he hams are the first thing you notice in the buttery of the colonial fort at Jamestown Settlement. Rows and rows of leathery-looking cuts — which seem more like enormous rawhide chew toys for dogs than anything a human might consume — hang from the ceiling of the “rations distribution center.”
“We butcher hogs here Thanksgiving weekend,” a worker dressed in 17th-century shift, petticoat and bodice says matter-of-factly. “We salt it, and come about April or so, we’re able to hang the meat up in the building.”
“You eat them?” one tourist asks incredulously.
“Sure,” the woman replies. “We usually start from the back and work our way forward — the stuff at the back is close to two years old now.”
“It’s probably high in sodium,” the tourist says.
“That’s why you’ve got to boil the salt out,” she explains. “Still, there’s going to be some saltiness to it.” She leans over and lowers her voice to a whisper, stepping out of character for just a moment. “When you order Virginia ham, order it when it’s cooked as part of a recipe. Don’t just order a Virginia ham sandwich, or you’ll be drinking water all day long.”
The re-creation of the circa 1610 fort is just one of the attractions at Jamestown Settlement, a living-history museum located approximately a mile from the site of the real thing. The Virginia landmark — the first permanent English settlement in America — is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year, a well-publicized milestone drawing tourists like me from the more popular destination of nearby Colonial Williamsburg. The events planned throughout November culminate in a Thanksgiving weekend of period cooking demonstrations that run the gamut from baking bread to preparing mincemeat pies using a centuries-old recipe that calls for meat and fat instead of the fruit most people now expect.
The expanded galleries in the visitor services center, 30,000 square feet of dioramas, reproductions of buildings, films and exhibits that chronicle Jamestown’s founding, are the newest draw at Jamestown Settlement. Paths behind the center wind through re-creations of the fort and Powhatan Indian village down to the James River, where replicas of three ships that carried the first Jamestown settlers to Virginia are docked. Visitors can board the vessels, enter the village and fort structures, and stop at points along the way to watch historical interpreters in period dress participate in various activities. During our two-hour walk, we see Powhatans smoking fish and settlers making fishnets, building work boats, “burning out” canoes and baking bread.
We then head to Historic Jamestowne, the actual spot where 104 men funded by The Virginia Co. of London set up shop in 1607, initially as a business venture authorized by a charter from King James I.
Crossing the wooden footbridge over the pitch-and-tar swamp to the original settlement site is a little like entering a graveyard: It’s a peaceful place where the predominant sound is that of visitors crunching along crushed oyster-shell paths to check out the 1607 fort site, a palisade-enclosed triangle of land dotted with historical markers paying homage to the settlers, and re-created foundations of a handful of structures outside the fort. (All are built over the buried originals to protect them from the elements.)
A museum built over the foundations of the last statehouse contains more than 1,000 artifacts found in fort excavations, everything from seashells and coral picked up by the colonists in the Caribbean en route to the New World to bits of musical instruments and games, right down to pairs of tiny bone, ivory and lead dice. Stations with video presentations explain some exhibits in more detail, and an archaeological dig continues near the fort.
A trip to Jamestown at this time of year wouldn’t be complete without a stop at nearby Berkeley Plantation, the ancestral home of presidents William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison. The property claims to be the site of the first Thanksgiving, a short religious service held by settlers Dec. 4, 1619, that preceded the Pilgrims’ arrival in New England by more than a year. Although access to the house is limited to the first floor and cellar, Berkeley is worth the trip — it’s one of only two area plantations where the house and gardens are open to the public year round.
IF YOU GO
Jamestown Settlement is located at 2218 Jamestown Road, near Williamsburg, Va. Call 1-888-593-4682 or visit
for more information. Berkeley Plantation is located at 12602 Harrison Landing Road, not far from Charles City, Va. For more information, call 1-888-466-6018 or visit www.berkeleyplantation.com
Bring the Kids: The promise of a stay at Great Wolf Lodge, 549 E. Rochambeau Drive, Williamsburg, (757) 229-9700, and its 67,000-square-foot indoor water park should lure them into the car if tales of exploring forts and Indian villages don’t.
Stay in Style: The whitewashed-brick Williamsburg Inn, 136 E. Francis St., Williamsburg, (757) 220-7978, looks and feels like a country estate thanks to its Regency-style furnishings, abundance of floral arrangements and famous Southern hospitality.
Get Authentic: Accommodations are available in 26 buildings (most of them reproductions of originals) throughout Colonial Williamsburg. Guests can rent the entire house or a single room with private bath and enjoy access to all the amenities of the Williamsburg Inn, including room service. (757) 220-7978
Like Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne, Colonial Williamsburg closes its collective doors at the end of the business day. But three of the four taverns remain open seasonally to serve dinner, and ghost walks, candlelight concerts and re-enactments of an actual witch trial are scheduled in the evenings. For more information or to make reservations, call 1-800-HISTORY.