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Colonial Williamsburg, Va ~ Historic Tours, Churches & Gardens Make for a Memorable Vacation

Updated on April 16, 2013
Along Colonial Williamsburg's Duke of Gloucester Street, there are plenty of reminders that America was once British.
Along Colonial Williamsburg's Duke of Gloucester Street, there are plenty of reminders that America was once British. | Source

British controlled capital of the Virginia Colony Williamsburg, Virginia––– 1699 - 1780

Williamsburg, Virginia is proud of its heritage, its careful preservation an accomplishment attributed to the inspiration and dedication of two men–– Mr. W.A.R Goodwin and John D. Rockerfeller, Jr. who formed the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in the early part of the 20th Century. It's beautifully maintained and a monument to America's historical past–– a national landmark to be cherished for years to come. For generations school children have enjoyed school sponsored trips, visiting the area to return home with a better understanding of American History and the Fourth of July. With a stroll down the mile-long Duke of Gloucester Street you'll pass numerous reconstructed and preserved original buildings including the Governor's Palace, Bruton Parish Church, and the Ammunition Magazine. Along the streets are quaint shops, taverns and government buildings with authentically dressed workers and tour guides happy to interpret 18th century times and dialogue to modern day visitors.

Duke of Gloucester Street

The famous Duke of Gloucester Street is named for a British royal title that was often given to one of the sons of the reigning monarch. This street runs west to east with the College of William and Mary at the west end and the Capitol building at the east end. All along the street are sites to see, with a few sites on adjacent streets including the jail, and hospital that shouldn't be missed.

Along the mile-long street are gardens, shops, horses and carriage rides and plenty of authentic landmarks. Between 1699 and 1780, during the 80 year period when Williamsburg was the capital city of the Virginia Colony, there were six British Governors, and five British Acting Governors who ruled the colony for England.

This was the street where Virginia's gentry mixed and mingled in taverns, at the wig shop, at church and or in grand ball rooms. It was along this street that blacksmiths created shoes for horses, tradesmen brought in wares to sell, baskets and cloth were created, and boots and shoes were custom made. From this street a nation once dependent on British kings and queens would rise to courageously fight for the freedom to become an independent, self-ruled and self-sustaining country.

Today the Duke of Gloucester Street is a road paved with a contemporary pebble stone mixture bordered on each side with sand fringed, brick-paved sidewalks. In earlier times oyster shells used for making mortar, and red clay–– the same materials used for brick making, were hauled in to create a practical street covering for the period. Horse hooves and wagon wheels crushed the shells into the red clay forming the contemporary road pavement of the 18th century era. Today, this flat, picturesque paved walking area is enhanced with lines of dense trees that provide shade for comfortable resting benches.

Manicured Grounds and Carefully Preserved Historic Sites

Colonial Williamsburg is among the finest and most carefully preserved historical areas in the United States. Located near Virginia's Atlantic coast, the city sits about an hour inland from the Atlantic Ocean, an hour east of Richmond, and about 3 hours south of Washington D.C. The entire 300+ acre area is preserved to the era when Williamsburg was the capital city of Britain's Virginia Colony between 1699 and 1780. Several of the buildings are original, and have been preserved and restored from the colonial period. There are presently ongoing archaeological excavations.

The Two Main Men Credited Williamsburg's Preservation

The Historic preservation of Colonial Williamsburg began in the early part of the 20th century. Interest in preservation was first aroused by a very dedicated Mr. W.A.R. Goodwin, who has since been given the name, “Father of Colonial Williamsburg.” Mr. Goodwin had been a rector at the historic Bruton Parish Episcopal Church and later served as a director with the College of William and Mary. He was able to rouse the interest of John D. Rockerfeller, Jr. who took a notice of the area and the two worked together and began buying up properties to include in the preservation. Over the course of time the two men along with some others formed the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation that maintains the property to this day.

The College of William and Mary sits at the west end of Duke of Gloucester Street.  Pictured: The Mary Wren Building with statue of Lord Botetourt.
The College of William and Mary sits at the west end of Duke of Gloucester Street. Pictured: The Mary Wren Building with statue of Lord Botetourt. | Source

One of Our oldest colleges named for the king and queen of England, 1693, can be found in Williamsburg, Va.

The College of William and Mary was founded under a royal charter in 1693 and named for the reigning British monarchs of that period, King William III and Queen Mary II. The college is one of nine American colleges founded before the Revolutionary War. The college has educated U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler and other prominent notable figures American History. Its law and medicine programs were established in 1779 when it became one of the first universities in the United States. In 2010 its undergraduate enrollment was just under 6,000. The college sits at the western end of Duke of Gloucester Street.

In Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, shops and homes line Duke of Gloucester Street
In Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, shops and homes line Duke of Gloucester Street

Famous Merchant's Square

Heading east from the college on Duke of Gloucester Street is Merchants Square, a shopping area comprised of an array of shops and restaurants offering fine foods, cheeses, candies, ice cream, collectibles, jewelry, clothing and more. Planned by the original Colonial Williamsburg Founders, the merchants area is one of the first planned shopping districts in the United States. Still standing today, various shops offer quality products and fine foods to make visits interesting and enjoyable. In this area there's a ticket area and information booth. While the beautiful walk along Duke of Gloucester and throughout Williamsburg is absolutely free, and many of the sites are free for photographs and sales, some of the sites have on-site demonstrations and tours, by Williamsburg employees trained to educate, interpret and answer questions. Tickets and information about these sites can be provided at the information office.

Bruton Parish Episcopal Church

Bruton Parish Episcopal Church in winter
Bruton Parish Episcopal Church in winter | Source
From the Capitol, looking westward down Duke of Gloucester Street–
From the Capitol, looking westward down Duke of Gloucester Street– | Source

The Capitol Building

The Capitol Building sits at the East end of Duke of Gloucester Street
The Capitol Building sits at the East end of Duke of Gloucester Street | Source
Secretary's Office in Colonial Williamsburg–– When the Capitol Building burned in 1747, this  fire-proof building for storing important papers was added next door.
Secretary's Office in Colonial Williamsburg–– When the Capitol Building burned in 1747, this fire-proof building for storing important papers was added next door. | Source

This is the third Capitol building erected at the same site, and the design is basically the same as the original. It was built by a gentleman named Henry Cary who also built the Wren Building at the College of William and Mary. This Capitol is the building where Patrick Henry, George Washington, George Wythe, George Mason and Jefferson were active in politics during and after the Revolutionary War. Destroyed once by fire and once by demolition and fire, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation took control of the site in 1928 and by 1934 the Capitol was built for a third and final time.

The Governor's Palace

The Governor's Palace Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
The Governor's Palace Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia | Source
Governor's Palace Entrance Gate
Governor's Palace Entrance Gate | Source

This Governor's Palace was home to seven royal governors. Governor Edward Nott convinced the General Assembly to build the palace but died before it was completed. His successor, Governor Alexander Spotswood was the first to take residence and moved in before the palace was fully complete. The building was used for dinners, balls and gala affairs. In 1775 in the midst of angry colonists, Governor Dunmore, who was occupying the residence, fled into the night never to be seen again. General Charles Lee of the Continental Army moved into the Palace and made it his headquarters. It became a hospital and then was renovated for Virginia's Governor Patrick Henry. Thomas Jefferson succeeded Henry and lived in the Governor's Palace in 1779 and had made plans to renovate it. The next year, when the capital of Virginia was moved to Richmond, nothing became of Jefferson's Palace renovation plans.

The site passed on to the College of William and Mary after the Civil War and in 1928 Colonial Williamsburg purchased the property. The reconstruction and furnishing occurred over a period from the 1930s until the 1980s.

For children, Williamsburg's hands-on-history experience leaves a lasting impression.

Colonial Williamsburg has hands-on history and learning experiences where children can take home memories they'll never forget. They'll understand that for more than 100 years America was ruled by Great Britain, kings and queens, and is now an independent republic because of the Revolutionary War. Colonial Williamsburg sponsors a fabulous annual fireworks display celebrating the Fourth of July and American colonial independence.

Wythe House
Wythe House | Source

George Wythe House

The George Wythe House is located on west side of the Palace Green walking north of Duke of Gloucester toward the Governor's Palace. Wythe was a leader of Virginia's patriot movement, and a delegate to the Continental Congress. He also signed the Declaration of Independence. This house also served as headquarters for General George Washington just before the British took control of Yorktown. After 1776, it was the home of Thomas Jefferson and his family.

Along the route to the Palace is the weaver's shop, where authentic handmade goods created and woven in the lumber building behind the Wythe House are displayed. The fabrics are woven and died in Colonial Williamsburg by workers, and demonstrations of dyeing, weaving and spinning with period looms and spinning wheels are behind the Wythe House. Fabrics of the era were made of wool, cotton, linen, silk and hemp with designs woven into the fabric with colored yarn.

Williamsburg Trades People and Interpreters

The Courthouse Square

Courthouse Square, Colonial Williamsburg
Courthouse Square, Colonial Williamsburg | Source
"Time Out"  in Colonial Williamsburg, 18th Century Style
"Time Out" in Colonial Williamsburg, 18th Century Style

Important Revolutionary War Site

It was at this Williamsburg Courthouse that Attorney Benjamin Waller read the Declaration of Independence at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, and in 1783 it was at this courthouse that the end of the war with England was celebrated. Curiously designed without columns, the architect is yet unknown. This is where disputes were settled over theft and debt, and just outside the building are the public stocks and a prisoner's dock.

During the Civil War the Courthouse was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers. It has suffered damage through the years including a fire in 1911 that gutted the building leaving the walls standing. Rights to the building were secured by Colonial Williamsburg in 1928, but it was used by local government until 1932 when it was closed for restoration.

Greenhow Store

Greenhow Store, Colonial Williamsburg
Greenhow Store, Colonial Williamsburg | Source

Greenhow Store was operated by John Greenhow, a man who made regular trips with his ship to Philadelphia carrying goods for sale like pork, lard and butter. He'd return with a load which might include furniture, iron skillets, chocolate, coffee, and iron to sell to the colonists. He had a second store that he operated in Richmond, Virginia.

Gardens Colonial Style

Vegetable garden, Duke of Gloucester Street, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
Vegetable garden, Duke of Gloucester Street, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
Backyard Winter Garden, Colonial Williamsburg
Backyard Winter Garden, Colonial Williamsburg | Source
Backyard Winter Garden, Colonial Williamsburg
Backyard Winter Garden, Colonial Williamsburg | Source

With beautiful 18th century fenced pastures for the animals, manicured gardens and vegetable plantings, Colonial Williamsburg is an area to visit for those who love gardening and greenery. The streets are lined with thick shade trees and local colonial gardens are carefully cultivated and well cared for. The plants and trees have been selected by historians and horticulturists knowledgeable of 18th century period landscaping and gardening methods. Every walking tour of Williamsburg is decorated with greenery year round and there are floral and evergreen accents to enhance every step of the visit. Local garden clubs visit the gardens often and there is a plant nursery open to the public. It's a great place to research for colonial gardens and study native plants.

The garden area gives an accurate account of 18th century gardening. There are exact replicas of the garden tools used, and guides and stations demonstrate and explain horticultural practices used by the colonists. Seeds from that era can be purchased here an tools produced by Colonial Williamsburg are for sale.

Tarpley & Company

Tarpley & Company, Colonial Williamsburg
Tarpley & Company, Colonial Williamsburg | Source

Tarpley's Store is an outlet for many of Colonial Williamsburg's fine handmade 18th century reproductions and collectibles. Here you will find games and toys, jewelry and accents for the home, books, foods, beverages and there's a Christmas shop. The shop also has a spa, where arrangements can be made ahead for a vacation.

The Magazine

Colonial Williamsburg Magazine for ammunition storage.  Here the Revolutionary War was sparked.
Colonial Williamsburg Magazine for ammunition storage. Here the Revolutionary War was sparked. | Source
In Colonial Williamsburg, the guard house for the Magazine
In Colonial Williamsburg, the guard house for the Magazine

Virginia History Quiz


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The Magazine was built by Governor Spotswood In 1715 to protect the colony's arms and ammunition. Beside it is the guard house. Queen Anne of England was sending shipments of powder and muskets to protect the colonists from Indians, slave revolts and pirates. Housed in the magazine were gunpowder, shot, swords, pikes, canteens, cooking utensils and tools that would be kept in case of raids or trouble. A high wall was erected around the Magazine to help protect the supplies that had been delivered and stockpiled between 1754 – 1763 during the French and Indian War. Incidents related to the Magazine were the first to arouse emotion that would give rise to the American Revolution.

The Williamsburg Area has Many Interesting Family Oriented Attractions

Williamsburg is located in a very historic area of Virginia where there are many sites to see. It's a wonderful place for the entire family.

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Shoemaker Shop

Shoemaker shop with the open air market (in winter,) and the Magazine in the distance.
Shoemaker shop with the open air market (in winter,) and the Magazine in the distance. | Source

The Shoemaker Shop was an absolute necessity. One of the most common trades of the colonial era was shoemaking and the craft, techniques, equipment and supply details are preserved for visitors to enjoy today at Colonial Williamsburg. This shop is a replica of the shoe making shop of George Wilson whose shop competed with about 10 other shoemakers in the area. Other competitors were English factories and colonial factories who mass-produced shoes and boots in the Virginia towns of Norfolk and Petersburg. His specialty was custom made riding boots.

The Colonial Jail

Public Gaol  (Jail), Colonial Williamsburg
Public Gaol (Jail), Colonial Williamsburg | Source

The Public Gaol (jail) sits just north of the the capitol building. This was the building used to house debtors, and runaway slaves. It occasionally housed the mentally ill. During the Revolutionary War, this building was used to restrain tories, spies and military prisoners. The colonists didn't take a liking to deserters and traitors and so they were also sent to gaol to pay for their crimes. During this period sentences were very harsh, and prisoners could be be whipped or hanged. Others mght be branded, or only fined.

This gaol was authorized for construction in 1701 and two cells had been completed by 1704. It was expanded with additions, and at one time it housed 15 pirates belonging to Blackbeard's crew and many others. Here they could be forced to wear handcuffs and manacles and because of close quarters and over crowding outbreaks of "Gaol fever" would occur. The fever is believed to have been typhus. The Public Gaol building was restored and dedicated in 1936.

The Wheelwright and Blacksmith, Necessary Trademen for the Times

Wheelwright & Blacksmith Buildings, Colonial Williamsburg
Wheelwright & Blacksmith Buildings, Colonial Williamsburg | Source
Authentically dressed shop attendants and tour guides in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
Authentically dressed shop attendants and tour guides in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Kings Arms Tavern is a tavern that offers the finest in cuisine. Its present day food is southern in flavor with 18th century flair with after dinner cordials and delicious desserts. Colonial Williamsburgs dining facilities feature 18th century cuisine and fine dining with cordials and beverages to compliment the menu.

The Geddy House

The Geddy House and the Mary Dickinson Store
The Geddy House and the Mary Dickinson Store | Source

Travel 17th and 18th Century Style

Tour the area colonial style––
Tour the area colonial style––

More to see......

The Mary Stith House was owned by Mary Stith,the daughter of a William and Mary president who lived to see the country through to independence. She owned a quaint one-story home on Duke of Gloucester Street, and she is noted for her affection having willed most of her estate to her freed African American servants. At the Mary Stith House, visitors may experience Colonial Williamsbug characters interpreting as Mary Stith, Martha Washington or other various ladies or gentlemen who live in the town.

Armoury Reconstruction Recently the Armoury's tin shop remains have been discovered and with it the tin house is undergoing excavation and will be reconstructed. In Spring 2012 a grand opening of the reconstructed Armoury, kitchen will occur. At the same time, a prideful Colonial Williamsburg Foundation will announce the only operational 18th century tin shop in the entire United States.

Chowning's Tavern was opened in 1766 for plain "ordinary sort" people. Today it serves delicious sandwiches and stews for lunch and requires reservations for dinner with fine main courses that will satisfy every palate.

At Wetherburn's Tavern grand balls with dancing and festivities were held for the ladies and gentlemen. The establishment stood opposite Raleigh's Tavern and has a long history of owners through the years. It is one of Williamsburg's more carefully restored buildings. Initially Henry Wetherburn married the widow of Raleigh Tavern and assumed the duties of its keeper. Developing a good reputation as tavern keeper, among his customers were William Randolph and Peter Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson's father.) Later Wetherburn purchased lots across the street from Raleigh Tavern where Wetherburns Tavern was built. Through the years Wetherburns has been used as a girl's school, store, home and boarding house.

Shield's Tavern was owned by James Shields in the 1740s and today the establishment serves fine southern foods and beverages. The proprietors are dedicated to making guests comfortable in a pleasant atmosphere that will provide a memorable dining experience.

The Raleigh Tavern was first established in 1717. It was a meeting place and it was named for Sir Walter Raleigh. It was a place rich with festivities and the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry frequented the tavern. It was destroyed by fire in 1859 and rebuilt and dedicated to Colonial Williamsburg in 1932.

The Wigmaker Shop is where they made those beautiful men's wigs. The wigs were a status symbol of wealth and landed gentry. Five percent of the people of Virginia were wealthy enough to afford wigs. They were generally ship captains, clergy and wealthy merchants. The wig was a way to let others know one's status within the community. Colonial Williamsburg's wigmaking shop made wigs for the gentlemen and hairpieces for the ladies. This was the beautifying and grooming shop that also sold soaps, powders, tonics and cures for lice. Visitors to this shop can see wigmaking in progress.

The Joiner Shop (Asycough House) was special to colonists. Carpenters and Joiners were two very important professions. During the 18th century most structures were built of wood. The carpenter built the house from the foundation to the top. The joiner would join wood to form window frames and stair cases. Demonstrations are given at the Asycough House where tools like saws, broadaxes, hammers, awls, mallets, planes, and scribes are used.

Bassett Hall is where, at one time John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his wife lived. It was built in the mid 18th century by Philip Johnson and purchased by Burwell Bassett, the nephew of Martha Washington, around 1800. At one point, George Armstrong Custer was a guest for 10 days in the home following the Civil War Battle of Williamsburg. He was the guest in a Rebel's house The house had a history that fascinated Rockefeller.

The Pasteur and Galt Apothecary Shop is located on the Duke of Gloucester Street. An Apothecary was more than a pharmacist because during the 18th century a druggist could prescribe medications and even perform surgery. He also trained apprentices and served as a midwife. He even made house calls to treat patients. There's plenty of information at the shop regarding use of medicines and herbs and how it compares to medicine today.

Colonial Williamsburg's Golden Ball Silversmith Shop is where the work and craftsman skills of 18th century silversmiths can be seen. The silversmith of that era had to have the skills of shaping silver, accompanied with the artistic flair of having good taste, balance and design. The silversmith made utensils and he used heat and tools to form the metal.

At the Margaret Hunter Shop, the work of the Milliner can be seen. The Milliner created ballroom gowns, hats, cloaks, hoods, gloves, petticoats, hoops, and riding costumes. The Milliner helped colonists prepare for costume balls by creating the costumes and apparel. The Millinery trade took good care of the ladies of the colony and provided them with necessities they desired.

At the Geddy Foundry the work of the gunsmith is on display. Gunsmiths have the skils to form metal, bronze and silver by using different methods. All of the productions are hand made, 19th century style. It's an interesting shop.

At the Brickmaker Yard there was plenty of fire in the hot kilns and unskilled laborers who made bricks during the colonial period. Being the work of slaves, of poor unskilled free laborers and sometimes indentured servants, it wasn't easy work. Sometimes slaves were assigned the work by their owners. The brickyard is located just off Nicholson Street in Colonial Williamsburg.

The Cabinet Maker made fine furniture. Hay's Cabinet Shop is Colonial Williamsburg's shop where interested folks can learn the art of cabinetry 18th century style. The Hay's shop also makes harpsichords which were usually imported from England.

The Play Booth Theater is an open-air stage. It's located near the Governor's Palace on the Green, and there is a second theater behind the Capitol building. Live shows and comedies with an 18th century setting and style are performed here.

The Public Hospital was the first North American Hospital to treat the mentally ill. It was built to treat persons of insane and disordered minds. Today the hospital has been moved and relocated to land donated by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. No longer a hospital, it is now an art museum with exhibition cells and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.

Guided tours by carriage are available
Guided tours by carriage are available | Source

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    • Credence2 profile image

      Credence2 5 years ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      Hello, Michabelle, great travelogue. I am sorry that I missed this when I was in Virginia, last. The photography is stunning. For a history nut like me, I know that I would have a grand time.

    • michabelle profile image
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      michabelle 5 years ago

      Hello Credence2, thank you for your comment. Williamsburg is wonderful. I took my grandson there and plan to take him back to see more. There's a ton of sites to see.

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