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George Washington’s First Visit to Colonial Williamsburg

by Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
April 14, 2017

While Virginia was still a British colony, its capital, Williamsburg, presented a variety of amusements. Residents and visitors alike could enjoy a pint at the tavern after an evening of dancing, noise and excitement in the streets during a town fair, or the debut of a popular play at the local theatre. Modern Virginia residents and history buffs may find these pastimes familiar. While modern-day Colonial Williamsburg offers visitors a recreated past, George Washington experienced the original colonial city.

George Washington’s first recorded visit to Williamsburg came on the heels of his return from Barbados at the end of January, 1752 (according to the Julian or New Style calendar). Upon his ship’s landing at Yorktown, he traveled to Williamsburg to meet Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie.

A print of the Bodleian Plate, which depicts features of colonial Williamsburg, particularly architectural style. Courtesy of Cornell University Library.

In 1752, the capital of Virginia boasted fewer than 1,000 residents. The new capitol building was under construction after a 1747 fire, and well-known landmarks still recognizable to the twenty-first century eye were already standing: Bruton Parish church, the College of William & Mary, and the main street.

After what was likely his first theater experience in Barbados, George may have chosen to attend a performance in Williamsburg. A new theatre had been built in the Virginia capital just a few months before George’s visit. In an advertisement in the Aug. 29, 1751, Virginia Gazette, subscribers were asked to support building a playhouse for the Company of Comedians. And so the second theatre ever in Williamsburg was erected, with shows offered to the public by the middle of October 1751.

George arrived at an unusually quiet time in Williamsburg, as neither the courts nor the colonial assembly was in session. Court sessions, known as Public Times, were held in April, June, October, and December.1 During these months, the capital swarmed with visitors, doubling and possibly tripling the number of inhabitants. Virginians from all corners of the colony came together to enjoy amusements such as fairs with “a Side-play of Puppet shows, Contests in Beauty, Fiddling, and Dancing, with Foot Races from the College to the Capitol, Cudgellings, and Chases for Pigs to be caught by the Tails (which were soaped).”2 Taverns and inns were filled, merchants debuted fashions from London, and personal business was transacted. Slave auctions were also held.3

General Assembly meetings also increased the population of the capital and encouraged additional social events to entertain the visitors. A March 5, 1752, advertisement in the Virginia Gazette, for example, invited ladies and gentlemen to purchase tickets to a ball held at Henry Wetherburn’s every Tuesday while the General Assembly was in session.

While George missed these times of visitors and thus many of the associated popular amusements of Williamsburg in 1752, his meeting with Governor Dinwiddie resulted in a career gain that more than made up for the loss of recreation. In July 1752, the death of George’s brother Lawrence left several militia vacancies in Virginia. Perhaps owing to an encouraging meeting in Williamsburg, George requested a commission from Dinwiddie. He received that commission as major and adjutant of the militia, horse and foot, for the Southern District of Virginia, in December of that year. And thus George Washington’s military career began.

 

Notes

  1. James H. Soltow, “The Role of Williamsburg in the Virginia Economy, 1750-1775,” The William and Mary Quarterly 15, no. 4 (1958), 469.
  2. Rutherfoord Goodwin, A Brief and True Report for the Traveller Concerning Williamsburg in Virginia (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg, Inc., 1936), 49.
  3. Ibid, 48-52.