Hanging Out In Colonial Williamsburg

Having returned from Colonial Williamsburg, I am putting the final touches on my photos from the week. Soon my SmugMug Page will be filled with many new images of my family’s favorite vacation destination. A location at which you are likely to find a gentleman like the one depicted below — fully clothed in 18th Century garb, leaning next to an 18th Century Building, but with a certain 21st Century chill.

An Onlooker in 18th Century Garb looks on at a public performance.

I love the fusion.

In fact, this gentleman was a spectator during an introductory play held on the steps of the Williamsburg Courthouse. This drama brought together a tourist, a interpreter who was not portraying an historic figure, and an historic re-enactor in character. It was a clever way to show visitors how it’s not only the various cultures of the past on display within the confines of the living history museum. In reality the fusion of past, present, and in-between are also brought together to create a new community. The result is fascinating.

Tourists are like tourists everywhere. Many are nice people, most have cameras 1, and all are perhaps a bit out of sorts. Maybe they missed some words of instruction, or don’t know which bus stop is best to begin their tour, or are nervous because their children have already made odd comments about the way people are dressed. So, they might be a little off their game. And then they encounter someone who acts like they don’t know what a bus stop is. I could spend an entire trip following the re-enactors around and filming these interactions.

Then you have the historical re-enactors themselves. It is very rare for them to break character, and even then will only do so in pre-announced venues. Walking down the Duke of Gloucester street one might encounter a young widow, a local handyman, or even Thomas Jefferson. I once was leered at by an Anglican Clergyman who discovered I was a Baptist Pastor 2. On another occasion I wound up being the only person in the coffeehouse with Colonel George Washington. I haven’t seen Patrick Henry around in a while, but he’s been there in the past. One might also be afforded an opportunity to hiss at Benedict Arnold.

As far as these people are concerned, they are in the 18th Century. More importantly, they are portraying individuals in specific years, or even dates, in the 18th Century. This past trip I encountered the widow Rachele Whitacker early in the morning at the Payton Randolph house — I believe the year was 1867, and her husband had just died. That afternoon I encountered Mrs. Whitacker again, this time in the Raleigh Tavern. Only this time she was in the 1770’s and was preparing to deliver a letter supporting the non-importation agreement between England and the Colonies. Because of the time warp I was able to discover what had happened to her in the years following her husband’s death.

Visitors may interact with these historic personalities. In fact, they are encouraged to do so 3. I always have a wonderful time chatting up the different characters, and I love to see the glee on their faces when I ask them, “I’m sorry, forgive me, but could you tell me what year it is?” Try it sometime.

In-between the tourists and the re-enactors are the interpreters. These include costumed individuals who queue people up for tours and provide information, all the way up to this historic trades-people demonstrating their incredible skills in front of gawking on-lookers. When a tourist speaks to these people, they will answer as though they were in the 21st Century. When a re-enactor engages with them, however, they will speak to them as though they were in the 18th Century. In this way these people become the bridge between worlds 4.

The blend of worlds, on multiple levels, is what draws me back to Colonial Williamsburg over and over and over. My wife and I were married twenty years ago and honeymooned there. We fell in love with the place and throughout our marriage we have returned to the historic area again and again. We have also never been to the same Williamsburg twice. Colonial Williamsburg is a living history museum — this applies to the fusion of past and present cultures generating the museum’s pulse, but also to the structure of the museum itself. New buildings, new programs, new environments in which we are afforded the opportunity to interact with the 18th Century are opened up each trip. And on every trip we have always learned something we’d not previously known.

I cannot recommend enough spending a few days strolling the Historic Area. Or, if you are too distant from Williamsburg, in any living history museum. Provoking imagination, and experiencing some of both the warts and charms of our history, is a great way to spend a vacation.

  1. And the number of DSLR’s I encounter there increases with every visit. 
  2. That was so much fun
  3. Really, that’s half the fun
  4. And the rescuer of many a confused tourist who is found asking Young Thomas Jefferson for directions to Busch Gardens. 

One Comment

  1. I really really REALLY want to take my kids here sometime. My family went in my tween years, and I loved it. But I don’t quite trust centuries-old crockery or furniture around my sons…not to mention firearms…
    …not for a few years yet, anyway. 😉

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