The historic triangle formed by Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown is located on a 15-mile-wide Virginia peninsula. It was there, in 1607, that the first permanent English settlement was established in the New World. After enduring many hardships, the early colonists thrived in the colonial capitol of Williamsburg, Virginia. When the Seven Years War was ended by the 1763 Treaty of Paris, Britain tried several measures to raise money from the colonies to help pay the war debt. The colonists revolted and the rest, as they say, is history.
It was that history that we wanted to learn more about when we planned our vacation. Originally, we thought the Yorktown Victory Center was just a monument marking the location of the battlefield where victory was finally achieved. We didn’t plan to spend much time there. To our great and pleasant surprise, The Yorktown Victory Center actually provided us with a clear understanding of the events that transpired from the beginning of colonial unrest to the formation of a new nation. Using a "timeline" approach, four open-sided exhibit pavilions interpret significant events, publications, individuals, and places of the period using text and graphics.
The story of the American Revolution begins along the "Road to Revolution," an open-air walkway that traces events leading to the American colonies’ split from Britain. American and British perspectives are reflected in quotes from individuals who had a role in the conflict. The "Treaty" pavilion explores the effect of the Seven Years War on the relationship between the colonies and Britain. The "Taxes" pavilion describes events of 1773 and 1774–the passage of the Tea Act, the Boston Tea Party, and the First Continental Congress, which, following the time line, lead to the "Tea" pavilion that discusses how "irresolvable the conflict had become." Just inside the building, a fourth pavilion, "Troops," describes the beginnings of armed conflict.
At the end of the walkway, the museum exhibition building offers an introductory look at the Declaration of Independence before leading into a series of themed galleries. Attention is paid to three groups--African Americans, Native Americans and women--to whom the early documents regarding freedom and equality did not apply. History is not composed of just big events. In the "Witnesses to Revolution" gallery, personal stories of ten ordinary individuals are told using their own words taken from diaries, letters, and other sources. Graphics, artifacts, and life-size cast figures are also included. Making up this group are two African-American slaves who supported opposing sides in the colonial conflict, a Mohawk chief who wants to keep his people neutral, a loyal British Virginia plantation owner, two Continental army soldiers, a woman captured and adopted by the Seneca Indians just before the outbreak of war, and three civilians who reflect on the home front.
Pivotal events from the issuing of the Declaration of Independence to the significant victory at Yorktown are captured in photomurals along the ramp that connects the first theme gallery with the "Converging on Yorktown" gallery. There are "witnesses" from the various countries represented here: American, British, French, and German. This personal look at the events that occurred in Yorktown is also presented in an 18-minute film, "A Time of Revolution." Individuals in encampments around Yorktown reflect on the struggle. The film repeats all day at 30-minute intervals.
The "Yorktown’s Sunken Fleet" exhibit tells the fascinating story of ships lost or scuttled in the York River during the siege, and features artifacts from the British supply ship Betsy, the most extensively studied of the wrecks. There is a video on the excavation of the Betsy and a detailed scale model.
Mathews Gallery has a couple of exhibits. "A Soldier’s Lot: Military Life and Medicine in the Revolutionary Era" features original examples of many of the reproduction objects used in the museum’s recreated Continental Army encampment. "The Unfinished Revolution" exhibit explores the development of the new national government following the military end of the Revolution.
Outside, we visited a recreation of a Continental Army encampment, where we were encouraged to explore the soldiers’ tents, try on military coats, join in periodic wooden-musket drills, and join a cannon crew to learn the steps to prepare a cannon for firing. Costumed historical interpreters described and depicted daily routines of a company of soldiers during the last year of the war, demonstrated 18th-century surgical and medical practices, and explained the role of the quartermaster in managing troop supplies. One of the most interesting parts of the exhibit was a kitchen dug out of the ground and used to prepare the food to feed the entire company.
Also outside is a recreated 1780s Tidewater, Virginia, farm, complete with a house, a separate kitchen, tobacco barn, fenced crop fields, herb and vegetable gardens, and some livestock. It shows how many Americans lived in the decade following the Revolution. Costumed historical interpreters at the site demonstrate the seasonal cycle of work that characterized lower- to middle-class farm life in southeastern Virginia, engaging in domestic activities, such as preparing flax and wool and making candles. Visitors can assist in weeding or watering the garden, comb cotton or "break" flax into fiber, and learn how herbs were used for cooking and medicinal purposes.
Reproductions of objects used in the 18th century, books and educational games and toys, await you at the Yorktown Victory Center Gift Shop. Products reflect the colonial era and the American Revolution. A snack and beverage vending area with patio seating offers light refreshments.
The Yorktown Victory Center learning experience turned out to be one of the best parts of our vacation. As young students, we were unable to grasp the significance of the lessons with which our history teachers tried to educate us. By necessity, much of the exhibit requires a lot of reading along the way. The interactive processes incorporated here bring history to life. Seeing history this way makes a deep impression on a person. It is too bad that all children cannot learn this way.
The Yorktown Victory Center is open daily, except Christmas and New Year's Day, from 9am to 5pm (until 6pm June 15 to August 15).
From Williamsburg, take the Colonial Parkway approximately 14 miles east toward Yorktown. Turn left at the Yorktown Victory Center sign.
Admission: $8.25 adults, $4 youth ages 6-12, and under 6 free. A combination ticket is available with the Jamestown Settlement. Call 888/JYF-IN-VA (593-4682) or 757/253-4838