Patriot Games

Virginia: There's so much history and good old American family fun in the Jamestown-Williamsburg-Yorktown triangle that there's little threat of revolt by antsy children.

April 25, 1999|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The kids looked dubious. Six soldiers shared that flimsy tent smaller than a pup tent?

They didn't have sleeping bags either. Revolutionary War soldiers were assigned just one big blanket per tent: They'd cut it so each man got a piece, explained Bill Blair, chief interpreter for the Yorktown Victory Center museum, as he stood in the "military encampment."

He invited the kids to lie down on the straw, as the soldiers did, sleeping in shifts. Most barely out of their teens, he explained, they ate watery stew, hard biscuits and whatever else they could find, getting sick often, with only herbal remedies to relieve their symptoms. We all grimaced as the "surgeon" demonstrated his tools -- especially those used for pulling teeth.

Blair noted that nine out of 10 Revolutionary soldiers -- George Washington's stepson among them -- died from illness, not bullets. "We want the kids to see that being in the Army was not an easy life. It might have been patriotic but it was not fun," he said.

Kids get that message loud and clear here. Yorktown, of course, is where the last battle of the Revolutionary War was fought: On Oct. 19, 1781, Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered to Washington and his French allies. The Treaty of Paris was still two years away, but Washington's victory at Yorktown, about 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., assured the colonists had won their war of independence. Kids can even tumble down the hills where the Continental Army camped at the Yorktown battlefield. It's now part of the Colonial National Historic Park.

As we gear up for July Fourth parties and fireworks, there's no better place than Virginia's Historic Triangle to remind the kids -- and ourselves -- of the grit and sacrifices it took to get this country started. The triangle extends from the first English settlement in 1607 at Jamestown, to Yorktown and then Colonial Williamsburg, where many Revolutionary ideas were spawned, at the top point of the triangle.

Attention for kids

Yorktown Victory Center and Jamestown Settlement, both overseen by the Jamestown-Yorktown educational foundation, shouldn't be missed to get the full Colonial history story. They're hands-on museums designed so that kids will get a glimpse of what everyday life was like, whether you were a 17th-century settler or Native American, an 18th-century Continental Army soldier or a child being raised on a farm after the war.

There are events geared to children all during the year -- a Children's Colonial Fair at Yorktown during the July Fourth weekend, for example; a Foods and Feasts festival at Jamestown at Thanksgiving.

We as parents know kids learn best by doing. Even typically bored teens can't help but be intrigued to see the stories from their social studies books played out in front of them as muskets and cannons are fired.

Younger siblings can feed the chickens at Yorktown's 1780s farm, chop wood or weed the garden or dress up in Colonial garb in the discovery room. They might hang wet clothes from branches to dry or join in a military drill. At Jamestown Settlement, they could help grind corn at the re-created Powhatan Indian Village, help hoist the sails on board full-scale replicas of the ships -- the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery -- that carried the first settlers here, or help make wattle, the framework of branches and twigs used for fences.

Every young Disney fan can tell you John Smith was the leader of the first 104 Jamestown settlers who arrived from England in 1607, and that Pocahontas was the young daughter of the chief of more than 30 Powhatan tribes in Virginia. The two helped each other, becoming friends, historians here say, but contrary to the Disney version, never were lovers.

Pocahontas, in fact, later married John Rolfe, the planter who introduced tobacco as a cash crop. She died in England (on a mission to recruit new settlers) and left behind a baby son who still has descendants in Virginia. See if you can get the kids to buy the real story. I couldn't. Seven-year-old Melanie insisted I'd gotten the facts wrong.

But even if they don't buy the history, the kids will still come away with a new understanding of that era and they'll have a lot more fun than in social studies class. The Powhatan Indian village, based on archaeological findings, consists of several Indian houses. Check out what's cooking over the fire before you head down to the pier and the re-creations of the ships that brought the colonists to Virginia.

"This boat is so small!" Melanie said as we boarded. We inspected the cramped, dark area below deck where the passengers spent most of their time. The kids tried a sailor's bunk -- not very comfortable, they decided -- helped haul some cargo and got a quick lesson in 17th century navigation. Costumed interpreters were glad to answer their questions along the way. We could understand why the settlers were so glad to arrive.

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