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Trees on the Duke of Gloucester Street in the 18th Century

Visitors often ask Colonial Williamsburg interpreters and support staff some variation on the following questions: "Were there street trees planted on the Duke of Gloucester Street in eighteenth century Williamsburg? If not, when did they first appear there, and when were the trees that are here now first planted?" This paper was written to provide some answers to these questions for those who are interested in the macro-landscape and environmental history of Williamsburg.

The documentation we have available suggests there were probably very few, if any, trees planted on the Duke of Gloucester Street in the eighteenth century.; Despite all of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's early goals and considerable efforts for visual authenticity in the Historic Area, the eighteenth-century city of Williamsburg and its surrounding area looked very different from today's recreated townscape. Archaeological evidence is also conclusive about the fact that even the topography in several places was very different then from what it is today.

At least seven surviving accounts by eighteenth-century visitors contain specific remarks about the sandy, dusty streets that existed here at that time. One account, by J. F. D. Smyth, dating from 1770, is particularly revealing: "The street deep with sand, (not being paved) makes a singular appearance to an European; and is very disagreeable to walk in, especially in summer, when the rays of the sun are intensely hot, and not a little increased by the reflection of the white sand, wherein every step is almost above the shoe, and where there is no shade or shelter to walk under, unless you carry an umbrella (emphasis added). The first reference the author has found that first establishes when trees were growing along the main street dates from eighty years later, in 1848.

We have found at least eight accounts by travelers who expressly mention the ability to see the city from a great distance as one approached it from the east and west, and of its being situated upon an "open plain." The French Desandrouins's military map, showing Williamsburg and its environs in 1782, graphically attests to this openness of the landscape surrounding the city. Ebenezer Hazard's 1777 account of his climb into the cupola on the roof of the College is also quite revealing. He wrote that from this vantage point he could see the "beautiful Prospect of the City and the adjacent Country; James River may be seen from it, as may York River in a clear Day." Due to the growth of so many trees in the area in this century, the author can personally attest to the fact that no such long, open vistas of this type can be seen from the same location today.

Together, all of these sources suggest the appearance of a colonial city that was vastly different from the one we know today. This evidence, however, does not indicate that there were no trees at all within the city. We have a few old trees that we think could date from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. If our dating methods are correct, these unique specimens are also good indicators that at least some shade trees had to have been growing within the city limits at that time. But the most common trees to be found here during the colonial period were probably the smaller fruit trees that were typically grown in back lots and larger orchards at the town's perimeter.

If we could compare the colonial city to today's recreated "Historic Area' we would probably find the genuine article much too stark and rough looking to have much visual appeal for today's visitors. Yet, travelers in the eighteenth century probably regarded Williamsburg in its setting of open fields as quite an "oasis" within a peninsula that was still largely rural in character. Instead of today's ubiquitous trees and lush vegetation within and at the town's perimeter, we would have had largely unimpeded and expansive views in every direction out into an open countryside of cultivated fields, fences, and orchards. All of the high, cultivable land would have long been cleared for agricultural use. The largest remaining trees, then, would have probably been confined to the many ravines that fall away from the highest land within the city limits.

With no industry and very little commerce in Williamsburg throughout the nineteenth century, any changes to the landscape and visual character of the region were minimal during that period. Farming continued on the lands surrounding the city much as it had been before. That this condition continued at least until the mid-nineteenth century is well documented in John Graham's surviving panoramic drawing of the city (circa 1859-1860) which shows the same open character of the landscape as formerly seen from south of the city center, in the area of today's Marshall-Wythe School of Law building. (This dramatic panoramic drawing is now on view in the Public Hospital exhibit.)

Surviving late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photographs of the area also attest to the fact that this open, rural character around Williamsburg still remained largely unchanged even after the turn of this century. While many old photos of Duke of Gloucester Street show some shade trees growing along the sides of the street, there appears to be little regularity in their placement. This fact could be an indication that prior to the beginning of the Restoration (in 1927), the planting of any trees along the street might have been due to the efforts of private individuals rather than from any systematically planned municipal initiatives.

After about 1917 or 1918, however, most of the farming operations being conducted on the acreage immediately around the old town limits quickly began to disappear as suburban development began to spread out from the old center of the town. As land began to be taken out of cultivation, the regeneration of natural vegetation quickly began to occur on those small land parcels that were not immediately developed. With the passing of just a quarter of a century or so, what had once been a vast agricultural area that spanned virtually the entire area between the James and York Rivers quickly became re-forested to an extent not seen since the mid-seventeenth century. In any event, the rapid growth and development that concurrently began to change the visual character of the area seems to have first started with the military presence and population buildup caused by the onset of World War I and World War II. This population growth in the greater Williamsburg area has continued virtually unabated since that time.

As a direct result of that initial growth, the first Colonial Williamsburg landscape designers were almost forced to create an essentially closed, insulated historic district with all the necessary fencing and landscape planting to screen out views of surrounding modern buildings, cars, roads, and other visual intrusions. Also, in the mid-1930s new deciduous trees were planted with regularity along Duke of Gloucester Street to augment the few sporadically placed existing trees. The functional reason for this large scale effort was to provide much needed shade in the summer for the comfort of both visitors and Colonial Williamsburg employees. A fairly large number of these now mature street trees still survive to grace the Historic Area setting of today.

So, for all of the tireless efforts on the part of generations of Colonial Williamsburg employees to achieve at least a plausible degree of visual authenticity within the boundaries of the restored colonial city, there is really no practical way for us to turn back the clock today so as to be able to also faithfully re-create the now lost open, rural landscape that once surrounded eighteenth-century Williamsburg. The founders of Colonial Williamsburg were only capable of going but so far afield and achieving but so much, given the constraints that modern development had placed on their ability to "extend" the Historic Area's boundaries beyond where they were first established, and where they are essentially still located today.

Aesthetic concerns over the visual appeal and inviting character to be seen inside the designated "Historic Area" inevitably had the greatest influence on the decision to systematically plant the streets with more shade trees. After the social traumas brought about by the Indus-trial Revolution, mass immigration from Europe, a world war, and the Great Depres-sion, early twentieth-century Americans collectively adopted a very idealistic and nostal-gic view of their shared colonial past. This mindset or aesthetic, which historians today have come to call "Colonial Revivalism," was largely the force that was ultimately responsible for the general appearance of this restored colonial city of Williamsburg.

Despite all of the surviving eighteenth-century documentary evidence that suggested what the town originally must have looked like, our predecessors at Colonial Williamsburg thought that an idyllic, tree shaded town would be much more appealing and marketable to potential visitors than the stark historical reality of the eighteenth-century city so succinctly (if somewhat uncharitably) described by a 1777 visitor as "a small, regular, sandy, dusty, wooden, unpaved city." After sixty years as America's premier outdoor living history museum, their wisdom in taking a less than ultra-realistic approach today seems well founded and blessed by very good sense.