Virginia: Colonial National Historical Park

Colonial parkway
The scenic 23-mile Colonial Parkway connects Jamestown, Yorktown, and Colonial Williamsbur

Courtesy of National Park Service

Colonial National Historical Park is where English Colonial America began and ended. At the Cape Henry Memorial, Historic Jamestowne, Yorktown Battlefield, and on the Colonial Parkway, visitors can follow a historical and chronological path through English Colonial America. The scenic 23-mile Colonial Parkway connects Jamestown, Yorktown, and Colonial Williamsburg. Visitors travel the parkway to sites and landscapes that will transport them back to the days of Colonial America and the birth of the United States as an independent nation. 

The story begins in April 1607, when after many months at sea, 144 Englishmen made landfall on the eastern coast of America where they anchored their ships in the deep and protected waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Sending a small party of men to shore, they built a wooden cross, planted it in the sand, and named the place Cape Henry. Today, a ten-foot high granite cross of the Cape Henry Memorial stands at the approximate location of the colonists’ initial landing in memory of the wooden cross built by the English colonists.

By May 13, 1607, about three weeks after this initial landing, colonists traveled up the James River to Jamestown Island and established the first permanent English colony in North America. This settlement, today known as Jamestown or Historic Jamestowne, served as the seat of colonial government in Virginia for 92 years where the first representative assembly in the New World met in 1619. It is also where the first recorded Africans arrived in English America and the site of Bacon’s Rebellion.

Under the leadership of John Smith and the Reverend Robert Hunt, the colonists endured hard times and great strife during the early years. Starvation, conflicts with American Indians, inclement weather, and lack of supplies threatened the survival of the colony. In the early months during the first winter, many of the original colonists died of starvation. The colony eventually prospered as the colonists found ways to survive and to co-exist with the Powhatan, which historians estimate had a population of 13,000 to 14,000 in 1607 in the Tidewater Virginia area. The Powhatan had an important impact on the survival and everyday lives of the colonists.

Concentrated along the rivers, Powhatan settlements sometimes contained as many as 100 homes. The tribe built houses by bending saplings for a frame and placing woven mats or bark atop this structure. In the settlements, individual gardens produced corn, beans, peas, squash, and sunflowers, while the area’s waterways and woods provided fish, shellfish, nuts, fruits, and berries. The men and boys hunted mammals using hunting bows, while the women gathered wood, made pottery, prepared food, dressed hides, and tended to the gardens. Members of the tribe worked together to utilize the natural bounty of the area in ways that were efficient, effective, and useful. As the English colonists began to settle the small peninsula near Powhatan settlements, a middle ground emerged between the two groups.

In this middle ground, conflict, compromise, and trade each played pivotal roles. The English needed the Powhatan for food, furs, survival tips, and as guides, while the Powhatan saw the English’s technological trade goods as useful tools to help make their lives easier and expand their influence. The English and the Indians exchanged goods and cultural practices establishing interdependent relationships. John Smith’s friendship with Pocahontas, the daughter of the Chief of the Powhatan Confederacy who acted as a messenger between the two groups, helped the colonists obtain from the Powhatan much needed food and furs that helped them to survive. Pocahontas’ marriage to John Rolfe, the English colonist credited with producing the first marketable tobacco export for the colony, provided a few years of peace between the English and Powhatans. Today, visitors to Historic Jamestowne can walk the grounds of the initial fort, the place where the “middle ground” between the English and Powhatans greatly affected the lives and the intertwined futures of both groups.

By the 1620’s, as Jamestown matured as a colony, residents began moving to the area slightly east of the old three sided 1607 fort. Here, in “New Towne,” Jamestown took the shape and form of an established town. Governors, planters, merchants, and visitors used the area for a variety of purposes. Colonists constructed a statehouse, church, roadway, workshops, dwellings, warehouses, wharves, and taverns. Visitors can follow the New Towne walking tour to view the ruins and archeological remains of this once bustling town. The Old Church Tower is the only original 17th century structure still there. Many of the recovered artifacts from Historic Jamestowne are on display in the museum in the visitor center.

After the Jamestown statehouse burned to the ground first during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 and again in 1699, the colonists moved the capital of Virginia a few miles away to Williamsburg. Most of Jamestown’s merchants followed the government to Williamsburg, which precipitated Jamestown’s steady decline. Visitors can follow this historical move by taking the Colonial Parkway from Historic Jamestowne to restored Colonial Williamsburg. 

After exploring Historic Jamestowne, the beginning of the British colonial experience in the eastern part of North America, visitors can tour Yorktown, where the British colonial experience in eastern North America ended. On October 19, 1781, after the battle at Yorktown, General George Washington’s allied American and French army forced the British army under General Charles Lord Cornwallis to surrender.

In 1691, Virginia’s colonial government established Yorktown as a place to regulate trade and collect taxes on both imports and exports for Great Britain. As the center of such activity, the town emerged as a major port and economic center with docks, storehouses, businesses, stately homes, taverns, and shops. Between 1740 and 1770, at the height of its prosperity, Yorktown had a population of nearly 2,000 people and 250 to 300 buildings. By 1781, because of its strategic location and importance, Yorktown would play a pivotal role in the American Revolution. 

In March 1781, British General Cornwallis celebrated a crushing victory at Guilford Courthouse near present day Greensboro, North Carolina. While the British army won this battle, they lost over half of their soldiers. Cornwallis then retreated to Yorktown where he planned to regroup, wait for supplies, and establish a naval base. To prevent this from happening, on September 28, 1781, approximately 17,600 allied American and French soldiers marched from Williamsburg to Yorktown, where they besieged Cornwallis’ 8,300 British, German, and American loyalist forces. The colonial allied artillery crews continually fired on Cornwallis’ troops for many days, knocking most of their guns out of action by October 11. On October 17, realizing the situation was hopeless, Cornwallis sent forth a British drummer with a white flag and a note requesting a cease-fire. 

Cornwallis and Washington then exchanged notes to provide a framework for surrender. The following day, four officers--one American, one French, and two British--met in “Mr. Moore’s House,” the location Cornwallis selected for the negotiations, to settle the surrender terms. Visitors can still see the Moore House where this significant negotiation and event in world history occurred. With the Articles of Capitulation signed, on October 19, 1781, Cornwallis’ army marched out of Yorktown between two lines of allied soldiers, to a field now known as Surrender Field where they laid down their arms. The fighting, and Britain’s colonial experience in eastern North America, was over.

After the destruction caused by the 1781 siege, fewer than 70 buildings remained in Yorktown, and the 1790 Census recorded only 661 people in town. By taking the ranger guided Siege Line Walking Tours and/or Yorktown Tours or by simply walking Yorktown’s streets and fields, visitors can learn about the 1781 Siege of Yorktown and view a town that has seen over 300 years of American history. In addition, self-guided auto tours lead to various points of interest on the battlefield.

Visitors can stop by the Nelson House, the home of Thomas Nelson, Jr. a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a commander of the Virginia Militia during the Siege of Yorktown. The old York County Courthouse (1697), the York Parish Church (1697), and the Customhouse, where taxes were collected on imported and explored goods passing through the port, are still standing as well. The Customhouse is the oldest building in the Yorktown Historic District. While exploring the 18th century Georgian buildings that line the streets of Old Yorktown, visitors can imagine what it was like to live in Colonial Virginia when Yorktown was a bustling tobacco port and what it might have been like to witness the last battle of the American Revolution. 

Colonial National Historical Park, with the Cape Henry Memorial, the Historic Jamestowne Site, the Yorktown Battlefield, and the Colonial Parkway, provides visitors with a range of opportunities to experience and contemplate the people, events, and places that directly affected the birth of the United States of America.

Colonial National Historical Park, a unit of the National Park System, is located near Interstate 64 (I-64) in VA.  Historic Jamestowne Visitor Center at 1368 Colonial Parkway, Jamestown, VA and Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center at 1000 Colonial Parkway, Yorktown, VA are open daily from 9:00 am until 5:00 pm, except on Thanksgiving Day, December 25, and January 1. All park grounds close at sunset. For more information, visit the National Park Service Colonial National Historical Park website or call 757-898-2410.Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center, 23690.

Last updated: August 23, 2017