By Renée S. Gordon
“I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
–The Negro Speaks of Rivers
by Langston Hughes
Hampton, Virginia is celebrating its quadricentennial as the oldest continuous English speaking community in North America, 400-years that shaped our country’s culture and history, more than 150-years before we became a nation. The yearlong celebration will take the form of festivals, galas, concerts, tours and special events and although anytime is a good time to visit Hampton, 2010 is even more extraordinary.
Hampton’s history has always been tied to the fact that it is one of the largest natural harbors in the world and the East Coast’s major northernmost year round ice-free port. Formed by five rivers it empties into the Chesapeake Bay and flows to the Atlantic Ocean. The “Roadstead” or “Roads,” as it is also known, is 11 1/2-miles long and 51/2-miles wide and has always been a place where ships may safely anchor.
The region was originally settled about 12,000 years ago by Paleo-Indians but in 1607 a group of English colonists arrived and established a settlement in Kikotan, the English village would be known as Kecoughtan, named after the indigenous Algonquian tribe who inhabited the land. They were well received and relations remained good until 1609 at which time the settlers built Fort Algernoune on Old Point Comfort. On July 9th of the next year they took the tribes’ land by force in the process killing nearly all its members. Simultaneously, Elizabeth City Parish was founded and this area became incorporated as the Town of Hampton in the 1690s.
St. John’s Anglican Church was founded in the year of the first permanent settlement and remains the oldest English-speaking parish on the continent. The churches were damaged in the Revolution, War of 1812 and the Civil War and the current church, the fourth on the site, was constructed in 1728. The walls are 2-feet thick with a Colonial exterior and Victorian interior. Internments in the churchyard date from 1701. Interior tours include the 1618 communion silver, The 1887 “Baptism of Pocahontas” stained glass window, presented to the church by Native American students of Hampton University who attended Sunday School there, and a door adorned with 13th-century pieces of glass from the church in which Captain John Smith was baptized. www.stjohnshampton.org
The ideal way to begin any visit to a city is with an overview of the region and the best presentation of this information is almost always the local history museum and the Hampton History Museum is a stellar example of that fact. Your visit begins with a central display in the rotunda. It consists of cutting tools specific to the three cultures that most heavily impacted on Hampton’s, and the nation’s, history. It is a simple display that speaks volumes and immediately tells visitors that the museum approaches history in a holistic way. Everyone’s story will be told. Inscribed on the walls are quotations from 1610 to 1969, the year when Hampton helped put a man on the moon. A video, ” Hampton From the Sea to the Stars,” recounts this story.
The 10 galleries are interactive and filled with dioramas, artifacts, videos and interpretive information that are designed to create interest in further exploration. Visitors can sit in a portion of a Native American longhouse, walk along a ship’s hold, view Blackbeard’s head on a pike, amble through the burned ruins of Civil War Hampton and examine an archeological dig. www.hampton.gov/history_museum
The Crown deemed Hampton the official Port of Entry for the Virginia Colony’s Lower James Custom District in 1691 and for at least the next 50 years all merchant ships were required to dock, declare their cargo and pay duty on the goods prior to being allowed entry. The position of customs collectors was an English civil service position and the salary of 100 pounds and included his hire of a boat, two workers and perhaps the use of his home as the Customs House. In general imported items were furniture, tools, rum, sugar, colonists and slaves. A replica of a 17th-century Customs House, complete with living history interpretations, is on view on Hampton’s Downtown Waterfront, the original 17th-century seaport. “Hampton Bay Days” in September and “Hampton Landing Day” in April celebrate the city’s seaport and seagoing history. www.colonialseaport.org/eventscalendar
One of Hampton’s most riotous events is the three-day “Blackbeard Pirate Festival” held on the waterfront and at various venues nearby and all guests are encouraged to party like a pirate.
In reality, Blackbeard inspired fear in the hearts of the colonists for over two years but his name, and possibly his ghost, have continued to live on. He was probably born in 1680 in England, though one source cites Philadelphia, and went by he name of Edward Teach. He apprenticed aboard a pirate ship as early as 1713 and in 1717 he captured a French slave ship, the Concorde, refitted it with 40 guns and dubbed it the Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Blackbeard had a flair for the dramatic and dressed the part. He was very tall, wore a blood red coat, and had long hair and a black beard that nearly obscured his face. He was known to braid ribbons in his beard and place lit cannon fuses beneath his hat prior to battle. He wore a bandolier filled with weapons, a sword and two pistols in his belt. For months he would appear at dusk or dawn and attack the coastal region of the Carolinas and Virginia and his exploits were legendary.
In 1718 Blackbeard made the top of Virginia’s most wanted list and Governor Spotswood offered a hefty reward. The pirate, with his usual temerity responded by throwing a huge, lengthy, island pirate party in the fall of 1718 off the coast of North Carolina. Spotswood heard about the party and sent the British Navy to Oracoke Island. The ensuing attack ended with Blackbeard allegedly shot five times, stabbed 20 times and decapitated. His body was thrown into the sea and legend has it that his corpse swam around the ship three times before sinking. His head was hung on the bowsprit of the ship and taken on tour. Three months later it wound up in Hampton, at what is now Blackbeard’s Point, where it was displayed for years as a warning.
The Golden Age of Piracy and the height of the slave trade coincided and pirates engaged in the trade and a significant number of pirates were Black. In the 1600s captured Black pirates were sold into slavery but in the 1700s they were executed along with their mates. At his capture five of Blackbeard’s 18 crewmen were of African descent and they were executed along with the others.
Blackbeard’s Festival celebrates both the myth and the reality of the pirate’s life. The colonial Bunch of Grapes Tavern site becomes a living history stage for skits and re-enactments, a pirate encampment allows visitors a chance to meet the crew and fireworks round out the festivities. Throughout the area there are food and craft vendors and opportunities to purchase both replicated and antique items. The highlight of the festival is the Grand Pirate’s Ball, a costume event to replicate Blackbeard’s party on Oracoke, populated with wenches, swashbucklers and Blackbeard himself.
Three-hour narrated cruises are offered daily aboard the Miss Hampton II. Views from the double-deck boat are outstanding and the commentary covers the full 400-year maritime history. The cruise includes a sail through the Norfolk Naval Base, Blackbeard’s Point, Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, Hampton University, and a 30-minute guided walking tour of the five-acre Fort Wool. www.misshamptoncruises.com
There are a number of great places to dine in Hampton. Of particular note is the Surf Rider at Bluewater Marina. Famous for their fresh seafood and crab cakes, you can eat at the spot where Blackbeard’s head was displayed.
The newly opened Peninsula Town Center is the perfect destination for dining, shopping and entertainment. One of the must visit sites in the complex is CinéBistro, an outstanding luxury cinema experience. Theatergoers can have a gourmet meal served at their seat, have dessert on the terrace, bowl with friends or just relax with a specialty cocktail. I guarantee you will love this. www.peninsulatowncenter.com
The Crowne Plaza Hampton Marina Hotel, 700 Settlers Landing Road, is the absolute best hotel for a visit to Hampton. It is optimally located on the waterfront, is newly renovated with a nautical theme, provides exemplary service and offers specials on the website. www.hamptonmarinahotel.com
Next week our Hampton birthday tour will take us to the African American sites that add to the tapestry that is Hampton’s history. In the meantime information on planning a Hampton vacation and iPod tours can be found at www.visithampton.com
I wish you smooth and celebratory travels!
“An Eakins Masterpiece Restored: Seeing ‘The Gross Clinic’ Anew” is on exhibition in the Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art through January 9, 2011. Three galleries feature background interpretive information, artworks, photographs, artifacts and a 24-minute video. A specially designed central gallery showcases “The Gross Clinic” and another Eakins’ medical masterpiece, “The Agnew Clinic.” www.philamuseum.org