In 1699, after nearly a century of famine, fevers, and battles with neighboring American Indian tribes, the beleaguered Virginia Colony abandoned the mosquito-infested swamp at Jamestown for a planned city 6 miles inland and about halfway to Yorktown, which had developed as a major seaport. They named it Williamsburg for the reigning British monarch, William of Orange.
Royal Gov. Francis Nicholson laid out the new capital on a grid with public greens and a half-acre of land for every house on the main street. People used their lots to grow vegetables and raise livestock. Most houses were whitewashed wood frame (trees being more abundant than brick), and kitchens were in separate structures to keep the houses from burning down. A "palace" for the royal governor was finished in 1720.
The town prospered and became the major cultural and political center of Virginia. The government met here four times a year during "Publick Times," when rich planters and politicos (one and the same, mostly) converged on Williamsburg and the population, normally about 1,800, doubled. Shops displayed their finest wares, and there were balls, horse races, fairs, and auctions.
Williamsburg played a major role as a seat of royal government and later as a hotbed of revolution until the government was moved to Richmond in 1780 to be safer from British attack. Many of the seminal events leading up to the Declaration of Independence occurred here. Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe studied at the College of William and Mary, the nation's second-oldest university behind Harvard. Jefferson was the second state governor and last occupant of the Governor's Palace before the capital moved to Richmond (Patrick Henry was the first). During the Revolution, Williamsburg was the headquarters of first Cornwallis, then Washington and Rochambeau, who planned the siege of Yorktown in George Wythe's house.
A Reverend, a Rockefeller & a Rebirth -- Williamsburg ceased to be an important political center after 1780 but remained a charming Virginia town for another 150 years or so. As late as 1926, the Colonial town plan was virtually intact, including numerous original buildings. Then the Reverend W. A. R. Goodwin, rector of Bruton Parish Church (and no known relation to yours truly), envisioned restoring the entire town to its Colonial appearance as a symbol of our early history. He inspired John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who during his lifetime contributed some $68 million to the project and set up an endowment to help provide for permanent restoration and educational programs. Today, gifts and bequests by thousands of Americans sustain the project Goodwin and Rockefeller began.
The Historic Area now covers 301 acres of the original town. A mile long, it encompasses 88 original buildings and several hundred reconstructed houses, shops, taverns, public buildings, and outbuildings, most on their original foundations after extensive archaeological, architectural, and historical research.
Williamsburg set a very high standard for other Virginia restorations. Researchers investigated international archives, libraries, and museums and sought out old wills, diaries, court records, inventories, letters, and other documents. The architects studied every aspect of 18th-century buildings, from paint chemistry to brickwork. Archaeologists recovered millions of artifacts excavating 18th-century sites to reveal original foundations. The Historic Area also includes 90 acres of gardens and greens, and 3,000 surrounding acres serve as a "greenbelt" against commercial encroachment.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a nonprofit organization, owns most of the Historic Area, conducts the ongoing restoration, and operates the Historic Area and its visitor center. A profit-making subsidiary owns and operates the foundation's hotels and taverns. Needless to say, "CW" exerts enormous influence over tourism, the town's main income earner.