Discover the Origins of Four Landmark Events in Greater Williamsburg

These 400-year-old anniversaries harken to the birth of the historic Jamestown colony and the founding of our nation. Here’s how to mark them in style.

Church and John Smith at Historic Jamestowne
At Jamestown Settlement, interpreters share the contributions by women
Black History Exhibit at Jamestown Settlement
Wren Building at The College of William & Mary

If you want to explore the enduring events that formed the foundation for our nation nearly 400 years ago, 1619 is a year of historic firsts. 

That year, British colonists met on July 30 in the first representative assembly in the church of Jamestowne Settlement on the island where they'd landed a dozen years earlier. 

That year, the first enslaved African-Americans were traded off an English ship, the White Lion, which landed at Point Comfort on the James River.

That year, the first large group of 90 British women arrived at the struggling colony, proving indispensable in stabilizing the settlement.  

That year, colonists celebrated the first Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation on Dec. 4 following their landing from London and the mandate that they celebrate "a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God" with prayers and a fast.

That makes 2019 quite an anniversary year. But who’s going to count those 400 candles?

While you ponder that, here is your guide to celebrating the anniversary in style by standing in the shoes of the people at the places where history was made.

The First Assembly

When tobacco made the Jamestown colony profitable, more workers were needed so the Virginia Company created a charter offering Englishmen land and a new system of governance to attract them. For the first time in the Western Hemisphere, citizens elected representatives to a governing body.

The 22 representatives of that assembly met in the Jamestown church for the first time on July 30, 1619. While the British governor still had veto power, they could — and did — pass laws. The General Assembly continued to meet in Jamestown until 1699 when Middle Plantation, later Williamsburg, became capital of the colony. 

Their meeting place was the second church on the site, a building "50 foot long and twenty foot broad" at the direction of Gov. Samuel Argall. (Pocahontas and John Rolfe were married in the first church on the site.)

The Memorial Church of Jamestown Rediscovery, built in 1907, stands over the foundations of that church and two others. The lone remaining church structure from the 17th century is the church tower nearby.

Excavation of the church is ongoing at Historic Jamestowne. Through clues from the archaeology, researchers hope to reconstruct the floor of the 1617 church so visitors can stand in the same spot as those members of the first General Assembly 400 years ago.

When the colonial capital was moved from Jamestown in 1699 to the newly formed city of Williamsburg, the Wren Building on the campus of the College of William & Mary became the temporary headquarters of the General Assembly for five years. Like the churches at Jamestown, the Wren Building was gutted by fire in 1705, then burned again in 1859 and 1862. It was restored to its colonial appearance as part of the restoration of Williamsburg in 1931. 

The Arrival of Africans

The first Africans were brought to Virginia as part of the brutal slave trade, taken from Angola and put on board a Portuguese ship bound for Mexico. Nearing the coast, that ship was attacked by two English privateers, the White Lion and the Treasurer, and robbed of about 50 Africans. The ships sailed to Virginia with their captives and sold them into bondage. Among those who were enslaved was a woman named Angela who was taken to Lt. William Pierce's Jamestown property. 

The Pierce house is part of an ongoing excavation at Historic Jamestowne looking for clues and context to Angela's life among the colonists and the Native Americans. The dig offers new windows to understanding the past. "We're looking at the impact of these three cultures coming together. The archaeology is speaking to us, telling this story of how these people are intertwined," says David Givens, the project archaeologist. "That's the way archaeology is. It leads you down a rabbit hole in ways you never thought. We're putting a microscope on history out there, on the diversity our nation came out of."

It's not an easy trail to follow. The site has six iterations of buildings, one atop the other. The artifacts recovered range from the time of the arrival of the first Africans. Sorting through hundreds of years of material, Givens says, is like looking for a needle in a stack of needles. Angela almost certainly came with virtually no possessions. 

The results will be part of a major exhibit in the Archaearium at Historic Jamestowne putting into context the world of 1619. In addition to the daily tours of dig sites, there are walking tours focusing on first Africans beginning at 2 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

The First Women

When the first large contingent of women arrived in Jamestown in 1619, Virginia Company treasurer Sir Edwin Sandy wrote: "The plantation can never flourish till families be planted and the respect of wives and children fix the people on the soil."

At Jamestown Settlement, the contributions of those women can be seen — and shared — with interpreters who cook, weave, sew, and cultivate crops. A special exhibit, “Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia," opening on Nov. 10, 2018, will explore little-known stories of real women from the time. Their roles were rarely recorded in history so their stories have rarely been told. They include stories of women like Anne Burras Leydon, who arrived in Jamestown as a maid. When her mistress died, she married John Leydon, the first English marriage in Virginia, and worked as a seamstress. They include Cockacoeske, a Virginia Indian woman who met with colonists and other Indian leaders after Englishmen attacked local tribes. She helped negotiate a peace that lasted for years and signed the Treaty of Middle Plantation. 

Interactive displays in the exhibit will help visitors explore those stories and more and showcase passages of the Ferrar Papers, a key source of information about English women compiled nearly 400 years ago by Nicholas Ferrar, a merchant in London who did business with the Virginia Company. It will be on loan from Magdalene College in Cambridge, United Kingdom. A third interactive exhibit will give visitors the opportunity to read Yelp-like reviews of 17th-century Virginia and decide whether they want to stay in England or leave for the colony.

The First Thanksgiving   

After 38 British settlers landed on the banks of the James River in 1619 after enduring a stormy trans-Atlantic trip aboard a 35-foot-long ship, they spent a day of thanksgiving at what is now Berkeley Plantation. No grand feast. No Native Americans. No turkey and cranberry.

The Berkeley Plantation, site of that first Thanksgiving, celebrates with a festival annually. In 2018, it will be on Nov. 4 with a day featuring a re-enactment of the landing, dinner, music, tribal dancers, and tours of the 1726 manor house. 

If you are looking for a more modern Thanksgiving meal, numerous Greater Williamsburg restaurants offer special meals including the Trellis Bar and Grill on Duke of Gloucester Street, Waypoint Seafood & GrillBerret's Seafood Restaurant and Taphouse Grill, and Yorktown's Riverwalk Restaurant

If that's not enough history, create more of your own by exploring Greater Williamsburg's living history attractions10 most popular attractions, and family fun things to do.  Then plan your visit today.