Living History: Williamsburg, Virginia

Author: Alecia Pirulis  

Colonial Williamsburg

As you stroll down a narrow, brick-paved sidewalk past a white picket fence barely containing a riot of colorful blooms from well-tended gardens, a horse-drawn carriage complete with a driver in a tri-corner hat ambles down the quiet, shady street. A group of women wander out of a wood-framed shop dressed in bustled skirts and bonnets while soldiers carrying bayonets tip their hats in greeting. You may feel as though you’ve stepped through a portal and landed in the 18th century. But no … you’ve discovered Williamsburg, Virginia.

The Virginia Colony was established in 1607 and the first capital was Jamestown. In 1699, the Virginia Assembly decided to move the capital five miles inland. A new town was laid out – the first planned city in the New World. To honor King William III, the settlement was renamed Williamsburg. In 1780, the capital was moved again – this time to Richmond – because the location of Williamsburg made it vulnerable to attack during the American Revolution. Williamsburg was all but forgotten, morphing from busy capital to a sleepy, rural college town (the College of William and Mary was founded in 1693). Because the capital was moved and growth in Williamsburg slowed substantially, many of the city’s 18th-century buildings were able to survive.

Shoemaker in Colonial WilliamsburgColonial Williamsburg is a National Historic Landmark District, featuring buildings dating from 1699 to 1780. The 300-acre historic district is a living-history museum, and the interpreters not only dress and work as they would have during the colonial period – they even use 18th-century diction and grammar. Colonial Williamsburg is a huge tourist attraction, filled with museums, historic taverns, one-of-a-kind shops, theatrical performances, gardens, and guided tours of original 18th-century buildings. Evening events include ghost tours and talks of witch trials.

Williamsburg, along with nearby Jamestown and Yorktown, form the Historic Triangle of Colonial Virginia. The Colonial Parkway links the three historic locations. This amazing stretch of parkway is impossibly scenic, meant to transport visitors back in time – there are no buildings, roadside gift shops, or billboards along the Colonial Parkway. It is also free of trucks and is a National Scenic Byway and an All-American Road.

Each of the three points in the Triangle is historically significant. Yorktown is where General Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington in 1781, ending the American Revolution.  Jamestown, the first English settlement in the New World, is an important archaeological site, with the discovery of the original 1607 James Fort being discovered in the 1990s. The archaeological work is ongoing, and visitors to the historic site can tour the archaeological museum and view the remains. They can also watch the archaeologists at work. Jamestown is where Captain John Smith encountered the Powhatan Confederacy and was spared his life when Pocahontas saved him from certain death at the hand of her father, the chief.

While Williamsburg is a national treasure and its place in history is significant, Williamsburg is also a progressive, modern city with a strong economy and plenty of opportunity. In fact, Smithsonian.com recently named Williamsburg number three in its list of America’s Best Small Towns. Williamsburg may be a living testament to America’s beginnings, but it is also home to art galleries, a Saturday farmer’s market, concerts, wine tastings, shops, theaters, and festivals. Surround yourself in history – rent an apartment in Williamsburg and enjoy all this dynamic, fascinating city has to offer.