Road Trip Through History: Colonial Williamsburg

On Tuesday, My Own True Love and I visited Jamestown Settlement.  Wednesday, we moved on to Colonial Williamsburg.

I considered not even writing about our day in Williamsburg.  I'm willing to bet that most of you have a picture of it in your head, even if you haven’t been then.  Besides, Two Nerdy History Girls do a better job of talking about the Williamsburg experience than I ever could.

So what changed my mind?  The contrast.  It's amazing what a difference twenty-four hours and 165 years can make.

In 1610, Jamestown was a three-sided fort, designed to protect a handful of men against attack by Native Americans from land or the Spanish from the sea.  The settlers were still trying to figure out how to make their new colony profitable for the investors back home.  (They tried to grow silkworms and mine copper before they hit on tobacco.)  Their houses were built like village cottages, with wattle and daub walls, thatch roofs, and open hearths.  When the imported beer ran out, they drank water, with deadly results.

By comparison, colonial Williamsburg, flash frozen in 1775, looks almost modern.  There were shop-lined streets, with an ancestor of Starbucks where Patrick Henry preached revolution.**  It was possible to post a letter, buy a newspaper, and get a cup of coffee.  There were a couple of taverns where a man could have a meal. (Order the Old Stitch if you like dark beer.)  The city was not walled, though a substantial armory stood near its center.

Some of that modernity is an illusion.  (As one costumed interpreter told us, they can't reproduce the smell.)  But the amount of change between Jamestown and Williamsburg was, if anything, greater than the amount of change between the American Civil War and today.  It's easy to forget.

**He still does, every morning at ten o'clock.

Road Trip Through History: Jamestown Settlement

For reasons too complicated to go into here and now, I‘ve been yearning to walk the deck of a late sixteenth-century sailing ship.    No late sixteenth-century vessels were available, so My Own True Love and I headed for the next best thing:  the replica ships at Jamestown Settlement, located ten miles away from colonial Williamsburg.

Once there, I headed straight for the working replicas of the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery:  the ships that brought English settlers to Jamestown in 1607.  Let me tell you, those ships are very small. (For those of you who are sailing types, they are 120 tons, 40 tons, and 20 tons respectively.  For those of you who aren’t sailing types, they are really small, really-really small, and frighteningly small.) They sailed from London* just before Christmas and arrived on the coast of Virginia in April:  they spent three weeks of the journey stuck in the English Channel due to bad weather. Passengers slept in the hold on top of the cargo and weren’t allowed on deck without the captain’s permission.    The smell!  The claustrophobia!  The impossibility of getting away from other people for an hour or two! (Talk about introvert hell.)

Jamestown Settlement has more than just reproduction seventeenth century sailing ships. **  Once we’d learned everything about the ships that we could think to ask, we moved on to reproductions of James Fort  ca. 1614and a seventeenth century Powhatan Indian village, both of them manned by yet more patient and well-informed costumed interpreters.  We ended the day with a couple of hours in the site’s exhibition galleries, leaving no for time for the archaeological site at Historic Jamestown, just down the road.

Tomorrow?  Colonial Williamsburg.


*According to a costumed interpreter dressed as Sir Walter Raleigh, the ships didn’t actually sail down the Thames, they were pulled by men on shore.

**Though really, how much more do you need for a day of history geek entertainment?

The Peasants Are Revolting

In September, 1773, three months before American colonists dumped tea in Boston harbor, Russian serfs in the Ural mountain region rose up and demanded emancipation from bondage.

Discontent had been brewing among the serfs since 1762, when Tsar Peter III passed legislation that many serfs (mistakenly) interpreted as the first step toward their emancipation. Several months later, Peter was murdered and his wife, later known as Catherine the Great, ascended the throne.

As far as the serfs were concerned, Catherine's rule wasn't so great. One of her first acts on ascending the throne was to annul Peter's legislation. Instead of gaining their freedom, serfs suffered from increasing burdens of compulsory service and imaginative taxation. Serfs were even taxed for wearing a beard. (A sure fire way of solving the financial crisis. Write your congressman today.)

As conditions worsened, rumors spread that Tsar Peter wasn't dead  and that he would return to complete the emancipation of his people. Between 1762 and 1774, multiple imposters appeared claiming to be the murdered tsar. (I picture this as a variation on the line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "I'm not dead yet".) The most successful of these pretenders was Yemelyan Pugachev, who led the serf revolt in 1773-4.

Pugachev was welcomed as a liberator by many serfs, who rose in the name of the "true tsar", Peter III. Violent bands of serfs roamed the countryside. Landowning nobles were killed or put to flight. In the end, Pugachev's Rebellion accomplished nothing. Pugachev was defeated by imperial troops a year after the initial rising and sent to Moscow in a cage. He was tried several months later and executed. Without its leader, the revolt collapsed.

Pugachev's only permanent legacy was a historical adventure novella by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, The Captain's Daughter, in which Pugachev is portrayed as a larger than life romantic villain. (Pushkin also wrote a serious history of the revolt in which Pugachev is a thug "with no other merits, except for some military expertise and extraordinary audacity."  Poetic license is a wonderful thing.)

Pugachev's Rebellion failed, but discontent among the serfs continued. Russian peasants revolted more than 500 times between Pugachev's defeat and Tsar Alexander II's edict  declaring their emancipating in 1861.