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.

Establishment of Middle Plantation

The land that eventually became Williamsburg was first utilized by at least two groups that were part of Tsenacomoco, a paramount chiefdom of Algonquian-speaking Indians led, until 1618, by Powhatan. The Paspahegh Indians, whose village was located six miles upriver from Jamestown, and the Chiskiack Indians, who lived on the York River, likely shared the territory’s resources. Then on March 22, 1622, the Indian leader Opechancanough led a series of coordinated surprise attacks that concentrated on settlements northwest of Jamestown and succeeded in killing nearly a third of the English population. During and after the subsequent Second Anglo-Powhatan War, a fortified English settlement inland and upriver from Jamestown was seen as necessary to defend against such attacks. On February 1, 1632, the General Assembly passed “An act for the Seatinge of the middle Plantation,” which ordered every fortieth man subject to a tithe, or tax to support the church, to take part in the construction of a palisade around “the forrest conteyned between Queenes creeke in Charles river, and Archers Hope creeke in James river.” The name Middle Plantation came from its location equidistant between the York and James rivers.

The wall was completed in 1634, and the settlement soon attracted new colonists, who lived both inside and outside the palisade. John Page, who arrived at Middle Plantation in 1662, built one of its first brick homes. Thomas Ludwell, then secretary of the colony, soon followed, along with other influential men. As the historian Jennifer Agee Jones has noted, “with men of prominence and wealth clustered in Middle Plantation, it is not surprising that, by 1676, the settlement was considered a place of importance.”

Bacon’s Rebellion

Jamestown had been the seat of English government and power in Virginia since it was founded in 1607. Despite a gradual shift of wealth and influence to Middle Plantation, the idea of moving the capital did not take hold until Bacon’s Rebellion. Using Middle Plantation as their base of operations, rebels under Nathaniel Bacon waged war against Governor Sir William Berkeley, and on the night of September 19, 1676, burned nearly all of Jamestown, including the statehouse.

With nowhere for the government to function, many colonial officials soon began lobbying to move the capital from Jamestown to Middle Plantation; however, the Crown was not keen to move the capital away from the James River. Instead, the General Assembly received instructions from London that “Jamestown be rebuilt and be the Metropolis of Virginia as the most ancient and convenient place.”

Middle Plantation and its environs, meanwhile, still thrived, as prominent members of the colony built their homes in what Nathaniel Bacon had called “the very heart and center of the country.” These homes, such as Berkeley’s Greenspring Plantation, outside Jamestown, and Otho Thorpe‘s residence, served as temporary meeting spaces for the General Assembly as Jamestown’s statehouse was rebuilt. In 1677, the vestry of Bruton Parish voted to consolidate the three parishes of Marston, Middle Plantation, and Harop into Bruton Parish, and, according to vestry records, resolved “to build a new church with brick at the Middle Plantation.” Middle Plantation was also the site of two important treaties between the English and the Indians: the Treaty of Middle Plantation was signed in 1677 and was revised and signed again in 1680.

Perhaps the most important factor of Middle Plantation’s development and the eventual shift of the capital away from Jamestown was the charter of the College of William and Mary, dated February 8, 1693. The General Assembly agreed that Middle Plantation was “the most convenient and proper” location for the college, and ordered that it be built “as neare the church now standing in Middle Plantation … as convenience will permit.” The main building of the College of William and Mary, which later became known as the Wren Building, was constructed between 1695 and 1699.

The Capital Moves

Reverend James Blair

As Middle Plantation continued to develop, Jamestown met with further troubles. Not long after the new statehouse was completed, it was again destroyed by fire on October 20, 1698. This time the outcry to move the capital away from Jamestown had two key champions: Francis Nicholson and the Reverend James Blair. Nicholson had served briefly as lieutenant governor of Virginia (1690–1692), and was a cofounder, with Blair, of the College of William and Mary. While governor of Maryland (1694–1698), he had successfully moved the capital of that colony from Saint Mary’s City to Annapolis in 1695, and been responsible for laying out the new capital city. After being appointed governor of Virginia in 1698, Nicholson continued to be a key supporter of the College of William and Mary and, by extension, Middle Plantation.

Blair, meanwhile, used his position as president of the college to gain influence over the House of Burgesses, and on May Day 1699 five students presented orations to the House—written by Blair and Nicholson for the purposes of lobbying the burgesses—extolling the benefits of moving the capital to Middle Plantation. One student pointed to the evolution of Middle Plantation as a developing and viable locality, boasting “a Church, an ordinary, several stores, two Mills, a smiths shop a Grammar School, and above all the Colledge.” Blair and Nicholson’s plan worked. On June 7, 1699, the General Assembly passed “an Act directing the Building of the Capitoll and the City of Williamsburgh,” naming the new capital after King William III.

Building the New Capital

William Duke of Gloucester.

Soon after the General Assembly voted to establish a new capital at Williamsburg, Nicholson undertook a massive public building campaign. Theodorick Bland conducted a survey and divided the land into half-acre lots, setting some aside for public buildings and green space. The College of William and Mary was already established on the city’s west end. The Duke of Gloucester Street—named for William, Duke of Gloucester, the son of the future Queen Anne and the cousin of King William III—was expanded from a horse path to a ninety-nine-foot-wide street that connected the college to the new capitol building (completed in 1704 when the government began functioning in that space) and brick jail (the Public Gaol) one mile to the east. While taverns and storefronts appeared on the Duke of Gloucester Street to support those workers involved in construction efforts, construction of the new capital was slow to gain momentum. In 1702 the Swiss traveler Francis Louis Michel observed Williamsburg as “a large place, where a city is intended and staked out to be built.”

The developing city suffered two setbacks in 1705, when Nicholson was removed from office and the College of William and Mary caught fire for the first time. As a result, the General Assembly in 1706 amended its 1699 act in an effort to encourage more construction efforts in the city. “An Act, continuing the Act directing the building the Capitol and the City of Williamsburg, with additions,” was passed in the October 1705 session, and ordered that directors be appointed for the purpose of “better regulating and ordering the Building of the said City of Williamsburgh.” The directors were appointed and tasked with “the laying out of Lotts and streets … [laying] out a convenient space of ground for ye Church yard, to enlarge the market place, and to alter any of the Streets or Lanes thereof … and also to settle and establish such Rules and orders for ye more regular and orderly building of the Houses in ye said city as to them shal seem best and most convenient.” The act additionally stipulated that once a town lot was purchased, the purchaser had to erect a house on the lot within two years.

Print Made from Bodleian Copperplate

Building efforts were renewed when a new lieutenant governor, Alexander Spotswood, arrived in Williamsburg during the summer of 1710. Spotswood championed many important projects in Williamsburg, including the rebuilding of the College of William and Mary; the construction of the brick powder magazine, which stored arms and black powder and was erected in the city center in 1715; and the enlargement of the Bruton Parish Church, also completed in 1715. The Governor’s Palace, a project that began in 1705, during Governor Edward Nott’s tenure, stalled multiple times and remained incomplete for nearly two decades. With Spotswood’s encouragement, it was finally completed in 1722. While primarily overseeing projects dealing with the political and economic functions of the capital, Spotswood also presided over the development of Williamsburg’s social and cultural functions. The merchant William Levingston built the first theater in colonial America in Williamsburg, and Spotswood himself sponsored its first play in 1718.

On July 28, 1722, the Crown granted the city a royal charter, which granted Williamsburg a Crown-appointed mayor, John Holloway, as well as six aldermen, a common council, and a representative in the House of Burgesses. The charter also made provisions for a public market, to be held on Wednesdays and Saturdays in Market Square, located at the center of the city near the magazine.

Supported by funds from the estate of Robert Boyle, in 1723 the Brafferton building at the College of William and Mary was completed to fulfill the college’s mission to “teach the Indian boys to read, and write, and vulgar Arithmetick … to teach them thorough the Catechism and the Principles of the Christian Religion.”

The City’s Fate in Question

William Parks's Virginia Gazette

The period from 1725 to 1750 was a tenuous one for Williamsburg. While the city saw many important developments during this period, such as the founding of the Virginia Gazette by the printer William Parks in 1736, it saw devastation as well. On January 30, 1747, the capitol building burnt down to its foundations. The next year a smallpox epidemic raged throughout the city. According to the anonymously authored “A True State of the Small Pox, Febry 22d, 1747/8,” of the city’s 763 recorded residents, 687 were infected but recovered from the disease, while 53 residents died. Lieutenant Governor Sir William Gooch, on March 7, 1748, noted that “calling an Assembly [is] impracticable … we have no other place … to meet at but this Town, where that Distemper has so lately prevail’d, and not yet quite finis’d its Course.”

Gooch reopened the General Assembly in October 1748, when members met to discuss whether to move the capital away from Williamsburg in light of the capitol building suffering from extensive fire damage. This debate placed the city’s residents on tenterhooks, leaving the tavern keeper James Shields, for one, keenly aware of the effect this decision would have on his livelihood and the value of his property. The historian Mark R. Wenger has noted that Shields’s will, “drawn during this period, stipulated that each daughter receive £100 from his estate if the capital remained in Williamsburg, only half that if the capital moved.” On November 23, 1748, the assembly narrowly approved rebuilding the capitol at Williamsburg, a project that was completed in 1753.


Items for Sale in Colonial-Era Williamsburg

The General Assembly’s decision to remain in Williamsburg ushered in a wave of construction that turned the city into what historians have called a “boomtown.” In addition to the new capitol, members of the colony’s gentry class erected massive, Georgian-style homes, part of a building spree that changed not only the landscape but the population as well. The colony’s wealthiest planters and merchants took up residence to attend court or sessions of the assembly, while the city’s tradesmen and members of the middling class benefited from the growth. For instance, the tailor Robert Nicolson, the wheelwright Benjamin Powell, and the silversmith James Geddy all either purchased or expanded their homes during this period.

From 1756 to 1759, in order to accommodate this rise in population, Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie expanded the city’s limits by acquiring property from some of the area’s large landholders. According to the historian Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Dinwiddie in 1756 “annexed a considerable parcel of land” belonging to Benjamin Waller, stretching the city’s limits to the east; “seventeen acres and twenty-six poles” were annexed from Colonel Philip Johnson, expanding the city south; and additional tracts were annexed in 1759 from Matthew Moody, “on the west side of the road leading to the capitol landing.”

Dudley Digges House

While the gentry and middling classes made up a significant portion of Williamsburg’s “boomtown” population, historians have estimated that nearly 50 percent of the city’s population was composed of enslaved African Americans. These slaves labored in the city’s trade shops, taverns, and private homes. In 1760 the Associates of Dr. Bray, a group formed in 1724 by the Anglican clergyman Thomas Bray to proselytize and educate African Americans and Native Americans, established a school in Williamsburg. Its mission was to teach enslaved children “the true Spelling of Words … [and] to pronounce & read distinctly.” Anne Wager taught at the Bray School from 1760 until her death in 1774.


Patrick Henry Delivering His Celebrated Speech

As the colony’s capital, Williamsburg found itself in the center of political upheaval in the years leading up to the American Revolution. On May 29, 1765, the House of Burgesses adopted five resolutions put forward by Patrick Henry condemning the Stamp Act—which taxed colonists by requiring them to purchase stamps for virtually every piece of paper—as a violation of their rights as Englishmen. A few months later, the Stamp Act provoked another act of protest, this one on the east end of the Duke of Gloucester Street. George Mercer, the appointed stamp distributer for Virginia, described the event in a letter written to the people of Williamsburg and dated October 31, 1765. According to Mercer, on his way to meet with the governor in the capitol, he was “accosted by a concourse of gentlemen assembled from all parts of the colony … They insisted I should immediately satisfy the company (which constantly increased) whether I intended to act as a commissioner under the Stamp Act.” Mercer attempted to pacify the crowd, which followed him “up as far as the Coffee-House, where the Governor, most of the Council, and a great number of gentlemen were assembled.” The next day Mercer addressed the gathered crowd of colonists and, referencing Henry’s resolves, resigned his post.

Discontent and revolutionary sentiment continued to find expression in subsequent years. In December 1769, the House of Burgesses hosted a ball at the capitol in honor of Governor Norborne Berkeley, baron de Botetourt, and the attendees followed the lead of recent protestors by not wearing clothing that was either imported or made of imported materials—meaning they refused to pay what they considered to be unfair taxes on such materials. On December 14, 1769, the Virginia Gazette reported “with the greatest pleasure … that the same patriotic spirit which gave rise to the association of the Gentlemen on a late event, was most agreeable manifested in the dress of the Ladies on this occasion, who, in the number of near one hundred, appeared in homespun gowns.”

On September 25, 1771, Governor John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, arrived in Williamsburg. Following a brief period of popularity, he dissolved the General Assembly in May 1774 after its members protested the Coercive Acts, measures taken by Parliament in the wake of the Boston Tea Party. The burgesses continued to meet extralegally at Raleigh Tavern, on the Duke of Gloucester Street, and other public and private buildings in the city, where members elected delegates that summer to attend the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Other acts of protest followed. Archibald Cary, for instance, erected a “Liberty Pole” across from Raleigh Tavern. According to one eyewitness, the Norfolk Loyalist James Parker, in a letter to Charles Steuart, the pole was accompanied by “a large mop & a bag of feathers, under it a bbl [barrel] of tar.”

Miniature Portrait of John Murray

Dunmore’s orders to remove the public powder from the magazine in April 1775 incited colonists in the city and only heightened the patriotic fervor there—so much so that the governor, fearing for his safety, fled the city in June 1775, and continued his administration from a ship anchored off Norfolk. Four years later, as war raged to the south, concerns mounted over the vulnerability of Williamsburg. On June 18, 1779, the General Assembly passed “An act for the removal of the seat of government.” Concerned that Williamsburg was “exposed to the insults and injuries of the publick enemy,” the act, signed by Governor Thomas Jefferson, recommended the town of Richmond as a suitable, as well as “safe and central,” location for a new seat of government. The move was completed by April 18, 1780, and the General Assembly convened for sessions in Richmond “in the buildings provided by the Public Directors, pursuant to the Act for the removal of the Seat of Government,” on May 1, 1780.

February 1, 1632
The General Assembly orders a palisade built around a settlement it calls Middle Plantation, between the York and James rivers.
A palisade around the settlement at Middle Plantation, between the York and James rivers, is completed after two years of work.
John Page constructs one of the first brick homes at Middle Plantation, a settlement between the York and James rivers. It is located within the palisade wall.
September 19, 1676
A day after the capital is abandoned by Governor Sir William Berkeley, Nathaniel Bacon orders his men to "laye itt level with the Ground." They burn Jamestown.
The vestry of Bruton Parish votes to consolidate the Marston, Middle Plantation, and Harop parishes into Bruton Parish.
May 29, 1677
Cockacoeske signs the Treaty of Middle Plantation, and at her request several tribes are reunited under her authority. But having been free of Powhatan domination since 1646, the Chickahominy and Rappahannock refuse to become subservient to her or to pay tribute.
The Treaty of Middle Plantation, between Virginia and a group of Virginia Indians, is revised and again signed in Middle Plantation.
February 8, 1693
A royal charter is granted for the College of William and Mary.
The College (later Wren) Building, at the College of William and Mary, is constructed.
October 20, 1698
Fire destroys the statehouse in Jamestown.
May 1, 1699
Students from the College of William and Mary deliver orations in support of moving Virginia's capital from Jamestown to Williamsburg.
June 7, 1699
The General Assembly passes "an Act directing the Building of the Capitoll and the City of Williamsburgh."
The first capitol is completed in Williamsburg, and the General Assembly begins regular meetings there.
April 5, 1705
The Board of Trade removes Francis Nicholson from his post as governor of Virginia.
October 1705
The College of William and Mary is destroyed by fire.
The General Assembly amends an earlier act to encourage building in the capital city of Williamsburg.
February 18, 1710
Queen Anne signs Alexander Spotswood's commission as lieutenant governor of Virginia.
Construction of the Governor's Palace, in Williamsburg, begun in 1705, is completed with the encouragement of Alexander Spotswood.
A powder magazine, the construction of which is supported by Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood, is completed in Williamsburg.
Williamsburg's Bruton Parish Church is enlarged.
The first theater in colonial America is built in Williamsburg.
July 28, 1722
The Crown grants Williamsburg a royal charter, providing for a mayor, aldermen, and council.
Construction is begun on the Brafferton building to house the Indian school at the College of William and Mary.
August 6, 1736
William Parks publishes the inaugural number of the Virginia Gazette, the colony's first newspaper.
January 30, 1747
The capitol, in Williamsburg, burns to its foundations.
October 1748
The General Assembly reconvenes after Williamsburg's smallpox epidemic.
November 23, 1748
The General Assembly narrowly approves rebuilding the capitol at Williamsburg instead of shifting the capital elsewhere in the colony.
Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie expands the city limits of Williamsburg by acquiring property from some of the area's large landholders.
September 29, 1760
The Associates of Dr. Bray opens a school for the education of free and enslaved black children in Williamsburg.
May 29, 1765
Patrick Henry persuades a sparsely attended House of Burgesses to adopt five resolutions condemning the Stamp Act as a violation of the ancient rights of Englishmen in Virginia, known as the "Virginia Resolves on the Stamp Act." Burgesses rescind one resolution and never formally propose or vote on two others.
October 1765
George Mercer arrives in Virginia from England with stamps to enforce the controversial Stamp Act. Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier helps prevent a riot in the streets of Williamsburg, where opponents of the act threaten Mercer with violence and force him to resign.
December 14, 1769
At a ball held at the capitol, in Williamsburg, women attend in homespun gowns in protest of importation fees imposed by Great Britain.
September 25, 1771
John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, reluctantly moves to Virginia and takes office as governor.
May 1774
Governor John Murray, earl of Dunmore, dissolves the General Assembly. The House of Burgesses continues to meet on its own.
April 21, 1775
Governor John Murray, earl of Dunmore, dispatches a company of marines to seize the colony's munitions from the public magazine in Williamsburg.
Early June 1775
Governor John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, flees Williamsburg and tries to gather Loyalist supporters in Hampton Roads, which will only bring a small force of British regulars.
  • Levy, Philip. “A New Look at an Old Wall: Indians, Englishmen, Landscape, and the 1634 Palisade at Middle Plantation.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 112, no. 3 (2004): 226–265.
  • Maccubbin, Robert P., ed. Williamsburg, Virginia: A City Before the State 1699–1999. City of Williamsburg, 2000.
  • Tyler, Lyon Gardiner. Williamsburg: The Old Colonial Capital. Richmond, Virginia: Whittet and Shepperson, 1907.
  • Yetter, George Humphrey. Williamsburg Before and After: The Rebirth of Virginia’s Colonial Capital. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1988.
APA Citation:
Gruber, Katherine. Williamsburg during the Colonial Period. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/williamsburg-during-the-colonial-period.
MLA Citation:
Gruber, Katherine. "Williamsburg during the Colonial Period" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 May. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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