Colonial Williamsburg, the country’s most famous living-history museum, is dedicated to preserving the Virginia town in its 18th-century form and “feeding the human spirit by sharing America’s enduring story.” At the start of the Revolutionary War, Black residents made up more than half the colonial capital’s population, but for decades their stories were missing from the museum’s narrative: how they lived, how they worked, how they worshipped. In fact, Williamsburg is home to one of the oldest Christian congregations established by Black people in the United States, one that traces its founding back to 1776. For more than 50 years, however, the original site of the First Baptist Church has been buried under a parking lot, with only a small metal plaque to acknowledge the location’s historical significance.
In recent years, that’s finally begun to change. Museums, schools, and historians are working to broaden the focus of American history so that it doesn’t just center on white stories. The Virginia Board of Education approved a series of new requirements integrating Black history into its schools’ curriculums. And in the wake of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, communities across the country debated whether the scores of monuments dedicated to slave owners and the Confederacy should be left standing.
Perhaps the biggest milestone in this shift was the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016. To mark the occasion, President Obama rang the Williamsburg First Baptist Church’s Freedom Bell, which had been cast in 1886 to mark its 100-year anniversary. Ever since that ceremony, fellow members of First Baptist Church have been working to preserve more of its past, collecting artifacts and working with descendants of the original congregation to piece it together. “We need, to have people share our history.”
Williamsburg Walking Tours has been the premier tour group to talk about Black History throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia and Colonial Williamsburg. Trish’s expertise in Black history, and her research on the lives of dozens of Black citizens and slaves goes back to before the signing of the constitution. Book or reserve your Black History tour now!
When most of us think back to our childhood school days, we can also remember at least a handful of kids who thought history class was a drag. To them, history just seemed like a jumble of names and dates attached to events long over with and people long dead. What was the point of learning it at all?
They didn’t know then that history was one of the most important subjects they’d ever study. Here we’ll take a closer look at why history is important and explore why everyone should make it a point to study it in depth.
1. History helps us develop a better understanding of the world.
You can’t build a framework on which to base your life without understanding how things work in the world. History paints us a detailed picture of how society, technology, and government worked way back when so that we can better understand how it works now. It also helps us determine how to approach the future, as it allows us to learn from our past mistakes (and triumphs) as a society.
2. History helps us understand ourselves.
To understand who you are, you need to develop a sense of self. A large part of that is learning where you fit into the story of your country or the global community in the grand scheme of things. History tells you the story of how your nation, city, or community came to be everything that it is. It tells you where your ancestors came from and tells you who they were. Most importantly of all, it gives you the ability to spot (and appreciate) the legacies you may have inherited from them.
3. History helps us learn to understand other people.
History isn’t just an essential introduction to your own country, ethnic heritage, and ancestry. It’s also a valuable tool when it comes to understanding those who are different from us. Global, national, and regional history books help us understand how other cultures affect our own.
They encourage us to develop a greater appreciation for multicultural influences within our own communities as well – exactly why everyone should study African American history, immigrant history, and so forth, regardless of their own cultural background.
4. History teaches a working understanding of change.
It goes without saying that change can be a difficult concept to understand. Each of us has a different experience with the rest of the world – an experience shaped by societal norms, cultural differences, personal experiences, and more. We know when we as individuals crave change and why. History helps us better understand how, when, and why change occurs (or should be sought) on a larger scale.
5. History gives us the tools we need to be decent citizens.
Good citizens are always informed citizens, and no one can consider himself to be an informed citizen without a working knowledge of history. This is the case whether we’re talking about our role in our community or in regards to our nation on the whole. History helps us become better voters and more effective members of any type of society. It helps put us in a position to better inform others as well.
6. History makes us better decision makers.
“Those that do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Those words were first spoken by George Santayana, and they are still very relevant today because of how true they are. History gives us the opportunity to learn from past mistakes. It helps us understand the many reasons why people may behave the way they do. As a result, it helps us become more compassionate as people and more impartial as decision makers. Our judicial system is a perfect example of this concept at work.
7. History helps us develop a new level of appreciation for just about everything.
History is more than just the living record of nations, leaders, and wars. It’s also the story of us. It’s packed with tales of how someone stood up for what they believed in, or died for love, or worked hard to make their dreams come true. All of those things are concepts we can relate to; it’s enriching to know that so could the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, or Martin Luther King.
Plus, history is just plain interesting. Everything you like about your favorite movies, television shows, and fiction novels is yours to experience right here in reality when you study history. Explore the possibilities today and step into a whole new world that will change who you are forever.
Visit Colonial Williamsburg and step back more than 220 years to the eve of the American Revolution. From 1699 to 1780, Williamsburg was the political and cultural center of Britain’s largest colony in the New World. In the shops, taverns, government buildings, homes and streets, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason and other Virginia Patriots debated the ideas – liberty, independence and personal freedoms – that led to the founding of American democracy and inspired generations of Americans and others from around the world. Today, Colonial Williamsburg is the nation’s largest outdoor living history museum encompassing 301 acres including some 500 public buildings, homes, stores and taverns reconstructed and restored to their 18th-century appearances; tradesmen practicing 30 historic trades and domestic crafts; historical interpreters and character actors; and 90 acres of gardens and greens. Additional highlights include the Governor’s Palace; the Capitol; DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center and Bassett Hall.
A National Park Service site, Historic Jamestowne offers a wealth of activities for exploring the first permanent English settlement in North America. Founded in May 1607, some 13 years before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, Jamestown served as the capital of Virginia throughout the 17th century and saw the establishment of the language, customs, laws and government practiced in our nation today.
Share the moment of discovery with archaeologists as they uncover the original 1607 James Fort and see more than 1,000 artifacts at the Archaearium, an innovative new exhibition facility that also includes interactive exhibit areas that interpret the rediscovery process of archaeology. Overlooking the scenic James River, Historic Jamestowne also boasts the only remaining 17th-century above ground structure – the church tower – and reconstructed 17th-century Jamestown Memorial Church. At the Glasshouse, costumed glassblowers demonstrate one of the first industries attempted in English-speaking America using 17th-century tools and techniques.
At Jamestown Settlement, comprehensive gallery exhibits describe world events and social and economic conditions that led to the English colonization of America and the formation of the Virginia Company that sponsored Jamestown with a goal of earning its investors a profit. Learn about the land and lifestyle of Algonquian-speaking tribes in coastal Virginia under the powerful leader Powhatan and about the culture of the first documented Africans in Virginia, who were from the kingdom of Ndongo in Angola. Outdoor living-history areas bring the 17th century to life. The Indian Village demonstrates the Powhatan way of life from hunting, farming and fishing to housing, clothing and food.
At the museum pier, board the Susan Constant, Discovery and Godspeed, replicas of the three ships that transported the original Jamestown colonists to Virginia in 1607. A riverfront discovery area provides information about European, Virginia Indian and African economic activities associated with water including navigation, boat building, fishing, commodities and trade. The re-created James Fort interprets the settlement during 1610-1614, reflecting its military and commercial character. Wattle-and-daub structures with thatched roofs represent dwellings, work spaces and public buildings. See a “settler” load and fire a matchlock musket, a blacksmith forge tools, or a carpenter work with wood.
See where American independence was won at the Yorktown Battlefield, a National Park Service site. Today, Yorktown remains much as it was during the waning days of the Revolution. Earthworks and siege lines mark positions of British and American Troops, cannons stand ready behind the embattlements, and Surrender Field is a silent reminder of English General Cornwallis’ capitulation. Explore the 18th-century homes of Augustine Moore, where the terms of surrender were negotiated, and Thomas Nelson, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence and commander of the Virginia militia. Visit the Yorktown Victory Monument, commissioned by the Continental Congress in 1781 and completed in 1884 to commemorate the victory at Yorktown.
See Cornwallis’ Cave, where legend has it that the English General and his staff sought refuge from the bombardment by American and French Troops. Other sites of interest include the Custom House, built in 1720 and the Poor Potter Site which preserves the remains of the kiln used by William Rogers as early as the 1720s to produce pottery that rivaled English quality.
Gain a new appreciation and understanding of our nation’s beginnings at the Yorktown Victory Center where America’s evolution from colonial status to nationhood is chronicled through a unique blend of timeline, thematic exhibits and outdoor living history areas that emphasizes the experiences of ordinary people. In an outdoor re-created Continental Army encampment, historical interpreters depict the daily life of a soldier and you may be asked to help prepare a cannon for firing or join a military drill. A re-created 1780s farm provides a look at how many Americans lived in the early years of our nation.
Visit the crop field and tobacco barn and learn what was cultivated to provide an income. Explore the house and separate kitchen for a glimpse of domestic life, and try your hand at hoeing the garden or “breaking” flax.
Monticello, located near Charlottesville, Virginia, was the estate of Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the United States Declaration of Independence, the third President of the United States, and founder of the University of Virginia. The house is of Jefferson’s own design and is situated on the summit of an 850-foot-high peak in the Southwest Mountains south of the Rivanna Gap. Monticello was designated a World Heritage Site in 1987, an honor it shares with the nearby University of Virginia.
For more information visit the Monticello website.
Today, Williamsburg, Virginia, is recognized as the “world’s largest living history museum,” but during the 18th century, the meticulously restored colonial capital was Britain’s largest settlement in the New World.
The city was founded as the capital of the Virginia Colony in 1699, and it was here that the basic concepts of the United States of America were formed under the leadership of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and many others.
Named Williamsburg in honor of England’s reigning monarch at the time, King William III, the colonial mecca also became a center of learning. The College of William and Mary, founded in 1693, counts political leaders such as Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Tyler as graduates.
During its time as the capital of Virginia, Williamsburg flourished as the hub of religious, economic and social life in the state. A palatial Governor’s Palace was built as were markets, taverns, a theatre, a church (those living in the New World were required by law to worship in the Church of England), and countless homes. Market Square was the site of celebrations, festivals, fairs, contests, and even puppet shows; tradesmen, such as wig makers, tailors, blacksmiths, and cabinetmakers, practiced their craft along Duke of Gloucester Street. Restaurants and taverns offered onion soup, ham, carrot and chicken dishes, pudding, and pie.
Following the Declaration of Independence from Britain, however, the American Revolutionary War broke out, and the capital of Virginia was moved 50 miles (80.4 kilometers) north to Richmond. It was feared that Williamsburg’s location allowed easy access for the British to attack.
The United States of America’s independence from Great Britain was a turning point in world history. Key players from Williamsburg helped lay the foundation of America, and the preservation of the colonial town has allowed present-day visitors to experience what life was like back then. Today, visitors will find employees dressed in colonial-era garb strolling the streets, using colonial grammar and diction. Popular buildings open for exploration include the Governor’s Palace, the Peyton Randolph House, the George Wythe House, the Capital, the Courthouse, the Raleigh Tavern, and the Bruton Parish Church.
Local Williamsburg history doesn’t just stop with the historic district and Jamestown. Williamsburg is rich with the stories of the families, people, and lives that have inhabited it for the past 400 years. In this article our own Trish Thomas is cited with some very interesting information on a house that was put on the market in Williamsburg.
If you live in Williamsburg Virginia and want to learn about your homes potential history, or the surrounding history of your neighborhood, give us a call! We love to research tidbits of information about our local history.
Our daily tours are a perfect thing for your family to do during this time of closures and safety precautions. Our tours are outdoors, where you will be able to walk along the streets and historic sites of Williamsburg to learn about the history of our nation and it’s residents. We offer an activity that will get your body exercise, let you learn new things about the history and culture of our nation, all while still letting your family keep social distancing! Be sure to call in advance to reserve your spot!
The cotton plant is a perennial that naturally grows around the world between 47 degrees north and 37 degrees south latitude. Neolithic farmers domesticated cotton about 10,000 years ago and through archeological evidence we know the people of India began weaving cotton around 2,000 B.C. Soon cotton cultivation and processing spread to Egypt and down the east coast of Africa. By 1100 A.D. the people of West Africa were growing and weaving cotton cloth.
Engraving From 1867 Featuring The American Inventor Of The Cotton Gin, Eli Whitney. Whitney Lived From 1765 Until 1825.
In West Africa, by 1312, the Empire of Mali was being ruled by Mansa Musa; he is considered to be the richest man who ever lived. In 1324 Mansa Musa along with 60,000 people and 100 camels loaded with gold went on the Pilgrimage to Mecca (in Saudi Arabia.) A man named Ibn Fadl witnessed Mansa Musa’s arrival in Cairo, Egypt and he wrote, “Their cloth is white and made of cotton which they cultivate and weave in the most excellent fashion.” It was also said Mansa Musa wore cotton cloth woven with gold thread.
On the other side of the world cotton was also growing in Peru. Cotton has been cultivated in Peru for thousands of years; Francisco Pizarro found it being widely used in Peru in 1532. The Spanish noted this but paid little attention to it as gold was their primary interest.
In 1492 when Columbus landed in the West Indies, he saw that people wore cotton, and wrote 19 times in his journal about cotton. On November 6, 1492 he wrote (the ship’s crew) “saw a great quantity of cotton that had been spun and worked – in one house alone more than twelve thousand pounds of it.”
With cotton being cultivated all around the world since ancient times, someone had to find, make or invent a tool to separate the cotton from the seeds. Who was inventing such a tool? Everyone.
A Buddhist painting in the Ajunta Caves, Maharashtra, India shows the earliest evidence of a single roller cotton gin. The painting is from 500 A.D. The cotton gin in India was known as a Churka. Between the 12th and 14th centuries double-roller Churka gins appeared in India and China. In some areas these Churkas were foot powered or water powered.
This Cotton Gin illustration was published in 1881 “Popular history of the united states”
European Churkas were brought to the West Indies as cotton and tobacco were the cash crops of the Carribean Islands before sugar took over in the 1660s.
Most churkas or cotton gins were a roller style. In the 18th century many people in the American colonies were modifying the cotton gin; most of these modifications are still within the roller style of gins. What Eli Whitney did was to get rid of the rollers and replace them with metal rods. This was called a saw gin. Eli Whitney’s gin processed more cotton in a day than any previous gin, but it sacrificed quality for quantity. Whitney’s gin damaged the cotton fiber.
It can be seen that Eli Whitney did not invent the cotton gin. He was just one more person modifying an already existing machine.
On land that is now occupied by Cheatham Annex, about six miles from Colonial Williamsburg, there was once a thriving little village known as Penniman. This village was originally founded in 1916 by the Dupont Company to make dynamite, but World War I changed their plan and the sole industry in Penniman became the manufacture of TNT.
The wages being paid were so high that people from all over came to work at Penniman’s factories, yet local farmers found it hard to find laborers to work in the fields. The village had electricity, sewer, water and hard roads, all at a time when pigs roamed free on muddy Duke of Gloucester Street. The population grew to about 20,000 with 10,000 of them working in the plant.
Because so many men were in the military, women were the obvious choice for factory workers, encouraged to step out of their traditional roles and work at the plant to support “The Boys at the Front.”
Stuff one for the Kaiser! became a recruiting slogan, and the women came. Their job was to load powdered TNT into artillery shells. The TNT was as finely powdered as talcum, and it didn’t take long for it to poison the women. TNT poisoning turned their skin and nails dark yellow and turned their lips purple. The women were soon called “The Canary Girls.” The skin and nail discoloration weren’t the only effects; their bone marrow and their livers were damaged. The women suffered dizziness and nausea but the worst effect was that their immune systems were compromised.
The name Canary Girls was not a compliment or a term of endearment; these women were shunned by the people in the village and by the other workers. The Canary Girls were not allowed to sit with other people in the cafeteria; they were “socially distanced” from everyone else.
In spite of the poisoning the work went on, the village boomed, townspeople had to wait in long lines for a seat at one of the local restaurants, the bank, and the post office. Penniman was the most modern town in rural Virginia.
It all came to a halt in 1918 when the Spanish Flu came to the Peninsula — and to Penniman.
Because of the pandemic, public gatherings became illegal, schools were closed to children and reopened as hospitals, and public funerals were outlawed. People were told to wear a gauze mask whenever they went outside.
On October 13, 1918 a reporter at the Daily Press newspaper on the Peninsula wrote, “A Williamsburg undertaker had to requisition a truck to haul bodies from Penniman this morning… There is a scarcity of coffins here, the dealers having in hand only a small stock prior to the grip of epidemic.”
By October 18, 1918, around 6,000 Virginians had died of the Spanish Flu. On that day another reporter wrote that the undertakers in the Williamsburg area were being kept very busy, and that “baggage cars are always full of caskets.”
Locals later recalled seeing coffins stacked to the ceiling at the rail depot. So many died that the plant ran out of burial space, forcing the bu
rial of many at a local undertaker’s farm. There is no record of exactly how many died at Penniman; the only reference I have found was in a newspaper where a local reporter said the number he saw was “so large as to be unthinkable.”
World War l ended November 11, 1918, the TNT plant at Penninman closed and the majority of employees still living were packed on trains and sent to their respective home towns. The employees who remained immediately started to dismantle the town. Equipment was sold as salvage; houses were moved or torn down.
By 1920 the village of Penniman was gone, disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, a victim of war, manmade calamity and widespread fatal disease.
From her earliest memories of grade school, Trish Thomas has always loved history. “I was the strange child who read every biography,” she says. She grew up in Virginia Beach and embraced the history of the area. She followed her passion by majoring in history and cultural anthropology at Old Dominion University.
She met her husband, David, also a history buff, in a yoga class. While Trish worked at a variety of jobs including working for Barnes & Noble, she enjoyed working in museums and historic sites the most. As their children, Emily and Ben, grew up the family participated in Revolutionary War re-enactments as a hobby. Later, Ben also became a Civil War re-enactor. Once, Trish saw him standing asleep on a Civil War battlefield. “That was very authentic,” she says. “Conditions were so harsh that soldiers often slept standing up.” Ben, now 26, works as an electrician.
Emily played fiddles and the hammered dulcimer. She is now 28 and works as a costume designer, a skill she learned from Trish. “We took ballet from the same instructor. A Russian ballet costumer taught me how to make cosBy Susan Williamson tumes, and I shared with my daughter,” Trish says. “Emily makes mostly anime costumes.” For ten years, Trish worked at historic houses in Virginia Beach. An older woman at one of the houses encouraged her to learn to “dress” flax, the process by which one readies flax for the spinner, so that the art would continue. The steps involved are to ret it, break it, skutch it and hackle it.
“In the 18th century, a young girl would be expected to pull ten pounds of flax per day which would make enough linen for a man’s shirt. Linen was a poor man’s fabric; the rich wore wool and cotton. The flax is planted at the first of March. When the seed pods turn down, or after 100 days for really fine linen, the stalks are pulled. The retting process, which separates out the fiber, takes up to a week.”
Trish processes her flax in a horse trough and changes the water every 48 hours. The flax is then dried before breaking it, skutching it and finally combing it with a hackle. By the end of July, the hair-like fiber is ready for the spinning wheel. Trish has tried spinning linen in and says it requires moist fingers. Once spun, the linen yarn is ready for the loom.
In today’s world flax is either grown for seed or fiber, but usually not both, since the stalk is very woody by the time the seed is fully formed. Commercial flax is harvested by machine. Nebraska is one of the leading producers. The plant blooms briefly before forming seed pods and Trish speaks of the beauty of a flax field in bloom with its blue flowers.
Trish often demonstrated the dressing process at historic houses. An audience of older Romanian women at Polar Forest remembered dressing flax in their youth. As a result, Trish was interviewed for a Romanian magazine, although she has never seen the article. Trish worked at the Old Coast Guard Station in Virginia Beach, First Landing State Park and the Chrysler Museum and often gave presentations at small museums.
In 2011, Trish and David moved to Williamsburg and decided to start their own historic tour company, Williamsburg Walking Tours, which opened in 2012. Trish says, “I wanted to portray history accurately, and tell stories about the good and the bad.”
They currently offer three tours: Walkabout History, which covers 1699 through the restoration of Williamsburg; Civil War Tours; and African American History in Williamsburg, 1619 through Reconstruction. The Williamsburg Walkabout tour becomes Williamsburg Door-to-Door Christmas for the month of December. The one and a half hour tours are available 12 months a year. As Trish shares her stories, she admits that the tours sometimes go overtime. Her enthusiasm and wealth of knowledge bubbles out as she speaks.
Among Trish’s favorite clients are the students from the Virginia Department for the Blind and Visually Impaired School in Richmond. Local Lion’s Club member Jack Trotter, along with other local Lions come to assist this tour each year. “Many of the students are just learning to use their sticks and the terrain mix of grass, pavement and cobblestones can be overwhelming,” Trish says. Trish and David were honored to be invited to graduation ceremonies at the school.
Their company also takes PowerPoint presentations of their tours on the road and frequently present customized programs to family reunions of families with history connected to the area. “Often, elderly members are not able to walk very far, so we bring the tour to them,” Trish says. “We research connections to their family or to a particular state or location.”
Trish and David added the Civil War tour after she read the book, Defend This Old Town by Carol Kenttenburg Dobbs. “During the Civil War, Williamsburg was full of amazing single women. Their everyday stories are both funny and tragic.” Williamsburg was a closed city and considered a safe place, but food was scarce and many of the formerly prominent families became insolvent.
Trish says, “A visitor in 1870 noted that many houses had been torn down for kindling, firewood and bricks. Those who left their homes lost them. Union soldiers took what they wanted.”
Today, Trish notes, Colonial Williamsburg continues to evolve from its beginnings. “One of the things I like is that Colonial Williamsburg will change things as new historical records are unearthed.” She says some people like to take a tour before buying a ticket to Colonial Williamsburg, while others tour after visiting the historic buildings, summarizing the importance of what they have seen.
Trish says Williamsburg before Rockefeller was a pleasant 20th century town, as can be seen in the Harvard Archives film, shot in 1930. In 2014, a Colonial Williamsburg photographer videoed the same route. The two films can be seen side-by-side in the video, Williamsburg Then and Now which is available on YouTube. Local reaction to the restoration was mixed and Rockefeller was, after all, a Yankee. But as some local women were quoted, “Yes, but he’s our Yankee.”
By using stories such as this, Trish and David augment the mission of Colonial Williamsburg and the sharing of subsequent history. Trish is a lifelong learner and continues to research local history through letters, papers and journals, always looking for more stories. She is fascinated with the people of the area and stories of how they lived and she is equally interested in the people who join the tours. “My favorite part,” she says, “is that by the end of the tour, I have always learned something new.”
For Trish Thomas, lifelong learning about history is a passion. Today, she and David use their knowledge and enthusiasm to make history come alive for others.
Article written by Susan Williamson January 2020 edition of The Williamsburg Next Door Neighbor publication.