Williamsburg was founded in 1632 as Middle Plantation as a fortified settlement on high ground between the James and York rivers. The city served as the capital of the Colony of Virginia from 1699 to 1780 and was the center of political events in Virginia leading to the American Revolution. The College of William & Mary, established in 1693, is the second-oldest institution of higher education in the United States; its alumni include three U.S. presidents as well as many other important figures in the nation's early history.
The city's tourism-based economy is driven by Colonial Williamsburg, the restored Historic Area of the city. Along with nearby Jamestown and Yorktown, Williamsburg forms part of the Historic Triangle, which attracts more than four million tourists each year. Modern Williamsburg is also a college town, inhabited in large part by William & Mary students and staff.
Prior to the arrival of the English colonists at Jamestown in the Colony of Virginia in 1607, the area which became Williamsburg was within the territory of the Powhatan Confederacy. By the 1630s, English settlements had grown to dominate the lower (eastern) portion of the Virginia Peninsula, and the Powhatan tribes had abandoned their nearby villages. Between 1630 and 1633, after the war that followed the Indian Massacre of 1622, the English colonists constructed a defensive palisade across the peninsula and a settlement named Middle Plantation as a primary guard station along the palisade.
Jamestown was the original capital of Virginia Colony, but was burned down during the events of Bacon's Rebellion in 1676. As soon as Governor William Berkeley regained control, temporary headquarters for the government to function were established about away on the high ground at Middle Plantation, while the Statehouse at Jamestown was rebuilt. The members of the House of Burgesses discovered that the 'temporary' location was both safer and more pleasant environmentally than Jamestown, which was humid and plagued with mosquitoes.
A school of higher education had long been an aspiration of the colonists. An early attempt at Henricus failed after the Indian Massacre of 1622. The location at the outskirts of the developed part of the colony had left it more vulnerable to the attack. In the 1690s, the colonists tried again to establish a school. They commissioned Reverend James Blair, who spent several years in England lobbying, and finally obtained a royal charter for the desired new school. It was to be named the College of William & Mary in honor of the monarchs of the time. When Reverend Blair returned to Virginia, the new school was founded in a safe place, Middle Plantation in 1693. Classes began in temporary quarters in 1694, and the College Building, a precursor to the Wren Building, was soon under construction.
Williamsburg as capital
Four years later, in 1698, the rebuilt Statehouse in Jamestown burned down again, this time accidentally. The government again relocated 'temporarily' to Middle Plantation, and in addition to the better climate now also enjoyed use of the College's facilities. The College students made a presentation to the House of Burgesses, and it was agreed in 1699 that the colonial capital should be permanently moved to Middle Plantation. A village was laid out and Middle Plantation was renamed Williamsburg in honor of King William III of England, befitting the town's newly elevated status.
Following its designation as the Capital of the Colony, immediate provision was made for construction of a capitol building and for plotting out the new city according to the survey of Theodorick Bland. His design utilized the extant sites of the College and the almost-new brick Bruton Parish Church as focal points, and placed the new Capitol building opposite the College, with Duke of Gloucester Street connecting them.
Alexander Spotswood, who arrived in Virginia as lieutenant governor in 1710, had several ravines filled and streets leveled, and assisted in erecting additional College buildings, a church, and a magazine for the storage of arms. In 1722, the town of Williamsburg was granted a royal charter as a city (now believed to be the oldest charter in the United States).
Middle Plantation was included in James City Shire when it was established in 1634, as the Colony reached a total population of approximately 5,000. (James City and the other shires in Virginia changed their names a few years later; James City Shire then became known as James City County). However, the middle ground ridge line was essentially the dividing line with Charles River Shire, which was renamed York County after King Charles I fell out of favor with the citizens of England. As Middle Plantation and later Williamsburg developed, the boundaries were adjusted slightly. For most of the colonial period, the border between the two counties ran down the center of Duke of Gloucester Street. During this time, and for almost 100 years after the formation of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States, despite practical complications, the town remained divided between the two counties.
Williamsburg was the site of the first attempted canal in the United States. In 1771, Lord Dunmore, who would turn out to be Virginia's last Royal Governor, announced plans to connect Archer's Creek, which leads to the James River with Queen's Creek, leading to the York River. It would have formed a water route across the Virginia Peninsula, but was not completed. Remains of this canal are visible at the rear of the grounds behind the Governor's Palace in Colonial Williamsburg.
The first purpose-built psychiatric hospital in the United States was founded in the city in the 1770s: 'Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds'. Known in modern times as Eastern State Hospital, it was established by Act of the Virginia colonial legislature on June 4, 1770. The Act to 'Make Provision for the Support and Maintenance of Ideots, Lunaticks, and other Persons of unsound Minds' authorized the House of Burgesses to appoint a fifteen-man Court Of Directors to oversee the future hospital’s operations and admissions. In 1771, contractor Benjamin Powell constructed a two-story building on Francis Street near the College, capable of housing twenty-four patients. The design of the grounds included 'yards for patients to walk and take the Air in' as well as provisions for a fence to keep the patients out of the nearby town.
The Gunpowder Incident began in April 1775 as a dispute between Governor Dunmore and Virginia colonists over gunpowder stored in the Williamsburg magazine. Dunmore, fearing rebellion, ordered royal marines to seize gunpowder from the magazine. Virginia militia led by Patrick Henry responded to the 'theft' and marched on Williamsburg. A standoff ensued, with Dunmore threatening to destroy the city if attacked by the militia. The dispute was resolved when payment for the powder was arranged. This was an important precursor in the run-up to the American Revolution.
Following the Declaration of Independence from Britain, the American Revolutionary War broke out in 1776. During the War, the capital of Virginia was moved again, in 1780, this time to Richmond at the urging of then-Governor Thomas Jefferson, who feared Williamsburg's location made it vulnerable to a British attack. However, during the Revolutionary War Williamsburg retained its status as a venue for many important conventions.
Decline and the Civil War
Having lost the Capitol from 1780, Williamsburg was reduced in prominence, although not to the degree Jamestown had previously experienced. Another factor was travel: 18th and early 19th century transportation in the Colony was largely by canals and navigable rivers. As it had been built on 'high ground' Williamsburg was not sited on a major water route, unlike many early communities in the United States. The railroads which began to be built from the 1830s also did not come through the city.
Despite the loss to Williamsburg of the business activity involved in government, the College of William and Mary continued and expanded, as did the Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds, with the latter becoming known as Eastern State Hospital.
At the outset of the American Civil War (1861–1865), enlistments in the Confederate Army depleted the student body of the College of William and Mary and on May 10, 1861 the faculty voted to close the College for the duration of the conflict. The College Building was used as a Confederate barracks and later as a hospital, first by Confederate and later by Union forces.
The Williamsburg area saw combat in the spring of 1862 during the Peninsula Campaign, an effort to take Richmond from the east from a base at Fort Monroe. Throughout late 1861 and early 1862, the small contingent of Confederate defenders was known as the Army of the Peninsula, and led by General John B. Magruder. He successfully created ruses which fooled the invaders as to the size and strength of his forces, and deterred their attack. Their subsequent slow movement up the peninsula gained valuable time for defenses to be constructed at the Confederate capital at Richmond.
In early May 1862, after holding the Union troops off for over a month, the defenders withdrew quietly from the Warwick Line (stretching across the Peninsula between Yorktown and Mulberry Island). As General George McClellan's Union forces crept up the Peninsula to pursue the retreating Confederate forces, a rear guard force led by General James Longstreet and supported by General J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry blocked their westward progression at the Williamsburg Line. This was a series of 14 redoubts east of town, with earthen Fort Magruder (also known as Redoubt # 6) at the crucial junction of the two major roads leading to Williamsburg from the east. The design and construction had been overseen by Benjamin S. Ewell, the President of the College of William and Mary. He owned a farm in James City County, and had been commissioned as an officer in the Confederate Army after the College closed in 1861.
At the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862, the defenders succeeded in delaying the Union forces long enough for the retreating Confederates to reach the outer defenses of Richmond.
A siege of Richmond ensued, culminating in the Seven Days Battles. McClellan's campaign failed to capture Richmond. Meanwhile, on May 6, 1862 Williamsburg had fallen to the Union. The Brafferton building of the College was used for a time as quarters for the commanding officer of the Union garrison occupying the town. On September 9 that year, drunken soldiers of the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry set fire to the College Building, allegedly to prevent Confederate snipers from using it for cover. Much damage was done to Williamsburg during the Union occupation, which lasted until September 1865.
Late 19th century
About 20 years later, in 1881, Collis P. Huntington's Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad (C&O) built its Peninsula Extension through the area, eventually establishing six stations in Williamsburg and the surrounding area. The Peninsula Extension was good news for the farmers and merchants of the Virginia Peninsula, and they generally welcomed the railroad, which aided passenger travel and shipping. Williamsburg allowed tracks to be placed down the main street of town, Duke of Gloucester Street, and even directly through the ruins of the historic capitol building. (They were later relocated, and Collis Huntington's real estate arm, Old Dominion Land Company, eventually donated the historic site to the forerunner of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.)
However, the main business purpose for the new railroad was unquestionably shipping eastbound West Virginia bituminous coal to Newport News. Using the new coal piers, it was loaded aboard large colliers in the harbor of Hampton Roads for shipment to New England and export destinations world wide.
Due in no small part to the tireless efforts of its president, Benjamin Stoddert Ewell, education continued at the College of William and Mary, although teaching was temporarily suspended for financial reasons from 1882 until 1886. Ewell's efforts to restore the historic school and its programs during and after Reconstruction became legendary in Williamsburg and at the College and were ultimately successful, with funding from both the U.S. Congress and the Commonwealth of Virginia. After 1886, the College became a state school. Benjamin Ewell remained in Williamsburg as President Emeritus of the College until his death in 1894.
Beginning in the 1890s, C&O land agent Carl M. Bergh, a Norwegian-American who had earlier farmed in the mid-western states, realized that the gentler climate of eastern Virginia and depressed post-Civil War land prices would be attractive to his fellow Scandinavians who were farming in other northern parts of the country. He began sending out notices, and selling land. Soon there was a substantial concentration of relocated Americans of Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish descent in the area. The location earlier known as Vaiden's Siding on the railroad just west of Williamsburg in James City County, was renamed Norge. These citizens and their descendants found the area conditions favorable as described by Bergh, and many became leading merchants, tradespersons, and farmers in the community. These transplanted Americans brought some new blood and enthusiasm to the old colonial capitol area.
Williamsburg was still a sleepy little town in the early 20th century. Some newer structures were interspersed with colonial-era buildings, but the town was much less progressive than other busier communities of similar size in Virginia. Some local lore indicates that the residents were satisfied with it that way, and longtime Virginia Peninsula journalist, author and historian Parke S. Rouse Jr. has pointed this out in his published work. On June 26, 1912, the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper ran an editorial which dubbed the town 'Lotusburg' for "Tuesday was election day in Williamsburg but nobody remembered it. The clerk forgot to wake the electoral board, the electoral board could not arouse itself long enough to have the ballots printed, the candidates forgot they were running, the voters forgot they were alive."
However, even if such complacency existed, a dream of one Episcopal priest was to expand and change Williamsburg's future thus providing it a new major purpose, turning much of it into a massive living museum. In the early 20th century, one of the largest historic restorations ever undertaken in the US was championed by the Reverend Dr W.A.R. Goodwin of Williamsburg's Bruton Parish Church. Initially, Dr Goodwin had just aimed to save his historic church building. This he accomplished by 1907, in time for the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Episcopal Church in Virginia. However, upon returning to Williamsburg in 1923 after serving a number of years in upstate New York, he realized that many of the other colonial-era buildings which remained were also in deteriorating condition: their survival was at stake.
Goodwin dreamed of a much larger restoration along the lines of what he had accomplished with his historic church. A cleric of modest means, he sought support and financing from a number of sources before successfully attracting the interest and major financial support of Standard Oil heir and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Their combined efforts created Colonial Williamsburg, involving restoration of much of the downtown Williamsburg area and the creation of a Historic Area, celebrating the patriots and the early history of America.
Today, Colonial Williamsburg is Virginia's largest tourist attraction (based upon attendance) and is the cornerstone of the Historic Triangle with Jamestown and Yorktown joined by the Colonial Parkway. In the 21st century, Williamsburg has continued to update and refine its attractions. There are more features designed to attract modern children and to offer better and additional interpretation of the African-American experience in the town. A century after Dr. Goodwin's work began, this masterpiece of Virginia and United States history remains a remarkable work-in-progress.
In addition to the Historic Area of Colonial Williamsburg, the city's railroad station was restored to become an intermodal passenger facility (see Transportation section below). Nearby in James City County, the old ca. 1908 C&O Railway combination passenger and freight station at Norge was preserved and with a donation from CSX Transportation was relocated in 2006 to a site at the Croaker Branch of the Williamsburg Regional Library. Other landmarks outside the historic area include Carter's Grove and Gunston Hall.
The third of three debates between Republican President Gerald Ford and Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter was held at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall at The College of William & Mary on October 22, 1976. Perhaps in tribute to the debate’s historic venue, as well as to the United States Bicentennial celebration, both candidates spoke of a "new spirit" in America.
The 9th G7 Summit was held in Williamsburg in 1983. The summit participants discussed the growing debt crisis, arms control and greater co-operation between the Soviet Union and the G7 (now the G8). At the end of the meeting, Secretary of State George P. Shultz read to the press a statement confirming the deployment of American Pershing II-nuclear rockets in West Germany later in 1983.
On May 3, 2007 Britain's Queen Elizabeth II visited Jamestown and Williamsburg, Va. Her previous visit to Williamsburg had been in 1957. Many world leaders, including US President George W. Bush, visited Jamestown to mark the celebration of its 400th anniversary, having been founded on May 3, 1607. The celebration began in part in 2005 with events leading up to the anniversary, and was celebrated statewide throughout 2007, though the official festivities took place during the first week of May.