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The Magazine
  • Built in 1715 by Governor Spotswood
  • Stored equipment necessary for protection against Indians, slave revolts, riots, and pirate raids
  • Dunmore ordered emptying of arsenal and disabling of the muskets
  • Spark of revolution ignited here
  • Events at Magazine in 1775 mirrored events of revolution in Massachusetts
  • Magazine used for multiple purposes after government moved to Richmond
  • Association for Preservation of Virginia Antiquities formed as a result of effort to restore Magazine

Built by Governor Spotswood to protect colony's arms and munitions

In 1714, the General Assembly had asked Governor Alexander Spotswood to build "a good substantial house of brick" precisely to protect the colony's arms and munitions. The occasion was the shipment of powder and muskets from Queen Anne's government in England. The city's 17th-century magazine, if it still stood, seems to have been inadequate. Spotswood was authorized to spend £200 from taxes collected on the import of liquor and slaves.

In 1715, he had erected a tall octagonal tower admired by a visitor, Sir William Keith, as "an elegant safe Magazine, in the Centre of Williamsburgh." Spotswood also designed Bruton Parish Church and landscaped the Governor's Palace.

Spotswood's Magazine safeguarded shot, powder, flints, tents, tools, swords, pikes, canteens, cooking utensils, and as many as 3,000 Brown Bess flintlocks – equipment needed for defense against Indians, slave revolts, local riots, and pirate raids. Its first keeper was John Brush, builder of the Brush-Everard House.

So many munitions arrived from 1754 to 1763 in the course of the French and Indian War that the additions of a high perimeter wall and Guardhouse were necessary. But with the departure of the government for Richmond during the Revolution, the Magazine saw less service as a powder horn, as it was sometimes called.

Spark that ignited Revolution began at Magazine

The spark that ignited the Revolution in Virginia was struck where the colony stored its gunpowder, the Magazine in the middle of Williamsburg.

The night of April 20, 1775, Lieutenant Henry Collins stole toward the capital with a squad of royal marines from H.M.S. Magdalen anchored in Burwell's Bay on the James River. Their orders, straight from Governor Dunmore, were to empty the arsenal and disable the muskets stored there.

"Tho' it was intended to have been done privately," Dunmore wrote a few days later, "Mr. Collins and his party were observed, and notice was immediately given to the Inhabitants of this Place: Drums were then sent through the City." It was early the morning of April 21 by then. The marines fled in the dark with 15 half-barrels of powder for H.M.S. Fowey anchored in the York River.

Angry citizenry gathered

Most of Williamsburg's population gathered on Market Square, and some talked of doing Dunmore harm. Peyton Randolph, Robert Carter Nicholas, and Mayor John Dixon averted violence by persuading the crowd to send a delegation to the governor to demand an explanation. Dunmore said he had intelligence of "an intended insurrection of slaves" and only wanted to keep the powder out of its reach. Unless he viewed the angry patriots as slaves, he was lying.

It was Patrick Henry's oratory that helped the governor down this road. At St. John's Church in Richmond on March 23, Henry had risen during the Second Virginia Convention to argue for the organization of a volunteer company of cavalry or infantry in every county. His speech ended: "Give me liberty, or give me death."

Dunmore tries to justify actions

Later justifying the powder's theft, Dunmore wrote:

"The Series of Dangerous Measures pursued by the People of this Colony against Government, which they have now entirely overturned, & particularly their having come to a Resolution of raising a Body of armed Men in all the Counties, made me think it prudent to remove some gunpowder which was in a Magazine in this Place, where it lay exposed to any Attempt that might be made to seize it, & I had Reason to believe the People intended to take that step."

Dunmore knew full well that possession of the gunpowder was the possession of power.

The sword of revolution drawn

Word of Lexington and Concord reached Williamsburg on April 27. The Virginia Gazette got out a broadside the next day that said: "The Sword is drawn and God knows when it will be sheathed." Soon Henry and 150 militiamen were threatening the capital from a Military Encampment just west of the city and demanding restitution for the powder. They were granted restitution.

Late June 3 or early June 4, a spring-gun trap set at the Magazine wounded two young men who had broken in. A furious mob stormed the building June 5. Rumors that the royal marines were returning brought out the militia. June 8, Dunmore fled to H.M.S. Fowey. British rule in Virginia was at an end.

After the government moved to Richmond, the Magazine became, successively, a market, a Baptist meetinghouse, a Confederate arsenal, a dancing school, and a livery stable. But it always maintained a capacity to inspire. Journalist Benson Lossing passed through Williamsburg in 1848 and wrote:

"While leaning against the ancient wall of the old Magazine, and in the shadow of its roof, contemplating the events which cluster that locality with glorious associations, I almost lost cognizance of the present, and beheld in reverie the whole pageantry of the past march in review."

A woodblock engraving that illustrated his account was useful a century later in the Magazine's restoration.

Effort to save the Magazine resulted in formation of Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities

Builders tore down its perimeter wall in 1856 and used the bricks for the foundation of a nearby church. A wall of the Magazine itself collapsed February 6, 1888, and one-half of another the next day. A local woman's determination to save the structure was instrumental in the formation of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, an organization that bought the Magazine the next year for $400. Her name was Cynthia Beverley Tucker Coleman, and she was owner of the St. George Tucker House, and a descendant of its namesake. Her son was a state transportation official, and the bridge over the York River to Gloucester is named for him. In the water near the southern foot of that bridge rests the wreckage of H.M.S. Fowey, which sank during the Battle of Yorktown.

September 9, 1889, the Magazine's roof burned, with only its finial escaping the flames. Repaired, the building became a museum. Colonial Williamsburg restored the structure in 1934 and 1935, rebuilding the brick wall and Guardhouse. In 1946, Colonial Williamsburg leased the Magazine and began its restoration. It reopened as an exhibition July 4, 1949, and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities sold the building to Colonial Williamsburg in 1986.