Above photo: Capitol building at Williamsburg, Duke of Gloucester Street. Courtesy Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress. Right: Old Capitol Building and Church, Williamsburg, Unknown original source. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
It's funny. Williamsburg, which, from a historical perception standpoint, is likely thought of as a colonial capitol associated, in some manner with Jamestown, but we're not sure how. If we consider its history, it's likely because Colonial Williamsburg, which many think of as a theme park, is the historical site that many visit on their way east from Richmond as they visit Jamestown and Yorktown. But Williamsburg is a whole lot more than those perceptions, and despite the accuracy and colonial fun of Colonial Williamsburg, which is not a theme park, it's a whole lot more history than that, too. For many of those in the Washington and East Coast area, it's probably about time you chose not to bypass the triangle of history in this area on your way to other points south, and find out just how much of interest there is to do here, and about the secondary, but largely unkown history of the large Civil War battle that took place in Williamsburg.
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Founded in 1632 as a fortified settlement on high ground between the York and James River, it was first known as Middle Plantation. The plantation and palisade were built after the Indian Massacre of 1622 to protect settlements on the peninsula, including Jamestown, which had been spared, constructing a defensive guard station against another attack by the Powhatan Confederacy. That worked for forty years, until Bacon's Rebellion, a settler attack against the governor, not an Indian revolt, destroyed Jamestown, the Colony of Virginia capitol. Governor Berkeley, against whom the attack had been waged, moved the capitol to Middle Plantation temporarily. Twenty years later, it would become the permanent capitol.
In 1699, a town at Middle Plantation was laid out and renamed Williamsburg. The new capitol was built opposite William and Mary College, which had been founded in 1693, down Duke of Gloucester Street. It would remain the capitol until 1780 during the American Revolution, when, at the urging of then Governor Thomas Jefferson, it was moved to Richmond.
Williamsburg, outside the college, diminished in importance after losing its capitol status, but came back to historic prominence in a lesser known battle of the Civil War. On May 5, 1862, prior to the Seven Days Battles of the Peninsula Campaign, forty-one thousand Union troops fought thirty-two thousand Confederates forces at Fort McGruder, with limited success. The Confederates continued a withdraw toward Richmond, but the delaying action of the battle, assisted in the success of the Confederate army halting the Peninsula Campaign advance to take the capital of Richmond, which would not occur until three years later. This battle was no small affair, with casualties for the Union at 2,283, and the Confederates, at 1,682.
Image above: Etching of Williamsburg Buildings, Plants, and Natives, 1740-1770, attributed to John Bartram. Courtesy Library of Congress. Photo below: Courthouse in Colonial Williamsburg, 2007, Albert Herring. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
The site of the capitol has been restored by a private foundation and is what most think of as Colonial Williamsburg today. It is a living history museum, not a National Park Service, site, and can be visited for free, although you can not participate in activities or go inside without paying the fee. It includes over three hundred acres of historic buildings, reconstructions, and museums that tell the story of Williamsburg and the colony of Virginia. The foundation which runs the site was initially funded by the Rockefeller family and later the DeWitt Wallace family of Reader's Digest fame.
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Things You Should Not Miss
1. Stop in first at the Visitor Center. There's a movie to get you oriented called Williamsburg, the Story of a Patriot, then decide just how you want to tackle the buildings and sites of Colonial Williamsburg. You can wander the town on your own for free, but you have to pay to participate in the activities or visit the buildings.
2. Although not everyone will appreciate an artistic foray, more and more visitors to Williamsburg spend time in its two museums; the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Museum of Decorative Arts.
3. Take a self-guided walking tour of William and Mary College. Be respectful to the students and activities there. It's the second oldest college in the USA.
4. Check into the second most important historic event in Williamsburg by visiting the Battle of Williamsburg battlefield. Right now, there's no coordinated site, with some of it part of Colonial Parkway, owned by the National Park Service, other owned by Anheuser Busch, and sixty-nine acres, with more on the way, owned by the Civil War Trust and others. There are interpretive signs at the site of Fort McGruder on Penniman Road, east of Williamsburg.
Photo above: Drawing of the capitol Williamsburg, 1936, Elizabeth O'Neill Verner. Courtesy Library of Congress.