Our very first American Independence Day was fast approaching and Jessie and I wanted to do something special. We knew it had to involve fireworks, a military marching band, and tolling bells, but we wanted more. That’s when we decided that to get the best experience of Independence Day, we would travel back in time.
We set our destination to Williamsburg, Virginia, and the year was 1776. We would go back to the moment that America’s liberty was declared and spend a week exploring the town and its surroundings. It was time to go back to when it all began.
The car was packed and the GPS was set. We decided to bring our two favourite 4 year old twin boys with us too, as we felt we could all learn something from this trip back in time. When we left New York City, it was the 29th of June in 2011.
A seven hour drive entertaining two kids with a CD of their favourite classic children’s songs on repeat definitely didn’t feel like the instantaneous time travel methods that you see in the movies, but I guess technology just isn’t quite there yet. However, after a few hours they fell to sleep and we used this as an opportunity to tune in to local radio. As soon as we crossed over to the state of Virginia, we noticed the crazy amount of Christian stations, from an old man reading the bible or rock songs about loving Jesus to modest church choirs and biased religious debate. Lucky for us, the South is not only known for its ties to Christianity but its country music, so we opted for a country station and instead of listening to songs about God, we had songs about drinking a cold beer while driving along dusty back roads in an old pick-up.
Finally, the scenery got greener and lusher and we arrived at the Historic Powhatan Resort where we would be spending the week. We settled in for the night, but apart from the fact that the wireless internet wasn’t working, it didn’t seem like we had gone back in time at all. The truth was that we weren’t travelling back in time until a couple of days after our arrival in Virginia, to give us time to treat the kids to the local attractions Busch Gardens and Water Country USA.
Busch Gardens is like a big European themed fun park mixed with a zoo, as its broken up into themed areas decorated to look like countries from Italy, France, Germany and the UK. Not only does it have some really creative and insane rollercoasters, but it is also home to a bunch of animals, and has some great wildlife education programs. I even got to pet an iguana and hold a python! Water Country USA, as you might have guessed, is simply another waterpark, yet it was perfect for Virginia’s disgustingly humid weather in summer.
With the fun parks out of the way, we were finally ready to travel back in time to what is known as Virginia’s Historic Triangle – a triangle formed by connecting the historic settlements of Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown.
First, a visit to Colonial Williamsburg – the historic settlement that is now a tourist attraction in which visitors can wander around and immerse themselves in history with period actors and no modern technology. We left our car at the parking lot, bought our three-day tickets, and proceeded on foot.
After crossing a footbridge with plaques commemorating significant events in history, one told us that we were leaving the 21st century, and we finally found ourselves transported back in time. Americans were actually British, black people were mostly slaves, and I couldn’t get a Wi-Fi signal anywhere. As one plaque put it, democracy was now a “work in progress”. The year was 1776.
Walking along, we came upon the old Williamsburg Plantation – a large farming community which produces the food for the town. Here, you can see tourists learn how to work an old well while black slaves tend to gardens. We spoke with some of the locals and were shocked at their quality of life, but I guess they didn’t know any better, and I didn’t want to let them know how bad they had it. The hardest part was not telling the black slaves sweating away in their rundown shacks that a black man would one day be president, but I didn’t want to start any sort of history changing butterfly effect.
We kept walking past the crops and animal paddocks until finally we came upon the actual old town of Williamsburg. The town is made up of two main streets intersecting to make a T-shape (and a few smaller streets coming off of these), with the Governor’s Palace at the end of the middle street, and the Capitol Building at one end of the other street. All throughout the town you can find various workshops and stores, such as the shoemaker, the blacksmith, the gunsmith and the book binder to name just a few. You can enter any of these places and come across faithful historic re-enactors going about their crafts just as they would have done in the 18th century. When we visited the shoemaker, another re-enactor showed up at his window and politely asked him if he could make him up some new boots. The shoemaker kindly obliged.
One of our favourite places to visit was the scheduled tour of the Governor’s Palace. It’s a big old mansion with a parliamentary room, a courtroom, and separate fancy living quarters. You’ll also see some very impressive decorations on the walls, as it seems that instead of using wallpaper or paint, the Governor thought it would be much cooler to cover the walls in hundreds of different types of guns, swords and shields. You can also visit a courtroom where you can listen in to the way of the law, the jail (or ‘gaol’) where you can hear stories of its famous inmates (including Blackbeard the pirate), and even the teahouse, where you get treated to a free hot chocolate. Whenever a re-enactor asked us where we were from, we enjoyed seeing them squirm, wondering if New Zealand was colonised back in 1776. Not wanting to break character, most just said “Hmm, I’ve never heard of it.” Captain James Cook sailed around the coasts of New Zealand in 1766, but it wasn’t officially annexed by the British until 1840.
On our visit, there were many interactive programs, too, and they were mostly aimed at children. The two kids we brought along loved training to be soldiers, learning to spring forward and thrust with their muskets and bayonets, or how to throw a hatchet. However, after a while of wandering about, we all needed a cold treat.
One thing I have to recommend on a summer visit to Colonial Williamsburg is the icecream stand near the back of King’s Arms Tavern. Here, you can buy a large collector’s mug which you can then fill with icecream or soda for $1 USD – perfect for when you’re walking around in the mid-August Virginia heat. We sat out the back under a shelter and were even treated to a colonial musician playing songs on a lute to entertain us.
You’ll also find friendly re-enactors walking about the town in full costume and character, often stopping to chat with one another, and even a lot of their casual talk is in character. Walking past, we overheard some talking about rumours surround a certain local stealing some horses, or even more controversially, discussing their dislike for those in power.
When we visited, it was during a weekly program called Revolutionary City, where the town re-enacts famous events leading up to the American Revolution and the country’s independence from the British. This meant that there were seemingly spontaneous events occurring (although not if you pay attention to the daily program schedule) in which a famous leader of the British forces would ride into the town to show his anger at growing rumours of a revolution, and to scare the townspeople to stay in line. One woman spoke up and was threatened with imprisonment. At another point on our three day visit, an argument broke out in the street over the theft of some tools and a town leader had to be brought in to settle the public dispute. It was all very heated, yet all very proper.
Things came to a climax as the revolution began, and the one and only General George Washington rode into the town to declare that the Americans had won some major battles against British forces. Soon enough, the British had been forced out and the Americans had won their freedom. It was the 4th of July, 1776.
On the morning of Independence Day, we all gathered around the Capitol Building as a marching band played its way up the street towards us. Next, a man appeared on the balcony of the building, unrolled a scroll, and began to read out the Declaration of Independence to the silent crowd below. Spontaneous ‘hurrahs’ burst out from a few of the re-enactors nearby, and when the reading was done, the area exploded into cheer. People shot their muskets into the air and then canons were fired in celebration. The British Colonial flag on top of the Capitol Building came down, and a flag of the original Thirteen States of America (also known as the Betsy Ross flag) was raised in its place.
The day went on, with us seeing more historic events of celebration, and even a visit by Mrs Washington herself. We watched a marching band carrying in the flags of the thirteen states, and then there were shooting rifle salutes and for each state they blasted a cannon – there was good spirit and cheer all over and everybody was enjoying themselves. However, we also noticed that the heat wasn’t as bad as the previous days, and in fact, there were some rather dark clouds gathering above people setting up their lawn chairs and picnic spots on the green for the evening’s Independence Day ceremonies, including the classic fireworks display.
Lucky for us, we had managed to get a last minute dinner reservation the night before for Chowning’s Tavern – an old tavern restaurant in Colonial Williamsburg that opened in 1766. As we approached the lady at the entrance, we saw her looking up reservations by tapping into a basket covered in a tea towel. As I walked past, though, I noticed that in that basketball was a laptop! I felt like shouting and exposing her as a woman from the future, but I was really hungry so I just quietly walked into the restaurant.
Inside Chowning’s Tavern, we were treated to a lovely homely old fashioned two course meal with a slightly inflated price, surrounded by old woodwork and dim lighting from lanterns and candles. All of our waiters and waitresses were extra friendly, and the place was full of old song and music from wandering musicians. The atmosphere was so bustling and cheery inside the restaurant that we had no idea what we would find outside when we left around an hour later.
We emerged from the warmth and joy of the tavern to find pouring rain and endless cracking lighting followed by long ominous rumbles of thunder. The skies were a dark grey as if it was well into the night, and abandoned lawn chairs and blankets blew along the wet grass to bump into nearby trees. We hid under a tree to think about our next move, while the kids danced and laughed in the storm. The field where the ceremony was to be held was in a chaotic state as if everybody had got up and left in a hurry, and now all these picnics were ruined. We decided the only thing we could do was catch one of the buses back to the parking lot and drive back to the resort for the night. After a mad dash through the rain, we were finally driving back to comfort and we heard over the radio that the Colonial Williamsburg fireworks had been officially cancelled.
When we were back in the safety of our apartment at the resort, we did what any American would do. We got the kids into their pyjamas, ate some junk food and waved our little American flags that we bought from Target as we watched the Washington DC fireworks display on TV. It was our first American Independence Day.
The next day the storm had passed and the sun was out again, so we decided to visit historic Jamestown. This is a tourist attraction much like Colonial Williamsburg but located at the old settlement of Jamestown – the first settlement in America. Here, you can visit the port to board the old ships that brought the colonies over from Britain, and also visit a replicas of the old Jamestown colonial fort, and an old Indian village. While it was interesting to wander around the different buildings inside the fort, and also go into the Indian huts where their beds are lined with dozens of different kinds of animal pelts, from skunks to bears, Jamestown doesn’t have nearly as much to offer as Colonial Williamsburg, but makes a decent supplement for a daytrip.
The next day, it was time to head home. We loaded up our DeLorean and set off, back to the future and back to the modern city of New York. To break up the ride home, we stopped off at Arlington Cemetery, the Pentagon, and the White House in Washington DC so that the kids could wave their flags at the gates and hope to meet the president – who they refer to as ‘President Bararko’. Unfortunately, he didn’t show.
The seven hour drive back home gave me a lot of time to think about what I’d just witnessed, and what I’d learnt. In fact, I’d found that seeing things play out in front of me made the history much easier to follow, and having to put it into childish terms for the kids helped me to understand it even more. Seeing all the Americans wander around patriotically dressed in red, white and blue, I could now see where they were coming from with their celebrations of liberty. They were the minority, yet they managed to fight off an empire to build a new country of their own, and that was definitely something to be proud about. Another interesting thing I learned was that the French, who liked the idea of stopping ‘English tranny’, actually had a very big part in helping that minority win their revolutionary war, led by the Frenchman Lafayette. I figure this is probably why Americans generally don’t like the French anymore – these days, Americans are so proud about fighting for their freedom, and while the French did give in to the Nazis rather easily during World War II, it must hurt just a bit that the United States wouldn’t have won its freedom if it wasn’t for those damn frogs across the Atlantic.
Jessie and I took our friends’ two 4 year old twin boys away to Williamsburg for a week, from Wednesday the 26th of June until the next Wednesday, the 6th of July.
We stayed at the Historic Powhatan Resort in an apartment, paying a decent rate for the week. The resort was great, with neat little streets and perfect little identical apartment houses in a Pleasantville setting. It even had a large swimming pool area and wooded area at the end of our road which made spooky animal noises at night. They did, however, try to get me to take part in their time-share seminars.