Wednesday, February 21, 2024

A look inside the archives that bring Colonial Williamsburg to life

The John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library’s doors may now be locked, but it remains open to the public by appointment. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

As guests walk down Duke of Gloucester Street they are treated to the sights of 18th-century Williamsburg: historical interpreters in costume, horses towing carriages, and taverns serving colonial brews.

While DoG Street serves as the face of Colonial Williamsburg, the Revolutionary City’s reproduction of history begins with research in another part of town.

Tucked away behind private residences on Capitol Landing Road, the Rockefeller Library serves as a research tool for Colonial Williamsburg, its employees and interpreters, and the public.

When the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation underwent a “fundamental restructuring” earlier this summer, the Rockefeller suffered layoffs and was forced to “narrow their focus” to meet the Foundation’s core mission and its new staffing levels, according to Carl Childs, Deputy Director of the John D. Rockefeller Library and Director of Archives and Records.

Carl Childs, Deputy Director of the Rockefeller Library, poses with a painting of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Along with the layoffs, came rumors of John D. Rockefeller Library closing entirely, Childs said.

“I know there was some concern initially,” he said. “We heard people say things like, ‘The library is closed.'”

“The library is not closed,” he added. “We’re very much open. Getting in is a little different…The change to the general public really is you have to call ahead and make an appointment. I don’t think it’s anything radical.”

Shelves that are a part of the Rockefeller Library’s Visual Resources. Each box is full of images that document aspects of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s history. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

The Rockefeller remains open to the public, by appointment, as do its circulation and reference sections, which include more than 65,000 books, CDs and DVDs of historical significance.

The library also makes its Special Collections Department open to the public, which Childs referred to as its “crown jewel.” Here, guests can peruse manuscripts, personal letters, account books and other documents — in many cases centuries-old originals — that bear famous signatures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Governor Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Virginia Board of Trade, dated March 23, 1780, informing them that Williamsburg would no longer serve as Virginia’s capital. “The fighting has moved to Virginia upon 1779, 1780. There’s a decision made to move the capital to Richmond,” said Doug Mayo, Associate Librarian. “The war really sort of necessitates that move. You have the James River, but you’ve also got the York. A British vessel could sail up either river, land troops behind the capitol, and the capitol would be cut off.” (Courtesy John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library Special Collection)

In fact, Kurt Smith is one of the two men who play Jefferson for the Foundation, depicting Jefferson as a young man. Smith said he spent six months devoted to researching Jefferson at the Rockefeller before making his way out to Duke of Gloucester Street as the nation’s third president.

“The Rockefeller Library is two floors of everything you could ever want to know about early America – both pre and post Europeans,” Smith said in an email. “Much of what I know about Jefferson was learned from sources within the Rockefeller Library. It is an absolutely vital resource for all interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg.”

Smith said he discovered an immense amount of knowledge about Jefferson during his research, including facts that caught him by surprise.

For example, Jefferson believed mammoths were not extinct, he loved vegetables and ate meat as a side, was fascinated by science and may have had a slight stutter.

All of these trinkets of information add to Smith’s understanding of Jefferson as a full person, which Smith said is necessary to be able to portray him in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area.

“That’s the way he should be taught,” Smith added.

Craft behind the trades

It’s not just the interpreters of the founding fathers who use the vast resources inside the Rockefeller as a tool in their trade.

According to Childs, the Foundation’s blacksmiths, brickmakers and more study the lives of the people who practiced their craft in 18th-century Williamsburg — and their research is never complete.

Childs said the reference section has files on the lives of ordinary Colonial-Era Williamsburg residents, as well as events that shaped the town.

“The reason the interpreters come into a place like this is because they want to read a mass of materials,” said Associate Librarian Douglas Mayo. “They want to read things that are more day-to-day.”

One of the items in the Rockefeller Library’s Special Collections is a 1754 printing of a recount of George Washington’s journey to Ohio. According to Associate Librarian Doug Mayo, Washington was sent by Virginia Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie to carry a letter to French forces informing them they were encroaching on English territory. The printing was done in Williamsburg by William Hunter, and this is one of about a dozen copies in libraries today. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

While the Special Collection focuses on the years leading up to and during the American Revolution, its oldest documents date back to 1608 letters from Spain’s King Philip III that reference the English threat posed by settlement at Jamestown.

Mayo said the collection also contains at least one original item signed by each of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Worth a thousand words

Not all the information stored in the library is text. In fact, the Rockefeller preserves the visual history of the Foundation and the town, from the beginning of the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. More than 500,000 images that document the Foundation’s artwork, maps, architecture, programs and exhibits, postcards, archaeology and more are available for reference.

Childs said one of his favorite memories during his time in the Rockefeller was when he was contacted by a woman whose family once owned a store in Williamsburg before the restoration.

A watercolor painting named “A Rifleman of the Queen’s Rangers,” which is a part of the Lt Col John Graves Simcoe Papers in the Rockefeller Library’s Special Collection. “It’s a really neat piece, especially because one of the things people comment on is he’s not wearing red,” said Associate Librarian Doug Mayo. “He’s supposed to be a British soldier but he’s wearing this green coat…that often fooled patriots. They used that to their advantage.” (Courtesy John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library.)

“It had since been torn down,” he said. “She had never seen a picture or knew anything about it.”

Childs said he contacted the Rockefeller’s visual resource librarian to help locate an image.

“She found a photo of the store,” he said. “Then we were able to walk the people to exactly where [it was]…Tears started rolling down the lady’s eyes. All this helps makes connections with people.”

Whether gaining a better understanding of the people who lived in colonial-era Williamsburg or studying the history of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Childs said the resources of the Rockefeller Library represent the central pillars of Colonial Williamsburg’s core mission: telling the story of the United States.

“One of my favorite things about being in here,” Childs said, “You’ll be walking through and you’ll see Washington or Jefferson sitting at a computer or sending a message on their phone. It seems so out of place, but then you realize they are here becoming those people.”

“That’s what makes this place so special.”

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