July 4th at Henricus Historical Park, Richmond, Virginia

Here, as promised, is “Part 2” of my 4th of July trip to Henricus Historical Park, outside of Richmond, Virginia – this one with images!

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The site’s historical setting is 1611. From the website:

“Travel back in time to the Citie of Henricus, the second successful English settlement in the New World. Explore a moment in time where 300 settlers, led by Sir Thomas Dale, departed the unhealthy environment of Jamestown with the hope of establishing a strong English Colony and with the intention of becoming the principal seat of the Virginia Company of London.

…Discover the contributions made to the successful permanent colonization of North America and the eventual establishment of the United States of America. Visit Henricus Historical Park and relive America’s beginnings. Historical interpretation and reenactments pay tribute to Virginia’s Indians and the English settlers who carved a nation out of what was then Virginia’s western frontier.”

Before I get into the “tour”, I’ll just reiterate what I said in my last post: This was such a nice place to visit!! It was so very worth the trip.

For one thing, it was beautiful – and in a semi-uncultivated way that not only captured the period really well, but was just really, really interesting to explore.

And more, it really made me think. The juxtaposition of the Powhatan village with the English settlement, aided by the explanations of the costumed interpreters, was very, very effective. I’m intrigued now about Pocahontas and the politics of the period in a way I’ve never been before – and this is completely due to my wandering the two villages, as well as to the presentation of the interpreter who spoke about Pocahontas and led us to analyze the two cultures and the ways they both clashed and mingled – as well as the way she (Pocahontas) got trapped between them. Really, really interesting.

Surprisingly interesting, in fact. I mean, I like history a lot…to the point that I actually have an M.A. in Art History which is, for all intents and purposes, a history degree (as the period I specialized in didn’t actually leave much tangible art for posterity…and thus at least half the classes I took in grad school were history classes!) I love museums and historical sites. But this place was a cut above. Something about the way the site was designed, juxtaposing the two villages…or the way it’s managed and presented, with the freedom allowed guests, and with the really good interpreters…or maybe just that we came on a quiet day and so were able to thoroughly explore without being rushed or distracted. I don’t know…maybe all of these things? Whatever it was, this site really brought the history home to me.

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So, the first part of the park that you enter is the Powhatan village.

There was a lot to see here, but the two things that stood out for me most, I think, were the sunflowers (there were many! And they were so pretty!)…

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…and the oyster shells:

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Oyster shells were apparently a very useful tool for the Powhatans. They even carved dugout canoes with them…which we got to try our hand at!! I didn’t get a photo because I was too busy carving. 🙂 But the process is that you burn the wood enough to make it soft and ashy, and then you just start carving it away with the oyster shells (and rock chisels, too, occasionally.) The interpreter told us that it was likely a group project, this canoe-carving – kind of like (it sounded to me) a barn-raising was in the 1800s: Those who needed the canoe would provide food, etc, for their helpers, and men, women, and children would come and pitch in and carve. (Though some of this is conjectural; there are no written records. But that’s the assumption as to how it was done.)

And with oyster shells!! For some reason, that really interests me. Maybe because I have about a million shells in my house that my kids (and all right, me as well) have collected. And then once you have them…what do you do with them??

Anyway, there were also various structures set up as they would have been in the period, with workplaces and tasks-in-progress…leaving the impression that the residents had just stepped away.

I think when the park’s busier there are likely more interpreters on-hand, demonstrating things – and I’d enjoy that. But I have to say, I LOVED being there when it was such a quiet day. We went first thing in the morning on July 4th, right after they opened, and there couldn’t have been more than half a dozen people at most, besides us, wandering around…not for a long time. And it’s not a particularly small place, so the result of that is that we had nobody near us at all for large chunks of time – so were completely un-rushed and un-jostled. We also weren’t distracted by anybody else’s conversation…or even just another contemporary presence! It was really nice!! It made it so easy to immerse in the history of the place.

Not to mention that the site is set up such that we could touch and handle pretty much everything, which enriched the experience very much! It was so interesting.

I noticed that there wasn’t much in the way of art in the Powhatan village – the notable exception being this totem. I’m not sure who it represents. A living person? A god of some sort? I’m interested in all of this now, so I might have to research that.

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After you’ve explored the Powhatan village, you leave it by way of a pretty path through the woods…

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…which leads you to the English settlement:

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Rough-hewn signs there point out various structures of note:

And here and there give more info:

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But for the most part, as with the Powhatan village, there isn’t much to take you out of the sense that you’ve wandered back in time. It was pretty fun that way. I liked it!

There were various structures to explore – and, having just come from the Powhatan village, the differences in lifestyles between the natives and the colonists, and just in what they deemed life necessities was striking:

There were gardens everywhere…

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…and not just in the places you’d expect – like, adjacent to homes, or to the hospital (for medicinal herbs)…

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…but everywhere you looked! Any supportive nook would do, it seemed – like in the case of this squash:

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But of course this was, as the interpreter noted, a time when survival was most definitely not a given. Of course you’d grow what food you could – because England, where virtually all of your stores came from, was very, very far away, and if you didn’t have food, you’d starve. Thus, the production of food, as well as tobacco (for money, and for trade), was the focus of almost everybody in the settlement.

The interpreter told us that, as they cleared land for crops, oftentimes they wouldn’t even bother to dig out the tree stumps; they’d just grow their plants right around them! (Tobacco, at least. I assume other things as well.) And so I certainly know that they didn’t live in the midst of so many trees for any aesthetic reason; it was more that they didn’t have much of a choice.

But I have to say, I enjoyed the abundance of trees very much! It was a beautiful place to walk around on a summer morning.

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As with the Powhatan settlement, we got to go into many of the buildings and touch things.

The meeting house was the finest of the buildings, by far:

Here’s a detail of the ceiling of the meeting house, showing how they insulated the walls. I’m interested in straw bale and other naturally-based types of home construction, so this was extra-interesting to me, just examining how this was constructed:

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The meeting house interior photographed well in black and white, too! 🙂

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This next one shows the interior of another structure, where they dried their tobacco:

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And this is the interior of the hospital – the first hospital in the new world, we were told:

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I mentioned in that last post that the interpreter who talked to us about Pocahontas was excellent. He really was. I walked away from his talk with not only a clearer sense of Pocahontas as a person, but also, through her history, of the politics and cultural clashes (and similarities) of the period. He gave us his card and encouraged us to email him if we had any follow-up questions; I just might do that. I wouldn’t mind a recommendation for some reading material on Pocahontas and the period. I’m intrigued now!

Walking into the room where she sat and studied was much more interesting than it otherwise would have been after his talk – and then again, we also got to pick up things and handle them. They really trust their guests here not to hurt things…and I have to say, it very much adds to the immersive experience! I of course understand why most sites have places cordoned off by ropes, etc – but it was such a privilege to be able to wander unimpeded, and to experience the history in a tangible way. I wouldn’t have thought that would have made so much difference to me – but it really, really did.

Here’s a shot of my daughter, in the process of looking at the bible and lantern and other various items in Pocahontas’s study room (technically the room of the preacher who educated her in Christianity. Whitaker, I think his name was??? I’ll have to look that up.):

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There were various animals around the English settlement, too. Chickens…a couple of pigs.

My favorite was this very sweet and rather flirty goat:

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My kids meanwhile fell completely in love with the barn cats. I actually think I could have just let my kids play with the cats all day without ever entering the actual park and they would have called it a great day! 🙂

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The path leading away from the English settlement and back to the park entrance winds through the woods and past a tiny Civil War cemetery surrounded by a white picket fence.

Like everything else in the park, it was just a little wild and really lovely:

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I can’t express enough what a worthwhile trip this was! Not just as an activity for a slightly problematic 4th of July, but for any time. They have various events happening throughout the year and I definitely want to go back and experience some of those.

It’s pretty economical, too. Adult tickets are only $8 apiece – which is quite good, compared to pretty much everywhere else we considered visiting that day!

So, to sum up: if you have the opportunity, I highly recommend checking Henricus Historical Park out! It was a really good experience.

 

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