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Williamsburg History

Where do we even start? For centuries this was the land of tidewater Native American nations such as the Powhatan, who farmed the soil and fished the rich waters of the Chesapeake and her tributaries. In 1607, after 18 failed attempts, the British tried to establish the colony of Jamestown on a small island off the Virginia Peninsula. The island, it was reasoned, was uninhabited and removed from land and thus offered easily defensible approaches. There may have been a reason the previous 18 attempts by the British to settle in North America failed—those original colonists were pretty incompetent. Many were just not used to physical labor. Others were skilled workers who had no experience with agriculture. There was a reason the island was uninhabited by Indians, too—it was a brackish, malarial swamp. The settlers quickly hunted out all of the available game and then realized the planting season was finished (not that they knew how to plant anything, anyway). Luckily enough, local Native Americans were on hand to train John Smith and his settlers in the ins and outs of not dying (by the way—Smith and Pocahontas actually never got together. She was barely a teenager when they met). Nonetheless, by 1608, wars had broken out between colonists and natives and by 1609 the colonists were not managing success at much other than starving to death. Continued maritime support from England kept the colony afloat; military aid in the form of soldiers led to a punitive expedition that wiped out the aforementioned local Native Americans. The Virginia colony did eventually become manageable and profitable, so much so that by 1693 a school of higher education was founded at Middle Plantation, up the road from Williamsburg. When the Jamestown statehouse burned down twice the capitol was moved to Middle Plantation, renamed Williamsburg in honor of the king of England, William III. As the 18th century went on, the eventual seeds of revolution were planted in Williamsburg by many of the founding fathers, several of whom were born and raised into Virginia aristocracy. After the American Revolution broke out, the Virginia capitol was moved to Richmond. In 1781, the final defeat of the British was brought on by a Franco-American alliance at Yorktown, the third "angle" in the Triangle (after Jamestown and Williamsburg). This area declined in prominence after the Revolution, but during the Civil War, it became a major battleground, as Union troops tried to advance up the Virginia Peninsula to Richmond. In the 1920s, activists set aside 301 acres for historical preservation and renovation, leading to the creation of Colonial Williamsburg, a huge living history museum that is, today, Virginia’s largest attraction.

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