The shot of the musket made my heart leap. Even though I knew it was coming, I couldn’t help yelping loudly as it echoed around the Jamestown Settlement, just as it might have four centuries earlier.
Visiting the USA’s East Coast with my family, we’d been tracing the history of some of the country’s first European settlers as it celebrates the 400th anniversary of its birth, from the date of the first permanent settlement in North America when James Fort in Virginia officially became James Towne in 1619.
Standing on the site of a modern-day reconstruction at Jamestown Settlement in Virginia, we had arrived to hear the stories of just over 100 English men and boys, inspired and driven to create a colony in the ‘New World’.
Summoned here by dreams of colonialism, they must have been full of the spirit of adventure when they set off. I’m sure this spirit was in much shorter supply when they arrived in 1607 after a 16-week boat journey. Little did they realise how much further their resilience was to be tested in the coming months.
Arriving too late to grow crops, and with limited skills in establishing and sustaining this new community, the majority starved or died from disease within a year. Despite unimaginable hardships, its people struggled on and so began the colonisation of what would become North America.
Today Jamestown is set up as two separate historical sites. The Jamestown Settlement is a faithful reconstruction of the town that was built nearby, in the area that was home to the Powhatan tribe, plus it’s the location of replica ships similar to those that brought the settlers over, and which you can explore. A short drive down the coast is Historic Jamestowne, the actual site of the original town where little remains today.
Starting in the Jamestown Settlement, it’s a perfect way to see this world come alive, most dramatically as one of the re-constructors demonstrated the musket to crowds of school children, who gasped with delight at the powerful explosion.
The reconstruction is much more romantic than the reality four centuries earlier. There was a doctor to visit — his advice? “Don’t get ill” — chickens pecking around the grounds and re-enactors cooking up their lunch in charcoal smoke-filled huts.
While this historic world was imaginatively reinvented, it was Historic Jamestowne which felt more evocative. Midges swarmed, the murky pools of water were filled with turtles wading and the heat baked down.
Here it was easier to understand the horror of what unfolded in those early days, as starvation, tyranny and growing disharmony with the Powhatan Tribe started to create serious problems for the new arrivals.
Stood side-by-side with countless American school groups, a sense of a shared history was suddenly apparent. Their past and our past, intertwined at this very site, each of us taking away something from the experience, some recognition of our heritage.
The region is known as America’s Historic Triangle, as the big hitting sites of Jamestown, Yorktown and Williamsburg sit just miles apart.
Yorktown is all about military prowess, the location of the last land battle of the American Revolution and where in 1781, General Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington.
Colonial Williamsburg is much more genteel, a reconstructed 18th century town brought alive by Rockefeller money and lovingly reimagined.
I spent an eye-watering amount of money myself for my ten-year-old daughter to hire colonial style clothes and walk the streets looking the part, which she thought was the best experience ever. As horse and carriages rumbled past, shopkeepers allowed us glimpses into lost worlds of wig making and 18th century jewellery.
A far more tempting home than Jamestown, the town here seemed full of old world simplicity even if the prices were unmistakably modern.
I knew this wasn’t the full story and while Williamsburg says it doesn’t shy away from the difficult stories of slavery (over half of its population was enslaved in 1775) it wasn’t a story we felt was apparent during our wanderings. There’s more that can be done to ensure this is better told.
Headed north from Virginia towards Washington DC, our journey also took us onwards in time. Mount Vernon was the perfect stopping point en route — here the history of slavery is covered in far more detail, with a big exhibit for visitors.
Wandering through the gleaming hallways of George Washington’s house, where he and wife Martha lie buried side by side, the Potomac River looked as peaceful today as it must have nearly 300 years ago.
With its austere grey buildings, Washington DC seemed strangely clinical after Virginia’s sites full of character but there’s an almost overwhelming amount of history here. It’s easy to spend days hopping from one museum to the next.
A particular highlight for me was the National Museum of the American Indian, with beautiful arts and crafts displayed alongside horrendous history, including tales of Native American children forcibly removed from their families and sent to boarding schools.
The city is also home to The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, with a permanent exhibition spanning three floors, as well as one of the largest and most diverse collections of Holocaust testimonies.
Horrifying and moving, the sheer number of artefacts the museum holds is staggering — and their impact is devastating; walking into a railway carriage used by the Nazis to transport Jews, or looking at the sea of individual shoes, still only a fraction of those recovered, has an immediacy which left me almost speechless as I struggled to explain to my children.
As the sun set, we looked out to the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial on the spot Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. I could only wonder at the changes from those early days of the first European settlers through to today, when at times life feels as uncertain as ever.
But travelling through history from the country’s first tenuous roots is a journey well worth making.
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