Life in the Colonies

Life in the Colonies

Colonial Williamsburg, the famous open-air museum nestled between the York and James Rivers in Virginia, attracts an abundance of tourists annually.  The attraction gives visitors a glimpse into colonial life through the use of actors inhabiting the colonial buildings and spaces.  A reoccurring theme throughout it is the crucial role that Virginia, and specifically Williamsburg, played in the development of American democracy through revolutionary philosophies.  This is embodied in the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s mission statement, “To feed the human spirit by sharing America’s enduring story.”[1]  If this is the foundation’s and museum’s mission, it is important to explore the manner in which this is being achieved and the gaps in the story the museum tells.  By keeping in line with Edward Said’s concepts outlined in Invention, Memory and Place, this paper aims to evaluate Colonial Williamsburg’s reproduction of the history of democracy in the U.S. and how it democracy is practiced today.  More specifically, this paper discusses the manner in  which Colonial Williamsburg reproduces problematic ideas of democracy by portraying a nostalgic and wistful version of the Virginia colony and ignores the complex complications that American democracy faces today.

In Invention, Memory and Place, Edward Said explores the social constructions of memory and how it informs our national consciousness.  If one were to consider Colonial Williamsburg’s mission statement of “To feed the human spirit by sharing America’s enduring story”, the memories that come to mind are along the lines of the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence, as well as individuals such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.  This history is taught in most American curricula and is considered by Said to be a “nationalist effort premised on the need to construct a desirable loyalty to… one’s country, tradition, and faith.”[2]  If schools are the primary mechanism of socialization, then teaching this history is a way to create a collective memory, “in which past events are selected reconstructed, maintained, modified, and endowed with a political meaning.”[3]  Colonial Williamsburg’s depictions of colonial America propagate an idea of a harmonious society with little tension between genders, classes and races.

When one visits Colonial Williamsburg, he or she steps onto a late seventeenth century street that immediately transports him or her 200 years into the past.  Actors in colonial garb walk past smiling and, if one is lucky, he or she may see historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin delivering a speech about the Revolutionary War and American liberty.  In the late 1970s, the Colonial Williamsburg foundation hired several cultural and social historians to paint a more accurate picture of what life in the colonies was like, “[advocating] for the acceptance of a more… critical history that exposed the underside of Colonial Virginia, moving beyond the elite ‘silk pants’ patriots.”[4]  This goal would challenge tourists to examine our national history through an analytical and critical lens, allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of how the United States was created through depicting the conflicts that existed in colonial society and how those same conflicts still exist in one way or another.

While admirable and an important task for the foundation to assume, its implementation has failed.  Perhaps one of the reasons underlying Colonial Williamsburg’s attempts to achieve the depiction of a more accurate history lies in the conflict between the business of Colonial Williamsburg and its mission to educate.  Accurate depictions by actors of slavery and the subservient role of women in colonial America would not only be unethical, but also would interfere with Colonial Williamsburg’s goal of attracting the maximum possible number of visitors needed to fund the living museum.[5]  The concepts of constructivism and mimetic realism coexist at Colonial Williamsburg, meaning that “fixed or real facts comprised of an accumulation of facts” and the interpretation of these facts and historical ideas are used “to make the past come alive.”[6]  The issue with this practice is that interpretations of history are portrayed as fact, which means that the history depicted does not necessarily depict the truth.  Because of this, the darker aspects of American colonial history, such as the mass killings of Native Americans and slavery, are often overlooked.  Colonial Williamsburg provides a type of escapism for visitors, in the same way that Disneyland does, by using a benign social history to “comfort visitors’ qualms about social injustice and banish a discussion of it all together.”[7]  While Colonial Williamsburg does, in a way, serve the purpose of indoctrination that Said describes by educating the public about American history through a revisionist lens, it is hardly a conspiracy hatched up by the foundation.  Rather, the foundation has a genuine business need to make the museum as inviting as possible for potential visitors in order to maximize its revenue.

That being said, it is important to understand what life in the colonies was like and the claim in the Declaration of Independence that America would guarantee “liberty and justice for all” was intended for white, landowning men only. Life in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Virginia was far different than what is depicted through reenactments at Colonial Williamsburg.  The first English ship arrived on the shores of Virginia on April 26, 1607 carrying 143 Englishmen.[8]  Originally, the English intended to build a military fort and commercial trading post and, unlike the Puritans who settled in Massachusetts, the men who found themselves in Virginia were interested in making fortunes for themselves.[9]  While Colonial Williamsburg markets Virginia as the birthplace of American democracy, the reality lived by the majority of Virginia’s citizens was anything but democratic.

For women and African slaves, specifically, Virginia society was oppressive in its strict hierarchical structure.  The Virginia colony began when the English shipped young men to the area to cultivate the land in the early 1600s.  The migration of the English and the establishment of the Jamestown colony nearly twenty years prior to the colonization of Massachusetts by the Puritans.[10]  This vision of the Virginia colony soon evolved into “a permanent colony of families whose labor would support a diversified agricultural economy.”[11]  In order to achieve this, Virginia needed “honest laborers” who were married with children to “keep them from the dangers of idleness.”[12]  It was assumed that relationships with honest women was what kept laborers honest, “wives capable of turning men into hardworking, permanent settlers.”[13]  In 1620, the English began to ship women to Virginia with the hopes that it would inspire men to start families and the dream of a sustainable colony would be finally realized.[14]  Even with the import of Englishwomen, the ratio of men to women in Virginia was severely skewed (it was approximately 4:1), which made the courting process extremely competitive.  Initially, the House of Burgesses passed a petition that allowed husbands to grant shares of their lands to their wives to attract more women to migrate to the colonies, but that practice appears to have been not widely practiced and to have been short-lived.[15]

In England, it was not unusual for women to assist in agricultural labor, but by the mid-seventeenth century in Virginia, women were expected to tend to indoor chores.[16]  While women without servants were more likely to assist in agricultural labor, women of a higher status tended to spend their days cooking for their families and travelers passing through.[17]  The opportunity to move to Virginia and become a wife and mother became both a marketing technique for the Virginia Company and a form of asserting one’s place in a highly stratified society, “they offered them a degree of power and status in a colony in which two other arenas for female self-assertion—markets and city streets—did not exist.”[18]  During the Revolutionary period, however, women did have the important task of assuming the role of Republican Motherhood, meaning that it was the duty of the mother to teach her sons about the importance of American patriotism.[19]

African American life in colonial Virginia was brutal and bleak.  A study examining the colonial Virginia legal code reveals a number of statutes passed that were key in the institutionalization of slavery in the colony.  The great irony of Virginia was that for all of the revolutionary thought it produced, “Virginia was also a leader in the gradual debasement of blacks”, excluding them from the formation of the democratic American narrative.[20]  In 1659 African and Caribbean immigrants were directly referred to as slaves in Act XVI,  which provided financial incentives to those participating in the slave trade.[21]  In 1669 an act entitled An Act About the Casuall Killing of Slaves legalized, for all intents and purposes, the killing of one’s slaves by allowing owners to mutilate and beat what they deemed to be their property, “This 1669 statute indicated that Virginia was prepared to exploit the slave labor force to the maximum degrees possible.”[22]  A 1691 statute provided that if one were to free a slave then he would have to pay for the slave’s transportation out of the country, which made it difficult for masters to free their slaves due to the economic burden.[23]  This statute also made it clear that Virginia found emancipated slaves in society undesirable and their only function was to provide labor for their white owners.  Most subsequent legislation further restricted the economic opportunities of non-whites in society.

Between 1750 and 1774, the importation of slaves exceeded all other imports into the colony.[24]  Ship logs taking inventory of those onboard show that a disproportionate number of children and teenagers were brought into Virginia, “… those involved in the Virginia slave trade recognized the value of adolescent Africans, ‘men-boys and ‘women-girls’.”[25]  Furthermore, along with the slaves’ responsibilities as either household servants or working the lands of a plantation, they were also expected to procreate to create a new generation of slaves for their owners.  Most female slaves were approximately eleven years old when they were sent to plantations with this expectation, “[the] region’s planters could expect them… to be contributing to the natural increase of the black population within six to seven years.”[26] In fact, data obtained from slave auctions demonstrate that some plantation owners slowed their buying habits because the slave population of their manors were reproducing themselves.[27]

The difficult experiences and expectations of women and slaves in Williamsburg, as well as Virginia and the thirteen colonies as a whole, are typically sugarcoated if not completely overlooked at Colonial Williamsburg.  Classical political philosophy posits that democracy is a system of government ruled by the demos, or the masses.  Colonial Williamsburg portrays the history of democracy as a sunny one, with all residents, women and slaves alike, somehow factoring into the creation of and participation in American democracy.  True American history could not look more different.

Furthermore, from a Said-ian outlook, Colonial Williamsburg acts as a nationalist tool to tell a specific version of American history.  It is easy for a visitor to leave Colonial Williamsburg with the impression that the democratic values formulated in the American colonies were wholesome and all-inclusive and exist without challenges and debates over its efficacy.  The reality, however, is that now, more than ever, Americans are revisiting what American democracy entails and what it means to be active in American democratic processes.

Since the 2016 election of Donald Trump at President, there has been a marked shift in American perceptions of democracy.  In Restoring Meaningful Subjects and “Democratic Hope” to Society, Susan Saegert writes that “Democratic practices and institutions are more hopes than assured realities”, meaning that they are maintained by the faith of those who participate in democratic systems by practicing what it means to participate in a political society.[28]  Democracy is significantly more complicated now than it was in 1776; the introduction of technology into politics has created dramatic polarization on both sides of the political spectrum and has facilitated the creation of a space where fabricated news stories proliferate.[29]  As a result, one of the most important tenets of a democratic society, the shared understanding of an agreed set of objective facts, has been severely undermined.  It may be worth revisiting the original democratic values our country was built on, but with the knowledge of how to expand those values to include and elevate all Americans.







Baker, Paula. “The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780-1920”. The American Historical Review, 89, no. 3 (1989).


Bremer, Francis J. The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards. Lebanon: University Press of New England, 1995.


Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. (Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 2012) 76.


Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Mission Statement. 2016.


Heinemann, Ronald L. Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia, 1607-2007. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008


Higginbottom, Aloyisus Leon. The Matter of Color: The Colonial Period, Volume 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.


Morgan, Phillips and Michael Nicholls. “Slaves in Piedmont Virginia, 1720-1790. The William and Mary Quarterly 46, no. 2 (1989).


Saegert, Susan. “Restoring Meaningful Subjects and ‘Democratic Hope’ to Psychology” in The People, Place, and Space Reader, edited by Jen Jack Gieseking and William Mangold, 397-402, New York: Routledge, 2014.


Said, Edward, “Invention, Memory, and Place” in The People, Place, and Space Reader, edited by Jen Jack Gieseking and William Mangold, 361-365 New York: Routledge, 2014.


Shaffer, Marguerite S. “Selling the Past/Co-opting History: Colonial Williamsburg as a Republican Disneyland” American Quarterly 50, no. 4 (1998).


Sunstein, Cass R. “Polarization” in #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, 59-97. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.

[1] Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Mission Statement. 2016.

[2] Edward Said, “Invention, Memory, and Place” in The People, Place, and Space Reader, ed. Jen Jack Gieseking and William Mangold, 361-365 (New York: Routledge, 2014), 361.

[3] Said, 364.

[4] Marguerite S. Shaffer. “Selling the Past/Co-opting History: Colonial Williamsburg as a Republican Disneyland” American Quarterly 50, no. 4 (1998), 877.

[5] Shaffer, 877.

[6] Shaffer, 878.

[7] Shaffer, 879.

[8] Ronald L. Heinemann. Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia, 1607-2007. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 1.

[9] Heinemann, 1.

[10] Francis J. Bremer. The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards. (Lebanon: University Press of New England, 1995), 3.

[11] Kathleen M. Brown. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. (Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 2012) 76.

[12] Brown, 80.

[13] Brown, 81.

[14] Brown, 81.

[15] Brown, 80.

[16] Brown, 85.

[17] Brown, 85.

[18] Brown, 86.

[19] Paula Baker. “The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780-1920”. The American Historical Review, 89, no. 3 (1989), 625.

[20] Aloyisus Leon Higginbottom. The Matter of Color: The Colonial Period, Volume 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978). 19

[21] Higginbottom, 34.

[22] Higginbottom, 34.

[23] Higginbottom, 40.

[24] Phillip Morgan and Michael Nicholls. “Slaves in Piedmont Virginia, 1720-1790. The William and Mary Quarterly 46, no. 2 (1989), 219.

[25] Morgan, 220.

[26] Morgan, 221.

[27] Morgan, 222.

[28] Saegert, Susan. “Restoring Meaningful Subjects and ‘Democratic Hope’ to Psychology” in The People, Place, and Space Reader, ed. Jen Jack Gieseking and William Mangold, 397-402, (New York: Routledge, 2014), 397.

[29] Cass R. Sunstein. “Polarization” in #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, 59-97. (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 59.

Colonial Williamsburg Timeline


Sources Cited:

“John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the Restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.” John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the Restoration of Colonial Williamsburg : The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site,

“About W&M: Cool Facts.” William and Mary,

“About W&M: Wren Building.” William and Mary,

“Capitol of Colonial Williamsburg.” Capitol of Colonial Williamsburg : The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site,

“The Restoration of Williamsburg.” The Restoration of Williamsburg : The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site,

“News Summary; WEDNESDAY, JUNE 1, 1983.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 June 1983,

Lac, J. Freedom du. “Slavery Is a Tough Role, Hard Sell at Colonial Williamsburg.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 8 Mar. 2013,

“Colonial Character.” NPR, NPR, 26 June 1999,

Staff, NPR. “Actors, Interpreters Bring US Colonial Past Alive.” NPR, NPR, 13 June 2011,


The 13 Colonies

    1. “The Colonies” refers to the thirteen original colonies that comprised pre-revolutionary and revolutionary America (1607-1776).  All located on the East Coast, the colonies included New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.  The term “the colonies” has been in use since the early 1700’s.  Each colony was founded on different principals based on its original settlers.  For example, Massachusetts served as a refuge for English Puritans and its society and cultural norms mirrored their strict religious practices.

      Map of the Thirteen Colonies (shown in red). Wikipedia.
    2. What is colonialism?  Colonialism is widely understood as political system that involves one country asserting economic and military domination over another.  This relationship takes on many forms depending on the conditions of the colonizer and colonized.  Due to Western technological advances in the 1500’s colonialism as it is currently understood started to take form: “it became possible to move large numbers of people across the ocean and to maintain political sovereignty in spite of geographical dispersion”[1]. The colonization of the early United States can be best represented by the system of settler colonialism, which consists of a foreign population replacing the indigenous populations of an area. This system differs from the imperial systems of exploitation that was experienced in Latin America, Africa and, Asia for centuries.

      An early 20th century advertisement selling Native American lands to those interested in moving out west.
    3. The Jamestown Settlement in Virginia was the first successful British colony in the United States.  The first English ship arrived on April 26, 1607 carrying 143 Englishmen who would establish a proper colonial outpost modeled after the French and Spanish models in Louisiana and Florida, respectively.  What differentiated Jamestown from other colonies was that its original inhabitants were all men seeking fortunes through landownership, as opposed to families escaping religious persecution.  The colonists’ survival was dependent on a trading relationship with local Native American tribes, despite seemingly constant violent outbreaks between the two groups.  Through this relationship, the early colonists learned how to grow tobacco, which became wildly popular in both the colony and in England.  The tobacco industry ensured the economic success of Virginia, but required a larger workforce.  Therefore, in 1619 the first slaves arrived from Angola, as well as an abundance of indentured servants from the Netherlands and England.

      Arial depiction of the Jamestown settlement.
    4.  The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1620 when the Mayflower arrived in Provincetown Harbor on Cape Cod.  Those aboard the Mayflower were British Puritans seeking religious freedom for their separatist protestant beliefs.  The pilgrims on the Mayflower intended to create a settlement in Virginia, but harsh weather conditions and a taxing 65-day journey across the Atlantic made finishing the voyage to Virginia implausible.  The Mayflower Compact was signed by all the surviving men on the ship and founded the legal basis for the future Massachusetts Bay Colony by establishing a voluntary government in Massachusetts instead of Virginia. The colony continued to grow and soon Boston was established as the commercial center of the colony, creating a burgeoning merchant class.  Boston would later become a place of key importance during the Revolutionary War.

      Colonists trading their goods on the harbor.
    5. The Colonial Economy: The American colonies grew to be an economic success in each region (South, Middle Colonies, and New England).  Most of these economies were agricultural, but areas with poor soil or terrains that made farming difficult found success in industries such as trapping or fishing.  Regional specialization and seemingly abundant land gave the colonies a comparative advantage over their European counterparts and allowed for their entry into the global economy.  Rice and tobacco that was grown in the South and grains that were grown in the Middle Colonies (the area between the Potomac River and the Hudson River) were referred to as cash crops.  Despite unfavorable agricultural conditions, the New England colonies rose to economic prominence due to their involvement in fishing and shipping industries.  Other colonial industries included shipbuilding, resource extraction, fur trading, and textile production.

      A Pennsylvania farm.
    6. Colonial Society: The character of the societies of the colonies was dependent on its geographic location, their economies, and the general values held by its inhabitants.  What remained constant throughout all thirteen colonies, however, was that white, landowning, protestant men maintained a privileged role in society.  Furthermore, most societies were more or less based on social structures in Europe, creating highly stratified communities.  Slavery and indentured servitude were staples of colonial society until the Revolutionary period in some colonies and remained until the Civil War in others.  Interestingly, due to the seasonal agricultural practices of the Middle Colonies and the lack of a strong agricultural economy in New England, the need for slavery was not as strongly felt: leaving a dramatically different legacy than in the South.  Native Americans were forcibly removed from their lands and were deemed inhuman.  Women occupied an interesting role within the home and in the greater community.  At the dawn of the Revolution, women were expected to raise families based on the notions of republicanism, which turned the norm that a woman’s place was in the home into a patriotic responsibility.

      Painting of the prominent Royall family (Robert Feke 1741). (
    7. The Seven Years Year/ the French and Indian War: Many consider the catalyst for American independence (and the end of the colonies) to be the Seven Years War (also referred to as the French and Indian War), fought from 1756 to 1763.  The war began as an imperialist conflict due to Britain’s desire to expand westward the French controlled Ohio Valley to expand the capacity to trade.  Despite the British victory, the expense of the war caused the British monarchy to levy a series of controversial taxes, such as the Stamp Act in 1765, that was ultimately part of the driving force that led the American colonists to seek independence.

      The Join or Die cartoon was popularized during the American Revolution, but was originally used during the French and Indian War.
    8. Historic Preservation: A number of colonial settlements and areas have been preserved to educate the public about a previous era and how it has informed American life today.  Historic districts bring revenue to cities and states through investment and tourism and can regenerate struggling local economies.  Additionally, they provide a sense of identity and community for the area they are located in.  Examples of colonial historic districts and sites today include Colonial Williamsburg, the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia and Valley Forge, and the Paul Revere House in Boston.

9. In popular culture, the colonies are portrayed in a number of freely interpreted ways that fail to properly depict what the typical day to day would have been for a colonist.  The motifs used most often are the puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the relationships between the colonists and Native Americans.  The New England settlers are often depicted as narrow minded, religious zealots, or used as a vehicle for depictions of horror, often associated with the Salem witch trials.  For example, in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, he conflates narratives of the Salem witch trials with Puritan settlements, while depicting few positive characters (Miller wrote the play as an allegory for McCarthyism in the 1950’s).            

Popular culture also has a habit of romanticizing the relationships between indigenous Americans and the colonists.  For example, Disney’s Pocahontas uses real historical figures to tell the story of a Native American princess and British soldier defying their superiors by falling in love.  While Pocahontas did marry an Englishman (John Rolfe, not John Smith), it was largely a political relationship and grounds for a truce after her abduction by the Jamestown settlers.

10. When studying colonial America, it is important to recognize that most scholarship on the subject has a colonial bias that can best be described using the saying “history is told by the victors”.  For example, the history of the relationship between Native Americans and the colonists seems to end after the initial settlements of the colonies in the 1600’s, when in reality the effects of these early relationships are still felt in many native communities today.  The current understanding of a number of tribes is based off of primary sources recorded by European explorers and settlers, which creates a seemingly unavoidable conflict when trying to accurately understand the colonial community at the time: “In the past many historians…[portrayed] the Indians as the  helpless victims of European colonizers who had superior technology, broader worldly experience, and more lethal diseases” (Lombard and Middleton, n.p.).  In addition, the role of Native Americans in the survival of many early colonists is quite large, but often overlooked.

A depiction of a Native American offering advice on how to farm.

Bibliography :

Baker, Paula. “The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780-1920.” The American Historical Review 89, no. 3 (1984): 620-47. doi:10.2307/1856119.

Bremer, Francis J. The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from    Bradford to Edwards. University Press of New England, 1995.

Heinemann, Ronald L. Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia, 1607-2007. University of Virginia Press, 2007.

Kohn, Margaret and Reddy, Kavita, “Colonialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Lombard, Anne and Richard Middleton, Colonial America: A History to 1763. John Wiley and Sons, 2011.

Phil Rabinowitz, “Changing the Physical and Social Environment: Encouraging Historic Preservation”. 

Rockoff, Hugh and Gary M. Walton, History of the American Economy. Cengage Learning, 2013.

Rollins, Peter C. The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have Portrayed the American Past. Columbia University Press, 2004.