Colonial Williamsburg Buildings
The creation of an American identity began in the early 1600s, when the first English settlers landed in Virginia. The evolution of a separate American identity took place in towns like Williamsburg under British rule during the colonial era, and it spread as a unifying national force with the onset of the Revolution.....
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Bruton Parish Church
Christiana Campbells Tavern
George Wythe House
King's Arms Barber Shop
Pasteur & Galt Apothecary
By the late 17th century, colonists had moved out of marshy Jamestown to land throughout the Tidewater. Several successful planters settled in an area known as Middle Plantation. The spot, located five miles from Jamestown on higher ground between the York and James rivers, had been settled in 1633 as a defense outpost against the Indians. The colonists began to look toward Middle Plantation as a more inviting environment for their capital. In 1699, the royal governor, Francis Nicholson, declared Middle Plantation the site of the colony's new capital, to be called Williamsburg in honor of King William III.
Designing the New Capital
The existing Middle Plantation was relatively undeveloped aside from a parish church and the College of William and Mary, chartered in 1693 by King William and Queen Mary. The site provided the perfect "blank slate" on which to build a new capital city for Virginia, one of the wealthiest and most populous of the British colonies in America at that time.
Williamsburg was most likely planned by Governor Nicholson, who also designed the city of Annapolis. It is organized according to traditional British concepts of how a "city" should function as the center of education, religion, and politics, with the College, Church, and Capitol serving as key landmarks. The main thoroughfare, Duke of Gloucester Street, was constructed over an early horse path along the watershed between the James and York rivers. Spacious public areas around the buildings - the architectural trend in Europe - provided practical meeting areas and impressive urban vistas.
The City Grows Up
Governor Alexander Spotswood, who led the colony early in the 18th century, proved to be an active expansionist. He claimed the nearby Shenandoah Valley for England and, within Williamsburg's borders, built the Magazine and expanded construction of Bruton Parish Church. Wooden and brick residences surrounded by gardens also sprang up, adding to Williamsburg's attractive urban setting.
The period from 1680 to 1730 shaped the colony's Pre-Revolution identity. Black slaves became predominant in the labor force, replacing white indentured servants. The successful colony attracted more women, which resulted in a higher birth rate. The population surge was especially evident in the rural areas surrounding Williamsburg, where the number and size of large family-owned plantations continued to grow steadily. By 1680, the majority of the colony's population was native born.
A Sense of Community
Though there were never more than 2,000 permanent residents in Williamsburg at one time, the town's population swelled four times a year for "public times" when the colony's courts met (April, June, October, December). The town filled with lawyers, witnesses, plaintiffs, and defendants. Gentlemen arrived with their wives to attend to business or the meeting of the merchants.
Night after night, people would pour into the taverns, where they dined, danced to fiddle music, and challenged each other to dice and card games.
During the administration of Governor William Gooch from 1727 to 1749, the colony enjoyed success as a renowned tobacco producer. A "gentry," or elite social class, was already firmly established. As colonial wealth and power increased, elegant plantations such as Carter's Grove were built along the rivers.
By the mid-18th century, the streets of the town of Williamsburg were filled with commercial activity. Fashionable retail shops catered to enthusiastic new consumers, offering local products handcrafted by resident silversmiths and blacksmiths, as well as goods imported from Britain.
The Virginia colonists grew increasingly proud of their impressive new capital and their status as Britain's most loyal and politically moderate colony. They felt responsible for the colony's success as they had been participants in Virginia's representative government since 1619. The General Assembly, the colony's two-house legislature, was set up with a lower House of Burgesses (with two elected representatives from each county and one each from Jamestown, Williamsburg, Norfolk, and the College of William and Mary) and an upper Council (made up of 12 leading colonists appointed for life by the king).
Only a select few, however, were eligible to elect representatives to the General Assembly. In order to vote in the Virginia colony, one had to be "independent." The colonial definition of independence excluded men without property; slaves, servants; wives, children; and Catholics, who were considered dependent on the Pope in Rome. Furthermore, one had to be in control of one's "own passions," which excluded unmarried women, free blacks, Indians, criminals, and the insane. The result was an electorate reserved for white Protestant males of 21 years or older who possessed sufficient property to make them independent.
Williamsburg became a classic example of a "situation of traditional stability." The colonists and their British overseers fundamentally agreed on socioeconomic and political objectives, so there was little contention. Virginians accepted that the British government would guarantee their liberty to pursue private interests.
A Virginian's individual civic responsibility was held in the highest regard. Entering politics, especially sitting on the governor's Council or in the House of Burgesses, was the most respected and rewarding endeavor to which a man could aspire. The gentry of the Virginia countryside soon held the political power. Among the ranks of the burgesses were some of the country's famous early leaders, including Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.
Organized political parties did not exist, yet two distinct groups of political behavior developed. The dominant style was moderate and stable, exhibited by leaders like Peyton Randolph and George Washington. But also present was an energetic, dramatic style, fueled by a passionate opposition to England. Firebrands like Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson took charge of this camp.
The Stamp Act
Virginia's tranquil self-confidence was shaken by the British Parliament's passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, the first attempt by the mother country to tax the colonies for revenue. The act stunned the American colonists, putting them on the defensive as England tried to override what colonists saw as their right to approve any taxation.
The Virginia legislature sent a firm protest to the king and Parliament, but it fell on deaf ears. In May of 1765, the House of Burgesses denounced the Stamp Act as an illegal infringement of Virginians' basic rights as Britons. A series of bold resolutions against the act were introduced by Patrick Henry at the Capitol in his first session in the House. His call for unconditional resistance made Virginia a leader in opposing the act and led to its repeal early in 1766.
Underlying tensions remained, but the Stamp Act victory restored confidence to the colonies and encouraged Virginia to assume a leading role in upcoming political events.
Relations with England Deteriorate
In 1768, Britain sent Virginia a new governor, Norborne Berkeley, Baron de Botetourt, to administer for the Crown and to bolster its authority in Virginia. The colonists graciously received the prestigious full governor. But although Botetourt was widely respected and well liked, he could not quell the tide of resolutions passed by the burgesses in opposition to additional taxes imposed by the English. He dissolved the House of Burgesses. Undeterred, the legislators assembled privately at the Raleigh Tavern and signed an association against importing a long list of British goods.
Lord Botetourt died the following year. John Murray, the fourth earl of Dunmore, arrived in 1771 to govern the colony. His haughty attitude and unwillingness to associate with the colonists made him unpopular, but no one would have guessed he was to be the last royal governor of Virginia.
The Colonies Unite
Stirrings of independence were spreading throughout the colonies. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry helped set up a Committee of Correspondence to communicate with the other colonies as conflicts with the British escalated.
When Parliament closed the port of Boston in 1774 as a result of the Tea Party, the Virginia burgesses showed their support by observing a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer. Governor Dunmore reacted by angrily dissolving the again-active House of Burgesses, which reconvened at the Raleigh Tavern. There, the burgesses agreed to lobby against British imports and decided to form the Continental Congress with the other colonies to give voice to their grievances.
The Congress met for the first time that year in Philadelphia. In Virginia, the Virginia Convention effectively replaced the function of the House of Burgesses. It sent seven delegates to represent Virginia in Congress: Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Richard Bland, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Harrison, and Edmund Randolph. Because of his experience as Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Peyton Randolph was elected first president of the Continental Congress. Together, the colonies resolved not to pay any kind of tax to the British.
The Governor's Plan Backfires
Circumstances worsened when the British posted one of their warships, the H.M.S. Fowey, in the York River near Williamsburg. For security, the Virginia Convention moved its meeting place from Williamsburg to St. John's Church in Richmond, where Patrick Henry gave his famous oratory: "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
Partly in reaction to Henry's rallying call to arms, Governor Dunmore one night secretly ordered marines from the H.M.S. Magdalen to remove all the public stores of gunpowder that were held in the Magazine for the colony's defense. The scheme was detected, and drums alerted the outraged colonists, who began assembling. Williamsburg's moderate leaders calmed the crowd. A few days later, however, news of battles at Lexington and Concord (outside Boston) added fuel to the fire. Backed by a group of 150 armed volunteers, Patrick Henry began marching toward Williamsburg to demand that Lord Dunmore return the gunpowder or compensate the colony for it. An April 1775 edition of the Virginia Gazette declared, "The Sword is now drawn, and God knows when it will be sheathed."
While Henry and his volunteers waited outside Williamsburg, Governor Dunmore promised to reimburse the colony for the gunpowder. But the colonists' trust was lost. Finally, on June 8, 1775, the governor and his family fled to safety aboard a waiting warship - and the colonists' fight for freedom began.
A Government of Their Own
In May of 1776, the fifth Virginia Convention (which fully replaced the discontinued House of Burgesses) met at the Capitol in Williamsburg and produced a resolution calling on the Continental Congress to declare the American colonies free and independent from England. The resolution, once passed, led to the writing of the Declaration of Independence, which was penned primarily by Thomas Jefferson. It was adopted unanimously by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia.
Back in Virginia, the Virginia Convention had adopted a Declaration of Rights and drafted a plan for state government that evolved into one of the first state constitutions. The Convention elected Patrick Henry the first governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. He moved into the Governor's Palace after a public auction was held to dispose of Lord Dunmore's possessions. The first General Assembly under the new constitution met in October 1776 in Williamsburg.
The Capital Moves to Richmond
When Thomas Jefferson succeeded Patrick Henry as governor, he agreed to move the capital in 1780 to Richmond, a more central and protected location. Williamsburg experienced a short, peaceful interlude before Britain invaded Virginia in full force in 1781.
The War Ends
In June of 1781, Lord Cornwallis and his unified British troops camped in Williamsburg for 10 days, bringing the town into their path of destruction. But by September, the tables had turned, and the Americans and French allies were using Williamsburg as their headquarters. General George Washington stayed at the George Wythe House, while French ally Comte de Rochambeau was at Peyton Randolph's home. Cornwallis, trapped in nearby Yorktown, surrendered on October 19, 1781. The Revolutionary War was over.
With the end of the war came the end of the British claim to what had become the United States of America. The once loyal colonists were now Americans, faced with the responsibility of leading their nation into the future.
The story of Williamsburg did not end after the last shots were fired - it just skipped a century. A new chapter in Williamsburg's history began in 1903 with the first thoughts of restoration.
College of William & Mary
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History of Williamsburg
America's first permanent English settlement was established in Virginia in 1607 on an island in the James River the settlers called Jamestown. The settlement, which is about five miles from present-day Williamsburg, provided a shaky home at best. Conditions there were crude and unstable, and the inhabitants - predominantly young white men working as indentured servants to pay off their passage to the New World - endured hunger, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, Indian hostility, heat, and humidity. The settlement's population had to be continually replenished with "fresh" arrivals from England.
Despite the harsh circumstances, the pioneering colonists stumbled upon success when they discovered the profitability of planting tobacco in the rich soil of the Virginia Tidewater. It was clear to both the colonists and the settlement's private investors back in England that Virginia's future lay in the export of the lucrative crop to Europe.
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