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Colonial Williamsburg

Introduction | Duke of Gloucester Street | Capitol | Governor’s Palace | Palace Green | College of William and Mary | Jail | Raleigh Tavern | King’s Arms Tavern

Williamsburg was first settled in 1632. It was originally called Middle Plantation. In 1693, the College of William and Mary, named after the King and Queen of England, was established in Middle Plantation. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were among those who attended the college.

In 1699, a year after the statehouse burned for a second time in Jamestown, the capital of the Virginia colony was moved to Middle Plantation. Middle Plantation was built on higher ground than Jamestown, had an adequate supply of fresh water, was not infested with mosquitoes, and featured the facilities of the new college. Later that year, the town was renamed Williamsburg after the King.

In 1705, America’s first state capitol building was built on Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg. Williamsburg would soon become the social, political, and economic center of Virginia. It was the site of America’s first theater and Virginia’s first successful newspaper, The Virginia Gazette. In 1722, it was granted a royal charter as a city.

Williamsburg remained capital of Virginia until 1779. During the Revolutionary War, Governor Thomas Jefferson permanently moved the capital to Richmond because he thought Williamsburg was vulnerable to a British attack.

Duke of Gloucester Street

Duke of Gloucester Street is the principal street running through Colonial Williamsburg. The Virginia General Assembly named it after his Highness the Duke of Gloucester in 1699. Originally a narrow Indian path called a “trace,” the street originally ran through various swamps and was blocked by a series of houses that were demolished in 1704. The street’s current path was designed over 300 years ago and was constructed to be 99 feet wide and run for one mile from the College of William and Mary to the Capitol building. In its early history, the street was full of potholes and irregularities. It was said that horse-drawn carriages, wagons, or oxcarts traveling down the street would kick up clouds of choking dust. After periods of rain, the street would turn into a giant puddle of mud and water. After the capitol was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond, the street, and much of Williamsburg were neglected. By the early 1900’s, however, interest in Williamsburg returned and a vision for a “living, outdoor history museum” was born. Major restorations projects were completed in the 1930’s and by 1969, the street was closed to all automobile traffic.

Today, Duke of Gloucester Street has been totally restored and is the center of action in Williamsburg. Millions walk along the street to visit the inns, taverns, and colonial exhibitions every year. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it “the most historic street in America.

Williamsburg Capitol

The Virginia House of Burgesses decided to move the capitol from Jamestown to Middle Plantation in 1698, after a fire destroyed the state house building built in Jamestown. In 1699, Henry Cary was contracted to build America’s first capitol building. Cary’s building was massive; it was actually two buildings connected by an arcade that featured three archways. The first floor on the west side of the building was designed for use as a General Court while the east side was used as a meeting place for the House of Burgesses. The second floor housed the Council Chamber, the Council Clerk’s office, and a lobby, and was highlighted by a beautiful six-sided cupola on the ridge of the roof. In 1705, the building was completed. The building was constructed without fireplaces to prevent a catastrophic fire. In 1723, chimneys were added for fireplaces in an attempt to keep the building dry. In 1747, however, the building burned to the ground, and only a few walls were left standing. In 1748, the Virginia Legislature voted to rebuild the building, a measure that was only approved by two votes.

In 1753, the Capitol building was rebuilt. Famous Virginians such as Patrick Henry, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson voiced their opinions concerning British taxes that led to the American Revolution from within the walls of the Williamsburg Capitol. After the capitol city was moved to Richmond, the Williamsburg capitol building was used for a variety of functions, but parts of it were demolished to make use of its bricks, and other parts were burned by a fire. By 1881, it was completely gone.

In 1928, the property was sold to Colonial Williamsburg and the capitol building was rebuilt. Today, Virginia legislators use it as a ceremonial meeting ground for one day every other year. It is one of the most popular attractions for tourists visiting Colonial Williamsburg.

Governor’s Palace

Construction of the Williamsburg Governor’s Palace was authorized in 1705. Henry Cary, the contractor who built the Capitol building, got the job. The palace was to be built on 63 acres and was to include sash windows, a kitchen, cellar, vault, and stables. Building continued on and off until 1710, when Cary was replaced by John Tyler. When Alexander Spotswood became governor after the death of Governor Nott, he requested additional funds to be spent on building outbuildings, furniture, ornaments and gardens. In 1718, the building was finally completed and Spotswood took up residence, despite grumbles from the House of Burgesses that the palace was too expensive.

When completed, the magnificent palace featured three floors, each nearly 3,400 square feet. Its cellar was large enough for eleven wine bins and the second floor featured an iron balcony. Inside the gates to the palace were two large one and a half story brick advance buildings. There was also a stable, carriage house, kitchen, scullery, laundry, and an octagonal bathhouse, arranged near the advance buildings. In 1751, Governor Dinwiddie ordered the building of a ballroom, additional rooms, and public houses to showcase the palace as a gathering place for social activities and entertainment. Despite its grandeur, it was considered much inferior to similar buildings in Europe. The property was generally attended by 25 slaves and servants, who lived in the outbuildings. Butlers greeted guests and sorted out which visitors were authorized to see the governor. Elegant balls and ceremonies were hosted at the palace to celebrate the birthdays of the governor and his family members, or, to mark the arrival of dignitaries or celebrate holidays. Governors Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson were among those who called the palace home before Williamsburg was abandoned as Virginia’s capitol. In 1781, it served as a hospital for those wounded in the Battle of Yorktown. 156 casualties of the battle were buried on the palace grounds. That same year, the building was destroyed by a fire and its usable bricks were sold.

Like many of the buildings and monuments in Williamsburg, the Governor’s palace was rebuilt in the 1930’s. Its restoration was carefully performed throughout the remainder of the 20th century with attention paid to its original blueprints, architecture, and decor. It remains one of the most popular attractions in Colonial Williamsburg.

Palace Green
The magnificent palace green was built with a purpose. It was originally built to draw the viewer’s eyes to the city’s most impressive building and source of power – the Governor’s Palace. In the 18th Century however, luxurious homes were built on the palace green, including the home of George Wythe.

 

College of William and Mary

The College of William and Mary, the nation’s second oldest college, was chartered by King William III and Queen Mary II in 1693. The royal charter required the new college to be organized into a divinity school, a grammar school, and a philosophy school. The college opened in 1694 and students attended classes in temporary buildings. By 1695, the school’s first building, the Wren Building, was completed at the west end of Duke of Gloucester Street. The college quickly became the intellectual and cultural center of the new capital city. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall and James Monroe were among its many famous graduates. In all, 16 signers of the Declaration of Independence were educated at W &M. It even issued George Washington his surveyor’s certificate. In 1776, the honor society Phi Beta Kappa was founded at the university and in 1779, it became the first college to become a university when it established faculties of law and medicine.

Today, the College of William and Mary remains one of America’s most prestigious public universities, and has produced five Rhodes Scholars since 1988.

 

Williamsburg Jail
The Williamsburg Public Gaol was authorized in 1701, shortly after it became capitol of the Virginia Colony. It was used primarily to jail debtors, slaves, and mentally ill people. It was also used for those awaiting trial or punishment such as whipping, branding, or hanging. The gaol was a miserable place and many of the cells were only ten feet by ten feet and held five or six prisoners. Many prisoners developed what was known as Gaol Fever (likely Typhus). In total, the gaol held eight cells, quarters for the gaol keeper, and a courtyard. The last keeper of the gaol, Peter Pelham, had at least five children who grew up in the gaol.

 

Raleigh Tavern
The Raleigh Tavern was originally built in 1717 and was named for Sir Walter Raleigh. It was a popular meeting location for influential Virginians before the American Revolution and often hosted balls, lavish parties, and festivals. In 1769, however, the Virginia House of Burgesses was dissolved by the British Crown because of their vocal opposition to the Townshend Acts. The Raleigh Tavern would soon be transformed into a meeting place for Virginia’s revolutionaries. In retaliation, the former burgesses, who included Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason, “Lighthorse” Harry Lee and others met at the tavern’s Apollo Room to develop plans of action against the British, which included the formation of the intercolonial Committee of Correspondence enabling the colonies to communicate with each other.In 1776, a group of students from the College of William and Mary met at Raleigh Tavern and formed Phi Beta Kappa. It was also the site of a grand celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Paris in 1824. Here, the French General Marquis de Lafayette was honored and John Marshall and John C. Calhoun attended. In 1859, the Raleigh Tavern burned to the ground and was not rebuilt until 1932.

 

King’s Arms Tavern

The King’s Arms Tavern was a popular dining option for Williamsburg’s elite, where they could talk about business, politics, and eventually independence. Established in 1772, the original tavern included stables and a smokehouse. During the Revolution, it would become known as Vobe’s Tavern and then Eagle Tavern. The owner of the tavern, Mrs. Jane Vobe, was well-known for her fine cooking. George Washington and Baron Von Steuben were among those who frequented the establishment. This tavern was unique because Mrs. Vobe sold tickets for the theatre, had artists display their work and posted rewards for the return of lost articles within the business. In addition, one of Vobe’s slaves who worked at the tavern, Gowan Pamphlet, would become the pastor and founder of the only Baptist church in Williamsburg, as well as a free man and landowner in both Williamsburg and James City.

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