Virginia: Williamsburg Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This city forms part of the Historic Triangle, which consists of Williamsburg, Jamestown (the first permanent English settlement in America), and Yorktown. Williamsburg’s 173-acre Historic Area has been restored to conform to its appearance on the eve of the American Revolution.

Site Office

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

P.O. Box 1776

Williamsburg, VA 23187-1776

ph.: (800) HISTORY [447-8679]; (804) 229-1000

Web site:

Williamsburg was the center of Virginia’s social, cultural, and political life in colonial America. Even today, with its broad boulevards and well-planned streets, the historic part of the old town exudes a particular eighteenth century orderliness. Named in honor of King William III of England, Williamsburg depended for its existence on three basis concepts–education, religion, and government. It was a city built on ideas, albeit one that developed more or less from scratch. As capital of the Virginia colony from 1699 to 1776 and of the Commonwealth of Virginia from 1776 to 1779, the town was intended to reflect Virginia’s growing prominence among the British colonies and its status as the jewel of the Crown. Many prominent Americans either lived or worked in Williamsburg. Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Caesar-Brutus” speech opposing the Stamp Act in the House of Burgesses in the Capitol building. Other important statesmen associated with Williamsburg include Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Richard Henry Lee.

Virginia’s Capital Cities

Williamsburg was not the first capital of the Virginia colony. That honor belongs to Jamestown, which was founded on May 26, 1607, as the first permanent English settlement in the American colonies. The first legislative assembly of 1619 was also organized in Jamestown. The location of the capital was problematic from the beginning, however, for Jamestown was located on a swamp-infested, disease-ridden island that was vulnerable to attack. When Jamestown’s state house burned down in 1698 for the fourth time, Governor Francis Nicholson suggested it was time to move the capital to a new location. Several sites were considered. Ultimately, the House of Burgesses, the lower house of the colony’s legislature, chose an area known as Middle Plantation, situated between the York and James Rivers some five miles away. It had several advantages over Jamestown: It was located on high ground, was relatively free of disease, and was the home of the College of William and Mary.

Middle Plantation had been founded in the early seventeenth century as a defense against possible Indian raids. The sparsely populated settlement grew gradually; by 1690 it had developed into only a small village. Middle Plantation had served as a temporary capital on several occasions–for instance, during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 and again in 1677, when Jamestown suffered a devastating conflagration.

The Building of Williamsburg

In 1699 the colonial government passed an act that ordered the building of the capital city of Williamsburg. The act, written primarily by Governor Nicholson, contained specific provisions, such as dividing the town into half-acre lots and setting houses back six feet from the main thoroughfares. A survey map of the proposed town was completed on June 2, 1699.

Government was Williamsburg’s major activity, and many businesses were formed to serve the needs of persons in government. In 1736, William Parks established in Williamsburg the weekly Virginia Gazette, the colony’s first newspaper. Entertainment also became an important attraction. Taverns functioned as year-round social centers. The Raleigh Tavern, which opened around 1717, hosted both social and political activities.

Although loyal subjects of the Crown, Virginians were not averse to expressing their opinions. This independent spirit soon led to conflict with the mother country. The end of the French and Indian War in 1763 set the stage for trouble. Although Britain emerged victorious and gained some significant territory from the dispute–including Canada from France and Florida from Spain–the great expense of running the war contributed to hard economic times, forcing Parliament to seek additional sources of revenue. A number of duties were levied on various goods in the colonies, but the most odious of them all, at least in the colonists’ minds, was the Stamp Act of 1765, which placed a tax on deeds, licenses, newspapers, and various other documents. This piece of legislation prompted Patrick Henry, in the Virginia House of Burgesses, to utter the words: “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First, his Cromwell, and George III may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.” Tensions ran so high that Virginia governor Francis Fauquier dissolved the legislature for challenging the authority of Parliament. The continual protests made an impact, for the Stamp Act was repealed the following year. There was much celebration in the streets of Williamsburg, as elsewhere in the colonies.

Undaunted, Parliament tried other measures of raising revenue in the colonies. In 1767 it passed the Townshend Acts, which placed a tax on tea, paper, lead, and paint imported into the colonies. Further conflicts ensued between Parliament and the colonies, including Virginia, where legislators in 1769 proclaimed that they alone had the legal authority to tax their fellow Virginians. The new governor, Norborne Berkely, Baron de Botetourt, once again dissolved the legislature. In defiance, the burgesses met at the Raleigh Tavern and resumed their discussion in the tavern’s Apollo Room. On May 17, 1769, eighty-nine members, including Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Richard Henry Lee, signed a document banning British goods and, in so doing, declared their right to self-determination.

Botetourt died in September, 1770, and was replaced by the unpopular John Murray, Earl of Dunmore. Meanwhile, the voices of protest grew more vociferous throughout the colonies. The Virginia legislature established a Committee of Correspondence to keep in touch with the other colonies regarding events in Britain. Following the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773, when a group of Bostonians disguised as Indians boarded a British ship and dumped tea into Boston Harbor, Dunmore sought to avert trouble in Virginia by dissolving the legislature. Once again, the burgesses chose to defy the law. They gathered at Bruton Parish Church to discuss their options. They scheduled a state convention and encouraged other colonies to send representatives to the First Continental Congress, where Virginians played a key role in protestations against British rule.

The Revolutionary War

Events continued to move quickly. The Revolutionary War began on April 19, 1775, when shots were fired in Lexington, Massachusetts. By the following year, on May 15, 1776, the Virginians had issued their Resolution for Independence, declaring their freedom from England and establishing the independent Commonwealth of Virginia. The resolution was adopted unanimously. Patrick Henry was elected the first governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Meanwhile, George Washington, a Virginia planter and hero of the French and Indian War, had been named commander of the Continental Army. Finally, on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. By then, the Revolutionary War was in full swing.

Williamsburg played a significant role on both sides during the war. The British commander, Lord Charles Cornwallis, occupied the capital for a time and converted the Governor’s Palace into a hospital for British troops. The Marquis de Lafayette, the young Frenchman who fought on the colonists’ side, and Washington used the capital as their headquarters during the last days of the war. Washington stayed at George Wythe’s house on the Palace Green. He marched south from Williamsburg and, on October 19, 1781, soundly defeated Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown–the battle that won independence for the colonies.

In 1779, Thomas Jefferson succeeded Patrick Henry as governor of Virginia. By then, authorities had decided that, due to its proximity to the York and James Rivers, Williamsburg posed a security risk. For this reason, Richmond was chosen as the new capital, both for its better climate and for its less vulnerable, more central locale. After the move to Richmond, Williamsburg continued to serve some governmental functions, although in an admittedly lesser capacity. It was still a county seat, for example. It also continued to be the home of two major institutions, the College of William and Mary and the Public Hospital. The latter, originally proposed by Governor Fauquier in 1766 and opened in 1773, was the first hospital for the mentally ill in the colonies. Even so, Williamsburg had lost its primary reason for existence. With little industry or commerce, the former capital began a slow decline. In all likelihood, Williamsburg would have remained a quiet, small town–albeit one with a glorious past–were it not for the arrival of the Reverend W. A. R. Goodwin in 1902 as rector of Bruton Parish Church. Goodwin, for better or worse, changed the town’s destiny.

The Restoration of Colonial Williamsburg

William Archer Rutherford Goodwin was born in Richmond on June 18, 1869. He studied at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, and worked as a door-to-door book salesman. Among the reading materials he peddled was the Bible. For a while he considered the law as a profession, but in 1889 he decided to enter the ministry.

In 1907, Goodwin persuaded the congregation of Bruton Parish Church to restore the old church’s sanctuary in celebration of the three hundredth anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. There was nothing left at Jamestown, and Goodwin wanted to see that Williamsburg played an important role in the observance of the anniversary. He also worked toward restoring other Williamsburg structures. With help from the Colonial Dames of America, Goodwin acquired the George Wythe House, an early and important Williamsburg residence that had been abandoned. He eventually became determined to restore the town to its original eighteenth century splendor.

In the mid-1920’s, Goodwin met John D. Rockefeller, Jr., then one of the richest men in the world, through the Phi Beta Kappa society at William and Mary. By the time Goodwin made his acquaintance, Rockefeller had already contributed money toward the preservation of European churches and created Acadia National Park in Maine. He also donated funds to many universities and medical institutions.

Goodwin discussed his vision with Rockefeller, persuading the multimillionaire to contribute two million dollars to the restoration of Williamsburg. The rector then proceeded to buy up the town, lot by lot. Goodwin hired the Boston architectural firm of Perry, Shaw, and Hepburn, and an advisory committee of architects was formed. Architect William G. Perry was assigned to map out the town while Goodwin continued to buy individual houses as they became available. Rockefeller agreed to finance all purchases and expenditures associated with the venture, but he insisted on complete anonymity.

In early 1928, an official announcement appeared in the press: Williamsburg was to be rebuilt “as nearly as possible” to reflect its pre-Revolutionary past. Immediately, plans to renovate the Wren Building on the William and Mary campus got under way. Meanwhile, everyone in town had his or her own ideas about the identity of Goodwin’s mysterious benefactor. Some mentioned Henry Ford; others thought it could be George Eastman or J. P. Morgan. Finally, on June 12, 1928, the identity of the generous donor was revealed at a mass meeting in the auditorium of a Williamsburg high school.

As the restoration work began in the late 1920’s, historical accuracy was emphasized. Colonial records and newspapers were combed, descriptions of original buildings meticulously searched, colonial building techniques studied, and architectural details precisely marked down. Teams of researchers scoured the Virginia countryside for any remnants of regional architecture. Old buildings were bought and dismantled, and their eighteenth century materials stored and cataloged for future reference.

The local zoning ordinance authorized the restoration or reconstruction of pre-1800 buildings to be located in a part of town designated the Historic Area. The Historic Area is bisected by Duke of Gloucester Street and is bounded roughly by Henry Street on the west, Waller Street on the east, Lafayette Street on the north, and Francis Street on the south. It is divided into eight geographical areas: Market Square, from Market Square to the Capitol, the Capitol and environs, the area around Palace Street, from Palace Street to the College of William and Mary, North England and Nicholson Back Streets, and Waller and Francis Back Streets. Structures that were erected in the colonial era were to be either rebuilt or restored; postcolonial structures were, for the most part, demolished or removed from the area. One by one, the intrusions of modern-day life began to disappear. Utility lines were buried under the ground. Modern stores were removed from Duke of Gloucester Street and relocated to the new business district of Merchants Square. In 1934 President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended the reopening of Duke of Gloucester Street, which he called“the most historic avenue in America.” Williamsburg now officially belonged to the public.

Goodwin died on September 7, 1939. The rector’s initial goal was simply to restore and duplicate the original buildings. That vision grew and expanded beyond mere physical duplication to try to include an explanation of what life in colonial Williamsburg was really like. The effort involved not only architects and engineers but also historians and archaeologists. Rutherfoord Goodwin, the rector’s son, created the idea of hiring local women, dressed up in colonial finery, to act as the town’s unofficial ambassadors. Goodwin’s vision has grown more sophisticated over the years. Now costumed actors, well versed in colonial history and customs, assume the roles of eighteenth century Williamsburg residents. The restoration also cost far more than originally anticipated. By the time of his death in 1960, Rockefeller had put sixty-eight million dollars into Williamsburg, and members of his family continued to donate funds.

Modern Preservation Efforts

Today, Williamsburg’s Historic Area includes eighty-eight original colonial-era structures and fifty major reconstructions. Some of the original buildings are the Bruton Parish Church, in continuous use since 1715; the Wren Building, the President’s House, and the Brafferton at the College of William and Mary; and the homes of George Wythe (host to George Washington) and Peyton Randolph, who led the Virginia delegation to the First Continental Congress and was elected the Congress’s president. Reconstructed buildings include the Governor’s Palace, the Capitol, the Public Hospital, and the Raleigh Tavern. Eight miles east of Williamsburg is Carter’s Grove, an eight hundred-acre plantation with extensive historical exhibits. The slave quarters at the plantation are part of Williamsburg’s expanded efforts to convey information about the lives of African Americans in colonial times. Half the population of eighteenth century Williamsburg was black.

Williamsburg is part tourist spot and part living history site, attracting more than one million tourists a year. The Historic Area forms the heart of the modern city of Williamsburg with its ten thousand or so residents. Colonial Williamsburg is operated by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed in 1928. A commercial subsidiary was established in 1984 to operate hotels and colonial-style taverns and to manufacture everything from crafts to colonial-style furniture. Here, in the fulcrum of America’s colonial past, history and pleasure live amiably side by side.

For Further Information
  • Beney, Peter. The Majesty of Colonial Williamsburg. Gretna, La.: Pelican, 1997. A pictorial work featuring magnificent color photographs.
  • Cease, Cheryl J., and Susan Bruno. The Insiders’ Guide to Williamsburg: Jamestown-Yorktown. Rev. 9th ed. Helena, Mont.: Falcon, 1999. A practical, comprehensive, and up-to-date source of information.
  • Kopper, Philip. Colonial Williamsburg. New York: Harry N. Abrams, in association with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1986. An in-depth study. Despite its coffee table veneer, it is both well written and lavishly illustrated.
  • Olmert, Michael, Suzanne E. Coffman, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Official Guide to Colonial Williamsburg. Rev. ed. Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1998. Part guide book and part history book. As such, it functions as a serviceable introduction to the town. It also contains practical information, complete descriptions of the buildings open to the public, and easy-to-follow maps of the Historic Area.
Categories: History