From Princeton to Williamsburg!

TWOILH at Williamsburg

In 1773, a recent graduate of the College of New Jersey at Princeton from the southern New Jersey town of Greenwich went to Virginia to teach the children of a wealthy plantation owner.

The tutor was Philip Vickers Fithian.  The planter was Robert Carter III.  Carter’s plantation was called Nomini Hall, but he also had a house in Williamsburg.

I wrote about Fithian’s experience in my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: The Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  The teachers in my Gilder-Lehrman seminar on colonial America read the book during their week in Princeton.

So perhaps it is fitting that some alums from the Princeton Seminar traveled, like Fithian, to Williamsburg this week.  And look what they found on sale in the Colonial Williamsburg bookstore!

Thanks for sharing Jamie, Jen, and Tracy!

African-Americans at Colonial Williamsburg


The Virginia Gazette is running an informative piece on interpreting the African-American experience at Colonial Williamsburg.  Here is a taste:

Established in 1926, Colonial Williamsburg opened its first public site in 1932. Though African-American interpretation wouldn’t start in earnest as a fleshed out component of the living history museum until 1979, there had long been an African American presence at Colonial Williamsburg.

“Despite being here for 91 years, we’ve pretty much always had black interpreters,” Seals said.

Black Americans portrayed anonymous servants or costumed guides.

It took a few decades before they were seen as potential points of focus rather than background players in programming, said Seals.

In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers started to discover more information about African Americans in Revolutionary-era Williamsburg. They learned half of the city’s inhabitants were enslaved black people in the 18th century.

That prompted some questions: How were African Americans half the city’s population, yet their stories were essentially untold? Colonial Williamsburg embarked on an effort to determine how to tell those stories, hitting on the idea that a social-history perspective would be the best way to do it.

“When they made that choice, that started everything,” Seals said. “That’s when programming really changed.”

Forty years ago, a group of Hampton University students were recruited to work as first-person interpreters portraying African Americans known to live and work in Williamsburg during the late 1700s.

Read the entire piece here. (HT: Ed O’Donnell via Twitter)

On the Mission of Colonial Williamsburg


The Editorial Board of The Virginian-Pilot has something to say about this:

A taste:

If that core mission is some variation on being a “tourist attraction,” an entity that helps support the local Williamsburg economy, that touts “a preserved Colonial neighborhood with musket echoes, horse carriage rides and actors playing the roles of early settlers,” as recounted in The Pilot last week, then it probably will slowly die.

And should. This was never the idea.

It only became the idea, in part, when so many people began showing up in the post-World War II era. That’s when much of the commercial growth occurred in areas surrounding Williamsburg. That’s when the collective mentality began to shift toward making money.


Now that the crowds have thinned and appear unlikely to return in grand numbers, this may be an opportunity to restore the purposes of the restoration, which was, in the words of John D. Rockefeller, Colonial Williamsburg’s great benefactor, so that “the future may learn from the past.”

What does that mean?

It means a style and approach to public and civic education unique to Colonial Williamsburg, that involves — first and foremost — seriousness of intent and technique.

It means providing a safe haven for scholars and professionals, ensuring that the passing whims of the foundation’s leadership do not come at the expense of the people who have given their careers to the study of early American Colonial life, meaning the ones who do the research, the writing and the instruction that effectively sets the foundation apart from some half-baked tourist draw.

It means less fixation on the needs of the local Williamsburg economy and vastly more on the civic needs of America and the extension of democratic ideals throughout the world.

It means that nothing — virtually nothing — occurs within the historic area of Williamsburg that has the effect of trivializing or diminishing the values that long distinguished the foundation’s work.

It means making Colonial Williamsburg “important” once again, by drawing to its historic venues authors and public figures who reflect the same civic excellence and commitment of those who first inhabited Williamsburg, brought it international fame and locked it into history.

Does that mean engaging and illuminating the American Revolution as both an historic and political event? You bet.

Read the rest here.  Sounds good to me.

What is Going on at Colonial Williamsburg?


Don’t forget the hatchet-throwing site, Jim!

Colonial Williamsburg appears to be in trouble.  The mecca of American history tourism is laying off workers and outsourcing its operations.  Last year it lost $148,000 a day.

Here is a taste of the AP report that American Historical Association Director Jim Grossman references in the tweet above.

The foundation that operates the eastern Virginia attraction is in final negotiations with four companies that will manage its golf operations, retail stores, much of its maintenance and facilities operations and its commercial real estate, President and CEO Mitchell Reiss said.

“For a variety of reasons – business decisions made in years past, less American history being taught in schools, changing times and tastes that cause us to attract half the visitors we did 30 years ago – the Foundation loses significant amounts of money every year,” he wrote in a letter shared publicly.

The foundation’s operating losses last year totaled $54 million, or $148,000 per day. It also borrowed heavily to improve its hospitality facilities and visitors center and ended 2016 with more than $300 million in debt, Reiss said.

Combined, those factors put pressure on the foundation’s endowment, with withdrawals reaching as high as 12 percent per year. At that rate, the approximately $684 million endowment could be exhausted in just eight years or perhaps sooner.

Reiss said in an interview that the foundation’s financial straits meant its mission of historic preservation “was at risk, quite frankly.”

Colonial Williamsburg is the world’s largest living history museum, with costumed interpreters who re-enact 18th century life amid more than 600 restored or reconstructed original buildings.

Read the entire piece here.  We asked this same question back in October.

I am not expecting a search for Philip Vickers Fithian anytime soon.


Carter’s Grove is Back in the Hands of Colonial Williamsburg

I think I remember visiting Carter’s Grove when I visited Colonial Williamsburg in the mid-1970s. When I was writing and promoting The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, I was often asked if Fithian served as a tutor on this plantation.  He did not.  Fithian worked for Robert Carter III of Nomini Hall on Virginia’s Northern Neck. Carter’s Grove belonged Robert’s cousin, Carter Burwell.

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. describes the recent fate of Carter’s Grove.  Here is a taste:

It seemed clear that Colonial Williamsburg acquired that property in 1969 only because one of the Rockefellers on its board insisted. Other folks in the institution felt saddled with this white elephant of an estate, its main building so altered from its original in the early 1900s that it was impossible to interpret it accurately as a colonial structure.

But then it turned out that the grounds included one of the most significant archeological sites of the British settlement of North America: Martin’s Hundred, or Wolstenholme Town. Colonial Williamsburg archeologists ended up doing many years of work there, and its curators created a museum for the artifacts and preserved the site.

As for the house itself, it was still an interpretive headache. The main outbuildings had been connected to the mansion and the whole house expanded, so it no longer had the size or profile of a genuine Georgian home. When I went, Colonial Williamsburg had come up with three solutions. An outdoor tour highlighted those architectural changes. The grounds had been equipped with barns, enclosures, and livestock to show the lives and work of enslaved farmworkers.

Finally there was the interior of the house, interpreted to display the Colonial Revival and how Americans thought about and celebrated the Revolutionary period in the early 1900s. But that proved a challenge for visitors. Most tourists came wanting to see how Revolutionary America looked. Being shown how our recent ancestors thought Revolutionary America looked, or should have looked, or would have looked if those people had had the benefit of iceboxes and sewing machines, was just confusing. In 2003 Colonial Williamsburg shut the site to figure out what it was doing.

Four years and one hurricane later, the organization sold the mansion to a dot-com millionaire for over $15 million, most in a loan to the new owner. However, as the Washington Post reported, he never moved in. Within a few more years he announced that he couldn’t keep making payments on the loan. There was a lot of concern about whether the house was falling apart.

Government agencies intervened, and a trustee was appointed to handle the property. This spring the Carter’s Grove mansion wentback on the market. And when the auction ended last week, the winning bid was from…Colonial Williamsburg. 

James Horn Takes His Turn on the Jamestown Cannibalism Story

At yesterday’s New York Times op-ed page James Horn, the vice-president for research and historical interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg and the author of “A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America, chimes in on the Jamestown cannibalism story.  Here is a taste of his piece, “Consuming Colonists.”

As weeks turned to months and winter set in, the colonists became increasingly desperate. “Now all of us at James Towne,” George Percy, their leader, wrote, were “beginning to feel that sharp prick of hunger” that no one can describe “but he which has tasted the bitterness thereof.” 
To satisfy their cruel hunger, some colonists went into the woods in search of snakes and wild roots, where they were killed by the waiting warriors. In desperation, those left behind devoured their horses, dogs, cats, rats and mice, and when these ran out even their boot leather. But worse was to come.
Percy describes what happened, detailing carefully how English society unraveled in the appalling conditions. Driven out of his mind by despair, a colonist named Hugh Price, “in a furious distracted mood did come openly into the marketplace Blaspheming exclaiming and crying out that there was no god. Alleging that if there were a god he would not suffer his creatures whom he had made and framed to endure those miseries.” He, like others, met his end in the woods nearby, slain by Indians who killed as fast outside the fort “as famine and pestilence did within.”
As hunger became etched “ghastly and pale in every face,” Percy recalled, nothing “was spared to maintain Life.” Starving settlers dug up corpses out of graves and ate them. Some colonists, who died in their beds or were killed seeking food beyond the palisade, were taken up and eaten by those who found their bodies. Sometime during the winter, 14-year-old Jane died, was eaten and then discarded in a trash pit.
The famished looked hungrily on those alive who still had some meat on their bones. One settler murdered his pregnant wife “as she slept on his bosom,” then “ripped the child out of her womb and threw it into the River and after chopped the Mother in pieces and salted her for his food,” for which “barbarous” and unnatural act he was tortured to extract a confession and summarily executed.

The Tea Party and Colonial Williamsburg

After witnessing a colonial Williamsburg reenactment depicting a slave telling the story of a vicious whipping, and another slave crying after her children were sold at auction, Andrew O’Hehir describes the famed living history museum as “a covert battleground in America’s culture wars.”

Yes indeed!

I am glad to see that journalists are recognizing the powerful part that history has played and will continue to play in these so called “culture wars.”  (To suggest that history is a major battleground in the culture wars is not “far fetched.”).  This, of course, has been an issue I have been dealing with for a couple of years now, ever since my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction was published in 2011.

Here are some of O’Hehir’s reflections on the tension between the white visitors to Williamsburg and recent attempts by the museum to give slave and African-American experiences a more prominent place in the story it tells about colonial America:

Every article ever written about Colonial Williamsburg brings up the overwhelming whiteness of the visitor population. Given that the venue was literally segregated during the Jim Crow era (blacks were admitted only one day a week, and the actors playing slaves lived in separate quarters), made no effort to include programming on African-American life until the 1980s, and cannot avoid focusing on the single most painful aspect of African-American history, it’s not exactly shocking that black people aren’t breaking down the doors. Another factor may be that the Revolutionary War itself is often seen, not just by African-Americans but by everybody, as an all-white duel of elites – George Washington vs. King George – whose ideas and slogans and conflicts are locked away behind glass in the vitrine of the distant past.

That dusty sense of certainty is exactly what has long made the American Revolution feel like a safe zone for contemporary conservatives; contemporary Tea Party activists picked their name for a reason. The heroes and villains of the Revolution seem clear-cut, and there’s very little popular debate about underlying causes (which makes it very different from the Civil War). The schoolbook versions are loaded with heroic deeds, truisms about God and tyranny and liberty, and paeans to the blinding greatness of the Founding Fathers, usually considered as a semi-divine monolith rather than a group of bickering men. That certainty is also exactly what the “Revolutionary City” program at Colonial Williamsburg seeks to undermine. (“Revolutionary City” is now concentrated in a 90-minute chunk towards the end of the day, but this summer it will expand throughout the schedule and become increasingly interwoven with other events.)

No doubt “Revolutionary City,” along with Colonial Williamsburg’s extensive Web outreach and ventures into social media, is in large part a matter of adapting to a changing environment. Attendance has trended steadily downward since a peak in the mid-1980s, and the institution faces a version of the Republican Party’s marketing problem: An all-white, heartland-based demographic is no longer enough. But unlike the GOP’s soul-searching, the process of reinvention at Colonial Williamsburg feels genuine and all-pervasive. (I should make clear that you can can observe most outdoor activities in Williamsburg, including some of the “Revolutionary City” theater, without paying admission.) Given its long-standing image as the squarest and most white-bread of all American tourist attractions, the question of whether Williamsburg can attract a new audience without totally driving away its old one is a puzzler.

HT: Aaron Cowan

Colonial Idol

Forget about American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, The X Factor, and all those other lame talent competitions.  Head over to the Colonial Williamsburg website and make your selection for this year’s “Colonial Idol.”

Here is a taste:

To see who wins, watch the broadcast premiere of the Electronic Field Trip Colonial Idol on Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Eastern Time on participating public television stations and cable channels!

This exciting talent showcase features 18th-century music, including Native American songs, military tunes, enslaved people’s work songs, and much more. As the judges deliberate, discover how music can influence individuals, shape public opinion, and even change history.