Travelers in the desert or the jungle sometimes see the remains of old cities. These cities were once large and prosperous, but something has changed. Perhaps the climate got drier or wetter; perhaps the trade routes, which had brought merchants to the city, now went elsewhere; perhaps enemies destroyed them; or perhaps disease or famine drove the people away.
Other cities, which were once important, have become less so in time. Jamestown, Virginia, the first English colony in America is now only an historic site. It began as the capital of Virginia. But when fire destroyed the government buildings in 1699, the capital was moved to nearby Williamsburg.
Williamsburg was an important town for many years. The British Governors lived there, and two of them worked on the plans for the town and its buildings. The College of William and Mary was established there in the 1690s – the second oldest college in America. As the capital, Williamsburg contained many public buildings, including a courthouse, a jail, a powder magazine, the governor’s palace, and the government building. Of course, there were many private houses as well.
From 1699 until 1780, Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia. Many people came there for government and legal business. It was also a social center with dances, fairs, horse races and auctions. The Governor and his wife provided expensive dinners and entertainment for their guests.
Most of the important people in Virginia owned tobacco plantations. In 1612, John Rolfe had first raised tobacco to sell to England. Soon tobacco farming was Virginia’s most important business. Most planters were able to build large houses and buy slaves to do their work. One plantation owner is said to have owned 300,000 acres of land and 1,000 black slaves, as well as having large amounts of money.
The planters were the leaders of this colonial society, and they resented British interference in their local government. When England imposed taxes on the American colonists in 1765, it was a Virginian, Patrick Henry, who spoke against them. His words, “Give me liberty, or give me death” helped to inspire the American Revolution. As complaints about British rule increased, it was Virginians who led the rebels. George Washington became commander of the revolutionary army, and Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
In 1780, the capital of Virginia was moved to Richmond. Williamsburg was now simply a small college town of local importance. Not much changed in Williamsburg for many years. In the twentieth century, the Reverend Dr. Goodwin, who was the priest at the Williamsburg Church, had the idea of restoring Williamsburg to the way it appeared in colonial days. Goodwin approached John D. Rockefeller Jr. with his idea, and Rockefeller agreed to finance the project. Beginning in 1926, the old buildings of Williamsburg were restored to their original form. First were the college buildings, then the Raleigh Tavern, the government building, the governor’s palace and so on. Buildings that had been destroyed over time were reconstructed from plans and descriptions.
Soon the restored buildings were opened to the public. Guides, dressed in eighteenth century costumes, show visitors through the buildings and gardens. Visitors can also travel to nearby tobacco plantations. Now tourists who pay admission to visit this wonderful historic town finance much of the work of restoration and conservation.