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11 Fun Lessons from the Birthplace of American Democracy

Plan the ultimate history-driven trip filled with programming showcasing the evolution of America.

U.S. News & World Report

11 Fun Lessons from the Birthplace of American Democracy

Colonial carriage at Williamsburg, Virginia

Do you and the kids love history? Plan a weekend getaway to Virginia's Historic Triangle to learn about how early Americans changed the country. (Getty Images)

Virginia's Historic Triangle of Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown serves as a living classroom, where visitors can discover how the U. S. became a democracy. Begin your visit chronologically, starting at Jamestown Settlement, an interactive museum with recreations of a fort, Powhatan Indian village and three English trading ships outside. Archaeologists uncovered the 1600s-era English fort and settlement in the 1990s. Today, Colonial Williamsburg serves as a 300-acre recreation of the village during the years it was the capital of the Virginia Colony. A 23-mile long protected forest corridor known as the Colonial Parkway connects these sites to Yorktown Battlefield in the Colonial National Historical Park, the site of the climactic battle of the Revolutionary War in 1781, which can be explored at the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

This genteel corner of Virginia also has theme parks, golf, boating and craft breweries that provide visitors with plenty of ways to relax after reliving these tumultuous events. Read on to map out where history buffs of all ages will find engaging and enriching attractions – and discover at least 11 fun lessons – in their quest to learn about the roots of democracy.

Brushing Up on American History Is Fun for All Ages

"If Jamestown represents the arrival of the English, then Yorktown represents kicking them out," says Peter Armstrong, senior director of museum operations and education at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. At their museums and other sites, interpreters and costumed re-enactors bring pivotal historical events to life, making them fun through technology, newly discovered artifacts and dramatic vignettes.

Commerce Is at the Heart of Democracy

At Jamestown Settlement, discover why desperate men risked the unknown new world for promises of land and riches. The first English colony was sponsored by the Virginia Company of London, which sold stock to English adventurers. Within a year, nearly two-thirds of the original 104 men had perished from challenges, including extreme weather, drought and starvation. More colonists were recruited and over time the new cash crop of tobacco as well as the establishment of slavery kept Jamestown alive.

Women Play an Important Role

When the English landed, Powhatan Indians welcomed them as traders, not settlers, to the James River region. After years of fighting, the colonists kidnapped the Powhatan princess Pocahontas, and eventually her marriage to captor John Rolfe brought peace. Learn why the real Pocahontas was more cultural ambassador than Disney princess, and get to know the women, both free and enslaved, whose wits and work established Virginia.

Innovation Is Essential to Growth

Over a plate of Chesapeake Bay oysters at Yorktown's Riverwalk Restaurant, remind the family to look down as they explore the area's sites. The innovative flooring of colonial towns and military encampments is made up of crushed oyster and clam shells, which provided good drainage and a calcium-rich fertilizer.

Discover the Seeds of Democratic Representation

At Jamestown Settlement, the stirring "A Nation Takes Root" film sets up the culture clash between local Indians, arriving English colonists and the Africans captured from Angola to work as indentured servants. Compare each culture's tradition of government with a touchscreen game, and engage with individual characters on life-size monitors. In June of 1619, the same year that Africans arrived, a provincial legislative assembly chosen by the colonists – the first representative government in British America – was convened.

Every Citizen Has a Civic Duty

Pause for a hot chocolate at the prosperous Charlton Coffeehouse, one of the 500 historic buildings in Colonial Williamsburg. Join re-enactors as they question British authority over the colony. By 1776, Williamsburg was a melting pot of ideas and customs, and its citizens would play a prominent role in the development of the U.S Constitution and Bill of Rights.

There's a High Price for Freedom

Follow five people whose true stories, uncovered by scholars, are shared in the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown' s introductory film "Liberty Fever." Depending on your interests, download a mobile app tour of exhibition galleries to further explore aspects of loyalists, patriots, women or children.

Society Relies on Public Health

Disease was the greatest risk for both armies and residents. That's why young patriots will have their teeth inspected at Yorktown’s recreation Continental Army encampment. Kids are sure to be intrigued as they examine the jagged 18th-century dental tools and unhygienic conditions in the surgical tent.

Learn From Past Wars

The American Revolution Museum's experiential 4-D theater surrounds visitors with images, smoke and wind, but it's the dynamic National Park Service ranger Linda Williams, at the Yorktown battlefield, who bring the horrors of war home. Relive the trials and heroism of General George Washington, his aides Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette and his slave, James Lafayette. Looking back on the patriots’ extraordinary defeat of British General Lord Cornwallis, Ranger Williams says, "You could say this nation was truly born at Yorktown."

In America, United We Stand

Unlike the Puritans who fled to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 for religious freedom, the first residents of what would become the U. S. had little in common. Yet a stroll along Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg shows that together they achieved a better life. Families leave Yorktown with an understanding of how the powerful ideal of freedom also inspired colonists, Indians and slaves to fight together as patriots against the King of England. In 1799, after years of the Revolutionary War and dissent over the shape of the new U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, Patrick Henry reminded all Americans, "United we stand, divided we fall. Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs."

Every Vote Counts

Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown provide an exciting and thought-provoking introduction to the revolutionary ideals behind America's system of democracy. When asked what he wants visitors to take away from their visit to Virginia’s Historic Triangle, Peter Armstrong points to the importance of voting.

About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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