Colonial Williamsburg


Colonial Williamsburg is the restored and reconstructed historic area of Williamsburg, Virginia, a small city between the York and James rivers that was founded in 1632, designated capital of the English colony in 1698, and bestowed with a royal charter in 1722. It was a center of political activity before and during the American Revolution (1775–1783)—where George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry debated taxes, slavery, and the inalienable rights of men—and has since become the site of an ambitious restoration project launched in the 1930s and funded largely by the family of John D. Rockefeller Jr. With many of its historic structures rebuilt and with “interpreters” reenacting eighteenth-century life, Colonial Williamsburg has become a landmark in the history of the American preservation movement. More than that, though, the project serves as a self-conscious shrine of American ideals. The history and legacy of slavery, once downplayed at Williamsburg, is now dealt with openly—interpreters are both white and African American—but the focus remains on what the site’s originators called “healthful” information about democracy, freedom, and representative government.


W. A. R. Goodwin and John D. Rockefeller

Colonial Williamsburg was the brainchild of the Reverend William Archer Rutherfoord Goodwin. Once rector of the historic Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Goodwin had been responsible for raising the funds for its restoration in 1907. In 1924, he approached the philanthropist and oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr. with the idea of restoring other parts of the town. Rockefeller agreed, and with cloak-and-dagger secrecy began purchasing run-down properties using Goodwin as his agent. The two communicated in coded telegrams lest locals discover the plan and hike their prices. “Authorize purchase of another antique referred to in your long letter,” Rockefeller wrote to Goodwin at one point, signing off as “David’s father.” The historian Henry Wiencek has noted the “astonishment of Williamsburg’s citizens … when they found that the illustrious Rockefeller was the eminence behind these purchases.”

Official planning for Colonial Williamsburg began in 1926, and the town was finally informed of the project in June 1928. Their objections were minimal, although one townsperson memorably chafed at the idea of being “in the position of a butterfly pinned to a card in a glass cabinet.” Restoration eventually encompassed 85 percent of Williamsburg’s original eighteenth-century area, with more than seven hundred buildings that postdated 1790 being demolished. The site stretches across 301 acres.

Rockefeller, Goodwin, and their associates described the new Colonial Williamsburg “as a shrine of history and beauty” that would be “dedicated to the lives of the nation’s builders.” “There will be windows built here,” they declared, “through which men may look down the vistas of the past.” Their vision stressed the importance of the democratic ideal, promoting an almost religious message that not only heightened patriotic feeling, but was also the main educational purpose behind the project’s conception. Ideals of classical American values were placed in the forefront, along with an attempt at scholarly recreation of the town’s buildings.

The Bodleian Plate

Yet many aspects of social history, most notably the role of African Americans, were not fully explored until the 1970s and 1980s. When Colonial Williamsburg first opened to the public, slavery was diminished, enslaved people were referred to as “servants,” and Black historical interpreters were absent. (African American interpreters first portrayed enslaved laborers in 1979.) Missing as well was an informed understanding of the role that women played in the eighteenth-century town. With its emphasis on wealthy white men, early Colonial Williamsburg presented a point of view that many modern historians would regard as severely limited.

Rockefeller’s historical vision, steeped as it was in sentimental patriotism and nostalgia for better times, was typical of its day. Unsettling economic and social change following the World War I (1914–1918) tended to elicit strong expressions of national identity among Americans, Colonial Williamsburg serving as but one of them. The rigid hierarchy of the Old South, coupled with the Founding Fathers’ brightly delineated principles of freedom and liberty, provided the foundation of a comforting narrative. And it was a narrative best left undisturbed by nettlesome questions over, say, Thomas Jefferson and his “property.”

Rockefeller and Goodwin, through the architecture firm of Perry, Shaw & Hepburn, applied intense attention to detail in their restoration efforts. Furnishings, houses, and gardens were all copied exactly from colonial styles and came to represent a kind of symbiosis between those suffering the brunt of the Great Depression and those who had endured the hardships of the American Revolution a century and a half earlier. People were urged to make pilgrimages to the shrine for inspiration during the bleak years of the 1930s, further reinforcing the restoration’s curative powers on a nation that had lost direction and perhaps the will to carry on its “noble experiment.”

World War II and the Cold War

Ruins of Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg served a similar purpose during World War II (1939–1945) and then the Cold War. In the 1950s, John D. Rockefeller III promoted a “dynamic Americanism,” which sought not only to educate against the evils of communism but also to promote American ideals of democracy and republican government around the world. In doing so, he clearly broke from his father’s original wish that Colonial Williamsburg do its work peacefully and quietly, without undue ostentation. Although Rockefeller eventually resigned as chairman of the board, his “dynamic” vision of the project took hold. A Visitors Center was built, busses began to ferry passengers to and from the historic district, and Colonial Williamsburg emerged as a popular tourist destination for history-seeking Americans. Foreign visitors, both prominent and ordinary, also came to Colonial Williamsburg in larger numbers during the 1950s. Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, and the Crown Prince of Japan all toured the town, and the U.S. State Department began regularly to include Williamsburg, along with Jamestown and Yorktown, as a stopping-off point in tours for foreign dignitaries.

By late in the 1960s and early in the 1970s, the programming at Colonial Williamsburg still did not reflect a sophisticated understanding of the many different groups that had once inhabited the former capital—men, women, Black, white, Indian, enslaved, indentured, and free—and how they had interacted. In particular, officials were concerned that an overt promotion of African American history would be bad for business in the South. Nevertheless, a growing number of visitors (Black and white) began to question the absence, wondering how the fullest narrative of American life could be told without greater attention to slavery. And although academics had widely published the appropriate research, Williamsburg’s caretakers pretended not to notice.

Reconstruction of the Governor's Palace

The same thing had occurred thirty years earlier. “Colonial Williamsburg at first presented the rosiest possible view of slavery,” Wiencek wrote, “even though the Reverend Goodwin himself knew precisely what slavery had been like in the town.” That’s because a formerly enslaved woman still lived there then, and Goodwin took the trouble of interviewing her. She told him of whipping posts, “a big cage … which they put you in before they whipped you,” and slave auctions where families were separated.

The Emergence of Social History

Things finally changed following lower-than-expected attendance during the bicentennial celebrations of 1976. The next year, Colonial Williamsburg moved to present an updated and more socially oriented version of colonial history through the leadership of the Harvard-educated historian Cary Carson. Calling his approach “Becoming Americans,” Carson attempted to integrate social history with the town’s traditional presentation of political history. For instance, a tour called “According to the Ladies” introduced visitors to the lives of Williamsburg women. Historical interpreters began to portray enslaved people for the first time, and in 1988 slave cabins were reconstructed at Carter’s Grove, an eighteenth-century plantation about five miles outside of Williamsburg.

Raleigh Tavern and Colonial Coach

We’re going to have to show rebellion, violence and racism in a way we haven’t done at Williamsburg,” Rex Ellis, the assistant director of African American interpretation for Colonial Williamsburg, told the New York Times at the time. “How we do that is extremely important. We must be true to the record or we stand in danger of rewriting history ourselves. The subject of slavery is certainly painful, which is one of the reasons it needs to be dealt with. We need to learn from all of history, including the uncomfortable parts of history.”

This attitude certainly marked a sea change at Colonial Williamsburg, but sometimes efforts at social history became too uncomfortable. An attempt to reenact an eighteenth-century slave auction, which included the separation of families, led to such intense reactions on the parts of staff, participants, and visitors that the event was never repeated.

Modern Challenges

Reenactors at Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg had one of its most successful years in 1985, but as the town entered the mid-to-late 1990s, attendance began to drop. Tight family budgets played a part, as did the perception that Colonial Williamsburg’s presentation had grown stale. Another argument for the decline was that some programs, such as the more realistic portrayals of slavery, had pushed visitors away. The “violence and racism” alluded to by Ellis, not to mention the traumas of slave auctions, were not considered family friendly.

Attendance dipped further following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Fewer visitors meant fewer historical interpreters and fewer employees overall, so that by 2004, Colonial Williamsburg almost resembled a ghost town. The project’s response to this new crisis was the “Revolutionary City.” In a form of street theater, historical interpreters portray social and political events in Williamsburg, focusing on the years 1774 to 1781. The town’s historical landmarks, once only static museum pieces, become sets in an ongoing drama. In the meantime, Colonial Williamsburg has expanded the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, installed electronic classrooms for students, built a spa, and newly renovated its hotels and restaurants, turning the town into a kind of American history resort. The result has been a slight increase in attendance.

All of these changes have reshaped Colonial Williamsburg for its new role in the twenty-first century. While politics and “healthful” history are still the focus, Colonial Williamsburg now seeks to present the lives of the average men and women who lived in and around Virginia’s colonial capital. In this way, the modern Colonial Williamsburg tells a more complete story of the eighteenth century than it did in its early days. While it no longer precisely mirrors the dream of its founders, it provides the modern visitor with a fuller educational experience, one that lets them better appreciate the men and women who helped to forge the United States.

The city of Williamsburg is founded between the York and James rivers.
Williamsburg is designated capital of the English colony.
Williamsburg is bestowed with a royal charter.
Reverend William Archer Rutherfoord Goodwin approaches philanthropist and oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr. to procure funds for the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.
Official planning for Colonial Williamsburg begins.
June 1928
Residents of Williamsburg are informed of official planning for Colonial Williamsburg and of the project's financing through John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Colonial Williamsburg celebrates the nation's bicentennial year. Due to lower-than-expected attendance, the following year would mark a change to incorporate an updated and more socially oriented version of colonial history, allowing for elaboration on the position of marginalized parties, under the leadership of historian Cary Carson.
Slave cabins are reconstructed at Carter's Grove, an eighteenth-century plantation about five miles outside of Williamsburg.
  • Greenspan, Anders. Creating Colonial Williamsburg. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.
  • Handler, Richard, and Eric Gable. The New History in an Old Museum. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.
  • Huxtable, Ada Louise. The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion. New York: The New Press, 1997.
  • Kopper, Philip. Colonial Williamsburg. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1986.
  • Rouse, Park, Jr. Remembering Williamsburg: A Sentimental Journey through Three Centuries. Richmond, Va.: Dietz Press, 1989.
  • Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
APA Citation:
Greenspan, Anders. Colonial Williamsburg. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/colonial-williamsburg.
MLA Citation:
Greenspan, Anders. "Colonial Williamsburg" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2023, March 06
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