Rediscovering the Settlers' Way of Life

Jamestown Settlement's Stephanie Fitzwater, right, shows visitors how Native Americans made canoes by burning out whole trees.
Jamestown Settlement's Stephanie Fitzwater, right, shows visitors how Native Americans made canoes by burning out whole trees. (Mark Finkenstaedt ( - Mark Finkenstaedt Ftwp)
Friday, April 27, 2007

"You were right, Daddy. This was fun."

That was the pronouncement issued by a stranger's son as he rushed past me on his way back from the living-history areas of the Jamestown Settlement during my own family's visit to Jamestown this winter. With the boy's recommendation still ringing in my ears, and my own 7-year-old running ahead of me, I quickened my pace toward the huts of a reconstructed Powhatan Indian village looming just ahead.

Like at nearby Colonial Williamsburg, it is Jamestown's costumed interpreters -- please don't call them reenactors, or worse, actors -- who bring this open-air history classroom to life. Whether it's a buckskinned boatmaker carving out the insides of a wooden canoe, a helmeted soldier demonstrating how to operate a caliver (a matchlock firearm that uses black powder and is very, very loud) or a sailor taking visitors below deck on one of the three replica ships docked on the James River, these folks are the heart -- and, as often as not, the mouth -- of Jamestown.

Looking like an extra from "The New World," one bearded, barrel-chested interpreter could be overheard debunking the "myth of the independent settler" to a crowd of visitors following him around like a flock of eager baby ducks. Elsewhere, a fellow in breeches and an English accent (real, as it turns out) was scolding a group of tourists: "You Americans don't understand your own history." Others offered lively and occasionally opinionated tutorials on English-Indian bartering (e.g., beads for seeds); the governor's sleeping quarters (better than most, as you might imagine); and the number of men (39) crammed into the bowels of the Discovery, the second-largest of the convoy of three boats that brought the first settlers over.

Along with the Powhatan village -- whose design incorporates discoveries made after the remains of a nearby Native community called Paspahegh were unearthed in the 1990s -- the Settlement's living-history areas include a reconstruction of James Fort and several of its interior buildings; a Riverfront Discovery Area focusing on interpretive programs highlighting the role of the James River in interactions among the area's Europeans, Africans and Indians; and a pier featuring meticulously accurate working replicas of the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery.

But that's not all. In the adjacent national park that's home to the Jamestown archaeological site, visitors will also find the ruins of the settlement's first attempt at a homegrown industry: a glassmaking plant. While there, you'll want to stop by the Glasshouse, a functional reconstruction of a 17th-century-style kiln where costumed glass blowers (participants in a four-year apprenticeship program in glass blowing) hand-blow one-of-a-kind green glassware based on centuries-old designs. For convenience's sake, the contemporary furnace is fed by gas, not wood. But the technique, along with the finished product (for sale in the on-site gift shop), is defiantly old-school.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

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