Friday, April 19, 2013

Williamsburg: Part 1

As the strip of land between the York and James Rivers known as the Virginia Peninsula was settled following the establishment of Jamestown in 1607, the idea of a cross-peninsula fortification was considered as a defense against Indian attacks. With the peace that followed the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, the idea didn't seem so urgent, but after the Massacre of 1622 that killed 347 settlers, the plan was reborn.

Middle Plantation, a settlement atop a ridge midway between the James and the York in 1632, seemed to be a naturally defensive position for such an endeavor. The ridge drained well and had few mosquitoes, making it a much healthier location than Jamestown. The only practical road down the Peninsula, which would become Duke of Gloucester Street, ran across the ridge and was easily defended. By 1634, a six-mile-long palisade was completed between Queen's Creek, which fed into the York, and College Creek, which fed into the James.

The town became the Virginia colony's first inland settlement. By the mid-1600's, the settlement was taking on the air of a permanent city as brick buildings replaced wooden ones and new wealth spurred new development.

It was during this time that Colonel John Page became one of the town's first promoters. After emigrating from England then living in the New Towne section of Jamestown for awhile, Col. Page aquired 330 acres at Middle Plantation that included much of what would become the main section of what is now Colonial Williamsburg. He built a large brick house and donated land to build the first brick Bruton Parish Church, as well as supported the establishment of the College of William and Mary and the relocation of the capital to Williamsburg. As the progenitor of one of the First Families of Virginia, Col. John Page is the ancestor of many prominent historical figures. Families allied with the Pages by marriage include the Byrd, Tyler, Pendleton, Burwell, Nelson, Randolph, Carter, and Harrison families.

The College of William and Mary, named after King William III of England and his wife Mary, was established at Middle Plantation in 1693, becoming the second oldest institute of higher education in the United States after Harvard University. Many prominent figures in American history were educated at William and Mary, including presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Tyler, and sixteen signers of the Declaration of Independence.

In 1699 following the burning of the statehouse at Jamestown, the capital of the Virginia Colony was permanently moved to Middle Plantation and the town was renamed Williamsburg in honor of King William. The new capitol building was erected on the opposite end of town from William and Mary, with Duke of Gloucester Street connecting them.

The economy of Williamsburg centered around the capital and the college until the establishment of the "Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds" in 1770. The Insane Asylum, which became Eastern State Hospital, was the first public facility in the US constructed solely for the care of the mentally ill.

As the capital of Virginia, Williamsburg was the site of much of the political drama leading up to the Revolutionary War. It remained the capital until 1780, when Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson felt that its location was too vulnerable to British attack.

The city of Williamsburg declined in importance after the government was moved farther inland to Richmond. In the 1930's, Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, pastor of the Bruton Parish Church, enlisted the efforts of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the establishment of Colonial Williamsburg to restore and preserve the Historic Area.

Colonial Williamsburg is the largest living history park in the US. Many of the buildings along and around Duke of Gloucester Street have been restored or reconstructed. Costumed interpreters demonstrate trades and customs from the 1699-1770 era.

The park is open 365 days a year, but since you will primary be outside, you'll want to choose a time with good weather to visit. Plan on two days to tour the town. While you could see everything in one day if you hurried, the afternoon outdoor drama is performed in two segments. If possible, plan your visit so that Day One coincides with Day One of the drama and Day Two with the conclusion. A three-day ticket costs only a little more than a single day. If three days isn't enough, concentrate on seeing the drama and visiting the indoor museums which require tickets to enter. It costs nothing to simply enter the historic area, so you can stroll at your leisure before or after your ticketed days with the local joggers and dog walkers. There is also a package ticket that will also admit you to sites in Jamestown and Yorktown over a seven-day period. For more visitor information, see

For more information on the people, buildings, and programs, see

To catch some things I missed, check out Rae Crother's eight posts on her trip to Williamsburg:

Market Square, Courthouse, Magazine, Churches

At the center of Williamsburg, figuratively and geographically, was Market Square. The green area along Duke of Gloucester Street midway between William and Mary and the Capitol was set aside for public activities. The militia drilled here. Vendors sold fresh meat and produce. Fairs provided entertainment. Auctions were held.

The James City County Courthouse and the Magazine stood at the edge of Market Square.

The British flag flying outside a building indicates it is open to the public.

The perimeter of Market Square was considered the fashionable neighborhood, whatever the view might provide. The stocks and pillory provide scenery for the Edmund Randolph House. It was probably also handy to have someone selling fresh fish right outside your front door.

The Magazine sits across the street from the Courthouse

The armory is housed inside the Magazine

The Courthouse from the Magazine with street vendor booths in between

The Magazine Guardhouse

The religious center of town was Bruton Parish Church. Founded in 1674, Bruton Parish is still an active Anglican church. The first brick sanctuary was built in 1683 in the center of town, and replaced in 1715 by the current structure a short distance away. Men sat on one side, women on the other, while William and Mary students sat in the gallery.


Bruton Parish Chuchyard

Since the Anglican Church was the state church of England, permission had to be given from the county court to authorize churches of any other demonination. The only other authorized church in Williamsburg before the American Revolution was the Presbyterian Meetinghouse, which began using a house "as a place for the Public Worship of God according the the Practise of Protestant Dissenters of the Presyterian denomination" in 1765.

Presbyterian Meetinghouse

Continue to Part Two Governor's Palace, Palace Green, Robert Carter House
Continue to Part Three Wythe House
Continue to Part Four Tucker & Randolph Houses
Continue to Part Five Capitol, Secretary's Office, Gaol, Public Hospital

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