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Crossroads of American History

A family visits the Story of Virginia

A family visits the Story of Virginia

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, did you host out-of-town guests and consider taking them for a visit to the Virginia Historical Society to see the long-term exhibition, The Story of Virginia—only to wonder whether you or they had the time it would take to get through the whole show? Did you ever try to come up with a list of special objects that you might point out to guests if you could only give them a quick tour through the show? My list would include the Céloron plaque that laid French claim to the Ohio Valley, a George Washington letter, the covered wagon, the handwritten sheet music for “Dixie,” the street car, George C. Marshall’s gear from World War I, the jacket that Ronald Reagan wore in key scenes in the film about VMI (Brother Rat).

We’re making it easier for you in the future. In an entirely reconfigured Story of Virginia, scheduled to open in summer 2015, you will encounter a “crossroads” section that will whisk you and your guests through the best of Virginia history in under an hour. What’s a crossroads section? I will explain.

In addition to presenting a traditional chronology of Virginia history through the centuries, the new Story of Virginia will offer as well a stimulating display entitled “Virginians at the Crossroads of American History.” This entity will unfold separately on a low platform and stand apart visually as a unit. The platform will literally be a crossroads, two long paths that traverse much of the exhibition’s space and intersect near its center. Ten to fifteen episodes will be featured on the platform—moments of decision, turning points in history. The visitor will see compelling evidence that at times Virginians have stepped up on to the crossroads of American history to participate in decisions that changed its course and sometimes changed even the course of world history as well.

Here are just a few of the crossroads episodes that we will present.

At the start, visitors will see two gold buttons (once believed to have been actually worn by Pocahontas) and a remarkable portrait engraving of her that was drawn from life in London in 1616 (by Simon van de Passe). The label will explain that in 1607, the Powhatan confederation was at a crossroads—what should be done with the English settlers who had landed in the confederation’s territory at what the newcomers called Jamestown? Largely through the efforts of Pocahontas, a daughter of chief Powhatan, peace was established and maintained between the two peoples for as long as she lived. As a result of her decision, a struggling English colony in America became permanently established.

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At another crossroads, visitors will see a reduced bronze version (a maquette) of a monumental sculpture erected at Fort Lewis in Washington state to enshrine Captain Meriwether Lewis and His Dog Seaman at the endpoint of their cross-country exploration. Beside the maquette is an 1825 hand-colored French map of “Ancienne Louisiane.” The label will explain that in 1802, when Spain ceded control of the Mississippi River to Napoleon, President Thomas Jefferson saw a threat to American security and a block to expansion and what he viewed as the destiny of the nation. He was at a crossroads: should he assume authority not granted to him by the Constitution? He did, by sending James Monroe to Paris to purchase New Orleans and as much of the Mississippi Valley as possible, while he commissioned his private secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to explore the land. He made what would rank in American history as both the boldest projection of executive authority and the most consequential executive decision when he doubled the size of the American republic and set the course of the nation for the entire century.

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Farther down the platform, the visitor’s attention will be directed to a small pen and holder that was used by Valentine Southall, one of the signers of the Virginia Ordinance of Secession, along with a broadside of 1861 that reproduces the text of the Ordinance to Repeal the Ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, by the state of Virginia. The label will explain that earlier in the year, after several Lower South states seceded from the union, President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops to put down their rebellion placed Virginia’s elected officials at a crossroads: should they send militia units to fight fellow slaveholding southerners or join those states in secession. Their choice of the latter held enormous ramifications.

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And so the crossroads episodes will continue on a chronological course, parallel to the rest of the show, and they will lead the viewer through the twentieth century to the present. We are still working on this concept, with final decisions yet to be made. But already it is clear that with the crossroads section, VHS visitors will be presented a powerful sampling of both the best objects and the best ideas that compose Virginia and American history.

William M. S. Rasmussen is lead curator and Lora M. Robins curator at the Virginia Historical Society.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. David Bryant permalink
    12/14/2013 5:11 pm

    “should they send militia units to fight fellow slaveholding southerners or join those states in secession”

    Is Ken burns now writing the Story of Virginia? Such oversimplification of that crisis does more harm to our history. Virginians had the choice of remaining in the union or joining other states that were disillusioned about growing centralized powers. The facts that the first vote was in favor of remaining in the union and that the final vote for secession came after Lincoln’s order for troops shows that Virginians were more concerned with unconstitutional government and approaching tyranny than with the condition of slavery. This propaganda has no place in Our Story.


    • William Rasmussen permalink
      12/17/2013 5:04 pm

      The Virginia decision to secede followed Lincoln’s call for troops. Thus most historians have concluded the obvious—that the call for troops brought about the Virginia decision to secede.


  2. David Bryant permalink
    12/23/2013 12:44 pm

    I’m glad you agree with me regarding what prompted Virginia to secede. Injecting slavery into the decision diverts attention from the true cause. Had Virginia remained in the union or resumed its independence, slavery would have protected by law. The real issued remained Virginia’s right of self-determination. Lincoln’s revengeful treatment of those who disagreed with him demonstrated what Virginia would have had to suffer under Lincoln’s rule.


  3. Laurie Coates permalink
    11/13/2016 8:01 am

    Dear Sir,

    Jamestown-1607 Spoon…

    I recently acquired a very interesting spoon at an estate sale. After exhaustive internet searches on multiple search engines I have found the exact spoon only one time in Google images. I will include a link that will take you to the image of the spoon that I have but I realize a lot of people are wary of links from strangers so to view the exact spoon I have please go to Google Chrome (Images) and type in “Jamestown Colony triffid spoon”. I know that “triffid” may be spelled incorrectly, (I have seen it spelled trefid), but that was the spelling that I used that found the only image of the exact spoon that I now own. The image on Google was taken directly from an archaeological book that was published regarding an archaeological dig by John L Carter and J. Paul Hudson titled: ”New Discoveries at Jamestown. Site of the first successful English settlement in America.”.

    I have a metalware spoon that is stamped, on the back of the handle, in cursive, exactly like this: “Jamestown – 1607”. The dimensions of the spoon are approximately; 4” L x 1 and ⅛” W at widest part of round bowl that is approximately a quarter of an inch in depth. The handle is flat with a rat tail connecting from handle to round bowl and the handle ends with a design resembling a cross at the top of handle. The metal is undetermined at this time. It is obvious that it is old metal and somewhat pitted but in good condition for its apparent age. I am not well-versed in ancient or early antique spoons and I am very interested in finding out more about this incredibly interesting spoon somehow associated with an archaeological dig on the Jamestown Colony. I would appreciate any assistance that you may be able to provide me or any knowledge you may have or even if you could point me in the right direction as to where to begin to find out more about this wonderful little spoon.

    Again thank you so much for your time and effort on my behalf in advance and I do look forward to hearing from you with any news or bits pieces of information that may help lead me to the discovery of the origins of this most interesting spoon.

    Here is the link that I promise to provide directing you to the exact image of the spoon that I have:

    Additionally, I have included a link to the manual of the archaeological dig that took place on the Jamestown Colony which also contains the image of my spoon:,John%20L/New%20Discoveries%20at%20Jamestown/text.htm

    Please feel free to reach out to me at anytime with any additional questions you may have concerning my spoon and I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience. You can reach me anytime by email or phone at:

    Thank you.

    P.s. the attached pics are of my spoon that I write to you about.


    • 11/28/2016 4:59 pm

      Hello, Laurie. Thank you for reaching out to us about your spoon. You might want to reach out to Jamestown-Yorktown (toll free number: 888.593.4682) or Colonial Williamsburg (Brenda Leek, Their staff should be able to help you find some answers about your spoon. You may also want to reach out to an appraiser as well. Good luck!


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