Author: Katherine Egner Gruber

a historian and museum professional in Williamsburg.

Williamsburg during the Colonial Period

Williamsburg was the capital of the Virginia colony from 1699 until 1779. Plotted on land first used by Virginia Indians, it was settled by the English during and just after the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632) and called Middle Plantation, for its location equidistant between the York and James rivers. In subsequent years, wealth and political prestige gradually shifted upriver from the first seat of English government, at Jamestown, and talk of moving the capital gained momentum during Bacon’s Rebellion (1676–1677), when rebels burned the statehouse. The Crown did not agree to move the capital until after the establishment of the College of William and Mary at Middle Plantation, in 1693, and another fire at the statehouse, in 1698. In 1699, Middle Plantation became Williamsburg, after King William III, and the colony’s new capital. At the behest of the General Assembly, officials laid out streets and began building a new statehouse. Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood oversaw the construction of a powder magazine (1715), the enlargement of Bruton Parish Church (1715), a public theater (1718), and the completion of the Governor’s Palace (1722). When the statehouse burned and smallpox hit in 1748, officials briefly considered, but then rejected, the idea of moving the capital, paving the way for a boom in building and population growth. During the American Revolution (1775–1783), Virginia’s royal governor dissolved the General Assembly and fled the city. After British troops invaded Virginia in 1779, Governor Thomas Jefferson moved the capital to Richmond.


Clothing and Adornment of Enslaved People in Virginia

The clothing and adornment of enslaved people varied across time and across Virginia. In West Africa, where many enslaved people came from, clothing was minimal, and even that was generally stripped from newly enslaved people. In Virginia, enslaved people were outfitted with European clothing they often found to be constricting and uncomfortable. The fabrics tended to be inferior, with enslavers using whatever was most cost-effective. Homespun Virginia cloth and imported osnaburg fabric (made from flax and hemp) were common in the eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century, with the rise of cotton production and industrialization, jean cloth became more common and allowed ensalvers to provide clothing that was untailored and ready-made. The most common practice was to distribute clothes in twice-a-year allotments, with liveried (uniformed) and domestic enslaved laborers receiving higher-quality clothing than field hands, who wore the plainest and coarsest clothing. Children wore simple gowns. Boys transitioned to breeches, or short pants, and then to long pants, and girls wore adult dresses when they began to menstruate. Plain leather shoes and sometimes hats also were included in allotments, while women, reflecting West African traditions, sometimes wore cloth head wraps. To aid in running away, some enslaved people stole better clothes while others saved money and purchased or, in some instances, earned better attire.