American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of The Southern States

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam' Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press


WILLIAMSBURG is situated on the famous Peninsula of Virginia, between the James and York rivers. On this Peninsula have occurred some of the most important events in history. One thing alone entitles it to pre eminence in American history.

At Jamestown, seven miles distant from Williamsburg, was established the first permanent English settlement on the North American continent. There at Jamestown English settlers planted English institutions, had the first jury trial, and summoned the first assembly of the people. There, too, was the first enunciation on this continent of the memorable principle that taxes must not be imposed except with consent of the people in their representative assembly. All subsequent English colonization in America had its chief inspiration in the successful upbuilding of the settlement at Jamestown. The Peninsula is in truth "the cradle of the Union."

But the Peninsula has also its Yorktown, thirteen miles distant from Williamsburg. This place, which once had a very great trade with Glasgow and London, but which was never more than a village of a few hundred inhabitants, may, nevertheless, claim to be the beginning and ending of Colonial resistance. Towering on the river bank is the beautiful monument, erected in 1881, which tells that there Lord Cornwallis surrendered in 1781 the British power in America to George Washington, Commander in Chief of the American armies. But another monument might stand in close proximity, with this inscription, that there the first meeting of the people of Virginia was held in 1635 under the leadership of Nicholas Martian, an ancestor of Washington, to protest against the tyranny of the Governor, Sir John Harvey, who was shortly after deposed and sent a prisoner to England in the custody of two members of the Assembly. Nor, in referring to this neighborhood, must I omit mention of Hampton at the extreme end of the Peninsula, which is the oldest town in English America, which boasts the oldest free school, and which, twice a victim to the flames of war, gave its name to the great landlocked haven where the Merrimac revolutionized naval warfare by its victory over the Federal wooden battleships in 1862.

Finally, six miles from Hampton is Newport News, where the first cotton was planted in America, and where there has suddenly sprung up a rushing, driving city, tremulous with the hopes of the future, and already realizing the dream of its first settlers, who relied on the magnificent opportunities which its situation at the conjunction of the James River with Hampton Roads afforded. The Peninsula has been traversed by British, French, and American armies, and in our own times is memorable as the scene of the tremendous struggle between the opposing armies of the Northern and Southern States, under the lead of McClellan and Johnston, a struggle sustained on both sides with conspicuous bravery and endurance, and culminating in the battles about Richmond in 1862.

Until 1630, the settlements of the English in Virginia were confined to the Accomac Peninsula, on the other side of Chesapeake Bay, and to the valley of the James. In that year the Governor and Council determined to make a settlement in the Indian district of Chiskiack in the neighborhood of Yorktown. Soon after one of the leading men, Dr. John Pott, from Harop, in Yorkshire, England, observed the advantages of a location on the ridge between Jamestown and Chiskiack, obtained a patent for a plantation there, and called it "Harp." The authorities endorsed his judgment and in 1632 sent settlers thither for the purpose of establishing a town upon the spot. This was the beginning of Williamsburg, which was called at first the "Middle Plantation," because of its location midway between the York and the James.

The Middle Plantation, though for many years a small village, was from the first a strategic point of much value. Two deep creeks, with wide morasses, penetrate to the spot from the James and York respectively, so that no hostile force can proceed up or down the Peninsula without passing through the place. The first settlement was walled in with palisades, and the corn fields lay on the west of these. In the war with Opechancanough in 1644, the place was commanded by Captain Robert Higginson,(1) a soldier of credit and renown. When Bacon in 1676 drove Sir William Berkeley from Jamestown, here at Middle Plantation, just a hundred years before the American Revolution, the former, calling himself "General by consent of the People," held his famous parliament of the leading men of the Colony, who published those papers which sound so much like the inspiring literature of the Revolution.(2)

In preparing an oath to be administered to the people, the three articles proposed were read by James Minge, Clerk of the House of Burgesses: First, that they should aid General Bacon in the Indian war; second, that they would oppose Sir William Berkeley's endeavor to hinder the same; third, that they would oppose any power sent out from England, till terms were agreed to.

The overweening confidence of the people of Virginia in themselves was shown in the remark of Bacon that "one Virginian was equal to four red coats." Middle Plantation, however, witnessed a sad sight some months later. The hero of the people had succumbed to disease, and Sir William Berkeley was again in power. Among those who supported Bacon with their counsel and sympathy, though not with arms, was William Drummond, first Governor of North Carolina, and here at Middle Plantation he expiated his offence on the gallows. The circumstances surrounding the execution were unusually affecting. Tried by a drumhead court martial, he was condemned, stripped, the ring torn from his finger, sentenced at one o'clock and hanged at four. Berkeley, however, did not long exult in his power, for the British Government recalled him to England, where he soon died.

Jamestown with all the public buildings had been destroyed during the course of the war. The suggestion was now offered to make Middle Plantation the capital, but was not adopted, and Jamestown was again restored.

In 1683, a handsome brick church was erected at Middle Plantation, and fifteen years later the "old fields" in front of the town were selected as the site for the "Royall Colledge" of William and Mary. Then in 1698, the State House at Jamestown falling again a victim to flames, Governor Francis Nicholson proposed to carry out the original suggestion of making the Middle Plantation the seat of government. The Legislature seconded him in this, stating in the preamble to their act that "the Middle Plantation had been found by constant experience to be healthy and agreeable to the constitutions of the inhabitants of this, his Majesty's, colony and dominion"; that "its air was serene and temperate," and that "its land was dry and champaign, and plentifully stored with wholesome springs."

Soon there rose at Middle Plantation a building in the shape of an "H," the first "Capitol" so called in the United States (the term "State House" being used in the other colonies), then a palace for the governor, a theatre, the first also in English America, for the enacting of tragedies and comedies, an armory for the care of the public arms and ammunition, a public prison, the first hospital for the insane in America, and other buildings, all of brick. In honor of the reigning monarch the name of the place was in 1699 changed to that of Williamsburg, for which a city charter, in 1722, was obtained in the name of King George I., and under the seal of the Colony.

Thenceforward, the history of Williamsburg became the history of Virginia, for here until 1779 resided the Governor of the Colony, and here were held the sessions of the Council and the House of Burgesses, and the sessions of the Supreme Court.

But the life in Virginia was essentially a rural one, and Williamsburg never attained a population of over two thousand. During great public occasions, it assumed something of a real city character. On such occasions, the streets of Williamsburg were crowded with the chariots of the great planters, who rolled in great state from their plantations, carrying their families and attended by postilions and outriders.

In 1716, Governor Spotswood left Williamsburg on his memorable trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains, instituting on his return the order of "The Knights of the Horseshoe," which has been celebrated in story and verse. This expedition was the beginning of that march of empire to the West which in our time has arrived at the far distant Philippine Islands.

In 1754, from the same city of Williamsburg, went George Washington to demand of the French commander an explanation of his occupation of Virginia soil on the Ohio. This was the first act in the drama of the French and Indian War, which, by driving the French power from this continent, laid the foundation of the future American nation. Subsequently, in all the events that finally culminated in war with Great Britain, Williamsburg was not only the capital of Virginia, but in many ways the capital of the revolting colonies.

It was a memorable day in 1765, when Patrick Henry offered in Williamsburg his famous resolutions against the Stamp Act. Samuel Adams of Massachusetts led the way in 1764 in remonstrating against the passage of the Stamp Act, and Virginia and the other colonies had quickly followed along the same line; but protests and petitions were unavailing. Parliament enacted the stamp bill into law, and the alternatives presented were submission or resistance. There was a painful silen ce throughout the colonies. In the North "there was no declared purpose of action." The usual and constitutional method of petition and remonstrance, of ten resorted to in the past history of the colonies against governmental action, had been tried. Otis advised submission, and was elected by Boston to a seat in the Legislature. When the Massachusetts Legislature met, Oliver, the stamp distributor, was elected councillor. Samuel Adams advised only a meeting of the colonies to confer on the condition of things. It was a supreme moment, but Virginia rose to the occasion. From the Capitol at Williamsburg rang out the clarion voice of Patrick Henry. He maintained by resolutions that the inhabitants of Virginia inherited from the first adventurers and settlers of that dominion equal franchises with the people of Great Britain; that royal charters had declared that equality; that taxation by themselves or by persons chosen by themselves to represent them was the distinguishing characteristic of British freedom; that the people of that most ancient Colony had uninterruptedly enjoyed the right of being thus governed by their own laws respecting their internal policy and taxation; that this right had never been forfeited or in any other way given up, but had been constantly recognized by the King and people of Great Britain; that the General Assembly of the whole Colony had the sole right and power to lay taxes on the inhabitants of the Colony; that any attempt to vest such power in any other person whatever tended to destroy British as well as American freedom; that the people of Virginia were not bound to give obedience to any law designed to impose taxation upon them other than the laws of their own General Assembly; and that any one who should, either by speaking or writing, maintain the contrary should be deemed an enemy to the Colony.

In the maintenance of these resolutions Henry, lifted out of self, shouted those immortal words, "Tarquin and Ceasar had each his Brutus, Charles I. his Cromwell, and George III." - and here he was interrupted by the cry of "Treason!" - "may profit by their example; if this be treason, make the most of it." "This is the way," says Bancroft, "that the fire began. Virginia rang the alarm bell for the continent."

After this, with each of the great epochs in the constitutional development following the Stamp Act, Williamsburg, either through the men born and raised in the place, or educated at its famous college of William and Mary, had an imperishable connection. It was Richard Bland, an alumnus of the college, who first announced, in a pamphlet entitled An Enquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies, the startling doctrine that America was no part of the kingdom of England, and had never been united with it except by the common tie of the crown. Dabney Carr, another alumnus of the college, was the patron of the resolutions in 1773 for appointment of intercolonial committees of correspondence, - the first step taken towards united action on the part of the colonies. Then it was Peyton Randolph, born in Williamsburg and educated at its college, who when the first Congress came together in I774, offered himself as the conspicuous mark of British resentment in consenting to act as first President of the Continental Congress. In 1776, it was another alumnus of the college, Thomas Jefferson, who, in the language of Ezra Stiles, President of Yale, "poured the soul of the continent into the monumental act of. Independence." In I786, John Tyler, Sr., born in the country near Williamsburg, and another alumnus, carried through the.: Virginia Legislature the proposition for a convention of the States at Annapolis. In 1787, Edmund Randolph, a native of Williamsburg and an alumnus of the college, opened the proceedings of the convention at Philadelphia:by submitting "the Virginia plan" of a constitution which gave direction to its proceedings.

A sketch of Williamsburg, however, would not be complete without some details of the famous Convention which met in the city on May 6, 1776. Edmund Pendleton of Caroline County was elected President, and John Tazewell of Williamsburg, Secretary. On the day after the Convention met they fixed on the 13th to go into the Committee of the Whole to consider the state of the Colony. Colonel Archibald Cary, an alumnus of William and Mary College, presided over this committee. The question of independence was introduced at once, and was debated on that and the next day, and the committee rose and reported the following resolutions, drawn by Edmund Pendleton, which were unanimously agreed to by the Convention, II2 members being present:

"Forasmuch as all the endeavors of the United Colonies, by the most decent representations and petitions to the King and Parliament of Great Britain, to restore peace and security to America under the British government, and a reunion with that people upon just and liberal terms, instead of a redress of grievances, have produced, from an imperious and vindictive adminstration increased insult, oppression, and a vigorous attempt to effect our total destruction. By a late act all these Colonies are declared to be in rebellion, and out of the protection of the British Crown; our people, when captivated, compelled to join in the murder and plunder of their relations and countrymen; and all former rapine and oppression of Americans declared legal and just. Fleets and armies are raised and the aid of foreign troops engaged to assist these destructive purposes. The King's representative in this Colony hath not only withheld all the powers of government from operating for our safety, but, having retired on board an armed ship, is carrying on a piratical and savage war against us, tempting our slaves by every artifice to resort to him, and training and employing them against their masters. In this state of extreme danger we have no alternative left but an abject submission to the will of those overbearing tyrants, or a total separation from the Crown and Government of Great Britain, uniting and exerting the strength of all America for defence and forming alliances with foreign powers for commerce and aid in war: Wherefore, appealing to the Searcher of Hearts for the sincerity of former declarations, expressing Ľa desire to preserve the connection with that nation, and that we are driven from that inclination by their wicked councils, and the eternal laws of self preservation:

"Resolved unanimously, that the delegates appointed to represent this Colony in General Congress, be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, absolved from all allegiance to or dependence upon the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain, and that they give the assent of this Colony to such declaration, and to whatever measures may be thought proper and necessary by the Congress for forming foreign alliances, and a confederation of the Colonies, at such time, and in the manner, as to them shall seem best; Provided, that the power of forming government for, and the regulations of the internal concerns of, each Colony be left to the respective Colonial Legislatures.

"Resolved unanimously, that a committee be appointed to prepare a declaration of Rights, and such a plan of government as will be most likely to maintain peace and order in this Colony, and secure substantial and equal liberty to the people."

On June 11,1776, a committee, at the head of which was Thomas Jefferson, was appointed by Congress in Philadelphia to prepare a "Declaration of Independence "; and on July 1st, R. H. Lee's resolution of independence was adopted, and on July 4th the immortal Declaration by Thomas Jefferson. Nor was this all that Virginia did. It having been determined to procure a Declaration of Rights and a written constitution for the State, the Convention, on May 15th, appointed a committee of thirty one, at the head of which was Archibald Cary, to do the work. Many projects were submitted, but the Declaration of Rights and the State constitution prepared by the master hand of George Mason, "swallowed up all the rest." The former document, adopted' June 12, 1776, contained all that was valuable in Magna Charta and the Bill of Rights of 1689, and much more; for it stands without a rival as a summary of the rights of man and also of the principles of free government. The latter document, the constitution, adopted on June 29, 1776, unlike the similar constitutions established by South Carolina and other colonies, declared the connection with Great Britain "totally dissolved," furnishing in this way the first example in this country of a written constitution of a free and independent State.

Thus, in the language of John Adams of Massachusetts, Virginia "has the glory with posterity of beginning with the resolutions against the Stamp Act, and of concluding with the acts of the Convention of May, 1776, the great American Revolution"; and Williamsburg was the scene of these great proceedings in the annals of the world.

Williamsburg lost its metropolitan honors in 1779, when Richmond became the capital of Virginia. The effect was disastrous, and its population decreased from two thousand in 1776 to twelve hundred in 1795. Many of the houses became tenantless, and the population of the place never rose above sixteen hundred in after years.

But the old city still retained its college, which, despite many vicissitudes, continued to maintain its influence in the Union. Indeed, William and Mary College holds a unique position in the history of the United States. In its antecedents, it is the oldest of American colleges; in actual operation, it is second only to Harvard. It is the only college that received its charter direct from the Crown under the seal of the Privy Council in England. It was the first college to have a full faculty of professors. It was the first to abandon the Oxford curriculum and adopt the "elective system," which it did in 1779. It was the first to adopt the "honor system," which discountenances the custom prevailing at some colleges even now of spying and informing on students. It was the first college in America to widen its curriculum into the scope of a university by establishing chairs of law and medicine, in addition to the classics and the sciences. It was the first to establish schools of modern languages, history, political economy and constitutional and political law. It was the first to establish, in the Phi Beta Kappa Society, an intercollegiate fraternity, having for its object purely literary improvement; and it was the first to award strictly collegiate prizes, as manifested in the gold medals donated by Lord Botetourt in 1771.

Of the seven Presidents born in Virginia, three - Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler, were educated at William and Mary. To these men is to be ascribed the annexation of Louisiana, Florida, Texas and most of the Western territory, thus trebling the original area of the Union. Four out of five judges contributed by Virginia to the Supreme Bench of the United States were educated at William and Mary. The most illustrious commander of the Federal armies down to 1861, General Winfield Scott, was a William and Mary man. Of twenty seven Senators from Virginia (1789-1861), sixteen, and of the four Speakers of the House of Representatives from Virginia, three, of three ministers plenipotentiary to England, two, and of six ministers to France, four, were alumni; and John James Beckly, first Librarian of Congress and first Clerk of the House of Representatives, was a William and Mary man.

Of forty three members of the Supreme Court of Virginia, down to 1861, twenty one, and of thirty three governors of Virginia, fifteen, were alumni. Out of a numerical total of seventy six judges and governors of Virginia, William and Mary contributed thirty six; Princeton, two; Hampden-Sidney, two; University of Virginia, three; Dickinson College, one; University of Pennsylvania, one; College of South Carolina, one; Randolph-Macon, one; Yale, one; Washington College, Pennsylvania, one; European colleges, five, and the rest obtained their education at private schools.

The society of Williamsburg has had its attractions from the earliest times. The Rev. Hugh Jones, Chaplain of Governor Spotswood and Professor of Mathematics in the college, thus wrote of the town in 1722:

"At the Capitol, at publick times, may be seen a great number of handsome, well dressed, compleat Gentlemen. And at the Governor's House upon Birth Nights, and at Balls and Assemblies, I have seen as fine an Appearance, as good Divertion, and as splendid Entertainments in Governor Spotswood's time, as I have seen any where else.

"These buildings here described are justly reputed the best in all English America, and are exceeded by few of their Kind in England.

"In every part of this Town are excellent Springs of good Water, or else may be made good Wells; and the Ground falling on both Sides conveys the Water and Rain by small Channels into the Creeks; but to make the main Street exactly level, the Assembly gave a considerable Sum, which was expended in removing Earth in some places, and building a Bridge over a low Channel; so that it is now a pleasant, long, dry Walk, broad, and almost level from the College to the Capitol. Williamsburg is now incorporated and made a Market Town, and governed by a Mayor and Aldermen; and it is well stocked with rich Stores, of all Sorts of Goods, and well furnished with the best Provisions and Liquors.

"Here dwell several good Families, and more reside here in their own Houses at publick times. They live in the same neat Manner, dress after the same Modes, and behave themselves exactly as the Gentry in London; most Families of any note having a Coach, Chariot, Berlin or Chaise. "The Number of Artificers is here daily augmented; as are the convenient Ordinaries or Inns for the Accomdation of Strangers.

"The Servants here, as in other parts of the country, are English, Scotch, Irish, or Negroes.

"The Town is laid out regularly in Lots or square Portions, sufficient each for a House and Garden; so that they don't build contiguous, whereby may be prevented the spreading Danger of Fire; and thus also afford a free Passage of Air, which is very grateful in violent hot Weather.

"Here, as in other Parts, they build with Bricks, but most commonly with Timber lined with Cieling, and cased with feather edged Plank, painted with white Lead and Oil, covered with Shingles of Cedar, etc., tarred over at first, with a Passage generally through the Middle of the House for an Air Draught in Summer.

"Thus their Houses are lasting, dry, and warm in Winter, and cool in Summer; especially if there be Windows enough to draw the Air.

"Thus they dwell comfortably, genteely, pleasantly, and plentifully in this delightful, healthful, and (I hope) thriving City of Williamsburg."

At the theatre in Williamsburg, built about 1716, the first professional comedies and tragedies in America were played by Charles Stagg, who was assisted by actors and musicians from England. He died in 1735, and, for several years after, the building, which stood on what is known as the Tucker lot, was used for amateur theatricals, in which the students of the college figured as the actors. About 1745 the building was surrendered to the city for a city hall. In 1751, "The New Theatre" near the Capitol was built by a company of comedians from New York, and in 1752, the Hallam Company, professional players from the theatre in Goodmanfields, near London, made their appearance in Williamsburg. This was a great event in the Colonial life. It was at this time that Lewis Hallam made his debut, at the age of twelve, on the boards. This prince of the theatre, who for long period had no rival in America, having on this occasion but a single sentence to recite, broke down in the middle, and rushed in tears from the stage.

In 1771, the celebrated Miss Hallam visited Williamsburg. She had "starred" it in Maryland, where all the swains of that Colony had paid her tribute in poetry and where Peale had painted her portrait. An extract from a letter of Colonel Hudson Muse, of Virginia, will recall the glory of her debut at "The New Theatre" in Williamsburg.

"In a few days after I got to Virginia I set out to Williamsburg where I was detained for eleven days, though I spent the time very agreeably at the plays every night, and really musts join Mr. Ennalls and Mr. Bassett in thinking Miss Hallam superfine. But must confess her luster was much sullied by the number of beauties that appeared at that court. The house was 'crowded every night, and the gentlemen who have generally attended that place agree there was treble the number of fine ladyes that was ever seen in town before. For my part I think it would be impossible for a man to have fixed upon a partner for life, the choice was too general to have fixed on one."

The public buildings in Williamsburg appear to have been the best in British America at the time of their erection. Weld, in his Travels, says that "the town in 1795 contained about 1200 people, and the society in it is thought to be more extensive and more genteel at the same time than any place of its size in America." The city was then the residence of the Rev. James Madison, President of the College, who was the first to teach political economy at any American college; of George Wythe, the teacher of both Marshall and Jefferson, and the first American professor of law; of Charles Bellirni, the first American professor of modern languages; of John Blair, Associate Justice of the United States; of Peter Pelham, the musician, to whose solemn strains on the organ the great Washington had often lent a willing ear as he sat in the old brick church on Sundays; and of many other persons of refinement and cultivation.

Williamsburg was the residence in 1841 of John Tyler, when he was called to the Presidential chair by the death of Harrison.

In 1861, it shared in all the excitement of the approaching Civil War. The college contributed all its students and professors to the Southern army, as the old city contributed all its able bodied citizens. During the war its churches and the college were occupied as hospitals by the armies on both sides. Through the city passed the army of Johnston, on its withdrawal from Yorktown; and within its streets burst the shells of the Federals in the bloody battle of Williamsburg in 1862. Then came the great army of McClellan, and so the scenes of direful war changed and shifted, the place being sometimes in possession of the Confederates and sometimes in possession of the Federals.

Peace came at last, and the war worn city took up again the burden of its destiny. The college, which had been burned by the Federal troops, was rebuilt on the old walls, after the old Confederate soldiers returned to their homes. In 1881, the centennial of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis awakened new life. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad ran its cars through the place for the first time, as it transferred the multitudes to Yorktown, thirteen miles away. In 1888, the college, which had been closed for several years, assumed new energies under the patronage of the State Legislature. Then, in 1893, the bicentennial year of the college charter, Congress, by an appropriation of money, made amends in some measure for the injuries inflicted by war. Since that time, the place has greatly improved. The "Ancient Capital" has its face toward the future, while proudly conscious of the past. It is often visited by travellers from Europe, and from the North, who never fail to take away with them kind impressions of the neighborhood, and who love to repeat in letters to newspapers and other periodicals the interesting stories of its ancient and modern history.


(1) The tombstone of his daughter, Lucy Burwell, wife of Hon. Lewis Burwell, describes him as "the valiant Capt. Robert Higginson, one of the first commanders that subdued the country of Virginia from the power of the heathen."

(2) One of these papers, styled "Nathaniel Bacon, Esq., his Mani­festo concerning the present troubles in Virginia," has words which ring out very much like the celebrated language of Patrick Henry­" If this be treason, make the most of it." Bacon said: "If virtue be a sin, if guilt, if all the principles of morality and goodness be perverted, we must confess that those who are now called 'Rebels,' may be in danger of this high imputation; but if there be, as sure there is, a just God to appeal to, if to plead the cause of the oppressed, if sincerely to aim at his Majesty's honor and the public good without any reservation or by interest, if to stand in the gap after so much blood of our dear brethren bought and sold, if after the loss of a great part of his Majesty's Colony deserted and dispeopled, freely with our lives and estates to endeavor to save the remainder be treason, God Almighty judge and let the guilty die."

Also see the Early Virginia Biographies.

Historic towns of the Southern States

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