Happy Independence Day! Or as some might call it, Treason Day! In honor of July 4th, here’s a Monday Throwback to my first visit to Williamsburg, VA, the Colonial Capitol!
Originally published on 17 August 2012.
Good day to you! In an effort to visit the major Colonial sites around the former British colonies, my friend Alexis and I have chosen to take on Williamsburg! I found a hotel deal online, so there was really no reason not to do it. Alexis and I work together at Gadsby’s Tavern, an early American restaurant in Alexandria, and we’re both kind of into this whole Colonial thing. First up, a tour with a fantastic guide! He took us all over Williamsburg for two solid hours, and we loved every minute of it! He wore us out walking for sure, but it was well worth the time.
First essential discovery: Why does Williamsburg still exist? It was such a tremendous undertaking. Because John D. Rockefeller chose to start a foundation to restore it in the late 1920s. He was asked to give money to restore Bruton Parish Episcopal Church, but he declined because he had a different suggestion: he proposed that all citizens sell their homes and property to a foundation he would create (the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation), with the benefit of living in their homes for the rest of their lives, mortgage free. Pretty sweet deal! Not all the homes were still the original 18th century homes by the 1920s, but a few of them were. So the foundation required that any newer homes be torn down so that the 1770s home that was there before could be built in its place. How do we know what the original homes looked like?
It’s all thanks to the Frenchman’s map. Who’s the Frenchman? He was a recovering soldier living in the William and Mary College president’s house. He couldn’t do much of anything during recovery, but he could be outside, and he could draw! So he sketched every house in Williamsburg. Without the map he made, no would would have been able to restore Williamsburg quite the way it needed to be done!
All but one of the homes have been restored to the 1770s style. It’s a 19th century building, and the owner still lives in it–at 105! Whenever she dies, the house will be torn down and a “new” historically accurate building will be put in its place.
There’s another home in town that I found very interesting. It’s a restored “mother-in-law house” out behind one of the bigger homes, and it’s always occupied by two senior women from William and Mary. It’s an honor to be chosen to live there, but you have to bear a couple of things in mind: It’s an original home over 400 years old (heated by firewood, no a/c), and the necessary (toilet) is outside!
Colonial Williamsburg was smaller than I expected, but that made for a much easier way to see things and make sure nothing is missed. They’ve really done a remarkable job of keeping things as authentic as possible. Even their trash cans are old barrels (or “hog’s heads”) that were used to ship things back and forth between VA and England.
Walking along we came upon another interesting abode. A substantially sized house on the main road, within sight of the Governor’s Palace, no less. A well-to-do family lived there, a man and wife and their four children. Unfortunately, two of the children died at young ages, and the husband died at age 28 from typhoid fever. Of course the woman lives in mourning for a year, which was the custom, and the three of them move on, still living in the house. One day, however, a young Colonel met this beautiful woman and even called on her at this house. Eventually, they married and became General and Mrs. George Washington. A lovely story, to be sure!
And just across the street we came to Bruton Parish Episcopal Church, the prominent church in the area. People still worship there weekly (including the 105 year old woman I mentioned earlier), and it’s quite a pretty church inside. Martha’s first husband and two children are buried in the cemetery there, along with John Tyler and his family—including the housekeeper slave, Mammy Sarah. Up in the balconies, we saw where the slaves sat to one side, but the back balcony was the interesting part. That’s where the college students (including Thomas Jefferson) sat… along with prisoners awaiting execution! Prisoners were required to go to church so they’d have a chance to repent, but also so they could pump the pipe organ. You see, the jail keeper was also the organ player. Even the Colonial Capitol operated as a small town once.
Down the street a few blocks, we stopped in front of George Wythe’s house. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, as well as the very first law professor in North America. John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson were among his most influential students! He was an interesting character who enjoyed good health and made it to an old age. When asked how he did it, he credited his health to his daily morning ritual. He would stand outside on his back porch, buck naked, and a couple of servants would pour cold well water on him. Yes, this even happened in January. How did he avoid pneumonia? I have no idea!
And up next came Alexis’s and my favorite part: the stocks and the pillory! I found out some useful information there. The pillory is the thing that I believe most people think are the stocks. It’s the contraption that locks you in by your head and arms, and actually your ear got nailed to the board as well, to ensure pain and maximum mobility restriction. Ouch! It was also pretty much reserved for men.
The stocks, on the other hand, were used for women. This only restricts your feet, and possibly the arms as well, but ladies would be sitting down. If you were in either place, you’d be spat upon, insulted, embarrassed, and have rotten fruit and vegetables thrown at you. And if you were convicted of a crime such as theft, adultery, manslaughter, etc., you’d also be branded in the right palm with the first letter of the crime you committed (A for adultery, T for theft, etc.). So, whenever you came on trial for a crime, you would raise your right hand to swear you’d tell the truth–and people could see that you had already committed a crime! If you committed the same crime twice, you were hanged—no questions asked. So that’s why we still raise our right hands—so people could see whether or not you had previously been convicted of a crime!
A bit further down, we came up Mr. Peyton’s house. Peyton was the president of the Continental Congress in 1776, but on the way to Philadelphia to consider the Declaration of Independence, the 350 lb man suffered a stroke and died. John Hancock was the next in line, so that’s how he came to be the first one to sign the Declaration and why we still talk about signing your “John Hancock” in reference to your signature!
As a first-timer, I didn’t realize Thomas Jefferson was such a huge player in Williamsburg, but boy did I learn a lot about him down there! He went to the College of William and Mary and eventually became governor in 1780. He’s also the whole reason the VA capitol moved from Williamsburg to Richmond. It is said that when the woman he loved refused his proposal there, he came to call the city “Devilsburg” and started to hate the place. He convinced people that Richmond would be a much safer place for the state capitol, and it’s still there to this day!
On we went… We passed the Kings Arms Tavern, which was at one point also called Eagle Tavern and was run by a woman, Mrs. Jane Vobe. Alexis and I ended up eating lunch there and taking notes on Taverning!
Our last stop was the capitol building, where Blackbeard’s crew was tried and convicted of piracy! Our guide told us that each of the 13 convicted pirates were holed up in the city gaol (or jail), and one was hanged each day for 13 days; all of them stayed strung up on the tree until the last one was hanged. Each day, the casket maker would send over a casket with one of the pirates’ names on it. They would have to carry their own casket to a cart and sit on it for the ride to the hanging tree. Wow.
Our trip has just begun! Come back for more patriotic antics in the Colonial Capitol!