Colonial Williamsburg - Virginia
Updated: Feb 11
For history buffs, Colonial Williamsburg is one historic site worth visiting. Reading history books is satisfying, but visiting places where history actually happened is a different experience altogether. It will take you back in time. Well, at least a glimpse of what it used to be at that time.
United States is called the “New World”. It is indeed new compared to Europe, but America is full of history, all the way back from when the first colonists arrived. (If you want detailed accounts of how the first settlers sailed to America and how they faced the many challenges in order to survive, read the "Mayflower" book by Nathaniel Philbrick).
Anyhow, fast forward to the 18th century, to Williamsburg in Virginia where the United States was born (although other colonies played a significant role as well) and a nation evolved. Williamsburg was founded in 1632 as Middle Plantation, a settlement located between the James and York Rivers. It served as the capital of the Colony and Commonwealth of Virginia from 1699 to 1780. Also, it was the center of political events in Virginia which later led to the American Revolution. Williamsburg made a significant contribution to American history.
THE HISTORIC COLONIAL TOWN
Williamsburg was established as the new capital of the Virginia Colony from 1699 until 1780. Together with Jamestown and Yorktown, Colonial Williamsburg forms part of the Historic Triangle in Virginia. It is a living history museum. Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin (buried in Bruton Parish church) was the person behind persuading John D. Rockefeller Jr. to help finance re-building the Colonial Williamsburg in the 1920s (though Rockefeller was not identified with the project until early 1928). The restoration later passed on to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Colonial Williamsburg stretches over 301 acres, and includes 88 structures. These houses, shops, inns and public buildings were re-constructed on their original foundations, as close as possible to their original appearance. Some are open to the public and we visited a few of these.
Before the Capitol was built, there was the Jamestown Statehouse. It was destroyed by fire several times. After it was burned for the fourth time in 1698, the House of Burgesses (meaning “Citizens” in English terminology), decided to move the colony's government to Middle Plantation, which they renamed Williamsburg.
On May 18, 1699, members of the House of Burgesses (the first elected legislative assembly in the American colonies) resolved to build the first American structure and named it "Capitol". In this building, Patrick Henry (one member of the assembly) delivered his "Caesar-Brutus" speech against the British Stamp Act, on May of 1765. (Patrick Henry is famously quoted today from another speech he made - “Give me liberty, or give me death” - on March 23, 1775).
Patrick Henry's Stamp Act speech resulted in violent protests in America and among the colonists. The House of Burgesses members (Patrick Henry, George Washington, George Mason, George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, and others) played their parts in the legislative wars that resulted in revolution.
Every four years, the Virginia General Assembly (the state legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia) leaves the current Capitol in Richmond, and meets for one day in the restored Capitol building at Colonial Williamsburg. The most recent session (the 26th) was held in January 2016.
The Governor’s Palace was home to seven royal governors, As well as post-colonial governors, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.
The purpose of the palace was to elevate the position of the governor, commensurate with his position as representative of the Crown in the New World. It was designed as a residence as well as a place for receptions for dignitaries.
The building, which underwent 16 years of construction, was so expensive that it was said to deserved the designation of "Palace”. It was during Governor Alexander Spotswood's administration (1710-1722) that the palace was finally finished and furnished, and provided with other amenities such as gardens, fish ponds, etc.
The Governor's Palace is flanked on either side by two brick buildings with gabled roofs. There are a stable, carriage house, kitchen, scullery, laundry and octagonal bath house in an area called the service yard.
The Public Magazine
The brick and mortar octagonal building called the Public Magazine (also called “The Powder Horn”) is located in the middle of Colonial Williamsburg. It was the colony’s arms and ammunition storage.
The tall octagonal tower was admired by a visitor, Sir William Keith, as "an elegant safe Magazine, in the Centre of Williamsburg."
Before the Magazine was built, the colonies stored their ammunition in their barn cellars and meeting house attics. As you can imagine, accidents happened and some ignited and exploded. To prevent these accidents, as well as to keep track of inventory, Governor Spotswood proposed putting all the ammunition in one place. Thus, the construction of the Magazine was authorized by the Virginia General Assembly.
Spotswood (who also designed Bruton Parish Church and landscaped the Governor's Palace), was authorized to spend £200 from taxes collected on the import of liquor and slaves. It was completed in 1715.
The Magazine protected the colony's arms, munitions and other supplies (shot, powder, flints, tents, tools, swords, pikes, canteens, cooking utensils, and as many as 3,000 Brown Bess flintlocks), against Indians, slave revolts, riots and pirate raids. But somehow not against the later Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore.
Lord Dunmore, fearing the colonists' revolt against the crown, he ordered the British soldiers to steal the barrels of gunpowder stored inside the Magazine in the dead of night on April 20, 1775. The incident, was referred to as the “Gunpowder Affair” (or Gunpowder Incident). It precipitated the great American revolution.
Later on, starting in the late 1700’s, the Magazine, which was not being used for military purposes anymore, became a market house, then a Baptist meeting house (in the 1850's), a dancing school before the civil war, and a livery school. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities restored the building that we see today.
George Wythe House
The George Wythe House is said to be the most handsome colonial house in Williamsburg. The two-story brick house is believed to have been designed in the mid-1750's by George Wythe's father-in-law, the surveyor, builder and planter, Richard Taliaferro (pronounced "Tolliver"), who also built the addition to the Governor's Palace.
George Wythe (pronounced “with”) and his wife Elizabeth (Richard Taliaferro's daughter), lived in the home for more than thirty years. Taliaferro's will in 1779 gave George and Elizabeth use of the property for life. After Elizabeth died in 1787, George moved to Richmond in 1791 to serve as a judge on Virginia’s court of Chancery.
George Wythe was a leader of the patriot movement in Virginia, a delegate to the Continental Congress, and Virginia’s first signer of the Declaration of Independence. One of the most influential men of the Revolutionary era, George Wythe ranks among colonial America’s finest lawyers, legal scholars, and teachers. Among the young men Wythe trained in the law were Thomas Jefferson, St. George Tucker, and John Marshall. In 1779, Wythe joined the College of William & Mary faculty to become the first law professor in the United States. He taught classes in the vacant Capitol after Virginia's government moved to Richmond in 1780.
The George Wythe House also served as General George Washington's headquarters just before the British siege of Yorktown, which ended in 1781. French General Rochambeau made the house his headquarters after the victory at Yorktown.
In 1926, the Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin (of adjoining Bruton Parish Church), established his offices on the second floor of the George Wythe house after acquiring it for a parish house. The offices served for a time as headquarters during the Historic Area's restoration. Colonial Williamsburg obtained the property in 1938. The home has been furnished to look as it might have when George and Elizabeth Wythe resided in it.
Restaurants and Shops
If you get hungry exploring Colonial Williamsburg, there are several taverns that were converted into restaurants (as well as inns). You just have to research beforehand which is best, or chose which you think serves the best food. We chose the most popular one to have lunch, but the meal was not what we expected, not something to boast about. Maybe, we just chose the wrong meal? There is no shortage of restaurants, even at the Merchant's Square.
Bruton Parish Church
The Bruton Parish Episcopal Church, located in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg, has been a parish for more than 300 years. The church was named in honor of the ancestral home (the town of Bruton in County Somerset in England) of the prominent Ludwell family and of Virginia Governor Sir William Berkeley.
At the height of the church's prominence, at the beginning of 18th century, it was the center of activity for both the townspeople and the government in Williamsburg. The Burgesses, who led the fight for independence and created the new government, worshiped at this church, and aired their complaints here after the Stamp Act passed in 1765. Special services also took place here before the revolution.
Bruton Church became a hospital and a store house during the battle of Yorktown in 1781. The church also served as a hospital for wounded confederate soldiers after the battle of Williamsburg in May of 1862.
The church eventually declined and efforts to restore it began in 1800's. But in 1903, the Reverend Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin, who became rector, took over the restoration. The church today is a replica, part of the restoration project financed by John D. Rockefeller.
Trade in Colonial Williamsburg
We also explored craftsmen's workshops, including a printing shop, a shoemaker's, blacksmith's, a cooperage, a cabinetmaker, a gunsmith's, a wigmaker's, and a silversmith's. The people who re-enact the trades actually train to genuinely re-create the specialized products people made back then. Below are examples of some of those trades.
Food played a very important role in the social lives of 18th-century Virginians. Dining was one of the most important occasions where colonial Virginians exchanged information.
THE MERCHANT’S SQUARE
Colonial Williamsburg extends to Merchants Square, a Colonial Revival commercial area built in 1935. It was designed as an 18th century style retail village, known as Colonial Revival, with over forty shops and restaurants. It is a nice area to hang out, rest or explore shops.
Who can’t resist chocolate? I recommend Wythe candy and Gourmet Shop. Their chocolates are truly decadent. I wish we had bought more, since what we bought didn't last long.
So, I asked my husband, Hermann, what is special about peanuts in Virginia. He has no idea why, except that when his sister got married in the chapel of William and Mary years ago, peanut soup was one of the foods they served at the reception. He says, it didn't go over very well. I haven't had it so I can't tell, but I bought a cook book (I collect cook books) with recipes from Colonial Williamsburg. That is one recipe I have to try. One thing I noticed though is that peanuts in Virginia are big.
COLLEGE OF WILLIAM AND MARY
At the end of Merchant's Square is the beginning of the campus of the College of William and Mary. The second-oldest institution of higher education in the United States (Harvard was first). It was founded in 1693 under royal charter issued by King William III and Queen Mary II, as a public school for both Native American young men and the sons of the colonists.
James Blair, commissary of the Bishop of London in Virginia and founder of the college, was the president for 50 years.
In 1918, William & Mary became one of the first universities in Virginia to admit women and become coeducational. During this time, enrollment increased from 104 students in 1889 to 1269 students by 1932. It is the only one of the nine colonial colleges that is located in the South. Its alumni include three U.S. Presidents (Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler) as well as many other important figures in the nation's early history.
While we were inside the Wren Building at the college, a young female student told us that they will have an Alumni parade about to start. Intrigued, we walked out of the building to the main street and found people already gathered along the sidewalk, waiting.
We decided to watch since it was still early. We are glad we stayed, the student’s enthusiasm and fun in the parade was very catching. We even caught two t-shirts that the students threw into the crowd as a memento from that parade; we later sent them to my sister-in-law, since William and Mary is her Alma Mater.