Colonial Life

While the military and music demonstration capture attention from the visitors at Colonial Williamsburg, another important aspect that was all around us in that town but perhaps was less noticed is the authentic reenactment of daily life in an 18th century town. The most visible part was the town itself with its historic buildings. Many were ordinary people’s homes and not having any historically significant event associated with them, but in many places you could come inside and learn more about what it was like to live in that era.

Just like in our lives today, there were issues that the people in that era struggled with. There was the taxation by the British ruler that led to American Revolution and the struggle for independence. So you could go to the tavern and hear from the locals discussing this topic. There were also the social classes that existed in the society — there were slaves, house servants, freed slaves, farmers, professionals in various trades, and the upper-class society. You could see actors dressing up in the period clothes that indicated their social class. It becomes quite fascinating and educational when you hear visitors talking to these actors about the character they are portraying, and getting a history lesson on what life was like back in 18th century Williamsburg from that character’s perspective.

I did not spend enough time to explore these; I think they would make a fascinating follow-up visit to the town. And since it is meant to be a living history museum, a visitor can possibly experience different things at different time of the year as the events and programs are tailored to match the time of the year or any special occassions to commemorate.

I did visit one home that happened to be the home of a blacksmith, complete with a workshop in the back. When I went there to check out the workshop, there were a couple of actors who were demonstrating work as blacksmiths. They made nails and horseshoes. It was interesting to notice that one of the blacksmiths was a young lady — I never associate this profession as an occupation for females. I think that was where it hit me that just like life today, you have people in every level of society, and even in reenacting the history there, you there were more than just ladies at the upper-class level with their pretty gowns, but also those working in the hot and dirty blacksmith workshop and other manual labor places as well.

The photo below was taken on the street as a couple of ladies dressed up in very nice dresses talking with a little girl who also dressed up in periodic clothes herself.

Ladies of the era

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Fifes and Drums

When you think of American Revolutionary War, one integral aspect of the picture of that era is the fifes and drums. Along with the army, typically there was a group of teenagers (aged 10 to 18) who would play fifes (ancient flutes) and snare and bass drums. The musician would play tunes that accompany the soldiers marching and to sound signals and alarms to the troops. The tradition went back to the 16th century, and you can still see them in action today though it is mostly ceremonial in nature (for example, during parades).

At Colonial Williamsburg, they continue the tradition of having the Fifes and Drums by recruiting local young musicians to join the corp that play in Colonial Williamsburg or at other occassions throughout the year. These young musicians also learned about the role of music in the 18th century life, so they can teach others and continue the tradition into the future.

I took the photo below at the main street of Colonial Williamsburg, the Duke of Gloucester Street, when the fifes and drums corp marched through the town. It was neat to see people walking along to follow them, and there was a young boy with his drum who marched alongside the corp (the kid at the right of the photo). I thought that was a great picture of the idea of bringing history to life.

Fifes and drums

Guns of the Patriots

When visiting Colonial Williamsburg, the events that you can participate in may vary depending the time of the year or if there is any special occassion to commemorate. During my visit, it was a particularly special weekend as the town commemorate its role in supporting the Continental Army just before the Siege of Yorktown that was the defining moment that led to the end of the American Revolutionary War. So the events of the day appropriately revolved around this: battle planning, march by the army, soldiers roaming the town, and demonstration of the firearms. You could both feel what it was like to life in the 18th century town and being in a place during a war for independence; there were people walking around in period clothes, some looked like regular citizens of the town, while others wear uniform and looked like soldiers from out-of-town who enlisted in the army to help the cause.

One event I attended was a demonstration of the firearms used during the American Revolutionary War. Several soldiers demonstrated the firing of these guns, and while they were doing so, a narrator provided some explanation to the audience about what was going on. I think the interesting fact I learned was about the two different types of guns used back then: the muskets and the rifles. The muskets were among the earlier firearms used, and while they provided the advantage compared to the enemy without firearms, they are not that accurate so the soldiers would typically march in groups and had several of these muskets fired toward the general vicinity to increase the possibility of hits. Compare that to the rifles. With the rifles, the construction of the barrel allowed them to spin the projectile as it comes out of the barrel, so the marksman can aim more accurately. So you can get quite accurate shooting even from longer distance.

During the American Revolutionary War, muskets were the weapon of choice especially during an open field battle because they were faster to load than the rifles, so when you have two fighting armies shooting at each other you can probably win when you have many people with muskets as supposed to small numbers of people with rifles. But if your goal is to perhaps hit a very particular target from longer distance (where accuracy matters more than rate of fire), then it would be the other way around where one would use rifle and using a musket would be a bad choice. So both kinds had their places during the war.

The photo below was taken during the demonstration of firing the muskets by a group of soldiers. There was a leader who coordinated the firing so the guns were fired roughly about the same time and increasing the likelihood of hitting the opposing army.

Muskets firing

DoG Street

The Duke of Gloucester Street (also known as the DoG Street to the locals) is the main street in Colonial Williamsburg. The street cuts across the old town and lined with many historic buildings and homes. It continued on towards the modern part of Williamsburg through a pedestrian-only street lined with shops and restaurants, and ends at the campus of the College of William and Mary.

Most of the events and activities at Colonial Williamsburg happen along the DoG Street area, and the locals and visitors alike go for shopping and dining at the western part of the street, so this street is easily the most visited area of Williamsburg. I think what is also pretty neat to think about is the fact that the street was named the Duke of Gloucester Street at the founding of the city of Williamsburg in year 1699, and through the years, you had historic figures like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, as well as more modern figures like Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and many others walked on this same street as you would if you visit the town. Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it ‘the most historic avenue in all America.’

During my visit to Colonial Williamsburg, I spent most of the day along this street attending many events that happened throughout the day. In the middle of my visit, I took a break to look for a lunch place, and I passed through a weekend farmers market that was set up right between the historic district and the shopping district. It definitely had very good foot traffic especially considering it was a nice autumn morning.

DoG Street

Knox

General Henry Knox was another character that I encountered and learned about when visiting Colonial Williamsburg. I listened to the actors portraying General Knox and General Anthony Wayne discussing about their plan to attack the British troops under Lord Cornwallis in Yorktown.

One of the topics they discussed during the planning was whether the light infantry under General Wayne should attack the British troops first, or whether they should perform a siege using the artillery under General Knox. True to the character, General ‘Mad Anthony’ Wayne suggested they should attack more aggressively, while General Knox suggested for bombardment by the artillery. They could not resolve the decision, and later asked General Washington for his opinion (who went for the siege — as it ended up happening in Yorktown). I thought it was pretty entertaining to listen to these actors reenacting such discussion among the leaders of the Continental Army on this decisive siege that was going to happen. It truly brought the history alive.

I noticed also that General Knox wore a black cloth covering one of his hands. I wondered why, and found out later through reading that Knox accidentally fired a shotgun on his left hand at one point and took off two of his fingers. So true to the real character, the actor also had the black cloth to cover his hands.

Like several other historic characters I ‘met’ during my visit to Colonial Williamsburg, General Henry Knox was honored by having places named after his name (Knoxville, Tennessee; Fort Knox, Kentucky).

Below you can see the reenactment of General Henry Knox addressing the troops before they went to Yorktown.

General Knox addressing troops

Mad Anthony

General Anthony Wayne was another historic character I came to learn about during my visit to Colonial Williamsburg. As I went to a historic home in the old town where the generals gathered to plan for their attack on Yorktown, I listened to a couple of generals, General Anthony Wayne and General Henry Knox, discussing the plan of attack with a couple of guests who seemed to know the history very well and engaged the characters in discussion as if they were talking with the real characters. The actors portraying the generals knew their characters very well, and answered the questions from the guests as if they were answering in first person.

One of the questions asked by the guests was whether General Wayne was really mad like his nickname ‘Mad Anthony’ suggested. The actor who portrayed General Knox answered that the reason for the nickname was because General Wayne was know to have fiery temperament and ‘hot blooded,’ and the nickname came about because of his treatment on a subordinate who showed incompetence. But he was also known as a strict disciplinarian who demanded obedience and loyalty from his men, and in return he showed loyalty and constantly tried to improve their circumstances. Many people in Pennsylvania where he came from repeatedly returned to fight with him.

General Wayne was one of the trusted generals who served under the command of General George Washington. When Washington became the first president of the country, his high regard for General Wayne’s military skills and judgment was demonstrated by appointing Wayne as the commander-in-chief of the American armies. Wayne led the Continental Army in fighting a confederate of Indian tribes in the Northwest Territory (now the Midwest states of Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan) that secretly served the British. Today we find places named after Wayne in those areas (the city of Fort Wayne, Indiana; Wayne County in Michigan) as well as in his home state of Pennsylvania.

In the photo below, you can see the actor who portrayed General Wayne explaining how his light infantry troops planned to attack the British in Yorktown.

General Anthony Wayne