Unless you cruise the Chesapeake Bay, the Historic Triangle may not ring a bell, but it should. Located close to Hampton Roads, at the southern end of the Chesapeake, it is a 22-square-mile triangle with Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown at each corner. These three communities, nestled together on the Virginia Peninsula represent the beginning, apex and end of British colonial ambitions in what is now the United States of America.
Founded in 1607 as James Fort, along the shore of the James River, Jamestown became the first permanent English settlement in the New World. The proliferation of the name James in the colony of Virginia was in honor of King James I of England, who reigned at the time the fort was established. And he is the same King James who authorized and financed the production of the most-printed book in the history of the world with over one billion copies in print, the King James Version of the Bible.
The three ships that sailed from London in 1606, Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery landed at the James River six months later. They chose the site since it was far inland upriver, yet the water was deep enough to secure their ships along the shoreline. It was also surrounded by water on three sides, which gave the fort a defensive advantage should they be attacked by their archenemy, the Spaniards. The English had defeated the Spanish Armada just 19 years before in 1588, and Catholic Spain was still spoiling for a fight to redeem its humiliation by the British Protestants.
The American colonial archaeologist, William Kelso, describes the Jamestown settlement as “where the British Empire began … this was the first colony in the British Empire.” However, the first three years of the settlement were not auspicious. As a result of disease, starvation and conflict with the indigenous Algonquian tribes, almost 90% of the settlers had died by early 1610. A few years later, the future of Jamestown brightened when the cash crop of tobacco was introduced to the Virginia Company settlement.
Although very profitable, tobacco cultivation, harvesting and curing were very labor intensive. Many English and German settlers emigrated from Europe to serve as indentured servants to work the land, but their numbers weren’t enough. One day in 1619, a Dutch ship arrived in Jamestown with the first cargo of African slaves for Virginia. The proliferation of slavery in colonial America traces its roots back to that very day.
The meeting place of the Virginia legislature in Jamestown accidentally burned down in 1698. To keep the colonial government running, the seat of power was temporarily moved 12 miles to the nearby Middle Plantation. The plantation was then home to the College of William and Mary, established only five years before, and the legislature met in its halls. The following year, the capital was moved permanently to the Middle Plantation. A village was laid out, designated the Capitol of the Colony, and called Williamsburg, in honor of King William III of England. He was better known as William of Orange, since he was a Dutch prince by birth.
Williamsburg remained the capital of Virginia until the American Revolution. In 1780, Governor Thomas Jefferson moved the capital further inland, to present-day Richmond, to make it less vulnerable to British attack. During the 81 years that Williamsburg was that colony’s capital, Virginia became the wealthiest and most populous of the original 13 colonies. A testament to the influence of colonial Virginia is that four out of the first five presidents of the United States were Virginians.
After six years of fighting for the American Revolution, George Washington and his army were still struggling against the British forces. As the summer of 1781 came to a close, the French army under the command of Comte de Rochambeau marched south with the Continental Army to do battle with Earl Cornwallis and the British army in Virginia. With a stroke of luck in timing, the French naval fleet had sailed up from the Caribbean and soundly defeated the British fleet at the Battle of the Capes in September.This decisive naval engagement at the southern entrance to Chesapeake Bay sealed the fate of Cornwallis’ army in Virginia, since the British navy could no longer resupply them with soldiers, arms or ammunition.
The armies met at Yorktown in October. Cornwallis endured a 5-day bombardment, followed by a night attack by Washington and Rochambeau. Cornwallis finally surrendered to end what was the last land battle of the American Revolution. According to contemporary reports of the surrender, while the British army band played the tune “The World Turned Upside Down,” the British captives laid down their arms after they marched in file between a gauntlet 1 mile long between a row of French soldiers on one side, and American soldiers on the other.
To the weekend boater and history buff, the significance of the Historic Triangle is best described by the co-founder of Colonial Williamsburg, Reverend Dr. Goodwin, “Williamsburg is Jamestown continued, and Yorktown is Williamsburg vindicated.”
WHERE TO VISIT
- Jamestown Settlement
- Historic Jamestowne
- Colonial Williamsburg
- Busch Gardens Williamsburg
- The College of William and Mary
- Yorktown Battlefield
- American Revolution Museum
- The Watermen’s Museum