When visiting Virginia’s Historic Triangle area, you really should plan to add a day visiting Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne to your Colonial Williamsburg itinerary. Jamestown, founded in 1607, was the site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. From that tiny colonial foothold in North America came so much of the good (representative government) and the bad (slavery, conflict with Native Americans) that makes up American history. Here’s what you should know when you visit Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne.
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Historic Jamestowne vs. Jamestown Settlement
So, what’s the difference between Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne? Should you go to one or the other or both?
Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum that combines video, excellent exhibits, and living history to educate guests about the founding of Jamestown and what life was like there. They have full-scale models of the three ships that brought the first settlers to Jamestown (Susan Constant, Discovery and Godspeed) as well as re-creations of James Fort and a Powhatan village. Historical interpreters are on hand to answer questions about many aspects of what life was like at Jamestown, from cooking to weapons and armor.
Historic Jamestowne, on the other hand, is the actual site of the colony at Jamestown, Virginia. It’s part U.S. National Park (Colonial National Historical Park) and part active archaeological site (Jamestown Rediscovery) managed by Preservation Virginia. Archaeological discoveries they have made over the last 25 years are on display at the Voorhees Archaerium at Historic Jamestowne. Items there include coins, personal items, armor and even human remains.
I highly recommend both visiting Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne if you can. Since not much remains of the actual Jamestowne site, a visit to Jamestown Settlement living history museum first will help you understand what went on at the colony, what it may have looked like and who the key players were in its founding before you make your way to Historic Jamestowne.
Jamestown ticket options
You can purchase Jamestown Settlement tickets ahead of time online or at the large Jamestown Settlement visitor center. There are a variety of multi-day and combination tickets available (some are “web only” specials). Historic Jamestowne tickets are good for seven consecutive days and also cover admission to Yorktown Battlefield at the other end of Colonial National Historical Park.
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Where to stay in Jamestown
There are a lot of great accommodation options all within easy distances of Jamestown and the Historic Triangle sites. We chose to base ourselves in Williamsburg for our trip since we were going to be spending more of our time at Colonial Williamsburg than either Jamestown or Yorktown.
We got a great rate at the Residence Inn Williamsburg and enjoyed having a free breakfast every day as well as a kitchen in our room.
Visit Jamestown Settlement
Jamestown Settlement Visitor’s Center and Exhibit Area
Your visit to Jamestown Settlement will start at the large visitor’s center. Once you purchase your tickets (or check in with your multi-site, multi-day pass) and pick up a map, you’ll be directed to the exhibit area.
Start with the video that shows in the theater every half hour or so, “1607: A Nation Takes Root.” It will give you an overview of the founding of Jamestown, the why’s and wherefores, and the key players.
After you leave the theater, you’ll want to spend some time reviewing the exhibits in the galleries especially if you’re the kind of person who’s interested in myth busting. You’ll learn more about what life was really like for the English settlers, the native Powhatans (including Pocahontas) and those first Africans who were enslaved and forced to come to the New World.
When we were there in 2019, Jamestown Settlement was commemorating the 400th anniversary of two very important events. The first was the 400th anniversary of the very first meeting of the General Assembly in Jamestown in June 1619, meaning this was the very first meeting of representative government in what was to become the United States of America. To help Jamestown Settlement celebrate this important anniversary, the National Archives of the United Kingdom lent them the minutes from that first meeting to put on display. They are old, faded and difficult to read, but I do have to say that this history nerd geeked out quite a bit by being so close to such an important document.
The other important commemoration was the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the New World. Taken from Angola by the Portuguese, their ship was captured by English privateers and they were brought (along with the ship’s manifest) to English North America. At least one of those slaves, Angela, made her way to Jamestown (more on this later).
All this to say, don’t bypass the exhibit space at Jamestown Settlement. It is exceedingly well done and provides important historical context for the rest of your day. They do not allow photography or videography in the exhibition area.
Jamestown Settlement Outdoor Exhibits
Once you’ve had your fill of the Jamestown Settlement indoor exhibit galleries, you can make your way to the outdoor exhibits. There you’ll find re-creations of the three ships that brought 104 settlers to Jamestown, the Susan Constant, Discovery, and Godspeed. When we were there, all three ships were open for visitors to climb aboard and poke around. Living history interpreters answer questions about the ships and what the voyage may have been like.
The replica James Fort includes several buildings open for visitors to walk through such as a chapel, an armory (where the weapons, ammunition and armor were stored) and a small house. Living history interpreters are on hand to demonstrate early cooking techniques and offer special programs, like the fun and interactive program on 17th century Christmas traditions we saw.
At the Powhatan village re-creation, you can walk through reed-covered houses and talk to interpreters cooking or making weapons as the native tribes in that area did.
Where to eat in Jamestown
Food options are somewhat limited in Jamestown without leaving the entire Jamestown historical sites area and driving back toward Williamsburg. The large and convenient Jamestown Settlement Café in the Jamestown Settlement Visitor Center serves good and reasonably priced lunches cafeteria style with a variety of vegetarian and gluten-free options.
The small Dale House Café on the James River at Historic Jamestowne is also a convenient option for lunch, a snack or a cup of coffee. You can find it between the Memorial Church and the Voorhees Archaerium. There are vegetarian and/or gluten free options clearly marked on the menu.
There are picnic areas at both Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne for those who would prefer to pack a lunch.
Visit Historic Jamestowne
Virtually next door to Jamestown Settlement is Historic Jamestowne, the actual site of the first permanent English colony in the New World.
Once again, you’ll want to stop at the Visitor Center to purchase your tickets or check in with your multi-day pass. The guest services representative will give you a map of Colonial National Historical Park, covering Historic Jamestowne and Yorktown Battlefield plus the Colonial Parkway that connects the two sites. He or she can also let you know when the next orientation film is showing and what special programs or tours they have scheduled for that day.
Official Historic Jamestowne programs
After you watch the film (and I always recommend you do this), you’ll exit through the rear of the Visitor Center and walk over a footbridge to the Tercentenary Monument. This is where we met up for the Historic Jamestowne tour, which was really more like a talk since we didn’t actually go anywhere.
Always take advantage of any opportunities to join guided tours or talks with a National Parks Service ranger. They do an excellent job (Thanks, Ranger Doug!) of setting the scene and providing important historical context, especially if you’re at a site that requires a bit of imagination.
And since you were just at Jamestown Settlement, you can dazzle the park ranger as you answer all of his questions about the history of Jamestown. They don’t need to know that you just learned it all earlier in the day (wink, wink). But don’t be obnoxious about it. Let a few of the other visitors answer questions too.
Walking Jamestown Island
After the park ranger gives you an overview of Historic Jamestowne, you can use the map you picked up in the Visitor Center to continue your visit. On the map, you’ll see that the site is divided roughly in half. To the right of the Tercentenary Monument (as you face the James River) is Old Towne, where you will find the hundred-year-old Memorial Church, a statue of Pocahontas, a statue of John Smith, several archaeological dig sites, part of the site of James Fort, the Voorhees Archaerium and the Dale House Café (see Where to eat in Jamestown above). The Memorial Church sits over the foundation of the Jamestown church in which the First General Assembly met in 1619.
The Archaerium is well worth a visit. Here is where you will find on display many artifacts that archaeologists have unearthed from the digs around Jamestown Island. You’ll see all sorts of things that the colonists at Jamestowne used in everyday life, and they even have a couple of skeletons of early colonists (gulp!).
To the left of the Tercentenary Monument is New Towne. This part of the park, showing how Jamestowne expanded, includes some ruins of old houses including the Ambler Mansion. Signs along the way provide more information about the sites as you walk past. It is at the Pierce Properties where archeologists think it is possible they may have found the remains of some of the first enslaved Africans to ever live in the New World. They are calling it “The Angela Site,” named for one of the captured women from Angola who was forced to live out the rest of her life thousands of miles from her home in Africa.
Jamestown Island Drive
If you are so inclined, after you walk through Historic Jamestowne, you can continue your visit by doing the Island Drive. There’s a short loop and longer loop option, neither of which are very long. Both are clearly marked, just follow the signs from the Visitor Center parking lot. As you make your way around the island, interpretational signs will provide more information about what went on there.
Visiting Jamestown: the bottom line
I highly recommend spending a day in Jamestown, visiting both these important historical sites—Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne. You’ll gain an appreciation for America’s early history, and it will set the stage well for the time you spend in Colonial Williamsurg.
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