Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures
Explore their Stories in the National Park System
Colonial National Historical Park
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.
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.
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.
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.