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History of Colonial Williamsburg

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Timeline of Colonial Williamsburg

Bringing History To LIfe


Costumed interpreters began conveying stories of 18th-century people — both famous and lesser known — in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area in the 1970s. It was a way to depict people of all classes, genders and races, and at the time, was considered revolutionary street theater.

Today the program is far more interactive, drawing guests directly into the action. They can be part of a singular experience, engaging in conversation with an actor-interpreter whose research ensures that they are well-versed in the life of the person they portray.

  • The first-person interpretation that began on Historic Area streets evolved in 2005 with the introduction of the Nation Builders, a growing cast that includes interpretations of familiar founders alongside portrayals of other residents and visitors to Williamsburg in the Revolutionary era. 
  • The stories told through interpretation continued to expand with African American Interpretation, which began in 1979, exploring the lives of enslaved and free Black Americans who made up more than 50% of Williamsburg’s population at the time of the Revolution. 
  • Tribal delegations of American Indians were a common sight in early Williamsburg. Trade, diplomacy and tensions were all a part of a journey of co-existence navigated by colonists and the American Indian tribes who lived on the land on which the English had settled. The American Indian Encampment in the Historic Area tells that story. 
  • Gunsmithing, wheelwrighting, blacksmithing and tailoring are only some of the 18th-century trades that have been practiced in the Historic Area since 1936, using the tools and skills of the time. Today, the artisans of the Historic Trades demonstrate the skills that built a new nation. 
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Research, conservation and preservation lie at the heart of Colonial Williamsburg’s mission to present the stories of America’s origins. Every day, these investigations of the past reveal new facts, new stories, and new ways to interpret and understand the circumstances and events of this nation’s beginnings.

  • Archaeology was — and is — an important tool in discovering Williamsburg’s past. Excavations of historic sites began here in 1928 as the colonial capital was reconstructed. Ivor Noël Hume, called the “father of historic archaeology,” joined the Foundation in 1957 and led major excavations of the surrounding area for the next three decades. Discoveries continue today as we literally uncover stories of how people lived and worked, what they owned and even what they grew in their gardens.
  • Architectural historians’ contributions to the Foundation started with the restoration of the colonial capital, and their research, which continues today, helps us see what 18th-century buildings would have looked like. Preservationists help protect the structures and collections that illustrate life in those times.
  • Conservators and curators work together on preservation projects of their own — with a little help from modern science — to ensure that Colonial Williamsburg’s historic and artistic works are treated with special care. The collaboration began in the 1980s, based on the need to care for the growing collection of objects of material culture.
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Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg

The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg include two world-class museums under one roof — the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. The museums house collections of more than 67,000 period antiques and works of art, as well as some 7,000 pieces of folk art. A recent expansion added 65,000 square feet of space to the existing 100,000 square feet, offering more opportunities to showcase the Foundation’s extensive collection.

  • Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum — Colonial Williamsburg benefactor John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated funds in 1953 to construct a building specifically for the exhibition and conservation of the folk art collection that his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, donated to the Foundation almost 15 years earlier. Ground was broken in 1955 for the two–story, nine gallery structure designed by the Foundation’s Department of Architecture. In March 1957, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum opened to the public. It has since been expanded twice, reopening in 2007 in new quarters adjacent to the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. This folk art collection includes oil paintings, watercolor and pastel paintings, needlework and painted textiles, fracturs and calligraphic drawings, and sculpture in wood and metal. Explore current exhibitions.
  • The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Gallery — The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Gallery, now the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, first opened on June 10, 1985. Largely funded by donors DeWitt and Lila Wallace, founders of the Readers Digest Association, the museum’s objects include a celebrated collection of Southern furniture and one of the largest collections of British ceramics outside of England, as well as textiles, metal, paintings, prints and portraits. Some of these objects had been on view throughout the Historic Area, but many were housed with the Department of Collections, out of public view. A recent expansion has provided space to display more of that collection. Explore the exhibitions currently on display.
  • More to See at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg — In June 2020, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation completed the first large-scale expansion of the building that has housed the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum since they were first joined under one roof in 2007. The Art Museum of Colonial Williamsburg features numerous improved amenities, including a new, more welcoming entrance, and a new café and museum store. Designed by Samuel Anderson Architects of New York City, the new wing to the Art Museums provides a considerable increase in gallery space, which allows guests to see more of these outstanding collections.
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Education & Teachers Institute

When John D. Rockefeller Jr. partnered with the Rev Dr. William Archer Rutherford Goodwin in 1926 to create what is now the largest living history museum in the world, Rockefeller intended The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to serve as an educational resource to the nation. This founding vision continues today in programming that extends far beyond the boundaries of the museum. Through the Bob and Marion Wilson Teacher Institute, the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, and a continuously growing menu of digital assets, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation serves as an educational resource for teachers, scholars, lifelong learners, informed citizens, and history-lovers everywhere. Explore the links below to fulfill Rockefeller’s dream “that the future may learn from the past.”

  • Colonial Williamsburg’s Teacher Institute was created in 1989 to provide teachers an opportunity to visit the Historic Area for training, inspiration, and fellowship. In 2019, it was renamed the Bob and Marion Wilson Teacher Institute of Colonial Williamsburg in honor of the Wilsons’ important contributions to the Foundation’s educational initiatives. Today, Teacher Institute empowers teachers in all 50 states to bring history to life in their classrooms through on- and off-site training, classroom-ready instructional resources, and a collaborative community of staff and teachers on the cutting edge of history education. 
  • As the research center of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library advances knowledge of colonial British America, the American Revolution, the early United States, American decorative arts and folk art, and the restoration and continuing story of Colonial Williamsburg. Colonial Williamsburg’s first centralized library opened in 1985 but quickly outgrew its space in the Boundary Street office building. In 1997, the library moved to its current location at the Bruton Heights Education Center campus and was named the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library. In 2015, corporate archives was added to the library’s collection of rare books, manuscripts, and images, followed by the addition of media collections in 2017. The library’s staff and collections are available to anyone interested in exploring the ongoing experiment of American democracy. 
  • The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation offers a continuously expanding menu of digital programming that allows people to create connections between their own experiences and the experiences of people of the past. These resources highlight Williamsburg’s relevance by offering a historical context for current events. Learn more about virtual tours of the Historic Area, the Colonial Williamsburg Education Resource Library, and the many other virtual education resources available on our website. 
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