The History of Williamsburg, Virginia

Posted on: March 28, 2018

Williamsburg, Virginia, holds a special place in the history of the United States. Along with its neighbor, Jamestown, Williamsburg is one of the most historic cities in the nation.

Founded in 1607, Jamestown was the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the New World. The first form of representative government in Virginia started in Jamestown with the establishment of the House of Burgesses in 1619.

As it turns out, Jamestown wasn’t the ideal place to settle or put the capital. The seepage of salt from the briny water of the James River and Chesapeake Bay contaminated the settlement’s drinking water. Unhealthy living conditions in Jamestown caused disease, and several fires razed wooden and brick buildings in the capital.

In 1632, the fortified settlement of Middle Plantation sprung up from the wooded terrain just a few miles away. Middle Plantation ideally located on a patch of high ground five miles inland from the James and York rivers.

Moving the Capital from Jamestown to Williamsburg

Settlers changed the name of Middle Plantation to Williamsburg in 1699 to honor of King William III of England, the reigning monarch at the time. Virginia’s first college, William and Mary, also bears the name of the English king and queen. College students at William and Mary suggested moving the capital to Williamsburg after yet another fire burned through Jamestown. The House of Burgess agreed, and named Williamsburg as the capital. Williamsburg would later become the center of political events in Virginia in the years leading to the American Revolution.

Williamsburg served as the capital of the Colony and Commonwealth of Virginia from 1699 to 1780. It became one of the nation’s most important centers of learning, with Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler graduating from William and Mary.

Williamsburg is one of the nation’s first planned cities. Governor Francis Nicholson supervised the planning of Williamsburg, laying out the “new and well-ordered” city in 1699 to make it suitable to serve as the capital of the largest and most populous British colony in America. This planning made it possible for the young city to become the center of politics, economics, society and religious life in Virginia.

City planners built the first capitol building at one end of Duke of Gloucester Street. The College of William and Mary is at the other end of the street.

Williamsburg is home to the first canal built in the United States. In 1771, Virginia’s Royal Governor began building a canal connecting the James River with the York River. The intention was to create a water bridge that would allow boats to cut through the Virginia Peninsula, but builders never completed the project. Visitors can still see remnants of the canal behind the Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg.

Williamsburg is home to the first hospital in North America devoted to caring for patients with mental illness. This innovative and forward-thinking institution admitted its first patient in 1773.

Williamsburg During the American Revolution

Williamsburg became an important city during the quest for American independence from Britain. The Gunpowder Incident began in April of 1775, for example, when Governor Dunmore and Virginia colonists fought over the gunpowder stored in the Williamsburg Magazine. Fearing another rebellion, Dunmore ordered soldiers to seize the gunpowder. Patrick Henry responded to the “theft” of the gunpowder by marching on Williamsburg. A standoff ensued; Dunmore even threatened to destroy Williamsburg if the militia attacked. Fortunately, the two parties resolved the dispute by arranging for payment for the gunpowder.

The Continental Army and French Allied Forces descended upon Williamsburg in September of 1781, as troops prepared for the siege of Yorktown, a decisive battle that led to American independence.

Following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolutionary War broke out. The governor at the time, Thomas Jefferson, urged leaders to move the capital to Richmond. Jefferson was afraid that Williamsburg’s location made it vulnerable to a British attack. The capital moved again in 1780, this time to Richmond where it remains today. Despite losing its status as a capital city, political movers and shakers still held important conventions in Williamsburg.

Williamsburg During the Civil War

Williamsburg remained an important location in American history, especially during the Civil War. The College of William and Mary closed in 1861 for a time, as students left school to fight under the Confederate flag. The Confederate Army used the college building as barracks and later as a hospital. Union forces also used the building as a hospital.

Combat came to the area in May 1862 with the Battle of Williamsburg, which took place in York County, James City County and Williamsburg, Virginia. The clash was the first large battlefield encounter between Confederate and Union forces during the Peninsula Campaign, which was an important part of the American Civil War. The Confederates held off Union soldiers long enough for retreating troops to make it back to Richmond.

When the capital moved to Richmond, Williamsburg turned into a quiet college town and county seat. Many see the loss of its capital city status as the town’s salvation, as several of the magnificent 18th century buildings survived.

Time took its toll, though, and the historic buildings were in need of repair by the early 1900s. Reverend Doctor W. A. R. Goodwin recognized the need to revive the buildings. He secured funding from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and the restoration of Williamsburg began in 1926. Goodwin’s efforts received national attention. During a historic visit in 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt deemed the Duke of Gloucester Street as “the most historic avenue in America.”

This restoration saved the gorgeous buildings we see today. Modern day Williamsburg enjoys an international reputation as the premier center for the preservation and interpretation of the colonial history of America. The College of William and Mary is still a highly regarded educational institution.

Reverend Goodwin intended to save just a few buildings. Eventually, the scope of his renovations expanded to include approximately 85 percent of the 18th-century colonial town. Much of this is now Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum. This massive site features more than forty sites and trades, historic taverns and art museums. Colonial Williamsburg helps visitors take a trip back in time to colonial Williamsburg.

Verena at the Reserve is just a short drive from Colonial Williamsburg and many other historic locations around Williamsburg. This convenient location allows residents and visitors to enjoy the shopping, dining, entertainment, cultural venues and history of the Greater Williamsburg area. Contact us today to schedule a tour of our retirement community.