I spent some of last week on business travel to Williamsburg, Virginia. Unfortunately I was stuck in a conference room for most of the time but I did manage to make it out to the historic sites for a few brief moments. Geography made Williamsburg the capital of the Virginia Colony and geography later took that designation away.
This is a panoramic view from the center of the Palace Green. The shot starts with the Governor’s Palace and then pans over to the Elkanah Deane House and past the Wythe House before completing the circle.
Colonial Williamsburg is a historic reinterpretation of the city that once served as the Virginia Colony’s capital from 1699 to 1780. Iconic American thinkers including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and Patrick Henry walked these streets and occupied these buildings while they represented their constituencies back home. Here they discussed issues, debated philosophies and defined the concepts that would influence democracy throughout the Commonwealth and into the fledgling United States.
The capital moved here originally to from escape malaria and other diseases that bedeviled the Jamestown settlement. Williamsburg served its purpose for close to a hundred years until its location also became a liability, and the capital moved once again. Geographically, Williamsburg sits along the spine of the Virginia Peninsula a few miles from both the York and the James Rivers. It was a great spot for removing oneself from the swampy, low-lying riverbeds that bred mosquitoes and harbored waterborne disease, but it was not so secure from marauding armies. There was grave concern that British troops could sail up either river, march a couple of miles, and sack the Virginia capital during the Revolutionary War. For security reasons, Virginia moved its capital moved 55 miles west to Richmond and it never returned.
View Larger Map
Williamsburg sits close to two major rivers, leaving it vulnerable to attack during the Revolutionary War
Williamsburg could have been left behind by time, it’s role fading in the collective historical memory. That’s not inconceivable. It’s has happened to other old capital cities including some I’ve described before: Kaskaskia, Illinois and Belmont, Wisconsin for example have all but fallen off the map. Railways and commerce bypassed Williamsburg. Many of its historic structures decayed during a century of neglect. Williamsburg did have the College of William & Mary though, and that provided enough of a spark to hold the town together and keep it going after the capitol moved.
The Colonial Williamsburg Courthouse on a beautiful Fall day
It would have been a shame if something so important, so historic had been allowed to disappear. Fortunately many forward-looking people including members of the Rockefeller family realized the possibilities starting with the early 20th Century. Surviving buildings have been restored to their original condition, or as close as could be reasonably determined. Other buildings were recreated from scratch to fill the gaps in accordance with historic architectural practices. Interpreters in colonial garb work throughout the area, anxious to educate the public. Everything is designed to give visitors a sense of what it must have been like to live in Williamsburg in those years leading up to the Revolutionary War, when the ideas of democracy flowed freely among its inhabitants.