Colonial Williamsburg: Visit With a Nation Builder Part 1

Patrick Henry

Meet Patrick Henry orator, statesman, first elected (non-royal) governor in Virginia. lawyer, patriot and founder of American independence.

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Patrick Henry after his speech comes down to interact with people one-on-one

He had a lot to say about his past. The Interpreter was great. He spoke with enthusiasm and humor, especially for a man nearing the end of his life. (Patrick Henry would die the following year). The Interpreter effectively conveyed Henry’s life story in an interesting manner but the political history was too much information and not enough detail for me until I looked it up. After the presentation, he answered questions knowledgeably and agreeably. Then he stepped down from the stage to meet and greet people wanting to take pictures, shake his hand and discuss his impact on modern day politics.

My pictures didn’t come out so well because I was too far away. I kept moving closer as people left to try to capture his face. The zoom lens can only reach so far, unfortunately.

Colorful character Patrick Henry tells his life story. A self-starter, Henry studied law on his own. He first became famous in 1763 for calling the King a tyrant who would be disposed because the far away King refused to pass a law made by the representatives of the American people. Two years later he spoke out against the Stamp Act in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He compared King George III with dictators like Caeser and Charles I of England. On May 29, 1765, he introduced seven radical resolutions in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Five of the seven resolutions were adopted on May 30, though one was reconsidered the next day (after Henry’s departure) and removed.

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Patrick Henry relates his life story

He was a very passionate speaker and got the Burgesses (representatives) all riled up because they thought his words were treason. Henry managed to win the men to his side and led every protest for American rights and independence.

Henry was elected to the First Continental Congress in 1774. On March 23, 1775, he gave his infamous speech arguing the Congress should put together an army to fight against the British. He gave a dramatic speech, holding his wrists together like they were chained. Henry raised his wrists towards the heavens and stated dramatically “Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty” (imagine Henry bursting from his imaginary chains and grabbing an ivory letter opener) “Or give me death!” (picture Henry pretending to stab himself.” No one spoke for a few minutes. History will credit this speech with tipping the scales towards independence. (Listen to his speech given by Richard Schumann who interprets Patrick Henry for Colonial Williamsburg)

The interpreter was really into his speech, he was spitting a bit as his voice rose.

Henry led the militia against Lord Dunmore and called for Lord Dunmore’s removal after the Governor tried to steal the town’s gunpowder. On May 2, Henry collected the militia of Hanover County and marched toward Williamsburg. He sent a message to the governor demanding that the gunpowder be returned to representatives of the colony. Governor Dunmore wrote the Virginians a bill of exchange for value of the powder, then issued a proclamation outlawing “a certain Patrick Henry” for disturbing the peace of the colony.

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Patrick Henry answers questions from the audience

Henry served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, was a member of the Virginia committee of Correspondence, a delegate to the Virginia Convention, and a delegate to the Virginia Constitution Ratification Convention. Henry was commissioned as Colonel of the First Virginia regiment on Saturday, August 26, 1775, by the third Virginia Convention. Henry was a delegate to the Continental Congress buy resigned his position to return to Virginia to begin organizing his regiment.

On June 29 was elected the first governor of the Commonwealth under its new constitution, adopted the same day. Patrick Henry served five terms as the first and sixth governor of Virginia.

Henry was succeeded as governor by Thomas Jefferson but the two were not particularly friendly. There was some animosity between them during the war years when the British advanced on the capital of Virginia. In January 1781, British forces under Benedict Arnold, sailed up the James River and captured Richmond, the capital at the time. The government fled to Staunton, minus Governor Jefferson, whose term had expired. Jefferson took refuge at his farm in Bedford County, and because Virginia had not had another election, the Commonwealth had no governor for ten days. Several legislators, including Patrick Henry complained of Jefferson’s actions and called for an inquiry into the conduct of the executive. Patrick Henry explains how he thought Jefferson should have been impeached. (That will NEVER happen again… he adds). The Battle of Yorktown effectively ended the war before an inquiry could be held. The Virginia legislature decided against holding the inquiry and congratulated Jefferson on winning the war. Patrick Henry did not seem to thrilled by this.

Patrick Henry served as governor again from 1784-1786. He was the longest serving governor of Virginia and will always be on the record as such due to term limits.

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Patrick Henry tells his life story

Henry explained his feelings towards the Constitution. He opposed ratification because he felt it put too much power in the hands of the federal government without a bill of rights. He feared the absence of a bill of rights was a power grab by a few (as in Jefferson and Madison). Virginia agreed to ratify the Constitution when the Bill of Rights was added but Henry felt they did not adequately safeguard the rights of the people. He emphasized the rights of the people -rights NO ONE can take away from us. Fortunately the audience didn’t get into a political debate while I was busy trying to take notes.

I asked about his first wife, Sarah, who was mentally ill. He explained that after the birth of her 6th child she became disoriented and confused, not speaking and she stopped recognizing her children. Whether this was postpartum depression or not there is no way of knowing given the lack of medical knowledge at the time but modern scholars feel there is a connection. She continued to decline, becoming violent, and the family physician recommended taking her to Williamsburg to the hospital there. After touring the hospital, Patrick Henry decided it was too cruel to allow his wife to be imprisoned there. He had a “commodious establishment” made for her in the basement. It wasn’t the dank, dark, dungeon his enemies would have you think but actually sunny and comfortable. There she had light, food and water, was attended by a nurse and visited by her family. Sadly, Sarah never recovered after died after 4 1/2 years. I had read a novel, in my younger days, Or Give Me Death by Ann Rinaldi. In the novel Sarah Henry throws herself out the window crying “Give me liberty, or give me death!” thus inspiring her husband’s speech. (and my question) However, historians don’t know the truth and this seems to have been a fun piece of fiction for young adults. It seems like the truth is that her family loved her and tried their best to care for her with the limited medical treatment available at that time. It breaks my heart for her and the family who watched her suffer. I asked because I felt it was important to Sarah Henry to have her story told. I realized when I asked that this must be a frequently asked question. A tougher question would have been “Did you cover up your wife’s illness because of your political ambitions?” No doubt there would have been a great answer to that question too.

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Patrick Henry shares his story 

Patrick Henry married again after a suitable period of mourning in 1777. His second wife bore him another 11 children and survived. He will die next year in 1799 at his home on Red Hill Plantation in Campbell County. (How he knows this, he didn’t say!)

You too can have the pleasure of an audience with Patrick Henry thanks you YouTubers. I wish I had been close enough to take a video but I got there too late for a good seat.

This is a great program and I recommend visiting with as many nation builders as you can. Thomas Jefferson is still my favorite but Patrick Henry is wonderful too.

 

Colonial Williamsburg: Historic Trades Part 3

Shoemaker

The firm of George Wilson, who moved to Williamsburg from Norfolk, Virginia in the late 1760s. In 1773, George Wilson specialized in “Boots and Shoes for Gentlemen.” Boot making was considered the most sophisticated and prestigious branch of the trade. It followed a centuries-old tradition. The making of boots and shoes for men and the making of shoes for women were separate pursuits.

Shoemaker and apprentice explain the process of making shoes

Shoemaker and apprentice explain the process of making shoes

Men could select shoes from a stock of “sale shoes” in popular-styled, already-sized shoes. Alternately, if his feet were an unusual size, he could order a pair made order, which required a day’s wait. The firm’s specialty was boots for riding. Wilson’s sister-in-law was the proprietor of the shoe factory of Mary Wilson and Company.

Apprentice demonstrating process of working leather into shoes

Apprentice demonstrating process of working leather into shoes

The chart on the wall shows the prices of goods sold.

handwritten price chart on wall

The chart on the wall shows the prices of goods sold.

Printing and Binding Office

The printer spent hours just to produce a newspaper or book. Setting type for one page of the weekly newspaper required 25 hours of hand labor.

Printer using large wooden printing press

Printer demonstrating hand press

The type is set in the galleys backwards, locked into the chase and secured. Learn more about the process of printing  Colonial Williamsburg Almanack

In the 18th-century the book binding office served as a stationer’s, a post office, an advertising agency, an office supply shop, a newsstand, and a bookbindery. It sold magazines and books, maps and almanacs,and even sealing wax!

Bookbinding office books

The place to buy your paper goods

Books were sold unbound. Customers liked to choose their own bindings to show off status and wealth or to personal tastes. Here you could have a book bound from start to finish.

large wooden bookbinding tool

tool of the trade

Groups of printed pages or signatures of four, eight, 12, or 16 pages contained two or more pages on each side of a sheet. When folded and cut the signatures presented the text in the proper order for binding.

A bookbinder compiled the signatures and beat them with a heavy hammer to make the sheets lie close. He arranged them on a sewing frame and stitched them together at the back fold with linen thread. As he sewed, he looped the strands around thick hemp cross threads, which created characteristic horizontal ridges across the spine and unified the assembly. were laid on a sewing frame and stitched to cords at the back fold with linen thread. These cords formed horizontal ridges across the spine

The book binder demonstrates sewing a book.

 

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Colonial Williamsburg: Historic Trades Part 2

We wandered over to the blacksmith shop to learn how it operated during the time of the Revolutionary War. The blacksmith shop doesn’t really interest me specifically. I have seen two other pre-Industrial blacksmith shops before this one and the process is basically the same.

A blacksmith’s forge consisted of a raised brick hearth outfitted with bellows to feed its soft-coal fire and a hood to carry away the smoke. The forge heated bars of iron yellow-hot. With his journeymen and apprentices, the blacksmith used sledges weighing as much as 12 pounds to hammer the heated bars into various shapes.

For more on the blacksmith, visit The Colonial Williamsburg Almanack

Next was a quick visit to the public leather works. The leather works cut, mold, and stitch leather and heavy textiles into a variety of necessary products for Virginia’s fighting men. They sometimes made leather stays, known as jumps, for working women.

 

Saddle making was a skilled craft and produced high-quality leather goods for the wealthy.

My favorite trade, as if you couldn’t tell already, is the Milliner and Mantua Maker. English fashion dominated in Colonial Virginia. Fashion originated in Paris, spread to London and then across the ocean to wealthy women like Lady Dunmore, the governor’s wife. All the other women wanted to copy Lady Dumore’s gowns. Ordering a new gown wasn’t as simple as it sounds, as all clothes were custom made. While George Washington preferred to send his measurements and preferences to his tailor in England, Williamsburg has a Milliner and Mantua Maker’s shop where fashionable women can purchase or have made all they need to look their best.

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What d’ye buy? A new custom-made gown? A new fashionable hat?

Millinery shops were almost always owned by women. From fabric sold in the shop, milliners would make items such as: shirts, shifts, aprons, neckerchiefs, caps, cloaks, hoods, hats, muffs, ruffles, trim for gowns.

In addition to being a trades woman who made fashion accessories, the milliner was also a businesswoman who sold a wide range of fashionable imported goods such as the very latest wares in haberdashery, jewelry, hosiery, shoes “and other items too tedious to mention.” [1]

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A milliner could trim a hat and ladies could see the latest styles on a pandora or fashion doll sent over from France. Fashions changed every season!

“In a word, they furnish everything to the Ladies that can contribute to set off their Beauty, increase their Vanity, or render them ridiculous.” [2]

The mantua maker was skilled in cutting, fitting, and sewing cloaks, mantles, hats, hoods, caps, gloves, petticoats, hoops, riding costumes, and dresses for masquerades – all in the latest fashion.

The mantua maker explained how to put on stays if you don’t have a ladies’ maid. You can either put them on loosely laced and pull on a knot tied at the top of the cord to tighten or put them on, lace them backwards and shimmy around.

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Mantua Maker explains how women got dressed without a maid

We continued the discussion from earlier in the day on what women did when they had their monthlies. Conclusion? It’s fun to visit places like the museum version of Colonial Williamsburg but I would certainly not want to live then.

The shop is much smaller than I remembered. I also remember the tailor sharing this space and now he has his own shop elsewhere in town. Visitors can peer into the back workroom and see what fashions the seamstresses are working on. It’s amazing to look at the exquisite garments they still make by hand here in the shop. While I wouldn’t want to live in the 18th-century, they did have some incredibly beautiful clothes.

Trade shops to be continued ….

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Colonial Williamsburg

Dear Readers,

I am sorry for the long absence. I have a backlog of posts to write but here are some from Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum dedicated to telling the story of the town of Williamsburg, Virginia in the 18th century.

I’ll take you on a walk through the historic area as the sun sets.

First stop is Great Hopes Plantation. Great Hopes Plantation, a recreated farm of the 1750s-1770s. The landscape, buildings, animals, and the work and lifestyles of its inhabitants are based on extensive research into small farms in three neighboring counties.

Great Hopes Plantation windmill. Great Hopes is a middling family farm. Windmills were common in early Virginia. Mills like this one were used to grind corn into cornmeal for local farms and plantations. A “Post Mill” contained machinery in a house that is mounted on a central, vertical post. The entire mill house is capable of rotating on the central post so the sails can face the wind. Windmills like this one require 15 mile-per-hour wind to operate and were often built on the high ground near rivers and the coast. (recreation 1957, moved 2010, restored 2015)

 

A walk past the plantation and next to the river reveals a family of American Milking Devons, a descendant of the Red Devon breed native to Devonshire, England. (I saw those at Plimoth Plantation) .This rare, heritage breed is a beautiful red color and their milk has a high butterfat content, making these cows popular in colonial times for butter and cheese.

 

The calf is weaning. It eats grass but is still nursing. This was a very sweet sight and a nice break from the hectic pace of modern life. I love how museums like Colonial Williamsburg and preserving these old breeds of livestock.

 

Maria Mitchell Association

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Maria Mitchell Birthplace

While in Nantucket I visited the Maria Mitchell Association, a complex of four museums. There’s the natural science museum in the main building. This features animals (mostly dead) found on or near the local beaches. They have dolphin skeletons, butterflies, moths, taxidermy animals, live snakes and turtles and a discovery center.

The main focus of my visit was the Maria Mitchell birthplace. A typical Quaker house built in 1790, this house is the birthplace of America’s first female astronomer.

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Maria Mitchell Birthplace sign

The Mitchells acquired the home shortly before Maria’s birth in 1818. It is typical Nantucket architecture. It has an off-center front door and a small window above to let light in the hall when the door was closed. On the roof is a roof walk, which was actually for putting out chimney fires and fires on the roof. Could they have used it for other purposes? Yes, but that isn’t what it was built for.

William Mitchell had to add a new kitchen to the old house to make the house bigger. The new kitchen has a back staircase, a warming alcove and plaster walls painted to look like wood. The front room features the most exciting and unique artifact in the house-Maria’s telescope through which she discovered a comet. The front entryway has an amazing mural of “The Great Moon Hoax of 1835.” (Fake news is obviously not an Internet age problem).

Maria Mitchell was educated at a young ladies seminary and also taught by her father, an astronomer who rated chronometers for use by the Nantucket whaling fleet in celestial navigation. His Quaker belief in equality led him to educate his daughter in subjects normally taught to boys. At the age of 12, Maria assisted her father in calculating the position of their home by observing a solar eclipse. By 14 she trusted to calculate navigational computations for sailors leaving on whaling journeys.

Maria’s interest in science extended to teaching as well. After she finished her own formal education, she opened a school for girls to train them in science and mathematics- like an early STEM school.

At the age of 18 she became the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, reading everything she could after hours. She worked there from 1836-1858.

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Nantucket Atheneum

Her greatest accomplishment was yet to come. Avoiding a party at her family’s apartment above the bank one night in 1847, Maria went up to the roof to observe the sky through her father’s two-inch telescope. She lucked out that night, October 1, and discovered a comet! She was not only the first woman to discover a comet, she was the first in America to record her sighting.

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Pacific National Bank

Unfortunately, the next day there was a storm and ships couldn’t leave the island so the observations she sent off to Europe were delayed, allowing an Italian man to gain credit for the discovery. However, Maria prevailed and her careful notes revealed she sighted the comet earlier than the Italian. The King of Denmark awarded Maria Mitchell of Nantucket an International gold medal.

Maria then skyrocketed (pun intended) to fame.  “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” as it became known, was featured in Elias Loomis’ The Recent Progress of Astronomy.

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Recent Progress in Astronomy

Maria became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848, the only woman recognized for almost 100 years thereafter. She was also elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Philosophical Society and earned an annual salary from The U.S. Coastal Survey ($300/year) as a celestial observer. [1] She was also able to meet other women involved in the sciences on a Grand Tour of Europe in the 1850s.

Though Maria ultimately broke with the Quaker meeting, she retained some Quaker philosophies, such as equality and abolitionist principles. She always dressed in black silk, refusing to wear cotton as it was grown by slaves.

After her mother’s death, Maria was invited by Matthew Vassar to be the first female professor at his new women’s college, where she rebelled against the strict rule prohibiting women from going out at night. Her students adored her and even persuaded her to pose for a portrait. (Maria believed her plain looks would not appear to advantage on canvas or in photos). She did insist on appearing as she normally did, in her Quakerish black silk dress and plain hairstyle.

Maria Mitchell became involved in the emerging women’s rights movement, with fellow Nantucket Quaker Lucretia Mott, meeting the luminaries of the day and holding meetings in her observatory. Her famous friends later donated money to save her Vassar observatory. [2]

Though Maria Mitchell died in 1889, a year after her retirement from teaching, her legacy lives on. The Maria Mitchell Association also operates an observatory. Their website states “since 1908, the Observatory has been the site of research, lectures, and other programs . . .” [3]  That is smaller than the house!

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Normally they start outside but since it was rainy and overcast, we couldn’t see anything in the sky. We did look at a scale model to see how far the planets are in the solar system. That was very helpful. I don’t really understand or care for astronomy so much of it was lost on me. Inside there is a little museum where visitors can see Maria Mitchell’s influence on culture and science. She has asteroid and a crater named after her, among other things. I really liked it when they mentioned there is an archive. That would be fun to look at.

More on the history of Nantucket in my next post.

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Nantucket, Massachusetts

There once was a man from Nantucket . . . Or in this case, a woman visiting Nantucket. I’ve been too busy working in a museum to visit other museums. A family wedding brought me to the small island of Nantucket, off the coast of Cape Cod. For two and half days I crammed in as many museums and historical sites as I could.

I commenced with a self-guided walking tour up Main Street.

I found Thomas Turner Square with a dedication plaque dedicated to “Thomas Turner, son of Nantucket served on the ship Bon Homme Richard Killed in Action with H.M.S. Serapis September 23, 1779.” A reminder of Nantucket’s rich maritime history and how the locals honor their long history. The Bon Homme Richard was commanded by John Paul Jones and the battle with Serapis was when he uttered the famous line “I have not yet begun to fight.” Though the battle was won, the ship was lost and half the crew on both ships were killed. [1]

 

 

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Thomas Turner memorial plaque

The plaque is on the side of the Pacific National Bank, which is a historic monument as well as a bank. The bank was incorporated in 1804 for the newly wealthy whalers. [2]

In 1830s William Mitchell served as bank cashier. The job came with living quarters on the second floor. William Mitchell moved in with his family, including his daughter Maria, a librarian at the Atheneum and astronomer. William and Maria set up a telescope on the roof, where she preferred to spend her evenings over boring dinner parties. In 1847 Maria discovered a comet and rocketed (pun intended) to fame. (More on her later).

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Pacific National Bank

Outside the entrance to the Mitchell’s apartment, William placed a stone marker to measure the angle of distance between true north and magnetic north.

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Town’s Meridan Line plaque

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Meridan Line Stone

Just past the bank is a granite obelisk standing as a memorial to the Nantucket men who died in the Civil War. [3]

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Civil War Memorial

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Civil War Memorial

The memorial was begun in 1874 using a stone from the recently demolished Round Top Mill. 73 Nantucket men died in the war, the first war Nantucket men participated in. Previously, the island was largely Quaker and the Quaker tradition of pacifism kept them out of previous wars. [4]

Slightly off the beaten path is the Fire Hose Cart House. I didn’t go in but I gather this is a museum of antique fire fighting equipment.

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Built 40 years after the great fire of 1846, this was an important building. You can read about it at the Nantucket Preservation Trust website.

Wandering along, I noticed this house out of place among the mid-19th century mansions.

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The plaque on this house says it was built in 1690 for Christopher Starbuck. The Starbucks were among the founding families of Nantucket. I was impressed this simple wooden structure survived the great fire of 1846!  This house is an example of a lean-to style house.

The wild Nantucket landscape as it must have looked centuries ago.

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Nantucketview Wild Nantucket Landscape

Heading back down Main Street, near the center of town is an example of what new whaling money could buy-this opulent mansion.

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Hawden House 96 Main Street

William Hawden, a whale oil and spermaceti candle manufacturer and silversmith built this Greek Revival mansion for his family during the golden age of whaling. More about him later on.

Back in the center of town is the Nantucket Atheneum. It was built in 1847 after the great fire burned the original. Maria Mitchell was the first librarian.

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Nantucket Atheneum

The Atheneum has a rich history and the previous structure was the site of abolitionist meetings. In 1842 the Atheneum hosted the second Nantucket Anti-Slavery Convention and in 1850, Frederick Douglass spoke here. [5]

This concludes my initial walking tour but I will write about the rest of my trip in future posts.

 

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