Words by Christine Van Dyk
After a three-day drive across the South, we reached Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Joined by my friend, five rowdy kids, and an old beagle, I stumbled out of the RV and fell right into the past. The moment our feet touched the cobblestones, we heard the town crier heralding the news of the day over the clip-clop of horses’ hooves. We had gone back in time—to November 25, 1773, to be exact. That’s because every day in Colonial Williamsburg corresponds to a day in the eighteenth century, and for us that meant the week now known as Thanksgiving.
There’s no better way to experience the magic of autumn than among the fiery foliage between the James and York Rivers, no better place to immerse yourself in the American experience than Colonial Williamsburg. We can all tell the story of a grateful nation, but somehow that tale seems more poignant walking in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson and listening to George Washington give the Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. With costumed reenactors, Colonial Revival architecture, and an exacting commitment to history, it’s a chance to not only learn the story of our nation, but also to become part of it!
The Colonial Way of Life
To understand a person, you have to walk a mile in his shoes. For the reenactors in this living history museum, that means taking on the persona of an actual person—speaking her dialect, learning his craft, even responding to questions the way the person would have on a particular day in history. After all, you can’t ask James Monroe about the Articles of Confederation before the Second Continental Congress had occurred—he’d look at you absolutely dumbfounded!
These historical interpreters portray famous figures and ordinary people, but the goal is always to make you feel as if you’ve come face-to-face with someone who lived hundreds of years ago. Like the time my daughter sneezed in the apothecary and the shopkeeper offered her a home remedy from the 1700s. Such interactions are typical. You might learn to fire a musket or make steamed pudding, farm vegetables, or weave fabric. Some visitors get so invested they dress the part in period frocks or rented children’s costumes from the Visitor’s Center.
From carpenters to wheelwrights, farriers to wigmakers, there are all manner of tradesmen. And while they are actually hard at work, the real job of the actors goes beyond the Colonial skills you see. The task of everyone, from the Governor of the Commonwealth to the soldiers of the fife and drums corp, is to usher you into a world beyond the pages of a history book.
Forming a Nation
Colonial Williamsburg offers a snapshot in time, a picture taken just before the Revolutionary War when the colonies were young and America was just an idea. Residents are often found debating how the “impending” war might help or hurt their families, discussing the role of the British legal system or even the need for more slaves. Remember, these reenactors speak from an eighteenth-century perspective and convincingly present opinions with which modern citizens may disagree.
One of our favorite things to do was to interact with the Nation Builders, historical figures who made significant contributions to the American story. We listened to the stirring words of Gowan Pamphlet, an enslaved tavern worker who preached equality at Williamsburg’s First Baptist Church. We asked Martha Washington about the Revolutionary War and questioned Patrick Henry about his famous words, “Give me liberty, or give me death.” It breathed life into the story of America and everyone was fascinated—even our middle school boys.
Long before the days of frozen turkey and jarred cranberry sauce, the colonists prepared the Thanksgiving meal in iron kettles over open hearths. It was served in spartan rooms lit by candles and consisted of mid-Atlantic fare such as roast mutton and bread baked in cloam ovens. You can still experience an authentic colonial Thanksgiving meal in taverns throughout the colony:
Michie Tavern — Just up the road from Monticello, Michie’s serves classic Southern fare in a rough-hewn dining room lit by the glow of a fire. Servers dress in period costumes, kids earn stick candy on scavenger hunts, and a metalsmith shop serves as a museum of sorts.
King’s Arms Tavern — Make plans to visit King’s Arms after dark when you can stroll the quiet streets of Williamsburg on your way toward this historic tavern. While many regional dishes appear on the menu, we recommend trying the older ones, such as peanut soup and squash steaks.
Christiana Campbell’s Tavern — This tavern was a favorite of George Washington and the location of many a learned discussion. Guests will enjoy eighteenth-century music and a historically inspired menu that includes their famous spoon bread.
Chowning’s Tavern — Brunswick stew, Welsh rarebit, and low-country boils are among the favorites presented by the historically-dressed servers of this public house.
With full bellies and tired kids, we began to make our way home. When I asked my friend if she thought the trip was worth it, she just chuckled.
“I hope one day when our kids study about this place in school, they’ll perk up when they remember it was all real,” Jennifer Reichardt said. “Sure, it might be a delayed pay-off, but maybe that’s what places like this are for—a spark that continues to burn long after you’ve left.”
10 Tips for Colonial Williamsburg
Make the most of your trip with these helpful hints:
- Visit Jamestown, an archeological site and living history experience featuring the colony, a
Powhatan village, and three ships.
- Take a free self-guided tour of the College of William and Mary, America’s second-oldest college.
- Look for the Grand Union Flag on buildings free to the public.
- Starting in mid-November, Colonial Williamsburg dresses for the holidays with period decorations and traditions such as ice skating, hot cocoa, and gingerbread cookies.
- When in Yorktown, watch the Boston Massacre and Battle of Yorktown movies, which introduce real-life characters featured throughout the museum. Then, take a personality quiz to determine which Revolutionary character you’d be.
- Ride the Yorktown Trolley, a mahogany and brass-trimmed trolley that takes you to the top tourist sites while allowing you to avoid the hassle of parking.
- Learn to fire a flintlock musket.
- Listen closely to the Fifes and Drums. This military field music was a melodic communications system that passed secret instructions in the chaos of battle.
- See a trial at the Courthouse, where visitors become part of the story.
- Take a hands-on workshop of eighteenth-century trades, such as bread making, woodworking, embroidery, and more.