A BRIEF HISTORY OF WILLIAMSBURG
The roots of our nation’s heritage have spread from Jamestown, a tiny settlement along the James River, across the continent and to the Pacific Islands. The history of this County paints a picture of where American began.
For thousands of years before the arrival of the English settlers, migratory hunters lived along the Chesapeake Bay, first in base camps and then in permanent villages along the Bay’s many estuaries. They were the ancestors of the Virginia Algonquins and the Powhatans. By the 1600’s the several hundred Native Americans of the lower tidewater farmed and hunted near here, and communicated and traded with tribes on both sides of the Chesapeake.
Family Observes Cooking
Into this sparsely settled land came 104 hardy, determined English Colonists on May 13, 1607. They built a fort and small settlement, and farmed and traded with the Powhatans, who were friendly at the start. Soon the English established other settlements on the peninsula, with James Towne as the administrative center or capitol. On July 30, 1619, in Jamestown’s Church, burgesses elected from each settlement in the colony formed the New World’s first representative assembly. In August, a Dutch ship brought the first blacks to the colony.
Virginia was divided into 8 shires or counties in 1634. James City included what is now Surry County across the James River, part of Charles City County, and some of New Kent County. By the early 1640’s, English settlers began spreading up and down the County, establishing generally modest farms and small plantations. Most contained about 250 acres, although places like Carter’s Grove and Kingsmill, which came along later, often had more than 1,000 acres. In working small and middle-sized tracts, the early colonists foretold the upper James City County farms of today. The chief crop, tobacco, became the cornerstone of Virginia’s economy for 200 years.
Williamsburg was founded as the capital of the Virginia Colony in 1699. The original capital, Jamestown was the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the New World founded in 1607. Colonial leaders petitioned the Virginia Assembly to relocate the capital from Jamestown to Middle Plantation, five miles inland between the James and the York Rivers. The new city was renamed Williamsburg in honor of England’s reigning monarch, King William III. Williamsburg celebrated its 300 th Anniversary in 1999.
Williamsburg was one of America’s first planned cities. Laid out in 1699 under the supervision of Governor Francis Nicholson, it was to be a “new and well-ordered city” suitable for the capital of the largest and most populous of the British colonies in America. A succession of beautiful capitol buildings became home to the oldest legislative assembly in the New World. The young city grew quickly into the center of political, religious, economic and social life in Virginia.
Williamsburg also became a center of learning. Famous political leaders emerged from the College of William and Mary, (which had been founded in 1693), such as Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Tyler. The first hospital established in America for the care and treatment of mental illness was founded in Williamsburg in 1773. General George Washington assembled the Continental Army in Williamsburg in 1781 for the siege of nearby Yorktown and the winning of American independence.
The Capital was again moved in 1780, this time up the James River to Richmond, where it remains today. Williamsburg reverted to a quiet college town and rural county seat. In retrospect, Williamsburg’s loss of capital city status was its salvation as many 18 th century buildings survived into the early twentieth century. The Restoration of Williamsburg began in 1926, after the Rector of Bruton Parish Church, the Reverend Doctor W. A. R. Goodwin, brought the city’s importance to the attention of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who then funded and led the massive reconstruction of the 18 th century city we see today. National attention soon focused on the restoration effort. During a landmark visit in 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed its main thoroughfare, the Duke of Gloucester Street, “the most historic avenue in America.”
Today, Williamsburg is known internationally as the premier center for the preservation and interpretation of American colonial history: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; and as the home of the nation’s premier small public university: The College of William and Mary.
Early 20th Century
World War I brought the twentieth century to James City County’s doorstep. The peninsula became a center for troop training and embarkation, munitions manufacturing, and supply storage. Neighboring York County became the site of Penniman, a quickly built munitions town of 15,000 inhabitants that is now only a memory. Williamsburg was the base of supplies and rail center for the new town, and James City County was called upon in many ways to provide food, services, and wartime housing.
By the 1920s, automobile travel had begun to revolutionize the economy. When work was initiated to restore the old capital of Williamsburg, thousands came to see the surviving eighteenth-century buildings and reconstructions of other major governmental properties. The restoration work was a vital factor in minimizing the effect of the 1930’s depression, helping spur the local economy until the beginning of World War II.
James City County’s most important treasure was Jamestown Island, the scene of periodic commemorative celebrations beginning in 1807. It was saved from both desecration and commercialization by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), which in 1893 acquired 22-1/2 acres around the church site. Since the National Park Service came on the scene in 1934, the 2 organizations have worked together to protect and develop the island as an important historical site. A scenic parkway was planned to link Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown. Only the Yorktown-Williamsburg section had been completed when the needs of World War II halted construction.
The National Park Service in 1992 initiated a comprehensive archaeological assessment of Jamestown Island to locate and evaluate its cultural resources for management purposes and for interpretation. In April 1994, an APVA archaeological team discovered a portion of the First Settlement evidenced by over 100,000 artifacts. In September 1996, the APVA announced that it had found the First Fort.
A unique County business, the Williamsburg Pottery, had its beginnings in 1938. In a shed on a half-acre lot beside Route 60, Jimmy Maloney and his potter’s wheel opened what became a multimillion dollar business, which served 3 million customers annually in 30 buildings on 200 acres.
During World War II, industrial activity added to the County’s agricultural economy. Families of military and civilian workers moved to the area to be near their loved ones. Grove community was settled by Black Americans when the Naval Weapons Station and Camp Peary needed the property on which their homes were located. After the war, many military and civilian families remained, making their permanent homes in Grove.
By the 1950s the economy was growing away from its agricultural heritage and toward manufacturing and service-oriented businesses. The College of William and Mary, long an academic and cultural pillar and leader of the area’s economy, contributed further to County growth. Student enrollment more than doubled from 1955 to 1970, leading faculty, administrators, and students to seek new housing areas beyond the city limits.
The year 1957 was the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the Jamestown Settlers in 1607, and it marked a dramatic increase in travel to the area. The Commonwealth of Virginia created Jamestown Festival Park to commemorate the event. This park continues as a vital factor in the area’s travel industry under its new name, Jamestown Settlement. Colonial Williamsburg opened a new visitor center, as well as hotel and meal facilities to accommodate the steadily increasing number of visitors to Virginia’s Historic Triangle, the area consisting of Jamestown, Yorktown and Williamsburg. The Colonial Parkway was completed, linking these 3 historical places by a limited access, landscaped byway.
Carter’s Grove, an eighteenth-century landmark on the James River 8 miles east of Williamsburg, opened to the public in 1964. A new surge of tourism was brought to the County by travelers visiting the mansion and grounds.
A new era began for the County in 1969 when Anheuser-Busch, Inc., purchased the eighteenth-century Kingsmill Plantation. A major brewing plant opened, attracting support industries-Ball Metal Container Group, Owens-Brockway Glass, and Reynolds Aluminum Recycling. The first lots of the Kingsmill planned community were offered as quality homesites. Busch Gardens/The Old Country opened in 1975 as a major entertainment park with a European theme. It has experienced steady growth. Kingsmill was developed starting in 1975.
Residential and hotel/restaurant construction boomed during the 1970s and 80s, followed by growth of the retail and service sectors in the 90s. Fords Colony opened and started lot sales in 1985. Governors Land opened in the 1990’s Stonehouse in 2000. James City County also realized that industrial and technology-based businesses were emerging as strong elements of the local economy during this last decade of the Twentieth Century.
Rich History in Everyday Life
On Route 60 just west of Toano, see Hickory Neck Episcopal Church, where Sunday services are held regularly in its north transept, built in 1774. The Georgian Mansion at Powhatan Plantation is visible from Ironbound Road. James City County’s surviving nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century homes, farm buildings, and businesses are concentrated on or near Richmond Road in the upper County towns of Lightfoot, Norge and Toano, and scattered through the older areas along the Chickahominy River. Olive Branch Christian Church and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church are 2 fine old churches still in use.
Today, James City County is home to over 70,000 residents and is 144.1 square miles in size. Its residents and visitors continue to enjoy the proud history of this diverse County. We hope you enjoy James City County’s history as well.
One of the top 15 cities in the U.S.– Travel + Leisure’s “2017 World’s Best Awards”
One of the top five US cities for retirement– Money Magazine
A “retirement mecca.”– Virginia Business Magazine
Recognized as a 50 Best College Town to Live in– CollegeRanker.com
No. 3 on the 10 Best Historic City list– USA TODAY