Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the New World, established in 1607. This site is now part of the Historic Triangle in Virginia, along with Yorktown and Colonial Williamsburg. Jamestown is a great place to take your family to learn about life in pre-colonial times, when survival in the New World was not at all secure. It is especially poignant to visit in 2019 as this marks the 400th anniversary of the first representative legislative assembly and the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ arrival in Virginia.
Jamestown is much like Yorktown in that there is a National Park Service site at Historic Jamestowne and a separate living history museum called Jamestown Settlement. You can see both in the same day, and I feel that seeing both is integral to understanding the site and its history.
I recommend starting at Jamestown Settlement and then heading to Historic Jamestowne. Both are child-friendly and will give your kids a glimpse of life in the 17th century!
Jamestown Settlement is a fun and interactive museum that allows your kids to experience life in Jamestown, from the Native American villages to the English fort to the ships. There are lots of opportunities for hands-on activities and to fully immerse yourself in the 17th century way of life.
You will begin your visit at the Visitor Entrance hall. If you plan to visit Yorktown during your trip, be sure to inquire about the combination ticket.
There is a short introductory video about the Historic Triangle in the entrance hall but it is not essential so head straight ahead to enter the exhibit hall. The exhibit hallway will lead you to a staircase.
Under the staircase is the entrance to the theater where a 24-minute introductory film, “1607: A Nation Takes Root,” is shown on the hour and half-hour. This is a great film to give you and your children an overview of Jamestown’s history, culture, and key events. There is some discussion of the “starving time” but there is nothing graphic shown. While a bit long for little kids, this film is a great introduction to what you are about to see in the galleries and outdoor exhibits.
After leaving the theater, take a left to head straight to the galleries. No photos are allowed in the galleries but scattered throughout are displays that kids can touch and explore – just look for the hand sign.
These rooms start with a depiction of what Native American life was like before the European colonists arrived. You will wind your way through the galleries and explore Native Americans, Angola natives brought to America in 1619 as enslaved persons, and English life in the 17th century. Your kids will love walking down an English street, with the sounds of daily life echoing.
Your visit will continue through Jamestown’s history. You can board a replica ship where your kids will learn more about the arduous journey that the settlers endured to make it to Jamestown. You can also enter a room about the first legislative body that was created at Jamestown in 1619. Be sure to view the actual minutes from those meetings, which are currently on loan for the 400th anniversary. There is a short movie about this event that is interesting to see if you have the time.
The Pocahontas section of the museum is currently under renovation but don’t miss seeing the portrait of Pocahontas still displayed.
There are several other movies throughout the galleries but none are essential except for the movie in the Bacon’s Rebellion Theater. This 15-minute movie is shown every 20 minutes and depicts Bacon’s Rebellion and the burning of Jamestown in 1676. This theater experience is engaging and immersive, with smoke filling the room during the battle and fire. The movie is fine for all ages but be warned that there are loud sounds and some up close shots of bugs that may be too much for little ones! This movie does a great job explaining a little-known rebellion in early American history and introduces an important female Native American leader, Cockacoeske, whose statue was recently dedicated at the Virginia Women’s Monument!
After leaving the theater, allow time for your kids to explore the different houses on display. The houses depict daily life for Native Americans, enslaved persons, and planters. It is interesting and educational to compare and contrast the homes to see how each group worked and lived in these brutal conditions.
After finishing the galleries, now you can head to the place that kids love the most – the outdoor exhibits! Jamestown Settlement has done a fantastic job of bringing to life a Native American village, an English fort, and the ships that carried the English to the New World. I recommend starting at the Native American village, then touring the ships, and ending at the English fort. The pathways to all of these sites are stroller-friendly.
Don’t miss viewing the Discovery Tower as you head toward the village.
Walk the short trail to the Powhatan Indian village, and let your kids become immersed in Native American life in the 1600s.
You can talk to the very knowledgeable interpreters about life as a Native American and how they ate, dressed, and built shelters.
You can go in several different reed-covered houses and see how the Native Americans slept and kept their food.
One of the most fun activities for kids is the dugout canoe made of a tree trunk. Let your kids take a turn at carving out the interior of the trunk – it is hard!
Another kid favorite is the area where the Native American games are displayed. Let your child try the corncob ring toss!
After learning about Native American life, walk the short pathway to the James River, where 3 recreated ships are located. There are restrooms and vending machines on the walk to the ships if needed. These three ships, the Susan Constant, Discovery, and Godspeed, are authentic recreations of the ships that brought the colonists to Jamestown in 1607.
These ships are so much fun to explore with kids! You can go below decks to see how the colonists lived on the 4 ½ month journey to the New World. Ask your kids if they think they could survive in those conditions! You can try your hand at steering the ships and pretend you are one of the crew. Kids of all ages love to imagine themselves on the high seas in these ships! Be careful with little ones as the entrance and exit to the ships are on gangplanks above the water. The ships have tight, cramped quarters and precarious stairs so be sure to hold on to children’s hands. The ships are not stroller-friendly.
After your kids have explored the ships thoroughly, head back up the hill towards James Fort, the recreated English settlement.
Enter the gates of the fort, and you and your kids will be transported back in time to 17th century English life in the New World. Check out the houses and the lovely church.
Your kids can try on real English armor and watch a musket demonstration on the main stage. Watch out for the chickens who roam the fort and its gardens!
As you leave the fort, head back towards the Visitor Center.
I encourage you to re-enter the center and head to the temporary exhibit space on the second floor, above the main theater. This space currently houses the “Tenacity” exhibit on women in Jamestown. There are many artifacts of interest, including clothes and toys. You and your children can learn more about the women who arrived in Jamestown from England in 1608 and their encounters with the Native American women. You can also learn more about the enslaved women who arrived in 1619. I especially loved the touch screens that allow you to hear the women’s stories and learn more about the hardships they encountered. There is a very brief movie about one of the very first English women to arrive in Jamestown, Anne Burras Laydon, whose statue is also included in Virginia Women’s Monument!
Before you leave Jamestown Settlement, you will want to visit the extensive gift shop, which has multiple locations throughout the museum. The biggest one is near the entrance/exit, and it has a huge selection of children’s toys, souvenirs, and books. One of my favorite souvenirs for kids is the building kit to make their own James Fort!
As you leave the parking lot for Jamestown Settlement, take a right to head to Historic Jamestowne.
Historic Jamestowne is the site of the actual Jamestown settlement and is jointly operated by the National Park Service and Preservation Virginia. Most of the site is in ruins but will give you and your children a real sense of what it was like to land on this foreign soil in 1607.
Make the winding drive onto the island and see the Jamestown Settlement ships in the distance.
Your first stop should be the Visitor Center where you can pay your entrance fee, visit a small museum, and get a guide for a walking tour of the island. Your paid entrance fee will also be valid at the Yorktown Battlefield for seven days. Also check out this site for more information on kid-friendly demonstrations that might be taking place on the day you visit.
After you pay your fee, enter the small museum and check on the time of the next showing of the introductory film shown on the hour and half-hour. This 15-minute film is not essential to your visit, particularly if you have already watched the more detailed film at Jamestown Settlement.
If you do not watch the film, head to the back of the museum to begin your tour (at the exit from the theater). This small museum has many interesting artifacts on display but none are interactive so if you have kids under 10, I suggest skipping the museum and heading straight to the site. Be sure to buy a copy of the Junior Ranger Historic Jamestowne booklet before leaving the Visitor Center.
As you leave the Visitor Center, you will walk on a stroller-friendly footbridge over a smelly swamp. Kids will love peering down into the swamp and spotting all kinds of creatures! In the summer months, this area will be very buggy so I recommend using bug repellant during your visit.
The footbridge pathway will take you to the Tercentenary Monument where you can meet a park ranger for a guided tour (check on times at the Visitor Center). You can also begin a self-guided tour here.
From the monument, you can look out over the broad expanse of the James River. Take the pathway to the right to walk towards the gate that signifies the entrance into the Preservation Virginia-owned area of Jamestown. The pathways here will be gravel but still stroller-friendly.
You can take a picture of your kids with the Pocahontas statue!
As you enter the gates, you will see the Memorial Church, which was built on the site of the original church from the 1600s.
The tower that you see is the only part of the 17th century church still standing but upon entering the recreated chapel, you can imagine the scene as Pocahontas married John Rolfe here.
Your kids will be fascinated by the archaeological excavations still taking place at the church and throughout the site. The archaeologists on duty are happy to answer questions or show you what they are doing.
Let your kids spend some time wandering the fort area.
You can head down to the water to see the same view that the settlers saw in 1607.
The statue of John Smith is quite impressive!
You can see the foundations of other buildings that have been uncovered as well as gravesites and a scale model of the fort.
Spend some time studying the scale model since it helps put the ruins into perspective.
After seeing the model, head out the back gate of the fort towards the Archaearium, an archaeology museum. This path will take you by the water and by a small cafe and gives little ones plenty of room to run out some energy!
Don’t miss the Confederate earthworks that cross the grounds here. It is amazing that this site was not only the first English settlement but also a part of the Civil War.
The evocative cross in front of the museum is a great place for pictures.
The Archaearium is a small but amazing museum that you do not want to miss! This museum walks you through the archaeological discoveries at the site, including skeletal remains from the “starving time.” The skeletons are well-preserved and respectfully displayed. If you think your little ones would be frightened by them, however, this section is easily avoided. The other artifacts at the museum are fascinating and give you and your kids a first-hand glimpse into the lives of the people here, both English and Native American.
After leaving the museum, you can walk back towards the Tercentenary Monument. If your kids still have energy, walk into the “New Towne” section where ruins of mansions and other homes are located.
If you are tired, however, feel free to skip and head back to the Visitor Center.
Before you leave, don’t forget to get your NPS passport book stamped, take your picture with the NPS ranger cut out, and visit the gift shop.
Every American should plan a visit to Jamestown, where our country began. The sites are packed with wonderful artifacts and fun activities for kids of all ages to do. The immersive experiences at both Jamestown sites will impress your children and really live up to one location’s web address – History is fun!
- Jamestown Settlement: $17.50/adults; $8.25 youth 6-12; free/under 6 (Virginia residents can pay once for all year admission); ask about combination tickets for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown)
- Historic Jamestowne: $20/adult; free for children
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour times:
- Jamestown Settlement: 2 – 2 ½ hours
- Historic Jamestowne: 1 hour
- Gift shops located at 3 locations at Jamestown Settlement; located in the Visitor Center and at the Archaearium at Historic Jamestowne
- Transportation: Jamestown is best seen by car. It is also bike-friendly and is located at the end of the Virginia Capital Trail.
- Dining options nearby: Both Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne (Dale House Cafe) have an onsite cafe. One of my favorite nearby restaurants is the Old Chickahominy House.
- Nearby hotels: Williamsburg (10 minute drive from Jamestown) is a huge tourist destination so there are many hotels to explore. See the Williamsburg Visitor site here for all of the options. If you plan to be in the Historic Triangle for several days with your family, I recommend making the Kingsmill Resort your home base. You can stay in a 1-3 bedroom condo, and it is centrally located for all of the tourist destinations. There is also a Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg that is popular with families.
- Nearby attractions: Yorktown, Colonial Williamsburg, Busch Gardens, Go Ape! Treetop Adventure, Jamestown-Scotland Ferry, Chippokes Plantation State Park, and the amazing Kidsburg playground
Books to read:
- 14 and up:
- A Land As God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America
- Jamestown, the Truth Revealed
- Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland
- Jamestown Through Time
- 1609: Winter of the Dead: A Novel of the Founding of Jamestown
- Sarah on Her Own (find it at your local library)
- My Lady Pocahontas
- 10 and up:
- Blood on the River: James Town, 1607
- Poison in the Colony: James Town 1622
- Shadows at Jamestown (The Virginia Mysteries #6)
- The Story of Jamestown (Graphic History)
- Surviving Jamestown: The Adventures of Young Sam Collier
- A Lion to Guard Us
- The Double Life of Pocahontas
- 1607: A New Look at Jamestown
- You Wouldn’t Want to Be an American Colonist!
- 6 and up:
- My America: Our Strange New Land: Elizabeth’s Jamestown Colony Diary
- My America: The Starving Time: Elizabeth’s Jamestown Colony Diary
- My America: Season Of Promise: Elizabeth’s Jamestown Colony Diary
- The Mystery at Jamestown: First Permanent English Colony in America!
- Anne of Jamestown
- The True Story of Pocahontas
- Pocahontas and the Strangers
Have you been to Jamestown? What was your favorite site? Comment below!