Saturday, January 12, 2013

Road Scholars: A Sampler of Learning in Colonial Williamsburg

      Founded in 1699 as Virginia’s new colonial capital, Williamsburg thrived under colonial economics.  The proximity of the bustling port of Yorktown and America’s first successful colony, Jamestown caused early leaders to choose the site of Middle Plantation, Williamsburg’s original name, for the home of Virginia’s first university- The College of William and Mary founded in 1693.  After the burning of the state house in Jamestown in 1698, William and Mary students lobbied to have the colonial capital relocated near the college and thus, Williamsburg, named for King William III of England, was born.  It soon became the southern center for politics, culture and education. Mixing those three powerful ingredients into one location produced a haven for thought leaders of the American Revolution. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry all cut their teeth in the pubs of Williamsburg before heading to Virginia’s House of Burgesses and on to the Continental Congress.  As we entered the preservation area just off North England Street, I wanted to instill the fact that our nation’s founding fathers walked the very streets we traversed. The idea of humans having the fundamental rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness began in this town. I had goose bumps.  Greg had a headache.  Yesterday’s long drive through a deluge of rain did not improve his interest in history.  I determined to convert him along with the kids.

      “The guide says start in the Gateway Building.  Ooo! It’s got a kid’s corner with hands on activities!  Let’s go check it out!” Grabbing Emma’s hand, I marched my clan into our first stop. To their credit, they smiled, feigning interest, which I took as a show of appreciation of all the hard work I had done in planning this trip.  Mothers always wanted to believe the best of their family.

      An 18th century costumed citizen offering to show Emma and Anabel the sewing nook met us inside the door of the dimly lit, barn-like structure. I followed the girls while Greg and Wyatt gravitated to the large Frenchman's map of the town from the seventeen hundreds.  Since Montessori school, Wyatt had a fascination with maps.  He and his dad oriented themselves with the lay of the surrounding land.  Williamsburg was built on high ground in the middle of the Virginia peninsula almost equidistant to Yorktown and Jamestown forming one corner of the Historic Triangle.  Studying the map, one could easily see why the current location was much more desirable to Jamestown’s early settlers.  Jamestown was built on the banks of a mosquito-ridden marshy area off the James River.  How colonists survived the bloodletting, much less the malaria was a miracle.  I was thankful the reproduction map did not include the modern addition of Bush Gardens Park; I had omitted mentioning an amusement park was nearby.  Wyatt lived for roller coasters, but I wanted new family learning experiences this year- not the same old melting from the heat while standing in a long line reading t-shirts and tattoos.

      “Mommy, look what I made!”

      I turned from the map to see Emma holding a perfectly stitched letter E.  Most might have thought it was a C or an F; I could have agreed with them if they'd said a G even, but I knew it was the most beautiful E I’d ever seen. 

      “It’s E for Emma and E for Elizabeth, too.”  Emma had also brought her colonial American Girl doll, Elizabeth -Felicity’s best friend, with her to enhance the Williamsburg experience.  We had a three-week supply of school assignments, clothes, DVDs, granola, juice boxes and wine crammed in the car already.  What difference did two dolls in fragile, historical costumes make?

      “I can see that.  Good job!  You’re quite a little seamstress.  Are you ready to make a whole sampler?”

      “What’s a sampler?”

      “See that picture on the wall with the alphabet and numbers?  That’s called a sampler because it was a sample of all different kinds of stitches and patterns used for making their own clothes and decorations.  Girls used spent their free time practicing their sewing.  They couldn't go to the mall to buy their dresses.  They had to sew them.”  We stepped closer to the framed sampler to see the individual stitches.   

      “That must have taken a long time – like all day,” Emma said.

      “Emma, you don’t have a clue.  That must have taken a week to do all that.” Anabel didn’t want to grow up, but she relished being the big sister who thought she knew everything or at least more than her eight-year-old sister.

A Sample of a Sampler
      “Girls.  Look at the intricate designs.  Sure, there’s the simple alphabet and numbers that may not have taken weeks to finish, but look at the vines scrolling around the outer frame.  Look at the animals across the bottom.  The girl who made this took her time.  She didn’t rush to finish so she could watch TV or talk on the phone.  She focused on one activity and put herself in her work.  I bet these were the animals she saw outside her window.”  Deer, dogs, and birds of a variety species peppered the lower half in blues, greens and browns.  Flowers popped up along the vines in reds, yellows and pinks.  This was a work of art by Betsy- age 12.  Suddenly, I longed for the stillness of mind and body to create such beauty.  Could a 21st century, multi-tasking woman slow down enough to handle such tedious work?  I couldn’t go forty-five minutes without checking my phone (My sister bet me. I only made it twenty-nine minutes and I lost ten bucks. Sucker bet.) It was highly doubtful I could sit still long enough to accomplish Emma’s letter E.


  1. We have a family trip to Williamsburg planned for this summer. Thanks for all the wonderful tips! Wish we could take a year of travel with our kids. You have inspired us!

  2. Loved our trip to Williamsburg! Thanks for al the great tips!

  3. So glad you enjoyed Williamsburg! Thanks for reading and letting me know my tips helped your family!


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