Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg and the splendid James River plantations are likely to come away with the impression that the first English settlers of the New World were dandy gentlemen and lacy ladies whose principal preoccupation was the whelping of future presidents.
The cure for that misconception is a visit to Jamestown, the ill-chosen spot where for the first few years the ill-prepared and ill-equipped Englishmen wallowed in illness, ineptitude, inaction and self-pity, starving by the hundreds in the midst of plenty.
Their bickering and blundering brings to mind Kipling's scathing of his countrymen as "Poor little street-bred people / Who vapour and fume and brag " and the wonder is that some few did survive.
There apparently was but one fisherman and not a single farmer among the original 105, and for every man with a useful trade there were two "gentlemen," disinherited younger sons of landed families, accustomed to receiving rather than rendering service.
But for all their ignorance and arrogance they were bold adventurers indeed simply for having sailed in such cockleshells as the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery , of which there are faithful and daunting replicas at the Jamestown dock. The largest of them can hardly be called an ocean-going vessel; the four-month voyage must have been a horror.
Some of the flavor of the colonists' miserable existence until tobacco brought wealth and slaves can be sensed in a walk around the marshy island, which since the establishment of Colonial National Historical Park is reverting to something like the semipenetrable tangle it was in 1607.
The Virginia Peninsula has always been a place to get away from Washington, Richmond or Norfolk. Now Jamestown, which has largely been left alone by the restoration people, is the place to go on the Peninsula when one is weary of Williamsburg and Busch Gardens which leave nothing to the imagination. Both the federal reserve and the adjoining state-owned Jamestown Festival Park have exhibit centers and a major restoration; for the rest you must hoof along on your own.
The feds have a glassblowing center described as a replica but plainly much grander than the one the colonists maintained for a few years. It's more interesting than anything at Williamsburg, and it's not possible to leave without buying some of the pieces.
The state has a fort modeled on the original, with such painstaking fidelity to authentic methods and materials that it makes one shudder to think of trying to live in it, never mind hostile Indians.
The only rational approach to Jamestown from the north is by U.S. 17 south from Fredericksburg. It goes through or by such tempting towns as Tappahannock and Mathews and takes one to Yorktown, where whole generations of visitors have tried and failed to understand the shape and sequence of the battle -- seige, actually -- that ended the Revolutionary War.
No matter. The real point of stopping in Yorktown is to eat at Nick and Mary Mathews' "Famous Seafood Pavilion" at the foot of the York River Bridge. It has no equal between Washington and Wilmington, North Carolina.