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The Past Comes Alive in the Jamestown-Yorktown Historical Triangle

YORKTOWN, Va. -- The kids looked dubious. Six soldiers shared that flimsy tent smaller than a pup tent?

They didn't have sleeping bags, either. Revolutionary War soldiers were assigned just one big blanket per tent: They'd cut it so each man got a piece, explained Bill Blair, chief interpreter for the Yorktown Victory Center museum as he stood in the ``military encampment.''

He invited the kids to lay down on top of the straw, as the soldiers did, sleeping in shifts. Most barely out of their teens, he explained, they ate watery stew, hard biscuits and whatever else they could find, getting sick often, with only herbal remedies to relieve their symptoms. We all grimaced as the ``surgeon'' demonstrated his tools -- especially those used for pulling teeth.

Blair noted that nine out of 10 Revolutionary soldiers (George Washington's stepson among them) died from illness, not bullets. ``We want the kids to see that being in the Army was not an easy life. It might have been patriotic, but it was not fun,'' he said.

Kids get that message loud and clear here. Yorktown, of course, is where the last battle of the Revolutionary War was fought: On Oct. 19, 1781, Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington and his French allies. The Treaty of Paris was still two years away, but Washington's victory there, about 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., assured the Colonists' had won their War of Independence.

Kids can even tumble down the hills where the Continental Army camped at the Yorktown battlefield. It's now part of the Colonial National Historic Park.

With patriotic parties and fireworks still in the air, there's no better place than Virginia's Historic Triangle to remind the kids -- and ourselves -- of the grit and sacrifice it took to get this country started, from the first English settlement in 1607 at Jamestown to Yorktown, with Colonial Williamsburg, where many Revolutionary ideas were spawned, the top point of the triangle.

Yorktown Victory Center and Jamestown Settlement, both overseen by the Jamestown-Yorktown educational foundation, shouldn't be missed to get the full Colonial history story. They're hands-on museums designed for kids to get a glimpse of what everyday life was like, for a 17th-century settler or Native American, an 18th-century Continental Army soldier or a child being raised on a farm after the war. There are special events geared to children all during the year, such as a Children's Colonial Fair at Yorktown during Fourth of July weekend and a Foods and Feasts festival at Jamestown at Thanksgiving.

We know kids learn best by doing. Even typically bored teens can't help but be intrigued to see stories from their social studies books played out as muskets and cannons are fired.

Younger siblings can feed the chickens at Yorktown's 1780s farm, chop wood, weed the garden or dress up in Colonial garb in the discovery room. They might hang wet clothes from branches to dry or join in a military drill. At Jamestown Settlement, they can help grind corn at the re-created Powhatan Indian Village, hoist the sails on board full-scale replicas of the ships -- the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery -- that carried the first settlers here or try on armor at the fort.

Every young Disney fan can tell you John Smith was the leader of the first Jamestown settlers, and Pocahantas was the young daughter of the chief of more than 30 Powhatan tribes in Virginia. Smith and Pocahantas helped each other, becoming friends, historians here say, but, contrary to the Disney version, never were romantically involved. Pocahantas, in fact, later married John Rolfe, the planter who introduced tobacco as a cash crop. She died in England (on a mission to recruit new settlers) and left behind a baby son who still has descendants in Virginia. See if you can get the kids to buy the real story. I couldn't. Seven-year-old Melanie insisted I'd gotten the facts wrong.

Of course, there's just so much history the kids can take, even when it's as much fun as it is here. When they're ready to return to the 20th century, head straight to Busch Gardens Williamsburg, home of Alpengeist, voted the most popular roller coaster in the country (I thought it was the scariest) and nearby Water Country USA. On a hot day, the water slides will make the troops glad.

Besides the thrill rides -- Busch Gardens has four heart-stopping coasters my 12-year-old insisted we ride -- both parks have well-designed sections for young children. Your toddlers and preschoolers could spend all day climbing in the nets at Busch Gardens' ``Land of the Dragons'' or sliding into the pool at Water Country's H20 UFO interactive water play area. Remember the sunscreen.

IF YOU GO:

The Revolutionary Fun package is a good bet for families who want to spend a few days here. Starting at $629 for a family of four, it includes three or four nights at an area hotel and a combination ticket that provides unlimited admission to the five historic and theme park attractions in the area. Call 800-211-7165. Call the Williamsburg Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800-368-6511 or www.VisitWilliamsburg.com.

You can save 20 percent by purchasing a combination ticket to Yorktown Victory Center and Jamestown Settlement for $13.25 for adults and $6.50 for children. Kids under 6 are free. Call 888-593-4682 or visit the Web site at www.historyisfun.org. Call the national park at 757-898-3400 or www.nps.gov/colo.

Admission to Busch Gardens Williamsburg is $33 for adults and $26 for kids aged 3-6. Admission to Water Country USA is $25.50 for adults and $17.95 for children 3-6. Parking is extra. Call 757-253-3350 or www.buschgardens.com.

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate


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