historian, author, film producer

Top Five Summer History Tours–Virginia

Where do you go to find the best history? There are so many choices! Museums, battlefields, exhibits, galleries, and walking tours. It is summertime and that means a chance to explore American history sites and tours. Sometimes, we experience the past more directly when we walk through an old house or see a historical object or stand in a historical place. This feeling is something that children experience intensely as they begin to see that they are part of a continuous flow of time and space, and they are often especially willing to be “transported” in time through history. So, take your children and visit a historic place this summer. 

This week we feature Virginia. Next we will cover New England, and then the West.

Here are my top five places or sites this summer for an encounter with history that really means something (with a brief explanation why)–Jamestown, the Moton civil rights museum, Monticello, Chancellorsville battlefield, and the Tredegar Civil War Center and Museum: 

1. Jamestown

American colonial history really begins at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony, settled in 1607 (much earlier than Plymouth). Here, on the James River in the great Chesapeake Bay, English, Indian (Algonquian), and African societies encountered one another at the edge of what some are now calling “the Atlantic World.” The place is undeniably important and you can stand right in the ruins.

Go to the Island first, the original site of the fort: what is called Jamestown Rediscovery. Begin there not the Jamestown Settlement reproduction and museum nearby. The island is owned jointly by the National Park Service and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA). The history-making archaeological dig underway at the island, led by William Kelso, has discovered the original Jamestown fort, and this work is transforming the way historians think about the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. You can tour the dig as well as the new, beautifully displayed artifacts at the “Archaearium” (that’s right). The Archaearium display is a powerful look at the work of archaeologists and features the process of what happened in the dig at Jamestown Fort.  Although the exhibit at the Archaearium downplays English-Indian conflict too much, and generally does not explain the Algonquian experience, children will be fascinated with the artifacts that Kelso and his team uncovered. The well, into which Jamestown’s first colonists seemed to have thrown everything, is a marvel.

The experience of standing in the original footprint of the fort along the James River is powerful. You can look right down the river and see where the signal posts were to guard the tiny colony from any approaching Spanish fleet. Because Spain’s military governor in Havana had sailed right into the Chesapeake in 1571 to search for a missing Jesuit mission and because Roman Catholic Spain was Protestant England’s enemy on the seas, the idea of a Spanish attack was not fanciful. The line of sight down the James River today from the fort is still remarkably unbroken by modern structures, so the effect of this view is well worth the trip. 

The Jamestown Yorktown Foundation’s site (The Settlement) and its museum and reproduction of the fort is near Jamestown Island, and its exhibits are also worth visiting. Although many visitors think this is the original site, you should bear in mind that the entire creation is a reproduction, and if you have visited the original site first you will not be confused about this. The Settlement exhibit includes a carefully reproduced Algonquian village. Living historical actors dress in Indian clothing and use Indian implements to cook, grow corn, and treat deer hides. Although children may find the site fascinating for this reason and although the huts and equipment are reproduced faithfully (largely based on the drawings by John White from 1585 and the writings of John Smith that describe Indian towns and structures in some detail), the site is placed so close to the fort that it appears as if Indians lived next door to and in feudal vassalage to the English fort’s colonists. They did not, of course. The best part of the Settlement is the reproduction ships, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery. 

Before any tour of Jamestown you might look online at the biggest archive of Jamestown materials, The Virtual Jamestown Project. Here you can read John Smith’s accounts, letters from the period, and important original documents.

2. The Moton Museum in Farmville, Virginia, Prince Edward County

This site is a historic place in the Civil Rights Movement, and the little museum is a gem. In 1951 students at the segregated, black Robert Russa Moton High School staged a strike to demand that the school board build a new black high school. The leader of the student strike, Barbara Johns, organized the student body to walk out of school down to the county building and make their demands known. The students did not go back to school for several weeks as they sat out “on strike.” The event prompted civil rights attorney Oliver Hill to visit the community, and he and the NAACP eventually took on the case. The case became one of the five included in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. In reaction to the landmark Brown decision striking down segregated schools, local white leaders in Prince Edward County shut off all funding for public schools and closed the schools rather than integrate them. The schools remained closed for five years, from 1959 to 1964. These circumstances make the site especially important and dramatic. You can stand in the small, cramped auditorium where Barbara Johns rallied the students for the strike and see the “tar paper shacks” that the school erected because it had no funds. The effects of segregated schools become instantly clear and the improbable effects of the student strike of 1951 intensely felt.

You should contact the Moton Museum before going to make sure of its hours. You can walk from the museum on the same roads that the students took when they walked en masse in May 1951 down to the county office building. This one mile walk past the historic black church where NAACP meetings were held gives you an important view of the early beginnings of the civil rights movement. I encountered this story through the work on original films from local television stations–you can see these films too and look at the Prince Edward situation at: http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/civilrightstv.

3. Monticello

There are few places like this in the United States. Any summer history tour should visit the historic home of Thomas Jefferson. His epigraph says it all, or at least all he wanted to say about himself: “author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Founder of the University of Virginia.” President for two terms, Secretary of State, Envoy to France, Governor of Virginia, and political party founder, Jefferson could claim much more on his tombstone. He valued liberty, religious freedom, and learning above all. Of course, he designed his home at Monticello in the middle of all of this, and it is an exquisite statement of his values and aspirations for the nation.

Monticello has firmly placed slavery in the story of Jefferson and his life. The site includes tours of the slave living and working sites, and the team of archaeologists and historians are continually uncovering new evidence about this experience. Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings is clearly explained and affirmed in the tours. Slavery, freedom, and the political basis of the American republic were at the heart of Jefferson’s life and experiences. Jefferson’s wrestling with all three are on display in the design of Monticello and the material objects found there. Jefferson had great faith in us, the generations to come after him in the American republic. And it is humbling to be reminded just how much faith he had and how much trust he placed in our democracy.

4. Chancellorsville Battlefield

No summer history tour is complete without a Civil War battlefield experience. There are, sadly, many to choose from. The war tore through the heart of America and killed hundreds of thousands. It is far too easy to forget the consequences of war and to glorify set-piece battles as if they were played like a game. But when you visit a battlefield and see the ground on which armies fought, the war and its destruction take on a new meaning.

The great battlefields include Gettysburg, Petersburg, Vicksburg, Shiloh, Antietam, Manassas, and of course Chancellorsville. All are run by the National Park Service and have extensive, high quality historical interpretation. You will find expert park rangers and historians at all of them.

I chose Chancellorsville for several reasons. First, the battlefield landscape is rapidly changing, as housing developments, golf courses, and commercial strip malls have taken the place of farms, fields, and barns. It is increasingly difficult to see the battlefield, so go now.

Second, the battle was huge, extending over dozens of square miles and had tremendous importance in the flow of the war, giving the Confederacy vitality and energy at a key turning point. The best tour is to begin at Zoar Baptist Church where Stonewall Jackson’s troops first encountered Hooker’s Federal forces and in the first hours of the engagement changed the dynamic of the battle with an aggressive attack. Then, you can follow Jackson’s long march route around the Federal right flank and his surprise attack on the 11th Corps. You can do this in a car, but on bike is also fun. And if you take a car, stop along the way and get out to walk the route because the Wilderness effect is still there. Another good walk to do is the short distance from the Hazel Grove to the Chancellor House ruins. The high ground of the Hazel Grove and the open sight lines to the House give you a sense of the desperate stakes in the artillery battle there.

5. The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar

Tredegar Iron Works cast iron before the Civil War for railroads and during the war supplied the Confederacy with much of its cannon and other armaments and ammunition. The works were extensive and have been preserved in downtown Richmond. Few sites give a feel for the work of nineteenth-century industry and how it operated. Tredegar holds added importance because so many slaves were employed in heavy industry here. The Civil War center has been dedicated to explain the experiences of Confederate, Union, and African-American soldiers and civilians in the Civil War. Few museums attempt such an interwoven set of exhibits. And few treat the experience of the U.S. Colored Troops with any degree of completeness, but Tredegar has made that effort its main mission. Although the exhibits are useful, informative, and interesting, the grounds, buildings, and equipment at Tredegar offer visitors a window into the nineteenth century and into the machinery that was at the heart of the Civil War and its destructiveness. You will not be disappointed.

So, enjoy these great sites. Next, we take a tour of New England and then the West for the best summer sites to visit.