April 04, 2007 News & Features » Cover Story


Living Arrangements: Jamestown Settlement 


What to Expect

It's a five-minute drive from Historic Jamestowne to the Jamestown Settlement. A vast surface parking lot greets visitors, like a small-scale shopping mall (but with skimpier landscaping). An allée of 50 state flags directs pedestrians to the entrance.

There's a sprawling, modern brick museum building. It's apparent that some attempt was made at architectural contextualism. But contextual to what is the question.

In the lobby the floors and walls are brick, and natural light filters down from upper windows. The rope-defined queue areas recall ticketing areas of airports.

What You'll See

There are four adjacent exhibit areas. The Powhatan Indian Village interprets the domestic activities of the natives who once occupied the area. The James Fort presents a replica of the three-sided palisade and the public and private buildings inside, including a storehouse, church, court of guard and a complement of half-timbered, thatch-roofed dwellings. Full-throated chickens peck around, providing a lively soundtrack.

Beyond the fort is the Riverfront Discovery Area. Costumed and affable interpreters engage visitors in discussions and demonstrations of economic activities the settlers took part in.

Getting Started

Take in the extensive, dramatically lighted galleries. No expense has been spared on the displays that form the backdrop for exhibits depicting such topics as social, political and economic conditions in Europe, the patterns of the Powhatan Indians, the origins of the first Africans brought to Jamestown and the first 100 years of the colonial experience. A special exhibition, "The World of 1607," opens April 27. It presents a look at early Virginia in a global context.

Sad Fact

Surviving Jamestown was difficult, to say the least. By Christmas 1607 half the colony had perished, a costumed interpreter says.

Now Showing

In the main building you can see the 24-minute film, "1607: A Nation Takes Root." It's screened in a comfortable auditorium with paneled walls and traditional and decorative light fixtures. Using actors and filmed in various locations, the action follows members of the Virginia Company in London as they mark the weeks and months wondering whether its investment will pay off.

Gradually, English culture took hold in Virginia soil. In 1648 the population was 15,300. By 1697 the population of Virginia was 70,000.

Richmond celebrity alert: In the film, Richmonders should recognize Agecroft Hall, which was used as Sir Thomas Dale's London headquarters of the Virginia Company and later his country estate. Dale is played by Richmond musician Page Wilson.

The Fort

Outside the reconstructed fort, different stations offer re-enactors who skillfully balance the fine line between staying in character and colorfully explaining with modern-day comparisons what life was like in the colonies.

Even the "Do-we-really-have-to-do-this-Mom?" teenagers will be won over by the presenters' humor. But who wouldn't be fascinated by punishment in the early colony (for cursing, colonists got a bodkin, or spike, through the tongue) or the role of money in the early days. Tobacco, a labor-intensive crop, was the reason for slavery in the colonies, but it was also what stabilized the colony financially.

Inside the fort children chase roosters and hens. A blacksmith talks to a crowd. A woman washes clothes in a basin and talks about the bathing habits of the colonists. They didn't often bathe; instead they washed their clothes — a lot.

For Patricia Cornwell Fans

Among the more macabre exhibits is one with a warning posted at the entrance. Human skeletal remains, like this skull, are on display in a section titled, "The Dead Inform the Living," which shows how forensic analysis brings new understanding to historical research.

Cultural Literacy

No, they're not the Ni¤a, the Pinta and the Santa Maria — that's Columbus. The ships at Jamestown are replicas of the Susan Constant (116 feet), the Godspeed (88 feet) and the Discovery (66 feet).

In December 1606 three vessels left England, arriving in Virginia in May with 108 settlers. Lines form at the gangplanks of the replicas. Below deck, we see the basic and restricted quarters, which suggest that it could not have been a comfortable passage.

Local Encounter

"My dad was in the service, so we moved around a lot. I just have a real sense of culture and diversity, so I love this area."

— Jennifer Glaspell, an Army brat from Yorktown with a "couple of art degrees," dressed as a Powhatan Indian outside the Indian Village

Press Clipping

Archaeologist Bill Kelso has spent his career uncovering the remains of James Fort. Read "Autopsy of America," our Nov. 1 cover story, and find how Kelso solved one of this country's biggest mysteries.


Jamestown Settlement is located on Route 31 South at the Colonial Parkway next to Historic Jamestowne

It is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 5 daily, and until 6 p.m. from June 15-Aug. 15. Admission $13.50 adults; $6.25 ages 6-12. Wheelchair accessible. (888) 593-4682 . www.historyisfun.org.

Galleries, films, outdoor interpretive program, Powhatan Indian village, James Fort, ships.

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