July 2016

John Smith and “John Smith”

After church yesterday (7/10/16) we decided to check out the sites at Historic Jamestowne. It’s always fun to see the progress they’ve made on the digs and continue to examine the artifacts they find.  It is, however, different traveling with a six year old instead of older kids.  For him, the joy was seeing turtles and tadpoles in the shrinking water under the bridge or just being able to wear his John Smith costume and see him and Pocahontas (a movie that he loves, despite its glaring historic inaccuracies–at least they made the Susan Constant look right.  If you’re wondering, “What glaring inaccuracies?” John Smith was actually about 40 and Pocahontas roughly 11–they weren’t romantically involved.)  Corban also enjoyed a scavenger hunt in the museum, but we didn’t stay a long time.

img_5005Today (7/11/16), we headed into Virginia Beach to give Corban a look at the Atlantic Ocean.  We drove to the end of Atlantic street where there’s easy, free parking right on the beach front.  Definitely one I’d recommend.  You take 264 to where it turns into 21st street, then go right on Atlantic.  It’s a tricky parking lot to get to, but if you stay to the right around 4th street (Keep on Atlantic), you’ll loop around to 2nd street where you can park.  It’s the Grommet Island park–right on the beach with a huge kids play place.  We literally unloaded our stuff in a sled on the bank (much better for pulling than anything with wheels), and walked about 50 yards to the water.

While there were surfers on the edges, it wasn’t too crowded, and the life guards kept everything in order (complete with Baywatch red suits and red rescue flotation devices.)  Other than losing one of my shoes to the ocean, it was a lovely day.


Adopting the uniform

We headed out to Yorktown this morning (7/12/16). Despite the construction underway, there are great things happening at Yorktown.  Right when we walked in, one of the interpreters noticed Corban’s tri-cornered hat and loaned him a jacket and musket for a photo. Even without your own tri-corner, any visitor can choose a side and a uniform and pose similarly, which is a lot of fun.

From there, we wandered out to the garden area.  One of the interpreters talked to Corban about doing chores.  She explained that in Colonial times, you didn’t feed your children unless chores were done. Otherwise, they felt you were feeding the devil in your child because you were encouraging sloth.  Wouldn’t that be interesting with today’s youth.

Interpreters of the future

As we walked further in, I noticed a group of students in blue shirts.  I was curious what kind of group they were, so I asked an adult on the fringe of the crowd.  She referenced the website on the back of their shirts where you can get more information.  (Feel free to check out
http://www.historyisfun.org.)  She explained that these students were part of a program called Boot Camp for grades 6-8.  It lasts a total of 4 days from 9:00-12:00.  These are students who think they might like to be interpreters when they grow up, so this is their opportunity to see how other interpreters interact with the public.  After Boot camp, these students are able to come and help out during special activities days.  Even out of town visitors can participate!  I think it sounds like an amazing program!


While in the military camp, the interpreter explained a bit about firing a weapon that I had never considered.  He referred to Baron Von Steuben who trained by the discipleship method (train the officers who will train their men.)  A cool thing I learned was that when the officer shouts, “Make ready,” soldiers actually turn their bodies 45°. Because soldiers were fighting shoulder to shoulder, they needed room to load their weapons.  The 45° turn allowed them that space to load.  As he was explaining the loading process, he mentioned that soldiers didn’t sharpen the edges of their bayonets because otherwise they could cut them while they’re using the ramrod. Both of these tactics seem obvious in retrospect, but I’d never considered them.  One Hollywood inaccuracy he exposed was the idea that bayonet charges were random.  In actuality, soldiers were all in a line, not haphazard at all. The reason for this is that a haphazard charge results in separate soldiers being targeted.  When they all charge together, they’re an intimidating defense!

“Are you sure you’re 16?”

After the demonstration, would-be soldiers went over to enlist.  The gentleman there explained that to enlist in the army, you had to be 16 and 5’4″. For you weren’t, you’d often lie about your age.  If they were in need, they’d take you.  They would look at your teeth and hands to make sure you had no diseases–after all, you want someone who will actually make it through the war. The pay rate $6 and 2/3 a month ($6.66–a rather ominous total!) with the army providing a uniform, a pound of meat a bottle of rum rations (promised, anyway).  Soldiers who would sign up for three years or the duration of the war received a $20 signing bonus and 100 acres of land when the war is over.  Not too shabby if you could not die!  I loved that my 6 year old nephew (who incidentally wants to be a soldier when he grows up) literally got to sign on the dotted line with a feather and ink.  He was handed a land deed and colonial money and told to report for duty at 6:30 in the morning (a fact we had to convince him was not true, since he was all set to go to bed early and be there.)

Tools of the trade

At the doctor’s tent, we learned that more casualties were from disease than injuries.  He also explained that a lot of the things they tried genuinely worked, at least for a short time. Bloodletting actually worked to bring fever down–unfortunately, it made you weaker.  Washington himself was bled several times.  In fact, on Washington’s deathbed, a young doctor wanted to do new procedure called a tracheotomy.  Unfortunately for Washington, older doctors overruled him and Washington died.  Purging and flushing were also ways to heal.  Unfortunately, both of these caused dehydration, the cure to which was drinking the same water that probably got you sick in the first place. Another early remedy was Peruvian bark tea which was used to treat malaria, which literally means “bad air.”  While it wasn’t the air that caused the malaria, Peruvian bark contains quinine, which is still used today to treat malaria.

Make ready!

Finally, we went over to the artillery demonstrations.  They had a 4 1/2 inch mortar and 6 inch battalion gun. During a siege, both sides build up walls.  Mortars were good in these circumstances because they can fire at a 45 degree angle.  They fire a 10 or 14 inch mortar which could weigh up to 200 lbs!  Guns, on the other hand, are direct fire usually at 3-5 degrees.  Guns are categorized by the weight of cannonball.  The guns themselves weighed about 1400 pounds.  He explained that if you fired 6 pounders, it would take a long to do any damage. Usually, they used 24 pounders since the 6 pounder wouldn’t kill many troops–around 2-3 men, which isn’t a good use of resources.   A regular rifle has an accurate range of 100 yards.  Cannonballs, however, have about a mile range. These worked for intimidation and causing disarray by breaking up straight lines.  They could also fire case, canister,or grape shot.  As the name implies, this is a can full of musket balls fired from a cannon.  Essentially, it turns the cannon into a machine gun.  These work at 300 yards.  It is amazing to think what all our troops experienced.


After he had explained the guns, the interpreter assembled a crew of audience members to simulate firing the gun before the actual staff fired it.  Corban was selected to fire the cannon, so he got to hold the long “match” which set the cannon off.  The positions of the gunners were explained, including the fact that you can’t stand behind the gun, since cannons also have a recoil, which can be about 8 feet.  The front members of the gun crew serve to mark the place for the cannon, since if your shot was one you’d like to repeat, you don’t want to have to figure out how to reposition it.  It was definitely a fun experience.

The Nelson House

As we were heading out, I overheard one of the managers explaining all the construction.  He explained that they are actually building a redoubt for the guns to lend to the authenticity.  Now, instead of the guns firing into the woods, it will actually appear to be firing on an enemy encampment, and they’ll actually have many more guns.  I have definitely been excited by the improvements at Yorktown with the visitor center, and I’m excited to see the changes they continue to make!

At last, after a picnic in the visitor center’s picnic area, we headed by the Nelson House in town (the one with a cannon ball still stuck in the building) and called it a day.  Definitely a place to recommend!

Writing letters at the Powell House

We started our day (7/9/16) at Colonial Williamsburg by visiting the Powell house. Mr. Powell held the office of Undertaker, which is not someone dealing with dead bodies, but rather someone who undertakes contracts. In the Powell house, there are a number of activities for kids.  We played dominoes, badminton, and rolled the hoop for games, but we were also able to write and seal letters home.

Explaining tempering

From the Powell house, we had intended to go to the military camp, but as they were doing a ticketed event for kids, a few of the places were closed, so the camp didn’t open until later. Instead, we decided to check out a few of the craftspeople in town.  Our first stop was the kitchen and the blacksmith. We had been told James Madison was in the garden next door and might need a letter delivered, so we went there.   He was indeed in the garden, but he was still coding a message to Washington, so there was nothing to deliver.  (One of the activities for kids is delivering letters for people around town.)  The kitchen was cooking a vegetable stew, which smelled amazing. In the blacksmith’s shop, the man explained the process of tempering metal. He explained that heating the metal allowed it to be softer and easy to work with.  Therefore, a metal that had lost its temper is hard and brittle.  I thought it was an excellent life lesson as well!

Musket firing demonstration

By this time the military camp was open, so we headed there.  They had done away with the simulated battle, which was disappointing, but maintained the drill and the musket demonstration.  We were instructed in the art of firing a weapon, then got to see a soldier fire his gun. We also got instructions on the fife and drum tunes.  One of the most interesting things to me was to learn that the same tune is used to signal a parlay in battle as to call men to church in camp.  Understanding that the gospel means bringing peace between God and man, I thought it was an interesting parallel!

Sharing tribal stories

In the Indian village, we heard the story of son who helped a village. He was sent to bring supplies for his own village, but he found another village where the people were sick and starving.  He made medicine for them and brought them food.  They had nothing to repay him when he left, and he arrived at his own village empty handed.  When he told his father, his father explained that he had been given the gift of generosity and compassion, which were priceless.  Soon after, a delegation of people from the village he’d helped came looking for him. Each family had sent a gift in return for his kindness, and that enabled the village to survive.

He then shared about how often Native American tribes were in Williamsburg.  Tribal groups met with the Virginia council to make treaties, trade goods, etc.   When a delegation came, the government provided tarps and posts for them, since there were too many to stay in a tavern.

Another thing we learned was a bit about the Cherokee people, since our guide was Cherokee.  He shared that today, kids attend a school that teaches Cherokee.  Students at the school learn Cherokee as a first language, and their encouraged to learn as well. Right now, there is a gap between kids who speak and the old who speak.  Those in the middle age groups still have to learn the language.  Another challenge undertaken by the Cherokee is developing  new modern words.  The Cherokee language is very descriptive. It tells what an item does or paints a picture of it.  For example, car in Cherokee is “fire eyes” because of the headlights, while phone is “talking box.”

The local people native to Williamsburg are the tidewater tribes.  A lot of them came under the control of Powhatan. Many small tribes used interaction with Europeans to get out from under Powhatan’s control.  It was definitely fascinating to dialogue and ask questions here!

Mixing clay for bricks

Our next stop was Brick yard.  We had never visited before, despite our many trips to Williamsburg, and we definitely missed out. This is a place to not only learn the process of baking bricks, but also it offers kids the chance to help. Realistically, children 10-12 were usually the  off bearer or the one who carried the molded bricks off to drying bed. There they would stay from May to September during brick making season. When it grew cold, the bricks were fired. Firing lasts for 5 days–a huge fire is built over the bricks which heats them to about 2000 degrees. In this process, they turn red because the iron in the clay oxidizes.

Chocolate with George Wythe

Our next stop was the coffee house. This is always my favorite because the chocolate is delicious.  There, we heard some of the local news from George Wythe.  He shared about the opposition to the stamp act, reminding us just how many items were printed on paper. Another interesting piece of news he shared was that one of the men who opposed the Stamp Act in Parliament was Charles Cornwallis, who predicted this act would hurt the relationship between the colonies and England.  Definitely ironic!

Interrogation of Amistead

Our last presentation dealt with the questioning of Amistead, a run away slave.  I loved this presentation because it managed to cover everything from the African American experience in slavery to their reasons for fighting in the American Revolution, to spies and double agents. An incredible presentation indeed!

Evening fifes and drums

We stopped in the Governor’s Palace to show Corban the guns, then made our way to the Courthouse to see the evening fife and drums.  I couldn’t help being disappointed with what the new administration has gotten rid of.  I miss RevQuest, Revolutionary City, and all the actors and actresses.  Also, while they’ve added additional programming, it’s all an additional $5-20, which I feel makes the pass less valuable.  They’ve even started  charging $1.00 for refills of the $12.00+ mug instead of it being free  There does seem to be a lot more people employed, but they’re mostly just standing around.  I’d prefer the smaller cast of actors who tell the story with you as a part to the immense crowd of “I can answer your question” people.  For me, the drama was what brought history to life, and I feel the loss of it deeply. Still, it is one if my favorite places.


Ready to explore

This morning (7/8/16) we got up headed to Jamestowne.  We decided to do the history in order from Jamestowne to Williamsburg to Yorktown.  My nephew (6) wanted to dress up, and we had brought both an Indian costume and a John Smith costume, so we took them along for him to wear in the different areas.  Turns out, it was a great idea!

We bought our tickets and planned to head into the Indian village. One thing that has changed since previous trips is they no longer have the tour guides that lead you through each section, or at least not on a regular schedule.  You pretty much explore on your own and the guides are in the different areas.  I missed the added information of taking a tour.

The packed canoe

There is a special exhibition called “Bartering for a Continent,” which will be available until December 10, 2016.    It is a fun experience, which I recommend.   You begin in the exhibition area (Second floor of the visitor center). Corban was given a card with 5 challenges to complete.  He had to pack a canoe with provisions, put a puzzle together to learn Native American words, find another trading animal than a deer, figure an exchange rate for buckskin (why we call dollars “bucks”), and make a peace medal rubbing in foil.  After completing all the challenges, he was sent to the Indian village to get something to trade.

Grinding corn

In the Indian village, we received a small bag of corn, which we were told was to trade in the fort, not feed to the chickens (The temptation is great, and we met a girl who had already fed her “trade goods” to the them). In addition to the bartering challenge, the village still offers a variety of activities and interpreters to speak to kids. Corban got to grind corn, scrape skins, explore houses, see fish traps, rope, and pottery being made, and play Native American children’s games.

Learning about weaponry

One of the areas we especially enjoyed  was talking to the lady at the weapons place.  I asked her what had made her decide to work here. She said growing up, she had found artifacts in her back yard.  She’d always loved history, but as she was the first generation to go to college, she had pursued a medical career.  Eventually, she also added archaeologically, and fell in love with it.  Since that doesn’t pay the bills, she works here where she gets to be around history and still talk about it.

She shared that Native American society is matriarchal.  Wives built their house by  their mother-in-law’s.  She also explained that, while Indian tools work well, they took a long time to make.  This explains why the Powhatan trade for tools–not because they need them but for bragging rights.

From the Indian Village, we went out to the ships to climb aboard. We ate our lunch and headed to the fort.

Corban holding a “John Smith” sword

At the fort, we first stopped at the armory. Since Corban was dressed as Captain John Smith, the man there told him he needed one thing to complete his outfit–the Captain John Smith sword, which he let Corban hold.  He explained the gun racks in the armory. The leaders wanted the men to keep their weapons in a rack.  They didn’t want soldiers carrying their guns around because then they couldn’t get to them quickly in case of an attack.  Additionally, each man had his own place in the rack.  Unlike later years, guns at this time were unique, so you had to have your own so it would match your musket balls and allow you to actually fire.  He explained that in a battle, soldiers would hold several musket balls in their cheeks for quicker loading.  In battle, he explained, the corporals marked the position of the soldiers while the Sergeant gave the battle orders. The Commanding officer watched the enemy, not the soldiers.  He changed tactics based on position of enemy.  The man at the armory was only able to talk to us for a few minutes as he was the one to fire the musket, which occurs on a quarter til and a quarter after each hour.  But, he let Corban be the commanding officer since he was dressed the part.  That meant he got to call out the commands of “Prepare your piece, present your piece, and fire.”  He thoroughly enjoyed that!

Helping the joiner

A final person we got to meet was the joiner. As the name suggests, this is the man who makes joints consisting of two pieces of wood carved so one has a tab and the other has a slot.  These joints are connected by a simple peg passing through each. Because the joints are constructed with green wood, when the wood swells, the pegs are stuck so the wooden pieces will not come apart.  Since the joiner worked by the river, and his pieces are brought in, he numbers each piece for construction on shore.  The largest house in original Jamestowne had 57 joints. Interestingly enough, 75% of world today still uses this same joint.

Considering a trade

Finally, it was time to make our trade.  We took the corn we had been given at the Indian village and went to meet with the clerk.  He was explaining how things were traded.  We presented our goods, and he proceeded to make a series of offers.  Finally, we settled on a trade of our bag of corn for a glass bead bracelet.  It was a fun experience for kids to see the way bartering works and have a souvenir as well.

All in all, we had an excellent time, despite the changes, and are looking forward to much more fun to come!