Williamsburg’s iconic Colonial Capitol building was completely restored. Visitors can tour its House of Burgesses (legislative) chamber as well as its capital crimes court and hear the inspiring story of Mary Aggie. Photograph by Sarah Jaquay

The aphorism the third time’s the charm applies to my Colonial Williamsburg connection. My first visit was the spring after President Kennedy’s assassination. I knew nothing about American history and my primary focus was ice cream; on my second visit (summer,1982) I was with a friend who cared little about history and we were both focused on getting to Virginia Beach to counteract sweltering heat. So I wasn’t thrilled when my husband advocated for visiting Colonial Williamsburg in early March when we needed to vacate our home during renovations. His arguments prevailed: It’s drivable, warmer and we both wanted to see Jamestown and Yorktown, the other angles of Virginia’s “Colonial Triangle.” (Please see article below for information about Jamestown and Yorktown.)
Williamsburg succeeded Jamestown as the colonial capital of Virginia in 1699 and was a hub of activity (radical and otherwise) through the American Revolution that officially ended in 1783. So for almost a hundred years this small town was England’s focal point in the wealthiest, most-populated British colony in America. Sadly, Williamsburg fell into disrepair, particularly its colonial-era buildings, in the 19th and 20th centuries. Fortunately, in 1926 the rector of Williamsburg’s revered Bruton Parish Church, the Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, convinced philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to invest in restoring Va.’s second colonial capital to its 18th century glory. And while the buildings in the historic district aren’t necessarily located in their original spots, many of them were restored according to the architectural standards (and sometimes even the blueprints) of the original structures.
What visitors notice when navigating Colonial Williamsburg is the grid that forms its core: The Duke of Gloucester Street at its center is flanked by Nicholson Street to the North and Francis Street to the South. There are interesting stops along each route and shuttles at strategic peripheral locations. So when your feet start barking, it’s time to hop aboard one of them. We had three days to see everything in Va.’s Colonial Triangle, so we decided to spend two days in Williamsburg, a half-day in Jamestown and a half-day at the Battlefield at Yorktown. We also wanted to visit the campus of William and Mary, America’s second oldest college founded in 1693 that boasts many patriot alumni including Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and several signers of the Declaration of Independence.
There are so many aspects (and themed tours) of Colonial Williamsburg, it’s wise to start in the visitor center to craft a plan. We love films providing guests with an overview and recommend watching “The Story of a Patriot.” It was Hollywood-made and filmed in Williamsburg in 1956; plus it enjoys the distinction of being the world’s longest-continuously shown film. You may recognize a young Jack Lord (think “Book ‘em Danno” from Hawaii Five-O) who plays John Fry, a fictional planter who’s a member of Virginia’s colonial legislature, the House of Burgesses. It evokes the era and depicts how shrewd some of the patriots were in laying the groundwork for Virginians to become revolutionaries. On June 1, 1774 Virginians joined in a day of “Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer” in sympathy with Bay Staters who were being punished for the Boston Tea Party. They knew this to be an illegal act that would force Va.’s Royal Governor, John Murray, to dissolve the assembly. Many of the members adjourned to Raleigh Tavern and from that space started on a trajectory towards self-government. We added Raleigh Tavern to our list of must-see stops.
For the next two days we strolled the grounds of Colonial Williamsburg, often receiving almost-private tours of iconic buildings such as the Colonial Capitol where on one side of the chamber, the House of Burgesses met and on the other side was a capital crimes court. On the court side we sat riveted while a costumed interpreter told the true story of Mary Aggie, a slave who changed Va.‘s statutes. Mary was convicted of stealing some bed sheets from her owner and could have suffered the death penalty for it. At the time, white men who were first-time offenders could be spared the harshest punishment for capital crimes (which were defined broadly) by demonstrating a profession of faith, often by reading a passage from the Bible. Mary Aggie was able to do so and thus secured the “benefit of clergy” exemption from capital punishment for enslaved Virginians. According to the interpreter, it helped that Mary Aggie was well-known and well-liked in the community. No one wanted her hanged for such a trivial offense.
Another “wow” moment happened when we lucked into a tour of Raleigh Tavern. This was where some legislators, including Patrick Henry, convened after Gov. Murray shut down the House of Burgesses. Although Raleigh Tavern was the site of the what became known as the First Va. Convention and Patrick Henry made his famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech at the Second Va. Convention, it was close enough. We were also astonished to learn the most-ordered drink at Raleigh Tavern was water. The interpreter explained taverns were licensed places where travelers could eat, drink and have lodgings (often a communal room) for the night. “These travelers had long exhausted the water supply they could carry on horseback and wanted water that was fresher or spring-fed to avoid illness,” he explained.
After we sated ourselves on onion pie and Brunswick Stew (a local delicacy) at King’s Arms Tavern where dishes “inspired by 18th century recipes” are served, we wandered around William & Mary’s lovely campus and through the Sir Christopher Wren Building, the oldest of Williamsburg’s restored public buildings. It was constructed from 1695-1699, when Va.‘s colonial capital was still at Jamestown.
I regret it took three times to appreciate Colonial Williamsburg’s significance.
I do know, however, the third visit wasn’t long enough. We’ll be back to peruse the various art museums and to attend more “Candlelight Concerts” at Bruton Parish Church, preferably in late winter or early spring when the crowds are down and the dogwoods are blooming.
For more information, see www.colonialwilliamsburg.org.