Experiencing an Evolving Story
“Williamsburg is a special place where the modern-day informs the understanding of the past, and ongoing discoveries inform the present,” says National Geographic photographer Josh Cogan. For a behind-the-scenes look at how research is revealing a fuller picture of this region sandwiched between Virginia’s York and James Rivers, Cogan captured images of some of the unexpected experiences and hidden gems in Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown.
“This area where north meets south, saltwater meets fresh, and history meets modern life creates a singular ecosystem that provides for incredibly rich material to witness as both traveler and storyteller,” adds Cogan, whose travels took him to places like the Colonial Williamsburg Archaeology Lab. The lab, which houses more than 60 million individual artifacts, continually processes and catalogs new archeological finds—each one an important puzzle piece in the evolving story of history-rich Williamsburg.
Striving for Historical Accuracy
Colonial Williamsburg is the world’s largest living-history museum. Bringing that history to life are costumed interpreters and expert craftspeople, such as brickmakers, weavers, and blacksmiths, who demonstrate more than 20 different colonial trades. Many historic interpreters assume the identities of real-life colonial-era figures like Martha Washington and Aggy of Turkey Island, an enslaved Black woman. To embody their adopted personas, interpreters continually fine-tune their presentations as information comes to light through diaries and other documents.
“The depth of the re-enactment is astounding, going so far as to have particular dresses and interactions based on periods of the historical character's life,” says Cogan. Procuring the fabrics, designing, and sewing the costumes worn by the interpreters takes place at the on-site Costume Design Center, open for public tours only a few times a year. Inside the center, artisans painstakingly craft period clothing and accessories, such as silk gowns, leather gloves, and the iconic uniforms of the Fifes and Drums corps.
Uncovering Black History
History is being painstakingly uncovered and preserved at the archeological excavation site of Williamsburg’s original First Baptist Church, home of America’s first known Black congregation. Beginning in the 1800s, a congregation founded in 1776 by enslaved and freed Black members worshipped at this location. The church relocated in 1956, and, in recent years, the original site had been covered by a parking lot.
The current excavation, begun in September 2019, is employing a number of tools—including a ground-penetrating radar unit and insurance maps—to reveal multiple layers of Black history from slavery to emancipation and segregation. First Baptist Church members are collaborating in the effort by sharing documents, photographs, and other artifacts to honor the little-known history of Williamsburg’s founding Black congregation. Says Cogan, “The deeper story around the research and science that is informing the interplay between the eras truly stands out to me as one of the unique aspects of what makes this region compelling.”
Nurturing Living Links to the Past
At Colonial Williamsburg, animals and plants play important roles in the 301-acre attraction’s accurate presentation of life in the mid-18th century capital of Colonial Virginia. One of the best places to observe the dynamic nature of this “living museum,” says Cogan, is the Colonial Williamsburg Arboretum, a collection featuring 25 period species of oak trees and more than 30 historic gardens. To recreate authentic period gardens, researchers use archaeological evidence and historic documents, such as ship inventories, providing a record of what seeds were imported and sold. Visitors often share in the process by donating heirloom seeds.
“Colonial Williamsburg is a museum that is always changing, reflective of the research that comes from the actual process of exploration,” observes Cogan, adding that another living component of Colonial Williamsburg’s history is the working animals. The museum’s Leicester Longwool sheep, Cleveland Bay horses, America Milking Red Devons, and other livestock were commonly seen in colonial British America but are considered rare today. A Rare Breeds program researches, acquires, husbands, and preserves these extraordinary creatures.
Growing New Winemaking Traditions
A blend of age-old concepts and modern technology guides the viticulture and fine winemaking at The Williamsburg Winery. Located on Wessex Hundred, a 300-acre colonial-era farm, the family-run winery produces uniquely coastal Virginia varietals inspired by the best practices of European vintners. Before planting their first vineyards in 1985, the founding Duffeler family worked with historians, soil scientists, and viticultural consultant Lucie Morton—world-renowned in ampelography, the art and science of vine identification—to establish a new winery rooted in Old World traditions.
This attention to detail and willingness to embrace old and new winemaking techniques, such as using artisanal French oak barrels for aging and stainless steel tanks for fermenting, has produced award-winning results. The Williamsburg Winery 2017 Petit Verdot Reserve earned a gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the world’s largest competition of North American wines. The winery also has been recognized for planet-friendly practices like recycling, reducing waste, and minimizing the use of herbicides.
Digging into Colonial Life
Skeletal remains are revealing important historical clues about Jamestown, the first English settlement in North America. At the Jamestown Rediscovery archeological project, researchers are examining more than 90,000 animal bones excavated from the 1607 James Fort site in Historic Jamestowne. Comparing historical records with the well-preserved bones—which had been sealed in a groundwater well-turned-refuse pit since 1619—offers insights into Jamestown’s early days, including the 1609-10 “starving time” when colonists were forced to eat horses, rats, and snakes.
The bones are part of the more than three million artifacts and eco-facts that have been recovered from Jamestown Island. Each item in the collection, which features the first forensic evidence of survival cannibalism by Europeans in a European colony, tells a story about life in 17th-century Jamestown. Virginia’s largest exhibit of American Indian artifacts is part of the treasure trove, a portion of which is displayed in the Archaearium. The archeology museum is built over the site of Jamestown’s statehouse, whose remains are viewable through glass floor panels.
Illuminating Challenging Chapters
Visitors can embark on another deep dive into the past at Jamestown Settlement. The living-history museum recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation, incorporating immersive technologies and new historical research to accurately tell the stories of the settlement’s residents: Powhatan Indians, English colonists, and enslaved West Central Africans. Updated panels in the “From Africa to Virginia” theater, for instance, focus on the 1619 landing of the first documented Africans to be bought and sold as chattels in English North America. Numbering about 30, the captives were kidnapped from present-day Angola, seized from a Portuguese slave ship, and traded for food at Point Comfort near Jamestown.
Through March 25, 2022, the museum is also hosting “FOCUSED: A Century of Virginia Indian Resilience.” The special photography exhibition, which focuses on Virginia’s indigenous population from the passage of the 1924 Racial Integrity Act (prohibiting interracial marriage) to present-day efforts to achieve state and federal tribal recognition, includes images from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.
Exuding an Energetic Vibe
As the home of The College of William & Mary, Williamsburg is a lively college town infused with a creative, youthful energy. Top students are drawn to William & Mary thanks to its status as a “Public Ivy,” a designation given to highly-selective public schools offering an Ivy League-quality education. Throughout the year, visitors can tour the William & Mary campus and sample the surrounding collection of boutique shops and local restaurants.
Thomas Jefferson attended William & Mary, which was founded in 1693 as the second college in the United States. Jefferson stayed in the Wren Building, circa 1695, the oldest college building still in use in the U.S. Walking the brick pathways across historic Wren Yard transports visitors back to the 1760s and offers a window into present-day William & Mary, a world-class research university where students gain the knowledge and skills needed to help shape the future.
Preserving Layers of History
Military history is etched in the landscape of Yorktown Battlefield where, in the fall of 1781, the Revolutionary War ended. The park’s earthen redoubts are recreations of the small forts British forces built around Yorktown as a main line of defense. Also visible are traces of trenches hand-dug by American and French troops to encircle and ultimately entrap the British. Confederate and Union soldiers later remade and repurposed the earthworks, adding new layers to Yorktown’s military past.
Take a walk through Historic Yorktown where the National Park Service owns numerous 18th-century properties. Among the most notable is Nelson House. Home to Thomas Nelson, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence, this structure is considered one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in Virginia. The house was battered during the Siege of Yorktown, yet much of the building is original. One famous exception is a decorative cannonball that was embedded in an exterior wall in the early 1900s.
Reflecting the Revolutionary Era
Faithfully interpreting the experiences of all Revolutionary-era Virginians guides the research and presentations at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. In recent years, the museum has developed extensive programming about the Black experience in Yorktown for its indoor exhibits and outdoor living-history areas—a recreated 1780s-era farm and a recreated Continental Army encampment.
In the encampment, visitors can learn about the varying American and British incentives and requirements for Black soldiers. While southern states generally didn’t permit enslaved Blacks to serve in the Continental Army, many northern states offered freedom to enslaved people who enlisted. Among the American forces at the 1781 Siege of Yorktown was Rhode Island’s Black Battalion, established in 1778 when the state couldn’t meet its troop quota. On the British side, Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, convinced more than 800 enslaved Black men to escape and join a squad he derisively dubbed the “Ethiopian Regiment.” In return for fighting, the soldiers earned their freedom.
Exploring a Rich Water Heritage
For thousands of years, water has shaped Williamsburg culture and history. Indigenous communities were the first to rely on the area’s rivers and interlacing tributaries for travel and sustenance. Today, a new generation of watermen harvest oysters from the brackish tidewater of the York on the west side of Chesapeake Bay, a coastal plain estuary formed at the end of the last ice age. To help sustain an abundant supply of fresh seafood, watermen, conservationists, and scientists are working together to protect and restore habitat.
Guided canoe and kayak trips at York River State Park, a Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, offer an up-close look at the region’s unique salt-marsh ecology. Onshore at Fossil Beach, low tide regularly reveals remains of pre-ice age aquatic creatures that once swam in the river. Storms and erosion continually unearth new fossils, some of which are thousands of years old. Visitors can keep one ancient relic only, ensuring ample finds for future fossil hunters.