By Howard Clemens
Watching history come alive can be a great way to engage student travel groups when visiting the Washington D.C. area. Living history programs are character reenactments from Revolutionary, Colonial and Civil War eras of American history. Attending one will give historically accurate information garnered directly from texts. Living history programs challenge students to take a deeper look at the characters that created the historical accounts read in the classroom today.
Mount Vernon, a Treasure of American History, Inhabited by Characters
What sorts of characters become known throughout time? Leaders do. Mount Vernon is a well-preserved site of one of the favorite founding fathers, George Washington and his second wife, Mary. The Mount Vernon property is teeming with life. Also known as Ferry Farm, this estate is populated with many of the characters of living history, including the proprietors, George and Mary Washington themselves. Students can inhabit different parts of the estate and be exposed to different viewpoints, from viewing slave quarters, to the working farm and mill, to the interior of Mount Vernon itself.
Recreating Mount Vernon as a Working Colonial Estate
Today, students might refer to a property like Mount Vernon as ‘sustainable living.’ Everything needed to feed, clothe and house the many inhabitants and visitors of the estate was cultivated here. A tour of Mount Vernon that includes living history presentations could easily take half a day. Students groups will watch and listen as re-enactors make wool and refine locally grown flax into fiber and show how horses treading wheat to remove seeds. Student tour groups can listen in to a conversation of the overseer, the blacksmith, or George Washington himself. Living history makes learning more interactive and gives students an entirely new perspective of history.
Social Studies and history teachers may want to combine a tour of Washington D.C. and Mount Vernon with a few days in Williamsburg, Virginia. Give student groups the opportunity for total immersion in the 18th Century time period while they tour the former capital of Virginia with Living History around every corner.
The 18th Century Capital of the Colonies: Williamsburg, VA
Colonial Williamsburg is the largest living history museum in the world. In the 1920s, John D. Rockefeller invested in the languishing historical buildings in Williamsburg. He hired the best artisans and restoration experts to rebuild the town correctly. Today, the former 18th Century capital of Virginia is the perfect setting for students to experience living history.
Imagine walking the streets of Williamsburg and being immersed into the 18th Century style of living. Students will see many of Colonial Williamsburg’s character actors passing in the cobblestone streets in 18th Century garb. The old buildings all look the same as they did then – made of red brick and mortar. The shops include a blacksmith, candle maker, and a silversmith, among others. Inside some of the Colonial homes, the servants are busy with everyday tasks. Students will watch and listen and may ask questions. As they walk through, they will see servants working in the gardens or kitchens of an authentic Colonial home, clothed in the garb of the 18th Century and using implements and foods harvested there and common in that era.
For another type of interactive experience, group leaders may opt to prearrange a lunch or dinner at an authentic tavern in Colonial Williamsburg.
Each of the characters encountered on the streets of Williamsburg speaks in Colonial tongue and has a story to tell about their place in time. The Court House and the Armory have been restored to their former character.
Student groups may watch living history programs in the courthouse specially designed for learning about Colonial law in Virginia, through the eyes of those who were judged. Or, take a student group on an evening tour of the “Ghosts Among Us” or “Pirates Amongst Us” to stimulate their imagination and recollection of the way history unfolded for some.
Students will love visiting Jamestown Settlement – another full immersion into the 17th Century. Just down the road from Colonial Williamsburg, situated on the James River, is where the first colonists landed in 1607. Board the replicas of the three ships, see a Powhatan village as it was in the 17th Century, and enter the replica of James Fort, the original home of new settlers in this country. Students will hear character actors speak from a variety of perspectives, including: common sailors, maids, Indians, and even the King James I.
Learning about history through books and film can be a great foundation for a student trip to Washington D.C. and Williamsburg. Living history programs provide a more intense and focused investigation into history, one that engages the student and makes a definite mark upon memory. After experiencing the characters of history the memory is attached to a real place.
“The willing suspension of disbelief” is required for a full (and fun) immersion into Early American history. The character actors do an excellent job of bringing all of the props, setting and the stories to life. Teachers can augment the experiential learning by assigning follow-up writing exercises or creating quizzes for students to observe and answer questions while on tour.
For more information about a living history tour of Washington D.C., Mount Vernon and Williamsburg, request a quote.