Introduction. Williamsburg was the capital of the Virginia colony and State of Virginia from 1699 until 1780. It replaced Jamestown which had an ephemeral and unstable existence. An unfavorable location caused the abandonment of Jamestown in favor of Williamsburg located ten miles away. At its peak Williamsburg was a fine colonial city with beautiful buildings.
Historical Overview. The area that would grow into Virginia’s colonial capital was originally known as Middle Plantation and was populated by English settlers in 1638. Before this the land was part of the Powhatan Confederacy of Native Americans. Middle Plantation occupied high ground on a peninsula which slopes down in to the James River on the west and York River on the east, no wider than six miles across. By 1634 a cross peninsula palisade was built at roughly the same latitude to protect settlers against Native American raids and attacks. During Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, a rebellion of yeoman planters, attacked Jamestown, the contemporary colonial capital, and it burned down. In the meantime the House of Burgesses met at Middle Plantation, which they found safer and environmentally more hospitable. Jamestown was mosquito-infested and more humid. It was not long after, that efforts to establish a college in the colony were initiated. By 1693 the location of Middle Plantation was again found suitable and the College of William and Mary opened its doors as the first public school of higher education in the colonies. Williamsburg’s status as colonial capital was finally solidified when the newly reconstructed Statehouse in Jamestown burned down (again) in 1698. Williamsburg would remain the capital of colonial Virginia until 1780 when it moved to Richmond permanently. Richmond’s location inland was thought to be more secure and this proposal was initiated by Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia.
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The somewhat sterile collection of buildings and streets of Colonial Williamsburg took form in the 1930s as the old town was rebuilt for the purposes of tourism and historic appreciation. The theme park that one visits today is largely the work of the Rockefeller Foundation. The efforts to restore Williamsburg to its former colonial glory were germinated by the Episcopalian Reverend W.A. R. Goodwin who was the pastor at BrutonParishChurch. After he restored the Church in 1907, he set his efforts on the remaining buildings. Goodwin eventually was able to get the financial support of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the 1920s and together, Goodwin and Rockefeller succeeded in restoring Williamsburg into the historic theme park that exists today. The most impressive buildings seen today on the grounds of Williamsburg are the Governor's Palace, the Legislative Hall, and the Bruton Parish Church, which still holds an active congregation. Of the three, only the latter is open to the public free of charge. Now known as Colonial Williamsburg, the 301 acre historic theme park is owned by a private foundation that preserves the approximately 500 historic buildings in Williamsburg. Of these 88 are said to be originals and many are along Duke of Gloucester Street, the main thoroughfare of the colonial capital that runs east-west and connects to the Palace Green as a perpendicular north-south appendage.
Orientation. Most visitors to the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area will arrive at the Visitor Center off U.S. Route 60 or by the Colonial Parkway. At the Visitor Center there are excellent interpretive displays and artifacts on display along with the customary restaurant and souvenir shops. Once you have run the gauntlet of this information and sensory overloading, head south over the Foot Bridge at the southern exit of the Visitor Center (it’s well signed). This will take you into the Historic Area. If you don’t plan to tour any of the famous buildings and you simply want to walk the grounds, it’s free. Otherwise there are ticket options that vary from $36 (adult – 1 Day Basic), $46 (adult – 1 Day Plus), and $58 (adult - AnnualPass) as of the time of writing (November 2010). See the official website for more details: http://www.colonialwilliamsburg.com/.
Capitol. Not unlike many other great buildings from the colonial era, the Capitol was rebuilt a number of times as it succumbed to the inevitable fires that burned many buildings and cities. The original capitol in Williamsburg was constructed in 1705 as the lawmakers abandoned the bottomlands of Jamestown in favor of Williamsburg. This building burned in 1747 and was later rebuilt. It was eventually neglected after the capital moved to Richmond and by the time of Rockefeller’s restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in the early twentieth century there was little more than a foundation remaining. The rebuilding of the capitol in the 1930s was based on old illustrations and notes from the period. It is a faithful replica of the original.
Governor’s Palace. This is the quintessential colonial building at Williamsburg complete with a Palace Green in front that runs down to Duke of Gloucester Street. The original was completed in 1721 and took 16 years to complete. Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, both governors of Virginia, resided in the original palace before the capital moved to Richmond. Most of the structure was destroyed by fire in 1781 and the few outbuildings that survived were later destroyed during the Civil War.
Raleigh Tavern. The tavern is also a rebuilt structure having been resurrected in 1932 along with the Governor’s Palace and Capitol. Located on Duke of Gloucester Street, the Raleigh Tavern served as a temporary seat of the Burgesses after the Governor dissolved the House of Burgesses in 1763 and again 1776. The governor, appointed by the Crown, had the power to dissolve the colonial legislature, or House of Burgesses, but most of the power in the colonies rested with the law-making bodies. The original burned down in 1859 and it is also famous for having hosted Lafayette in 1824 during his farewell tour of the United States.
Bruton Parish Church. Unlike most of the other prominent buildings the Bruton Parish Church is an original not having been rebuilt completely from the ground-up. Established in 1674, it remains an active Episcopal parish church and as such there is no admission for entrance. The current building dates from 1715 although it has undergone some inevitable structural and stylistic changes over the centuries.
Wren Building (College of William and Mary). The famous Wren Building is another faithful replica. Having been originally designed by the famous Sir Christopher Wren, the original, completed in 1700, burnt down and the building seen today is a newer rendition. Located on the west end of Duke of Gloucester Street, the Wren Building is part of the College of William and Mary and not part of the historic theme park as such, but its close proximity easily affords it a visit. The Wren Building’s restoration, like the remainder of the historic site, was through the efforts of Goodwin and Rockefeller.
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