Colonial Williamsburg’s Storied Past

Colonial Williamsburg’s Storied Past

As we walked down the Duke of Gloucester Street, it seemed that we’d just stepped out of a time machine that had dropped us off in the 18th century. This street, the one President Franklin Roosevelt referred to as “the most historic avenue in all America” when he visited Colonial Williamsburg, was the heart of the town where residents could find everything from a milliner’s shop and silversmith to taverns and a coffeehouse. Not to mention the horse and carriages and actors decked out in colonial garb.

It’s here on this street, in front of Burton Parish Church, that we met up with our Williamsburg Walking Tours guide for a 1.5-hour tour that provided insight into what life was like in Williamsburg in the 1700s and beyond. Along with Jamestown and Yorktown nearby, historic Williamsburg forms the Historic Triangle of Virginia.

Home to the College of William & Mary, founded in 1693 making it the second oldest higher education institute in the U.S. after Harvard, Williamsburg became the capital of the Virginia Colony after its original capital, Jamestown, was burned down in a rebellion. After realizing that Williamsburg was safer, less humid, and not overrun with malaria-carrying mosquitoes as Jamestown was, government officials decided to make the move from Jamestown to Williamsburg a permanent one.

Today, Colonial Williamsburg is a living history museum – the operative word being living – as the history and characters associated with every building we came across were brought to life by our passionate, history-loving guide and by the ambiance of the town itself.

Journey with me back to early America as I share images and stories from Virginia’s colonial past…

Palace Green

As we walked onto the Palace Green, the yellow leaves of the surrounding trees setback against the blueness of the sky, accented by the greenness of the grass, made for a cohesive image of the perfect fall day.

The Palace Green with The Governor’s Palace in the distance

The Governor’s Palace

At the end of this greenway, you’ll behold The Governor’s Palace, a building that was completed in 1722 under Lt. Governor Alexander Spotswood. The architecture and central location of the palace instilled in the colonists a sense of respect for the executive power. This palace housed seven royal governors and two elected governors including Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson until the capital was moved to Richmond in 1780.

The palace’s main building was destroyed by a fire in 1781 and the surviving outbuildings were destroyed during the Civil War. In the early 20th century, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had the palace rebuilt.

The George Wythe House

George Wythe (sounds like “With”) had firsthand views of The Governor’s Palace as his Georgian-style home was one of a few sitting on the Palace Green. Wythe started his career as a country lawyer and eventually became a chancery judge in Richmond. Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and St. George Tucker were all Wythe’s legal students, and in 1779, he became the first U.S. law professor at the College of William & Mary.

Wythe was also somewhat of an astronomical enthusiast as he owned a solar microscope that he mounted in the hole in the bottom far left window of his home. The mirror affixed to the microscope reflected sunbeams through the scope which magnified images on a screen in a dark room.

Scandal hit the Wythe household when Wythe’s grandnephew, George Wythe Sweeney who was a heavy gambler, poisoned his granduncle with arsenic in hopes that he’d be able to collect his inheritance under the elder’s will. Suspecting what Sweeney was up to, Wythe disinherited him before dying and also expressed his intent to have an autopsy after his death by telling his doctors, “Cut me”.

Sweeney was acquitted of the murder charge in part because the autopsy failed to use well-known arsenic tests and in part because the witnesses who saw Sweeney poison Wythe’s morning coffee were black domestics, and under Virginia law, their testimony couldn’t be used.

The Saunders House

Formerly owned by Robert Carter, the grandson of Robert “King” Carter who was the richest man in Virginia, this home was later occupied by the Sauders family who lived there during the Civil War Battle of Williamsburg in May 1862. The Sauders left their dinner table mid-meal upon hearing that Confederates were coming. Williamsburg was a Union territory.

Telling the Bees

Honey bees were brought to the colonies from England since they’re not indigenous to the U.S. Colonists in Williamsburg adopted the culture of “telling the bees” which entailed them sitting on a bench in front of this bee skep to talk to the bees about everything going on in their lives and the community before telling anyone else. The colonists hoped that doing so would keep the bees from leaving.

Compton Oak planted in the 1930s - there were very few trees in Williamsburg back in the day
Compton Oak planted in the 1930s – there were very few trees in Williamsburg back in the day

The Peyton Randolph House

Before there was George Washington, there was Peyton Randolph who was originally called the father of our nation. If he hadn’t died, Peyton would’ve been the first president of the U.S. as he was the Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses, chairman of the Virginia Conventions, and the first President of the Continental Congresses.

With its brick red color, Randolph’s house can’t be missed. It’s one of the oldest homes in Colonial Williamsburg as the original structure was built in 1715.

The Magazine

Located in the middle of Williamsburg, colonists stored their gunpowder, tents, swords, cooking utensils, flints, and other equipment and weaponry in this magazine.

During the earlier part of the American Revolutionary War, Lord Dunmore who was the Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia ordered that gunpowder should be removed from this magazine and loaded onto a Royal Navy ship. Patrick Henry led a small militia to force return of the gunpowder. A resolution was reached when Henry was paid 330 GBP. Concerned about his personal safety, Dunmore retreated to the navy ship thereby ending royal control in Williamsburg.

The Courthouse

Colonists accused of committing petty crimes had their cases tried here under the English legal system. If found guilty, colonists were often sentenced to the stocks where they were subjected to public ridicule, shame, and garbage hurled at their faces.

The Ludwell Paradise House

This home located on the Duke of Gloucester Street was built by a wealthy politician who was also a planter – Philip Ludwell III. There are many stories surrounding Ludwell’s daughter, Lucy, who had to be committed to a mental hospital for 10 years.

At one point when the publishers of the Virginia Gazette resided at the Ludwell Paradise home, the house was used as a printing press.

In 1926, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. commissioned Rev. Dr. Goodwin of Burton Parish Church to draft plans to restore Williamsburg. A few days later, the Ludwell home appeared on the real estate market for $8,000 and it was scooped up by Rockefeller for restoration. However, this residence is not a Colonial Williamsburg exhibition site.


Turning down a scenic side street, we came across this apothecary. The rhino sign on the outside of the building was the symbol used for apothecaries since rhinos were a symbol of health and vitality and rhino horns were seen as a cure-all.

Scenes from Duke of Gloucester Street

Making our way down the Duke of Gloucester Street we entered the tavern district. During colonial times, taverns were used as restaurants, news hubs, and as hotels. The taverns featured both public and private rooms, and the rates were set by the court.

Market Tavern and Josiah Chowning on the far right where attorneys used to party with their clients (bad idea)
The Market  Square Tavern and Josiah Chowning on the far right where attorneys used to party with their clients (bad idea)
Ladders on the roofs of homes like this weren't used as fire escapes, but as a way for people to quickly get on their roofs and extinguish fires
Ladders on the roofs of homes like this weren’t used as fire escapes, but as a way for people to quickly get on their roofs and extinguish fires

Wig shop window and door with large keyhole
Wig shop window and door with large keyhole
Pictured above: a colonial actor teaching a tourist to play a game of 'Graces', a game originating in France that was designed to develop feminine grace although it was acceptable for boys to play this game at one point
Pictured above: a colonial actor teaching a tourist to play a game of ‘Graces’, a game originating in France that was designed to develop feminine grace although it was acceptable for boys to play this game at one point

Beautiful fall colors
Beautiful fall colors
(l): Archaeological dig; (r) Market scene
(l): Archaeological dig; (r) Market scene

The Palmer House

Located towards the end of Duke of Gloucester Street near the Capitol Building, the Palmer House belonged to John Palmer who was a lawyer, clerk of the Governor’s Council, a vestryman at Burton Parish, and a bursar at the College of William & Mary.

The house is covered with putlog holes which were used for scaffolding.

Capitol Building

Before Virginia’s capital was relocated to Richmond, the General Courtroom which was the highest court of the colony was housed at the Capitol Building where both civil and criminal cases were tried. The first floor of the east wing was occupied by the House of Burgesses – the lower legislative house in the colony. The Council Chamber was made up of 12 influential colonists who were appointed for a life term by the king. The Council Chamber was the upper house of the legislature. When the two houses couldn’t agree, they’d meet in the middle of the H-shaped building where a conference room formed a bridge between the two houses.

The Grand Union flag waves from the top of the Capitol Building – this was the first American flag. On the face of the building’s clock tower you can see the Queen Anne Coat of Arms
The Grand Union flag waves from the top of the Capitol Building – this was the first American flag. On the face of the building’s clock tower you can see the Queen Anne Coat of Arms

Black People in Colonial Williamsburg

In the 18th century, half of Colonial Williamsburg’s population was black. However, as we wandered the streets of the restored town, we didn’t see an actor pool that reflected fifty percent of the recreated population.

Black actors wearing colonial garb in the midst of tourists and fellow actors
Black actors wearing colonial garb in the midst of tourists

As black people, we couldn’t help but wonder about what life was like for our people during colonial times. Slavery was a fact of life in Virginia during that period of time and beyond, but as we saw black actors dressed in colonial attire, we wondered if they were playing the role of slaves or free black people. Tourism in Colonial Williamsburg isn’t popular amongst black people, so the town is making efforts to include the stories of black people in the town’s historical narrative.

As we listened to our guide gush enthusiastically about the stories of our country’s “founding fathers”, as people who know our history and the history that this country was founded on, I can’t say that we look at the “heroes” of our nation with the same enthusiasm since most, if not all of them, owned slaves. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry – all owners of human beings. As Bill Weldon, a white guy who is Colonial Williamsburg’s director of historic area programming said in this insightful Washington Post article about Colonial Williamsburg’s black actors, people need to read and learn “that enslaved people were the true founding mothers and fathers of this country. It was built on their backs.”

I couldn’t agree more.


To learn more about the history of Colonial Williamsburg, visit its website

To schedule a walking tour, visit Williamsburg Walking Tours.

We took the ‘Walk About History’ tour which lasted 1.5 hours and cost $19/person.



Have you ever visited a colonial town in the U.S.? What were your thoughts?

Comments 15

  1. Stefania
    Dec 19, 2013

    This is a place I’d really like to visit in the USA. As you know, I really like history so I guess it’s the perfect place for me. Moreover, it looks really quiet.

    • Dana Carmel
      Dec 19, 2013

      You’d definitely love Colonial Williamsburg, Stefania. And I think you’d love the walking tour because our guide was really informative and just as passionate about history as you are.

  2. Carlos
    Dec 13, 2013

    Wow Dana, what an in dept post, I love history. About the Palmer House, are the holes for the scaffolding still used for something?

    • Dana Carmel
      Dec 13, 2013

      Carlos, I love history too – especially when you can “walk” through it. I doubt that the scaffolding holes are still used today, but I’m not entirely sure. That’s a good question. Thanks for reading!

    • Swope75
      Jul 6, 2017

      At Christmas when they decorate the entire town, my personal favorite time to visit, they place Apples in each hole.

  3. Mike
    Dec 10, 2013

    I’ve mentioned so many times since we met how much I absolutely love history. Maria beat me to the punch on this one with amazing education this, Dana! I really loved and felt within myself your deep expression involving slavery too, our friend. I’m so glad they are taking steps to make sure the presentation is truly historically accurate. And Bianca has me reflecting back on slavery movies now. Also a very powerful comment. This was a great post as always and thank you for sharing with us, Dana! 🙂

    • Dana Carmel
      Dec 11, 2013

      Glad you enjoyed this post! Williamsburg definitely has a lot to offer by way of history and in terms of food for thought about slavery in America and its aftermath.

  4. Maria
    Dec 10, 2013

    Wow! I learned more reading about Williamsburg reading this post than I ever did in school. What a twist in the tale of Wythe and Sweeney and I do agree with you, so much we have came via the backs and sweat of slaves – glad to read their trying to incorporate that history, rather than ignore it.

    • Dana Carmel
      Dec 10, 2013

      Yes – Williamsburg is oozing with history. While Colonial Williamsburg is itself making strides to incorporate the narratives of black people, I think that the tour companies that run the tours through Williamsburg need to do more to tell the stories of both the slaves and free black people who contributed to the community. Their stories are just as interesting and so worthy of being told!

  5. Leigh
    Dec 9, 2013

    Williamsburg looks very interesting to visit but your post makes me rethink how it would feel as a black person. Have you ever read The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill? That’s the Canadian title – the American one is different. It is the first book I have read that really put a human face on what it means to be a slave. I highly recommend it. It was on the bestseller list for a very long time in Canada.

    • Dana Carmel
      Dec 10, 2013

      I haven’t read the book, but I see that it’s well reviewed on Amazon so I added it to my cart. That book is fictional, but there are lots of slave narratives written by people who were slaves and I find that their narratives are really eye-opening about the horrors and evil behind slavery. You should read some starting with Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup or Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs.

  6. Agness
    Dec 9, 2013

    What a lovely surrounding, so much green and fresh air. The Sanders Hourse looks so charming. I wish I could do some yoga there!

    • Dana Carmel
      Dec 9, 2013

      The Palace Green would definitely be a great yoga spot. Williamsburg is truly beautiful in the fall!

  7. Bianca
    Dec 9, 2013

    This –> “that enslaved people were the true founding mothers and fathers of this country. It was built on their back”
    This is why I dont watch most of the movies centered around slavery. They dont seem to even attempt at showing this element in the movies. So they are not getting a penny of my ££

    Great post btw.

    • Dana Carmel
      Dec 9, 2013

      I definitely understand your point of view although I recently saw “Twelve Years a Slave”. Although it was very hard to watch at times, I really appreciated the movie because it offered a different angle from the typical slave movies. But you’re right – it would be interesting if there was a slave movie that focused primarily on how this country’s economy grew and flourished because of slave labor.


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