George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson trod the roads of this area as the colony of Virginia grew. George Mason, James Madison and Richard Henry Lee sat in the public houses debating political events. British royal governors, the comte de Rochambeau, Marquis de Lafayette and the Baron von Steuben were just a few of the many Europeans passing across the colonial stage on this Virginia peninsula. St. George Tucker and George Wythe taught law at the College of William and Mary.  Rarely does an area play host to so many men of the first rank.

The beginnings of the Virginia Colony at Jamestown were times of trial. Their relations with the native Indians were sometimes friendly, sometimes not. Many native tribes were decimated by disease and warfare in the first century of contact with European settlers. As the colony grew, a few pieces of tribal land were set aside. Today, the Virginia Indian Heritage Trail is an excellent resource to find sites of historic and tribal significance.  Many organizations contributed to this project, and all the sites have been approved for historical accuracy and cultural sensitivity by tribal leaders and the Virginia Council on Indians. While driving through Virginia, a visit to any of these sites will go a long way to filling in a void in our history. 

Settlements spread out from Jamestown, at first between the James and York Rivers.  A ridge running down the center of the peninsula was a strategic point. Talk of building a palisade across the peninsula to protect farms and plantations below this point made the area even more important.  The well drained ground proved an attractive area for settlers moving inland from Jamestown. The 1630’s saw a settlement called Middle Plantation come to life. The area prospered, surviving Bacon’s Rebellion and Indian troubles. The 1670’s saw an end to local Indian threats. In 1693 a charter arrived from London for The College of William and Mary, which was established adjacent to Middle Plantation.  When the statehouse in Jamestown burned in 1698, the legislature met at a college building. A delegation of students submitted a proposal to permanently move the capital to Middle Plantation. The suggestion was well received and promoted by several residents, including Governor Sir Francis Nicholson, who renamed Middle Plantation Williamsburg, in honour of King William lll.

Williamsburg was the thriving capital of the largest colony, which stretched to the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes. The principles of representative government, individual liberty, and the rights of citizens were championed by patriot leaders here.  A center for political, cultural and military activity through the French and Indian War, its importance only grew as the colonies and the Mother Country drifted apart. Although many scenes of the American War for Independence were played out here, and at nearby Yorktown, by the later years of the conflict there was a move to change the location of the capital to a more centrally located site. Virginia had grown and its population was expanding westward.  Richmond was chosen as the new capital, partly with support from Thomas Jefferson. Williamsburg became a sleepy college town after 1780, and remained such until 1926.

It was in that year that the rector of Bruton Parish Church, the Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin (son of a Confederate captain) met with John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and shared his dream of restoring the historic village.  Colonial Williamsburg was born and the restoration commenced. Modest in its beginnings, eventually approximately 85% of the colonial capital was reclaimed. Mr. Rockefeller put much time into the work, and he personally funded restoration of more than 80 buildings, and the reconstruction of more. 

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation not only features the historic structures, but  encompasses much more. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the Dewitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum,  located under one roof, offer extensive collections and interesting programs. Colonial Williamsburg hosts educational forums, symposiums, and conferences.  There are school group tours, home school programs, kids activities, teacher institutes, fellowships, and archaeological field-schools. The John D. Rockefeller,Jr. Library, as well as online and multimedia resources, aid research in a variety of fields.

Everywhere you turn in the historic district, there are opportunities to learn about colonial life. Craftsmen show how tools and techniques were used to produce the implements of everyday life. Shops offer not only souvenirs, but a window on a society long past. Carriage rides offer a different perspective on the life of the village and taverns serve up colonial inspired fare.

Nation Builders is a program which gives visitors the chance to hear, and interact, with special educators who portray historical figures. They share their concerns of the day, both local and on the larger world stage. You will be taken back to the 18th Century, and given new insights into the world of colonial America.

Be sure to catch the legendary Fife and Drum Corps and experience this important part of our military past.  Whether conveying orders to troops on the battlefield, boosting morale in camp, or inspiring citizens to join the cause, these musicians played an important role in colonial and revolutionary times. 

Check the calendar and plan your visit around programs and events featured that day. The place to start your adventure is the Colonial Williamsburg Regional Visitor Center, located just off the Colonial Parkway.  The staff will help you purchase tickets, check out the day’s schedule of programs, and even offer friendly advice to help plan your itinerary. Be sure to check out evening programs such as Haunted Williamsburg, Ghost Tours, concerts, and other events. 

Every trip tells a different tale, and some sites in the historic village may become favourites.  There are some, however, of such historic significance that no first time visit is complete without them on the itinerary. The Capitol, Governor’s Palace, Bruton Parish Church, Courthouse, Magazine, Public Gaol, and Raleigh Tavern are such places.

The Capitol that visitors see today is the third to occupy the site.  After the legislature moved from Jamestown, they met in the Wren Building at the College of William and Mary.  The builder of that edifice, Henry Cary, was chosen to build the new building for the legislature. This was to be the first building in America to be called a “capitol.” The structure was H-shaped, with each of the wings serving more than one function.  The House of Burgesses met in one chamber, and the General Court and colony’s secretary occupied another. Upstairs were the Council Chamber, committee and conference rooms. This structure was destroyed by fire in 1747, and a second, similar Capitol, built in 1751.  It served the colony, then the state, from 1753 until 1779. Patrick Henry’s oratory against the Stamp Act, George Mason’s Declaration of Rights, Virginia’s instructions to her delegates in Philadelphia to seek independence from England, the first state constitution….all of these events and more took place in this historic building.  Social events were also held here on special evenings. After seeing the state of Virginia firmly established among the states of the world, the legislature met here for the final time in 1779, before they moved to the more centrally located city of Richmond. The building served as a court and school, among other uses, until a fire in the 1830’s destroyed the last of the chambers.

The current building was “dedicated” by the General Assembly in a ceremonial event in 1934. Every year the legislature meets for one day at this historic site.  The current building is a closer copy of the first Capitol as the records of its design were more complete. A visit here can be a step back in time, and offer the experience of observing, even participating, in the making of  colonial laws. 

The Capitol, where colonists debated rights and laws, is at the East end of the historic district. A stroll down Duke of Gloucester Street to the West end of the historic district will bring a visitor to the Palace Green.  The view North down the Palace Green, to the home of the governor, emphasized the royal authority over the colony. The legislature passed a bill to build the governor a house, but the project had its share of funding and construction problems.  Henry Cary started work in 1706, but couldn’t complete the project, and was replaced. We know that the entrance hall was complete by 1711, when Gov. Spotswood decorated it with muskets, a sign of royal power. Though the governor was in residence by 1716, though it was still not finished.  

It was first called a palace in 1714, possibly as a result of frustrated Burgesses dealing with continued requests for funding.  It was a magnificent building when finished, and with a large ballroom, a fitting place for a governor to entertain. The 3 story Georgian house featured Flemish bond brickwork and dormers in the roof.  A formal garden and park beyond offered guests spacious grounds for roaming. Gov. Dunmore fled the palace in 1775 as tensions with Virginia patriots increased. The state of Virginia had some renovations done for Gov. Patrick Henry.  Later, Gov. Thomas Jefferson may have been contemplating some architectural changes, but the seat of government moved the next year. The building was being used as a hospital after the Siege of Yorktown when it burned in 1781. The reconstructed palace complex was opened in 1934.

The College of William and Mary is a most historic campus, dating back to the 1690’s.  The main building (1695-1700), known for years as simply, “the College,” is the oldest college building still standing in the United States.  It was renamed in 1931 for the English architect, Sir Christopher Wren, to whom one early author attributed the design. The building is still used, and has served many functions through the years.  Gutted by fire 3 times,(once, of course, by Union soldiers) the interior has been rebuilt each time. Classes are still held in this building, considered the ‘soul’ of the campus. A comprehensive renewal and restoration project, completed in 2000, prepared the structure for its fourth century of service.

Colonial Williamsburg’s Merchants Square, between the college and historic district, features many shops, bars and restaurants.  The art museums are located near this area. The Cedars of Williamsburg Bed and Breakfast is on Jamestown Road in the college district.  Colonial Williamsburg is served by a shuttle bus service, which is free for visitors with tickets/passes, or those staying at the Williamsburg Inn.  This keeps traffic out of the historic area, and makes it easier to catch programs at different parts of the restored village. 

Going back up the Duke of Gloucester Street, towards the Palace Green, visitors pass another well known Williamsburg landmark, Bruton Parish Church.  This 18th Century Episcopal church still holds weekly services, and is normally open daily for visitors. The Tarpley Bell, called Virginia’s Liberty Bell, is in the 1769 tower and still calls worshipers to this day. The West Gallery is the only original part of the interior, and its rail has 300 year old initials carved by William and Mary students. Check for special events, or stop by for a quiet time of prayer or meditation. 

On the west side of the Palace Green stands the c. 1750 house of George Wythe, a prominent attorney, signer of the Declaration of Independence, a classical scholar, and a statesman respected by the luminaries of his age.  His legal pupils included Thomas Jefferson, St. George Tucker, and John Marshall. He was a framer of the Constitution, and the nation’s first college law professor. He helped design the seal of Virginia. ( the house was George Washington’s headquarters  before, and Rochambeau’s after, Yorktown)

Across the Green is the James Geddy House (c. 1762).  This is an original building, and not typical of the area, featuring a door and balcony above the front porch.  Several architectural styles are found in different details. A foundry, gunsmith, silversmith are among the businesses which were run out of the house.  Interpreters demonstrate everyday life and the activities of a middle class trades home. 

Nearby is the 1771 Colonial Williamsburg Courthouse, an original building.   Visitors here learn the importance of the legal system in many aspects of colonial life, and may be asked to take part in a legal proceeding.  The origin of many terms such as ‘passing the bar’ are explained. 

The Magazine is located across the street from the Courthouse.  This 1715 building held military equipment, including gunpowder.  One of the earliest incidents in the American War for Independence occurred when British troops under Lord Dunmore removed the colony’s powder to a British ship.  This was discovered by the colonists, and tensions ran high. Militia were meeting around the state. George Washington and Peyton Randolph urged caution. Patrick Henry led militia who sought to get the powder back.  He eventually received payment, resolving the issue. The governor and his family fled to a ship, and royal control in Virginia came to an end. Interpreters fire canon and lead tours, explaining what life was like when Indian or foreign forces led to the militia being called out. 

Taverns serve colonial fare, from period recipes. Christiana Campbell’s was Washington’s favourite.  Josiah’s Chowning’s, Shield’s, and King’s Arms are popular and often provide entertainment or a learning experience from an historic interpreter.  Charlton’s Coffeehouse (taste colonial coffee, tea or hot chocolate) offers a peek at the entertainments popular at parties during colonial times. 

The Raleigh Tavern was an important meeting place for representatives to talk over the issues of the day, or attend a ball in the second largest room in Williamsburg.  A resolution to form a Committee of Correspondence proposed here in 1773 by a group of lawmakers (including Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee and Thomas Jefferson). This was a step towards unity for the various colonial legislatures. When Governor Dunmore dissolved the legislature in 1774  after they objected to the British closing the port of Boston, a nonimportation agreement was adopted here. The Raleigh was a social center for the colony. 

The Public Gaol, completed C. 1704, is just north of the Capitol Building on Nicholson Street. Prisoners included pirates, runaway slaves, and those awaiting trial and punishment.  Cells were added later for debtors. Disease was always a problem within the close spaced cells. 

Further down Nicholson Street, towards the Palace Green, are the Peyton Randolph and St. George Tucker Houses.  The Randolph House is of wood framed construction dating from 1715. Randolph was prominent in colonial and early republic affairs.  The tour not only informs visitors about this early patriot family, but also the early African-American colonial experience. The 1718-19 house built for William Levingston who also built America’s first theatre next to it.  St. George Tucker bought the properties in 1788, and eventually enlarged the home. Tucker taught law at William and Mary, and is considered one of the great legal minds of the early republic. HIs 18th Century house is a reception center for those member of Colonial Williamsburg’s Capital Society and above.  This is also the site for the Nation Builders and other exclusive programs. You can get more information and make reservations through the Colonial Williamsburg ticket office. 

The Everard House (1718), on the Palace Green, has an original kitchen and smokehouse.  Thomas Everard was an orphaned apprentice when he came to the New World. An ambitious man, he rose through hard work to become a successful planter, civic leader, and patriot.  He served twice as mayor and was also secretary of the colony. He was on the committee that selected delegates to the Continental Congress. The house is beautifully restored with period antiques. 

There are other private homes, homes for employees, and even lodging for visitors.  A walk along Francis Street passes some of these, such as the Lightfoot House (c.1740), and leads to  Bassett Hall, the Rockefeller’s retreat. Enjoy the art, antiques, and beautiful gardens and see why this was their favourite retreat.  Guides tell stories which offer insight into the love the Rockefellers had for this project. The pasture where some of Colonial Williamsburg’s horses are kept is on York Street near Bassett Hall.

There are many opportunities to learn of crafts and trades of colonial times.  The wheelwright, blacksmith, foundry, and tin shop might not make your list of errands today, but were very important in the past.   Brickyard, cabinetmaker, joinery, and carpenter were certainly necessary, though our modern builders might marvel at the skill and tools required in olden times.  The tailor, shoemaker, weaver, milliner, wigmaker, and leatherworks show what it took to stay in fashion in colonial times…before the department store. The printing shop and bindery as well as the silversmith offer other examples of crafts which differ from our modern technology.  A visit to Colonial Williamsburg certainly gives the visitor an appreciation for modern conveniences, but also a sense of wonder at what our colonial ancestors accomplished through hard work, from a and ingenuity.  

Just beyond the historic district are the remnants of another fight, from a later period, against a different invader.  Confederate forces had defensive works nearby, and in the spring of 1862 tried to stop the Union army under Gen. George McClellan from marching up the peninsula to Richmond.  York Street (U.S. 60; Pocahontas Trail) leaves the historic district, running southeast towards Busch Gardens. Just past Quarterpath Road, on the right, is Fort Magruder Inn and Conference Center.  Along the split rail fence in front are 3 Virginia historical markers detailing history in the area. The Confederate defensive line across the James-York Peninsula passed here. Fort Magruder was a redoubt in that line and was the center of the Battle of Williamsburg.  Gen. Joseph Johnston’s Confederate forces were retreating towards Richmond before the larger Union army under Gen. McClellan. Gen. James Longstreet was tasked with holding off the Union attack while the Confederate supply train was moved to safety. 

A short distance down Quarterpath Road (the name derives from a colonial raceway, called Quarter Path, which was the first quarter mile of this road), past the Quarterpath Park and Rec Center and one of  Colonial Williamsburg’s Golden Horseshoe Golf Courses, is Redoubt Park. The half mile trail has 4 Civil War Trails markers and some well preserved breastworks. Nearby College Creek would have anchored the southern end of the Confederate line.

There are other attractions in the area such as shopping and miniature golf.  After mastering mini golf, a round at one of the many area golf courses may be in order.   Local wineries and breweries offer liquid libations and local seafood is featured at many of the area’s fine restaurants. Several parks dot the landscape of the peninsula above Williamsburg.  

Located between the Colonial Parkway and Queen Creek, near the Naval Supply Center’s Cheatham Annex on the York River,  New Quarter Park offers a variety of trails, disc golfing, athletic courts and picnic shelters. Nearby Waller Mill Park offers many water recreational opportunities with  canoe, kayak, and paddle boat rentals, fishing supplies at the Boat House Store, a boat ramp and fishing pier. Landlubbers can try out the disc golfing, hiking trails, ballfields, playgrounds and picnic shelters

Freedom Park offers mountain bike trails, a playground, nature  and picnic areas. Interpretive signs tell the rich history of this area, including the Revolutionary War Battle of Spencer’s Ordinary (1781). Archaeological investigations are shedding light on early colonial life.  An early 19th Century free black settlement occupied the area and is represented by recreated, historically accurate cabins. The Go Ape Zipline and Treetop Adventure is located within Freedom Park, as is the Williamsburg Botanical Garden, which features native plantings and a butterfly garden.

York River State Park offers fishing, boating, hiking and other activities where fresh water meets salt. This rich wildlife habitat is designated as a Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. The visitor center has historical and wildlife displays and  fishing pier, playground, picnic area, and seasonal boat rental are available.

Upper County Park has mountain bike trails, pool, nature area, picnic facilities, playgrounds, horseshoe pits, basketball courts and concessions- all located between I-64 and U.S. Highway 60.  The nearby Diascund Reservoir Park offers fishing, canoe, kayak, and boating (under trolling motor power). Notable for fishing and wildlife, this reservoir is the water supply for the city of Newport News.  This reservoir is midway between Newport News and Richmond. Diascund Creek flows from the reservoir southward towards the Chickahominy River. There are historical markers on U.S. 60 in the area for Cooper’s Mill, on Diascund Creek, where Lord Cornwallis obtained supplies in late June, 1781; Diascund Bridge, where British troops destroyed Virginia naval stores earlier that year; and Tyree’s Plantation, where Gen. Lafayette had his headquarters in early July, 1781.  Lafayette and Cornwallis maneuvered through this area prior to the British army seeking British naval support at Yorktowne. 

 Diascund Creek flows into the Chickahominy River just above the Chickahominy Wildlife Management Area.  This area if noted for hunting, fishing, and wildlife photography. Deer, turkey, rabbit, quail, ducks and beaver are among the wildlife to be found, and catfish, crappie and bass draw anglers to the area.  Ospreys and bald eagles are sometimes seen from the bluffs. The Chickahominy flows into the James River just below this area, and is crossed by the John Tyler Highway and Virginia’s Capital Trail (Bike/Hike) as they leave the Williamsburg area heading for the James River Plantations below Richmond. 

Located between Williamsburg and Jamestown, just off John Tyler Highway and Virgina’s Capital Trail, is the site of Green Spring Plantation.  This was the home of Virginia’s royal Governor William Berkeley. This was a place of entertainment and seat of government authority for much of the middle to late 17th Century.  Berkeley was also an agricultural experimenter, seeking other crops besides tobacco for Virginia’s colonists. Cotton, flax, hemp, rice, fruit trees and mulberry trees for silk production were tried, but the diversification was not economically successful.  Much history passed this site. Bacon’s rebels ransacked the house. Lafayette, in July, 1781, wanted to attack Cornwallis as he left Williamsburg for Jamestown and a movement down the James River. “Mad” Anthony Wayne led the attack, which the British had anticipated.  and was driven off. A later house on the site was burned during the War to Prevent Southern Independence. A 3.5 mile trail loops through the landscape, with interpretive signs about historic events or wildlife habitat. Over 200 nesting birds species have been found here, as well as many wildflowers.  

Veterans Park (formerly Mid County Park) is known for its 30,000 square foot lighted playground, featuring a ship replica, zip line and swing area.  Separate play areas are available for different aged children. Volleyball, basketball, tennis and pickleball courts are also available.

Virginia’s story moved beyond it colonial beginnings, but left behind the remnants of royal and patriot authority and clues to their history.  Archaeologists and historians, through the work of Colonial Williamsburg, have given us that past to experience again. The lessons we learn can help us better understand the lives, more importantly, the ideals which led those patriots in their quest for liberty. 

Brett Moffatt

Brett Moffatt is an independent scholar in Tennessee.

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