during the 17th century. It was super cool and he made it look very easy. See for yourself:
Final thoughts about Jamestown Settlement
Overall we enjoyed our time at Jamestown Settlement. There’s a lot to do there. I think we spent about 4 hours touring and didn’t even see everything.
One thing that stood out to me was the film 1607: A Nation Takes Root, which serves as an introduction to the museum and Jamestown’s history. The storytelling and imagery of the film was problematic for me. Whenever the Powhatans and other Indigenous peoples were described or shown on screen, they were shown as the aggressors to the Jamestown colonists. While I don’t know the detailed history, it felt very one-sided.
The film portrayed the colonists as always shown defending themselves while the Powhatans were the ones that engaged in battle. I’m pretty sure the Powhatans saw the British as the aggressors.
Since all visitors are encouraged to watch the film and it’s shown every 15 or 20 minutes, I worry how the imagery sets up our opinions of the Powhatans before we step foot in the recreated village. As I said earlier, the person who “wins” is the one recording the history. Our family discussed this portrayal after seeing the film, and I suggest you talk about it with yours, too.
The film was only one element of the vast exhibits. Don’t let it deter you. It’s obvious that the museum staff and curates put a lot of thought and effort on how Indigenous tribes are portrayed both the galleries and in the Powhatan village.
I didn’t know very much about the Powhatans or Jamestown (outside of it being the first permanent British colony in the US), and I left with valuable knowledge. And a fun weekend with my family.
Jamestown Settlement definitely made history fun.
Stay tuned for our adventures in Yorktown.