It’s hard to write a history of just a few hundred words about a place that’s been in existence since about 1638, but we’re going to give it a good go.
Colonial Williamsburg historic area, the place where Williamsburg got its start, and now for the most part a living museum within Williamsburg, became the capital of the English Virginia Colony in about 1699. It was called Middle Plantation (settled in 1638) at the time and replaced the capital of the colony after the statehouse (capitol building) burned down in Jamestown in 1698. The colonists decided to move the capital inland to escape malaria-bearing mosquitoes near Jamestown.
Middle Plantation became Williamsburg (to honor England’s King William III) that same year. The College of William and Mary (already founded in 1693) served as a locus for the new capital city as streets were laid out and the main street (the Duke of Gloucester) was named for the eldest son of England’s Queen Anne.
Williamsburg remained the seat of the Virginia Colony until 1780, when the capital was moved (for security reasons) to Richmond, about 55 miles west.
Williamsburg for the most part spent the next 150 years as mostly a quiet college and farming town, enjoying its status as the home to the well-regarded College of William and Mary.
The older part of Williamsburg – what we call Colonial Williamsburg historic area – slowly decayed due to neglect until 1926 when the rector of the Bruton Parish Church (one of the original buildings in the historic district and one that’s still in use today), the Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin appealed to the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to restore the city’s historic buildings. Rockefeller and Godwin started preserving a few of the more important buildings and reconstructed others (such as the Governor’s Palace) and eventually their project expanded to include a large part of the original colonial town, eventually encompassing about 85 percent of the historic part of Williamsburg’s original area.
Since the start of restoration, Colonial Williamsburg has pretty much been nearly re-created, featuring shops, taverns and open-air markets styled as they were in Colonial times. The original Governor’s Palace and the Capitol building were gone by 1926 and so the buildings you see there now are complete reconstructions (on their original sites), built carefully and with attention to historical detail with the use of written descriptions and period illustrations.
There are about 500 buildings in Colonial Williamsburg, with about 88 of them original. The grounds and gardens you see today also are reconstructions in the Colonial Revival style.
The retail shops located on the western side of the district were built starting in the 1930s and also reflect the Colonial Revival architecture.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a private, non-profit educational institution, operates Colonial Williamsburg. It receives no federal funding. The Historic Area is under its aegis, as are hotels, restaurants, convention centers, and golf courses. The Foundation also sells licensed reproductions and products.
The Foundation reports that more than 100 million people have visited Colonial Williamsburg historic area since its opening in 1932. U.S. presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton have visited the historic district, as have more than 100 heads of state and government.