Historic and Happy Hampton, Virginia

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Hampton, Va., is bursting with history: the alleged bones of Blackbeard were found at the waterfront; early settler John Rolfe married Pocahontas; and the Confederate president was imprisoned at Fort Monroe.

Photography by the authors

We have bedroom towns in Southern California where developers traded commuters one-hour drives for less expensive homes. Those places did not grow where a cattle track forded a river or a trail cut through a valley or a road took travelers along on a famous journey. Those places will never attract tourism, the new green and clean economy, because they have no charm or sense of history.

Hampton, at the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula doesn’t have that problem. There’s enough history to satisfy any historian, perhaps, even the professor at University College, London, the poet and novelist Stephen Spender, who reportedly said in the 1970s, “History is the ship carrying living memories to the future” — surely an apt quotation for Virginia’s colonial story.

So let’s see what Hampton has to reveal. For starters, a new museum — a mere 10 years old!

Hampton History Museum

The museum opened in 2003 and already has 10 galleries showing the city’s story. At the entrance a reproduction reveals what was discovered in the 1990s when the waterfront was excavated. Skeletal remains were found.

The body had been buried just below high level water mark without a coffin and outside the St. John’s church suggesting burial in disgrace. There were artifacts associated with the body compatible with the time period of the execution of Blackbeard’s crew and town records showed two members of that famous pirate’s crew were put to death at this spot in 1719.

So J. Michael Cobb, the museum curator of the Hampton History Museum, has caught our interest even before we enter his museum!

“Hampton’s history is connected to its convenient location on the sea,” he says. “In the New World it was the avenue of exploration — and commerce — and the first convenient entrance to the Chesapeake.” He points to the history hanging on his walls: maritime maps and sketches of Native American villages. “When the Europeans came here in 1607 they were dealing with 12,000 years of indigenous peoples. And we know why they came: for gold, silver and a short cut to China.”

By 1625 Hampton had the highest population in Virginia and by the first quarter of the 18th century the city was the equal of any port in the New World. It was healthier and less marshy than Jamestown but all the colonies were being impacted by Indian wars, disease and starvation.

Then something happened.

“They came to make money and accidentally found tobacco!” Cobb says.

Cobb cheerfully recounts the Blackbeard story, one we recalled as a legend. It turns out it is true. The dreaded pirate, Captain Edward Teach, was feared all along the coast, but he made the mistake of engaging a Royal Navy task force. He was killed in the following battle and his head placed on a pole on the Hampton river — at a spot now called Blackbeard’s Point.

One of the early English settlers, John Rolfe, felt the soil around Hampton was better for tobacco cultivation than Jamestown, but he knew the Spanish colonies in the south had a sweeter, more pleasant flavor. Somehow despite the threat of death to anyone selling those special seeds to a non-Spaniard, Rolfe was able to get some from Trinidad and an industry was born.

(Rolfe, as any American school kid knows — even before Walt Disney told us that story — later married Pocahontas, the daughter of the Native American leader Powhatan.)

“The ‘Rise of Tobacco’ shaped the culture of Hampton and Virginia for more than 200 years,” Cobb says. “The revenue raised in Virginia from this was greater than that of all the other colonies together.”

The currency of the colonists was tobacco: with it they could get essentials like guns, cloth, wine and sugar from England. They needed that currency because few came to the New World because they were wealthy.

Fort Monroe National Monument

You don’t have to go far to find more Hampton history. The Union stronghold during the Civil War, Fort Monroe, the largest stone fort in the United States, was built from 1819 to1834, surely a long time but there were no stone quarries near where this “Gibraltar of the Chesapeake” was constructed.

Asked what immigrants were thinking about and hoping for when they came to the New World, docent Boyd J. Duncan says, “The lower classes came realizing it was the only way they could ever make a name for themselves and hoping somehow to generate income surpassing what they’d have had at home. Even Virginia Company men and soldiers arriving with incompetent officers (who had bought their commissions) thought despite the dangers, ‘I stand in better shape here than in the Old World.’”

It’s one of our most recent National Monuments and surely worth a visit. Edgar Allen Poe served there and Jefferson Davis was imprisoned in what is now its Casement Museum. It’s an irony perhaps to imprison the confederate president in the same place where so many slaves got their freedom.

The fort commander, General Benjamin Butler, refused to return to the Confederates three slaves whom he saw as “contraband of war” and thus not be returned to slavery. Black slaves came in huge numbers once they saw this was the way to freedom. The current black-white population of Hampton is about 50-50.

Hampton University Museum

This museum is the oldest African American museum in the United States and one of the oldest in Virginia. It has more than 9,000 artifacts, including traditional African art, Native American, and African American Fine Art all displayed in five separate galleries. The museum also has a strong Asian and Oceanic collection.

Objects pertaining to the history of the founding of Hampton and the very history of the United States include the Pen of Liberty, one of three pens used in 1862 by Lincoln to sign the first legislation for the Emancipation Proclamation.

Vanessa Thaxton-Ward, PhD, Curator of Collections, shows us around the exhibits. Kuba art seen in prestige regalia dating to the 17th century distinguishes Kuba rulers in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The detail on this Bwoom Masquerade Regelia is astonishing. The Zula necklace on display is simpler but beautifully created and was worn by early students from Africa who wanted to share their cultural heritage students. An American Indian piece of art shows battle scenes with First Americans fighting from horse back. Richard Ward’s sculpture, The Entertainer is one of many contemporary pieces in the galleries representing 200 Years of African American Art.

A beaded Chippewa jacket is found in the historic American Indian gallery. The sculpture, Family by Hampton graduate Persis Jenning is an excellent example of work from students who studied art in the 1940s when Hampton’s art department was founded by Viktor Lowenfeld.

Hampton is a walking city. With a population of 140,000, it is somewhat smaller than Newport News (population: 180,000).

There is a small walkable downtown area that’s a quick five-minute drive back from Hampton University. Once you are downtown, it’s a hundred yards to the history museum and, across the street, the Air & Space Center — and the carousel beside it there to reward children who have patiently poked around in the city’s history.

Randy Schenck comes out on his day off to run the Carousel for us. He has worked the carousel all his life and know all his horses: 33 are German, 13 Russian and two elaborate ones are Italian. The Russians are his favorites. “This is my horse,” he says. He points out they are modeled on the Cossack mounts and even the carved horses show the closely cropped mane that essentially had to be trimmed in order it didn’t catch in the horseman’s sword when he drew it in his attack.

It’s a similarly short walk across the street to several laid-back restaurants on Queens Way. We ate there every day. Surf Rider, Venture and the Conch and Bucket.

A waitperson alleges her blackboard menu item is a direct quote from Ben Franklin: “In wine there is wisdom. In beer, there is freedom. In water, there is bacteria.”

Poor Ben, he’s always being misquoted. He died in 1790, a century before Pasteur’s germ theory, but we don’t criticize the quote’s accuracy in case we are given a really small helping of pizza.

It was briefly an Indian Summer in early December 2013, but now it’s pouring with rain. We’ve bought an extra room at the Hampton Country Inn and Suites on Hardy Cash Drive for Aubrey, our granddaughter, and her mother Carolyn. $74! What bargains one gets if one can stay out of America’s big cities!

We’re now heading for dinner or the movies or both. Actually both. We’re checking out CineBistro and looking back, boy, that was a good move: a great meal and if we didn’t understand part two of The Hunger Games, we can always get Aubrey to explain it to us because she saw the first part.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.