Williamsburg is one of the most historic towns in America. Each year hundreds of thousands of people visit this city to share in its history. They are drawn, no doubt, by the knowledge that important events took place here, or that famous people used to walk these streets. They get to look at and walk through some of the oldest buildings in the country. But few know that Williamsburg’s history starts long before the Duke of Gloucester Street was cleared, or before these ancient building were constructed. Its history begins before Williamsburg was even ‘Williamsburg.’
For the first 66 years of its existence, Williamsburg was known as ‘Middle Plantation‘. When the Virginia Assembly ordered the creation of Middle Plantation in 1633 they located it in the center of the Virginia Peninsula, not along the James River where most of the other settlements were located. Although Williamsburg would not become the capitol city of Virginia for many years, it was still the scene of many historic events. One year after its establishment, Middle Plantation was the site of a massive public project. It was ordered that every fortieth man in the colony report to Middle Plantation to help construct a palisade (a protective wood barrier) to keep the Virginia Indians away from the English Settlements.
Middle Plantation also played a role in Bacon’s Rebellion. When Nathaniel Bacon decided to challenge the Governor of Virginia in 1676 he chose Middle Plantation as the site to issue his declaration. Although the government of Virginia eventually put down Bacon’s Rebellion, it could not do so before his forces had set fire to many of the public buildings in Jamestown. While these buildings were being rebuilt, the government chose Middle Plantation as its temporary home, and even after they returned to Jamestown, Middle Plantation was still chosen to host important events, including several meetings with prominent Indian leaders.
These events helped Middle Plantation gain a reputation as one of the most important settlements in the colony, a reputation that was bolstered when the settlement was chosen as the site for a college. The College of William and Mary, chartered in 1693, played a key role in turning Middle Plantation into Williamsburg. In 1699 the Virginia government found itself once again temporarily transplanted to Middle Plantation due to a fire in the statehouse at Jamestown. During their stay, they were treated to speeches from college students who all touted the many reasons why the capital should be permanently moved to their city. As one student put it: “Here are great helps towards the beginnings of a town: a church, an ordinary, several stores, two mills, a smith’s shop, a grammar school, and above all, the College.” The government was persuaded. The town was renamed Williamsburg in honor of the king and it was proclaimed that after May 10, 1700 all General Courts and Assemblies would be held in Williamsburg.
The town changed quickly after this announcement. The winding horse path through town was straightened and widened into today’s Duke of Gloucester Street. Public buildings, such as the Capitol, Magazine, and Gaol, were constructed. Influential Virginians began to build houses in town and tradesmen opened shops to cater to these wealthy men. As time went by, Middle Plantation looked less like a simple plantation, and more like the elegant city of Williamsburg that stands today.
Written by local historian, Daniel Moore.