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History Happened Here

Williamsburg By Ear

June 2024
6min read

Along With its Well-known Visual Pleasures Come Acoustic Ones

It is a truth universally acknowledged that parents of American schoolchildren must take them to Colonial Williamsburg. This fact came home forcefully to my husband and me after our friends from Algeria made the pilgrimage with their son. “The secret,” they told us when they returned radiant with historical insights that our native-born family still lacked, “is to get the vacation package that includes Busch Gardens.” So last April we set off on the long drive south, promising our two boys, 10 and 12, twin entertainments: costumed interpreters well informed about eighteenth-century life and roller coasters.

Over the years, I have tended to steer clear of people in wigs and tricorns, but I returned from this trip ashamed of my narrow-mindedness. There were fewer wigs than I had expected (most men couldn’t afford them, it turns out), and at Colonial Williamsburg many people wearing period clothing also speak in eighteenth-century voices, with a vocabulary and syntax just different enough from contemporary speech to be mesmerizing.

When you exit Route 64, all signs point you to the visitors’ center, where you park your car in a huge lot and walk or take a bus to the edge of the historic district. The capitol, the Governor’s Palace, and the College of William and Mary, where Jefferson studied philosophy, are constructed of a soft rosy brick. Shops and houses cluster around a spacious town green. And since the year celebrated here is always 1774, there are no cars and few wagons. Less than a mile square, it is a place designed for walking.

It was the Reverend W. A. R. Goodwin, the rector of Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish Church in the 1920s, who had the breathtaking idea of restoring not just a few buildings but the entire town. Eighty-eight of Williamsburg’s colonial-era structures still stood, but many of the important ones had to be rebuilt from scratch, including the Governor’s Palace and the capitol. Goodwin won the backing of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who spent more than $68 million sweeping away gas stations and telephone wires and putting everything back the way it had been. The restored Colonial Williamsburg opened to the public in 1934.

The enterprise has been phenomenally successful, of course, and now a million people visit each year. Still, on back streets or early or late in the day, you can escape the crowds. If you plan well in advance, you can bypass the buses and parking lots by staying at one of the five inns on the property, or at the Patrick Henry Best Western or the Four Points Sheraton, which overlook a horse pasture at the eastern edge of the Historic Area. Cross York Street, and you’re back in the eighteenth century.

At the visitors’ center we picked up a map and a schedule of the week’s special events, and we began wandering into places we thought might appeal to the boys. From the saddlemaker and the gunsmith we learned that much of their work was repairs; unless you were rich, you made do with new arrangements of old parts.

“How much would a cobbler make in an average year?” my husband, Kevin, asked a man in a dim interior fragrant with the smell of leather.

“I wouldn’t know,” the man answered gruffly. “The cobbler’s shop is across town. I’m a shoemaker.”

“Is there a difference?”

“Cobble means ‘mess up,’” the shoemaker answered. “Cobblestone streets are paved but not well. A fruit cobbler is a pie with no shape.”

“How much would a pair of shoes cost?” Kevin asked, still trying to get his economic bearings. “How long would they last?”

“That would be a contract between you and your shoes.”

While we waited on a bench to tour the capitol, a guide reminded us that Williamsburg was the capital of the colony of Virginia from 1699 to 1780, when Richmond took over the role. The burgesses who met here were elected representatives from various parts of the colony; anyone who was free, white, male, over 21, a property holder, and an Anglican could vote. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Mason all served as burgesses here, and this is where Mr. Henry made his impassioned speech against the Stamp Act in 1765. (His most famous speech, the one that concludes “Give me liberty, or give me death,” was delivered in Richmond.) Inside the capitol a guide asked leading questions about what he called “recent” Revolutionary-era events in Boston, and someone else’s 12-year-old knew all the answers.

Many of those in colonial dress speak in eighteenth-century voices, using exotic words and eccentric grammar.

Consulting the day’s schedule, we found that Patrick Henry was speaking in the garden behind the Governor’s Palace, and we hurried there in time to hear him complain about Britain’s insistence on quartering troops in private houses. When he finished his prepared remarks, Mr. Henry offered to take “queries and curiosities” from the audience, noting that he had “the ability to speculate into the future with great accuracy.”

The historical characters we encountered were so engaging that I began to wonder about them. Were they professional actors, did they get together outside of work, was it exhausting fielding the same questions over and over again, was it unbearably hot in those clothes in the summer?

“The wig sometimes gets hot,” admitted Richard Schumann, who plays Patrick Henry. Schumann and his colleagues have a meeting almost every day to share research, he said, and they joke with one another in the language of the period. Schumann did train as an actor, and to learn how people spoke in the eighteenth century, he read letters, diaries, speeches, newspapers, and plays. Now that he’s read everything there is to read about Patrick Henry, he’s starting to read about Henry’s friends.

“In 1774 we don’t have standardized rules of grammar yet,” Schumann said. “Even gentlemen of great education, like Richard Henry Lee, might write, ‘I were born and raised in Westmorland County,’ or ‘We was going to the city.’ When we pepper our talks with that language, it draws people into the time machine.”

The next day we drove to Carter’s Grove, a plantation six miles from town overlooking the James River, where Colonial Williamsburg most directly addresses the issue of slavery. We walked through the rough cabins in the slave quarters, but the guides there were preparing to address a large school group that arrived just after us, so we moved on to the main house, built in the 175Os and expanded in the 1930s, and to the ongoing archeological excavation of Wolstenholme Towne, a fort and settlement that date from 1620. The metal helmets that have been dug up here looked startlingly medieval, a physical link to the great age of exploration.

That afternoon, back in Colonial Williamsburg, we strolled down Duke of Gloucester Street, checking out what was for lunch at the taverns (bubble and squeak, a potato and cabbage dish named for the sounds it makes on the stove) and sampling the root beer and oatmeal cakes sold from tables set up outside. Our son Dan played “Eleanor Rigby” on a harpsichord in the cabinetmaker’s shop; his brother, Jim, pointed out a child walking around playing a Game Boy: “What a waste of time, right?”

Wandering side streets, we came upon the Tenant House, a modest dwelling furnished to give a sense of working-class life. When we came out the back door, we found a large man hurling an ax at a tree stump. He was competing in an ax-throwing contest on the green later that afternoon, he said, and he was better than anyone at the throw at 12 paces, although he sometimes missed deliberately so that his opponents would wager more against him.

At the appointed hour, hundreds of visitors gathered on the green. A large rectangle of grass was cordoned off and a target wheeled in. Our friend the ax thrower worked the audience at the edge of the ropes, introducing himself as William Moses, a free black Baptist preacher. Sadly, some of the long throws he had practiced so successfully now bounced off the tree stump, and Moses lost to a tavern keeper.

On our last day, while Kevin took the boys to the promised roller coasters, I set out on a deserted yellow gravel road to Jamestown, on the coast, where the first settlers landed in 1607. The Colonial Parkway runs for 23 miles from Yorktown to Jamestown, winding through an unspoiled landscape; in the woods, red-bud and wild dogwood were in bloom.

I had planned to spend a few minutes poking around the brick foundations that remain from that first settlement, but I was swept up into a tour with a woman in colonial dress who introduced herself as Rachel Stanton, an indentured servant. She was holding an exotic species of fowl, and she spoke to her audience as if we were starry-eyed new settlers who needed to be set straight. “Why do ye think the Indians was willing to give over this piece of land? Because it were a swamp!” If you want to get someone’s attention, speak strangely and carry a Poland rooster.

Later I asked Mary Wiseman, who has worked at Colonial Williamsburg for more than 25 years, what it’s like to interpret the colonial world to today’s visitors. Her current role is Martha Washington, whose great-grandfather was the first rector of Bruton Parish Church. Martha spent her honeymoon in Williamsburg and her husband served his first term in the House of Burgesses in 1759.

Martha Washington wrote far less than her male contemporaries; to prepare to play her, Ms. Wiseman walked the grounds where Martha was born, visited her church, read up on life on small plantations, and studied her letters, which the modern-day interpreter calls her “islands of security” as she plays the role of the first First Lady.

Hadn’t Martha burned her letters from George?

“Yes, for privacy reasons. You know, when Nancy Reagan brought out I Love You, Ronnie , my twentieth-century self thought it was good that his letters to her would all be together. My eighteenth-century self was shocked.”

I asked if visitors to Williamsburg had changed over the years.

“Their attention span is shorter now. I have about 15 minutes to reach them; people have that invisible remote in their hand. I find myself teaching about honor and honesty, thinking of the other person. At the Mary Stith House once, I had to almost dislodge some Boy Scouts from their seats to give them to some older ladies.

“People come to Williamsburg to find out what made the great men great,” Ms. Wiseman said. “On September 12, 2001, I had to go onstage. The theater was bulging because so many people were stranded here, and I thought, What am I going to say to comfort them? But I realized there were similarities between 1774 and now. Colonial Virginians were facing a dangerous future. Their world was turning upside down. I began by reading one of George Washington’s favorite psalms: ‘Thou shall not be afraid for any terror by night: nor for the arrow that flieth by day.’ You could have heard a pin drop.”


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