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…
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.