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Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg

5.0 1
by Philip Kopper

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal - Library Journal
A study of the history and organization of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has long been awaited by scholars of colonial life and friends of Virginia's restored 18th-century capital city. Kopper's text covers Williamsburg from its beginnings in the 1600s through its restoration earlier in this century and into the present, with a fine discussion of the work of the archaeologists and historians dedicated to making Williamsburg a truthful ``living museum'' of colonial society. The book overflows, however, with ornamental prose that will cause some readers to lose interest. More determined readers will become absorbed in this chronicle of an American institution. No one could fail to be delighted by Clay's elegant photographs. For public libraries.Sally R. Sims, Ohio State Univ. Libs., Columbus

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Abrams, Harry N., Inc.
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10.37(w) x 12.25(h) x 1.25(d)

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Chapter One


Soon after his Accession to the Government, he caused the Assembly, and Courts of Judicature, to be remov'd from James-Town, where there were good Accommodations for People, to Middle-Plantation, where there were none. There he flatter'd himself with the fond Imagination, of being the Founder of a new City.... There he procur'd a stately Fabrick to be erected, which he placed opposite to the College, and graced it with the magnificent name of the Capitol.

—Robert Beverley, 1705
The History and Present State of Virginia

Williamsburg would become a jewel in the crown of British Empire. Yet its founding resulted from failure, from accident, pestilence and other misfortunes that assailed Jamestown, which was, in a word, a disaster. Virginia's first government had been seated in entirely the wrong sort of place.

    From the beginning Jamestown's pestilential swamp beset the settlers with "Fluxes and Agues," despite the imposition of English America's first sanitary code in 1610. Within the compound Governor Sir Thomas Gates prohibited not only the "unmanly, slothfull and loathesome ... necessities of nature" but laundry and pot washing as well. Yet contagions continued, spread no doubt by bad water from the shallow wells and by the marsh's mosquitoes. Settlements established south of the James and upriver near the falls fared better: "There did notso much as one man miscarry, and but very few or none fall sicker," a chronicle recorded. The writing was on the stockade wall.

    Jamestown remained the capital because the colony had more pressing problems to address than relocating: security, relations with home, trade, agriculture (especially in the cash crop tobacco, which was planted in the very streets). Motions to move the capital were heard as early as Gates's day, but the colonists were preoccupied with surviving, making their livings, getting ahead. Then as now, life is what goes on while we're making other plans. If Jamestown was not an ideal city, at least, like Everest, it was there. If it escaped destruction by Indians in 1622, Englishmen running amok half a century later made up for that.

    In 1676 a wellborn newcomer from Suffolk, Nathaniel Bacon, challenged his cousin-in-law, Governor Sir William Berkeley, over the latter's benign Indian policy, which successfully confined natives to reserved areas. Bacon inspired the massacre of tractable Indians, raised a rabble—some say a rebel army—and laid siege to Jamestown. When Governor Berkeley fled to the Eastern Shore to marshal his forces, Bacon entered Jamestown and burned it to the ground in a nighttime blaze that struck fear into men's hearts as far as the glow was visible. The firebrand might have reached greater heights, but a month later he died of fever—a case of Jamestown's Revenge?—and Berkeley reclaimed his ashen seat.

    Taking vengeance, the governor hanged Bacon's followers, some at his estate and others at the place called Middle Plantation. This central site between two rivers on the high ground above the peninsula's narrowest spot already boasted a hamlet with a church and crossroads. It was the place where royal troops had been quartered and Indians agreed by treaty to live apart under English sovereignty. Then it was here that the Assembly, bereft of a capital in 1677, met at the home of one Captain Otho Thorpe and in its wisdom decided to restore the seat of government to Jamestown.

    Given the magnitude of the troubles that befell his administration, it was inevitable that Berkeley would be recalled to England. He was replaced in 1677 by Thomas Culpeper, a baron and friend of King James, for whom he performed one particularly noble service. Mindful that the Assembly had presumed the exclusive prerogative to tax Virginians since 1623, Culpeper nevertheless proposed a royal levy on exported tobacco. Predictably, the Assembly opposed it, but Culpeper had not been sent to govern because he was a fool. First, he promised certain rewards to certain burgesses if they would support his original bill, for example, to the elected Speaker of the House a lifetime seat on the appointed Council. Then Culpeper agreed to an amendment seemingly in a spirit of compromise: Tobacco carried in Virginia ships would be exempt from the new duty, giving the colony's captains a competitive edge. Through these maneuvers he got the bill passed subject to royal review. The king accepted the act, then exercised his acknowledged right to veto amendments, and the colony's advantage was annulled. Culpeper and his successors—uniquely in these colonies—were thus freed from having to bargain with the legislature for the funds to pay their salaries. In the meantime, Jamestown was rebuilt on its ashes. The city grew beyond its original walls until the autumn of 1698, when disaster struck again. The statehouse, fourth building to fill that function since the colony's birth, burned in a fire of mysterious origin. For reasons unrelated to the fire, a new governor arrived a few weeks later and threw his considerable weight behind the logical decision to move the seat of government.

    The new executive was actually returning to Virginia, so the tangled tale of his administration (and the founding of Williamsburg) starts earlier. First a soldier, then a professional administrator and prototype colonial civil servant, Francis Nicholson eventually governed colonies as distant as South Carolina and Nova Scotia. Often champion of governmental reforms and a man of many talents, he seemed a paragon in some respects, though he had three besetting sins: a chronic thirst, an apoplectic temper, and an unrequited fondness for rich young women.

    Nicholson had come to the New World in the 1680s as an infantry commander and served in New England under Governor Sir Edmund Andros. He swore loyalty to the deposed King James II in 1688 and opposed the succession of Parliament's choice, William of Orange, whose coronation signaled the end of royal rule by divine right. But he answered for that back in London and two years later was restored to royal service—this time in Virginia. Serving with distinction from 1690 to 1692, he opened new trade with Indians, inspected the frontiers, improved the militia, established a postal system, and provided both moral and financial support to the idea of erecting a college. This last notion proved crucial.

    A college for Virginia had first been envisioned upriver in 1617 by King James I (he who won lasting fame for commissioning the Holy Bible's most poetic English translation). Possessing missionary zeal and captivated by exotic Pocahontas during her brief stay in London, King James had wished to educate "the children of the Infidels"—before the massacre of 1622 dampened such ardor in English hearts. The college idea then lay dormant through the reign of James's ill-fated son Charles I and the Puritan interregnum. It was revived in 1660 with the restoration of the martyred king's son Charles II, though by now its new goals had become "the advance of learning, education of youth; [to] supply the ministry and promotion of piety." Still it remained only an idea. Charles II's Catholic brother James II came to the throne and went into exile and King William was crowned before the idea arose again. Now it was championed by an ambitious minister trained at Marischal College, later a citadel of the Scottish Enlightenment.

    The Reverend James Blair, the bishop of London's new representative in Virginia, won endorsements from the colony's clergy, the Council and notably Governor Nicholson, who was then serving his first term. Possessed of persuasive powers that were nearly Rasputinian, Commissary Blair traveled to London, where he won Queen Mary's support and through her King William's. In 1693 he convinced the monarchs to substantially endow the college that would bear their names. (The commissary also raised private funds, including a gift from imprisoned pirates as a quid pro quo for helping to secure their freedom. More respectably perhaps, the executors of the scientist Robert Boyle's estate donated a large portion of income from his Yorkshire home, Brafferton Manor; hence the building that houses the Indian School at the college was named the Brafferton.) Bearing the only royal charter ever granted a college in English America, he returned to Virginia where the Assembly named him president of the college for life and the king appointed him to the Council. The legislature then debated several Tidewater sites and resolved, according to the modern historian Rutherfoord Goodwin, "That Middle Plantation be the Place for erecting the said College of William and Mary in Virginia and that the said College be at that Place erected and built as neare the Church now standing in Middle Plantation old Fields as Convenience will permitt."

    Meanwhile, in one of those shuffles that colonial administration was heir to, Nicholson was recalled to England, then named governor of Maryland while his old boss succeeded him as head of the Virginia government. Sir Edmund Andros was ensconced in Jamestown when Commissary Blair returned from England and the two quickly quarreled (as indeed Blair quarreled with—and bested—almost everyone who crossed him). When Blair fell sick and couldn't preach, Andros appointed another minister to fill the Jamestown pulpit; recovering his health, Blair raged so violently about the affront that Andros suspended him from the Council. A witness observed that the first college building's foundation was laid "with the best Solemnity we were capeable" on August 8, 1695. But dignity deteriorated from there, when the king restored Blair to his Council seat and the feud between governor and commissary grew hotter.

    Andros accused Blair of unbridled conduct and Blair replied with volleys of charges: everything from antipathy for the college in general to making off with bricks meant for its construction in particular. He spread tales of gubernatorial error as far as his pen could reach, writing Nicholson in Maryland that Col. Philip Ludwell, the best man to oversee the college's construction, had begged off. "The reason he gives out Publickly is his age.... But he sticks not to say among his Friends, that he sees no possibility of carrying it on in this Governors time." Journeying back to Virginia, Nicholson vainly tried to mediate and was arrested by Andros for his pains. Blair went all the way back to England and brought charges against Andros before the archbishop of Canterbury. In Andros's place, Blair and such worthies as John Locke secured the reappointment of Nicholson, who had officially supported the college plan and personally subscribed £150 to it. For the moment, Williamsburg had champions at the head of both church and state.

    The returning governor was as ambitious, able and headstrong as Commissary Blair, his patron pro tem—even if he was less adroit in their ultimate contretemps. Nicholson's principal accomplishment in Maryland had been to design the new capital city of Annapolis after he had secured the removal of the capital from St. Mary's City (a stronghold of Catholics whose loyalty was distrusted by the restored House of Stuarts). His plan for Annapolis far up the Chesapeake featured open squares and major buildings set in circles to command the views up radiating streets. The design, a mixed success, departed from English tradition to reflect new urban vogues exemplified by Sir Christopher Wren's ambitious and unfulfilled plans for rebuilding London after the Great Fire of 1666.

    Arriving in Jamestown weeks after the statehouse mysteriously burned, Nicholson willingly addressed the challenge presented by its charred remains. Knowing the old site, he disliked it. If a new statehouse were to be built, why not raise it in a pleasant and healthy place worthy of the distinction? There was already "the beginning of a town" seven miles away, as a student at William and Mary declared: "A Church, an ordinary, several stores, two Mills, a smiths shop, a Grammar School, and above all the Colledge." A goal clearly in mind, Nicholson began politicking to get his way, for though the governor's office had won certain new prerogatives after Bacon's Rebellion, his powers as chairman of the Council were limited to that of primes inter pares ("first among equals"). Perhaps he commissioned a survey without troubling other authorities about it. Certainly he consorted with Commissary Blair, still his ally, for on May Day, 1699, the college hosted a grand fete for the colony's populace and its establishment—the burgesses and Council with Nicholson at its head. The celebration featured student oratory to prove rhetorical prowess, and one scholar's address offered persuasive arguments for locating the seat of government near the young institution: "The Colledge will help to make the town ... [by] the very numbers of the Colledge who will be obliged to reside at this place viz. the president and Masters ... with such servants as will be necessary for the kitchin, Buttery, Gardens, wooding, and all other uses." Further, the student declared, the institution would attract "Tradesmen, Labourers, Shopkeepers, perhaps Printers, Booksellers, Bookbinders, Mathematical instrument makers, nurses for the sick.... By this method we have an opportunity not only of making a Town, but such a Town as may equal if not outdo Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charlestown, and Annapolis; and consequently such a Town as may retrieve the reputation of our Country." The colony "has suffered by nothing so much as by neglecting a seat of trade, wealth and Learning, and by running altogether into dispersed Country, [i. e.] plantations. If ever we would equal these our Rivals, we must contrive to joyn our heads and purses together ... learn to improve our shipping and navigation, our trade and commerce, our minds and manners, and what no man can do singly, by a friendly cohabitation and society to do jointly with one another."

    A fortnight after May Day, one Benjamin Harrison, burgess, presented the student's prescient speech to the Assembly and formally proposed moving the capital to the college precinct. Meanwhile Theodorick Bland had surveyed the area's irregular boundaries and the miles-long rights of way leading to two landings on the nearby creeks. That task must have taken considerable time, yet Bland finished his survey map on June 2, 1699. Five days later the burgesses authorized the building of a city on the site his plat depicted. Nicholson signed the act into law the next day, as well he might, evidently having written a good deal of it.

    This "Acte Directing the Building of the Capitoll and the City of Williamsburgh" at once stipulated the creation of both a building and the surrounding town. It is a remarkable document for its double focus and its syntax:

And forasmuch as the Generall Assembly and Generall Courts of this his Majesties Colony and Dominion cannot possibly be held and kept at the said Capitoll [building] unless a good Towne be built and settled adjacent to the said Capitoll suitable for the Accommodation and Entertainment of a considerable Number of Persons that of Necessity must resort thither[;] and whereas in all Probability it will prove highly advantageous and beneficiall to his Majesties Royall Colledge of William & Mary to have the Conveniences of a Towne near the same[;] Be it therefore enacted by the Authority aforesaid and it is hereby enacted[:] that two Hundred eighty three Acres thirty five Poles and a halfe of Land scituate lying and being at the Middleplantation in James Citye and York Counties ... shall be and is hereby reserved and appropriated for the onely and sole Use of a City to be there built and erected.

    The act went on to reserve a specific plot 475 feet square for the structure to be "caled and knowne by the Name of the Capitoll," a term not used in America before.

    Nicholson's original bill—for certainly he was the principal author—was marvelous in its particulars as the act went on to read like a zoning code. It specified sixty-foot-square lots for warehouses and such at the public landings on the two creeks, which gave access to the York and James rivers respectively. It directed that the town be divided into half-acre lots; that houses be set back six feet from the main streets; that dwellings measure at least twenty by thirty feet; that they stand at least ten feet high at the edge of the roof.

    Building regulations would be written by "Directors appointed for the Settlement and Encouragement of the City of Williamsburgh." With Nicholson again the first among equals, these directors were empowered to "make such Rules and orders and to give such Directions in the Building of the said City and Portes not already provided for by this Act as to them shall seem best and most convenient": Twelve freeholders from the neighboring counties of York, New Kent, and James City were chosen to appraise the value of properties expropriated for the city; ownership passed to six trustees who were then commissioned to sell town sites and use the proceeds to repay the original owners.

    Sales were conditional; a purchaser was required to build a substantial dwelling within twenty-four months or the land would revert to city ownership. While house size and material depended on the parcel—one needn't build two minimal houses on a double lot—all properties were to be fenced within six months of occupancy. Similar conditions could be applied to other parts of town at the discretion of the directors.

    Having sketched the town in considerable detail and laid ground rules for its development, the act paid homage to royalty at home. It named Queen's Road, which led to a "Port or Landing Place" on Queen's Creek, "in Commemoracon of the late Queen Mary of blesed memory." It stated that Archer's Hope Creek, which ran to the James, "shall for ever hereafter be caled and knowne by the Name of Princess Creek ... in Honour of her Royall Highness the Princess Ann of Denmark." It declared "the said main Street ... in Honour of his Highness William Duke of Gloceter shall for ever hereafter be called and knowne by the Name of Duke of Gloceter Street." (This eleven-year-old princeling was heir apparent to the English throne by an act of Parliament that established the line of succession through the deposed James II's fertile second daughter, a Protestant. Princess Anne conceived eighteen times but delivered only five children successfully, and none of them reached adulthood. The little duke died in 1700, and two years later the crown devolved to his mother—as Queen Anne—when King William died.)

    Knowing that History does not reward the modest, the governor seized the prerogative to name the next largest streets Francis and Nicholson for himself. The rest took the names of realms in the growing empire, for this royal governor was careful to observe appropriate amenities often very grandly, as would happen when news arrived three months after the fact of King William's death and Queen Anne's coronation. Nicholson designated a holiday for some weeks off in order to have time to plan properly. As a Swiss traveler recorded, he hosted a day of both deep mourning and splendid revelry.

    Most of the populace converged on Williamsburg for the occasion; two thousand militia from six neighboring counties were in attendance, to say nothing of two Indian queens with two score "of their most distinguished warriors and servants." Grandstands were erected before the college, and musicians appeared on the college balconies. "On the uppermost were the buglers from the warships, on the second, oboes and on the lowest violinists, so that when the ones stopped the others began. Sometimes they played together. When the proclamation of the King's death was to be made they played very movingly and mournfully." Nicholson appeared in mourning astride a white horse draped with black and Commissary Blair's eulogy moved people to tears. "Considerable marching and counter-marching" continued until noon when the musicians abandoned dirges in favor of livelier airs. Riding a new horse, Nicholson reappeared in a blue uniform covered with braid and the new queen was proclaimed to rousing cheers and salutes from cannon. Nicholson refreshed his honored guests "right royally" while "the ordinary persons received each a glass of rum or brandy with sugar." The ceremony was then repeated at the building site of the Capitol and "the Governor entertained again as at noon" as toasts "were repeatedly answered by guns and buglers." That night when the master of ceremonies came a cropper at setting off the fireworks, the governor mounted his horse to oversee them himself. Nor did the revelry end there; it was all repeated the next day at Nicholson's grand behest.

    Whether as governor of Virginia per se or executive director of Williamsburg, Nicholson claimed the role of urban planner even before the town was chartered. Given his worldly sophistication and experience, he was probably the most qualified man in town for the job, if hardly the most popular. The lay of the land physically limited the town's options, and traditions of English town design dating back to the period of Roman occupation dictated constraints at least as distinct.

    Nicholson took it upon himself to design a city that was classic in some respects and progressive in others. While he had ideals, it was not to be an ideal city; the Tidewater was not Elysium after all, but a ramble of woodland, pasture and gullies; his chalk was not indelible, nor was the slate perfectly clean when he began. The main building of the college, already in place, faced almost due east toward the old brick church. A road, or horse path in some people's view, came north up the peninsula, sensibly avoiding steep ravines by meandering along the top of the ridge. It followed the most level route, then split at the college, one path slanting off to Jamestown and the other toward Henrico and the eventual location of Richmond.

    Topography and tradition combined as the locations of college and church virtually dictated a central avenue running due east from William and Mary. Tradition alone dictated a grid pattern of parallel and perpendicular streets. But Nicholson was aware of the new aesthetics that architects and planners like Sir Christopher Wren were championing at home in the dawning of a newly urbane age. A principal tenet on the rise was the importance of the grand view to show off stately edifices and simultaneously bring order to their surroundings. With these principles in mind, Nicholson ordered a boulevard ninety-nine feet wide. It ended at the foot of the first college building which the colony's promoters soon insisted (erroneously) had been designed by the master himself. As one correspondent described, "The Building is beautiful and commodious, being first modelled by Sir Christopher Wren, [and] adapted to the Nature of the Country by the Gentlemen there."


Excerpted from COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG by Philip Kopper. Copyright © 2001 by Philip Kopper. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.



Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Copyright © 1984 Harry N. Abrams. All rights reserved.

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