Living Colonial History

Let’s step back in time for a moment. Imagine a time with no Internet, no iPads, no television or radio, in fact, almost no one had electricity and there was very little indoor plumbing or running water. Women couldn’t vote white males owned African slaves. America is not a free country, yet, but still the subjects of the King of England. This is Williamsburg, VA in the 1700s, or as it is more commonly known – Colonial Williamsburg, one of the must-see tourist sites of the Mid-Atlantic.

When we arrived, our first quantum leap was into the Governor’s Palace. Our guide, dressed in the period frock of one of the Governor’s house workers, brought us into the house. Decorated for the period, with many of the furnishings actually owned by John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore when he lived here with his wife and young family, the house was lavish for the time, and substantially larger than most at three levels and nearly 3,400 square feet for the living quarters.

The first level of the home was exquisitely decorated with weapons of all kinds – muskets and swords of all sizes – and of course the royal coat of arms. The goal of course was to intimidate and inspire depending upon the guest – and we’re sure visitors got whichever message was appropriate.

The family quarters on the second floor were decorated in bright colors, beautiful wallpaper and elegant furniture. The living space was large for the colonial standard when many of the Governor’s subjects were living in a one room house, but small by the Murrays’ standards. In fact, the Governor and his wife were quite wealthy and owned a much larger home in England. In fact, the home they left behind in New York (prior to accepting the Virginia governorship) was even larger – likely a disappointment for he and his family.

The grounds housed other sheds, reproduced on the original foundation plates, for meat salting and smoking, kitchen, scullery (where animals are prepared for eatin’) and a laundry. Perhaps the strangest outshed was the one called the “bath house” which we were told was not used for bathing, but as a “rinse” off spot for the Governor on those stiflingly hot Virginia summer days.

We then made our way towards  the Capitol. We made quick stops at the many shops and taverns along with a printing and bookmaking house and coffee house. The coffee house offered a free cup of coffee, tea or chocolate a.k.a. hot chocolate, an a chance for lunch with a full-on colonial re-enactor (fully in character, while many at other sites were not.) Each location offered brief tours with an abundance of information. For example, we learned:

  • Taverns, or “public houses,” in colonial days had to provide rooms (not beds), food and place to board your horse – so in practice, it was more like hotels of today.
  • Books were extremely expensive to purchase as the paper was made from cloth – literally old clothing. A piece of paper cost as much as schilling, and the books were bound in leather, making them available only to the wealthiest land owners. As a result, most of what we know about the average colonist is drawn archaeological evidence and from how these individuals were described by the wealthy.

The best part of the day was an amazing reenactment of Mrs. Washington’s historic visit to Williamsburg following the country’s entry into war with the British. She thanked the crowd for coming and interacted with many actors in the crowd. In particular she thanked one gentleman for his service and offered to pay for a doctor to look at his damaged leg. It was a heartwarming exchange and set the mood for the entire period.

After seeing multiple commercials when we were kids, it was pretty amazing to see this place in person, and would be a great place to take kids. The entire park is overwhelmingly large – with hundreds of building it is actually the largest living history site in the United States. There’s also Jamestown and Yorktown available to explore.

If you visit, plan for at least 2-3 days to see it all. We simply scratched the surface. For more information visit www.history.org