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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Colonial Williamsburg

This article is very near and dear to my heart. I called Williamsburg, Virginia, home for three years as an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary and I have always been fascinated with its past. How one town can hold so much significance in our nation's history is beyond me. I can definitely say that I was blessed to have opportunity to work, live, and study in such a vibrant and engaging area. This article is one of my bigger projects as you can probably tell, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Like I've said before, my stories aren't meant to provide you with all the information. Rather, I want to hit the major points, share my experiences, and leave you with enough intrigue and inspiration to go visit these places yourselves. I've split this article up into two parts: the first is a brief history of the town, the second details some of CW's major attractions. There is so much to learn and discover in Colonial Williamsburg, I could literally write a book on it. But, for now, a 5000-word article will do. Enjoy!

The settlement which would become Williamsburg was founded in 1638, and was then known as Middle Plantation. It was situated on the high ground between the James and York Rivers and contained palisades for colonists to take refuge in during an Indian attack. Within a couple of decades, Middle Plantation gained prominence in the Virginia Colony. Wealthy plantation owners, such as Colonel John Page and Thomas and Phillip Ludwell, constructed elaborate brick houses in the town, some of the finest in the colony according to some historians.

Powder Magazine (foreground) and Court House (background)

In 1676, Bacon's Rebellion arrived in Middle Plantation. Nathaniel Bacon, leader of the upheaval, convinced the townsfolk to support independence from Governor William Berkeley and other wealthy landowners. Bacon and his followers went on to burn Jamestown and forced Berkeley to flee. Ultimately, the revolt failed. Governor Berkeley returned and made Middle Plantation his temporary quarters while the statehouse was being rebuilt.

In 1698, the Jamestown statehouse burned again. The House of Burgesses was once again relocated to Middle Plantation. In 1699, students from the College of William and Mary made a formal proposal to the House to move the capitol from Jamestown to Middle Plantation. The legislators supported the move, and in celebration, Middle Plantation was renamed Williamsburg, in honor of King William III.

In 1722, Williamsburg received a royal charter as a city, the oldest such distinction in the United States. The newfound prominence of being an urban center and capitol launched Williamsburg into an era of political, religious, economic, and social prosperity. However, this affluence would subside after the French and Indian War. With direct orders from the King of England, excessive taxes were imposed on the colonists to pay off the debt of war. This created some disparity between the colonists and the Royal Government (which included the Governor, who acted on the King's behalf). With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the Royal Government was ousted from Williamsburg and replaced by the newly-formed state assembly. Williamsburg's distinction as Virginia's capitol expired in 1780 when the state government was moved to Richmond.

Duke of Gloucester Street

Williamsburg was reduced from the 'social and political center of the state' to a sleepy little town...that is, until the Civil War. During the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, a growing Union force at Fort Monroe was getting ready to mobilize and capture the Confederate capitol of Richmond. Under the command of General George B. McClellan, the plan was to march up the Middle Peninsula and make a swift and decisive blow at the heart of the Confederacy. In their way stood the Confederate Army of the Peninsula, under the command of General John B. Magruder, and Army of the Potomac, commanded by Generals J.E.B. Stuart and James Longstreet. On May 5th, 1862, Hooker's Division of the Union Third Corps attacked a series of Confederate redoubts east of Williamsburg (known as Fort Magruder). The heavily entrenched Confederates repulsed the frontal attack, but not before significant reinforcements arrived on both sides: the Union with 41,000 and the Confederates with 32,000.

Around midday, the battle reached its most intense. Union General Winfield Hancock and his men, who were delayed by muddy road conditions, finally arrived to provide artillery and musket support for Hooker's men. They positioned themselves across the dam at Cub's Creek and fired upon Longstreet's left flank. The Confederate reserve force stationed at the College of William and Mary were called into action for Longstreet's counterattack. They charged into battle, unknowingly outnumbered 3:1. The reserves suffered large amounts of casualties in a very short time and were forced to retreat. back behind their lines. The firefight continued into the late afternoon with no progress made on either side. Hooker was on the verge of retreat when Generals John Peck and Darius Couch arrived with reinforcements. Upon seeing the Union reinforcements and not willing to engage the entire army, Confederate leadership ordered troops to withdraw from Williamsburg to Richmond. The aftermath of this battle resulted in 1560 Confederate casualties and 2283 Union. While the decision of the battle is officially listed as 'inconclusive,' both sides had reasons to walk away with a taste of victory. For the Union, they had successfully eradicated Williamsburg of the Confederate Army (and would stay that way for the rest of the war). For the Confederacy, they succeeded in delaying the enemy long enough so that the defenses of Richmond would be ready for a Union siege (which would be the Seven Days Battle). Ultimately, the Confederates were able to organize a formidable defense against the Union attack outside of Richmond, which resulted in McClellan's retreat and effectively ended of the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.

After the Civil War and into the early 20th century, Williamsburg resumed its role as a small Tidewater town. However, in the mid-1920s, the town would be receive an economic revival like none other. Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin of the Bruton Parish Church had a vision to revitalize Williamsburg's colonial past and make it the country's "largest living museum." Goodwin wanted to start preservation projects on the town's structures not only to attract tourists and boost the local economy, but to save history. He received a bid from John D. Rockefeller Jr. to fund the project, and with that, Colonial Williamsburg was born. During the 1920s and 30s, Williamsburg underwent a significant transformation. Deeds and land grants were purchased, buildings were demolished and rebuilt...about 500 of them! Additionally, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation constructed the Merchant's Square shopping area on the west end of the town's main street and the Colonial Parkway, which connects Williamsburg to Jamestown and Yorktown. The reconstruction and restoration process took over two decades, but it made Williamsburg blossom into Virginia's most popular tourist destination. Below in the bold font are some of the "big-ticket" attractions Williamsburg has to offer.

The Public Hospital

The Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds got its start in October 1773. Before its construction, mental health wasn't an issue of particular concern in the colonies. People with mental disabilities were usually disassociated from their families and placed in asylums, private homes, or abandoned all together. The Public Hospital was the first institution in British North America completely devoted to the care of the mentally ill and could house 24 patients who would otherwise be left destitute. Its mission was two-fold: treat and release "curable" patients and confine dangerous individuals. James Galt was the first head administrator of the facility and his wife, Mary, oversaw the women's ward. Dr. John de Sequeyra was the first physician assigned to the hospital.

The hospital ran smoothly for eight years, but had to stop all operations in 1781 as a result of Revolutionary War engagements on the Virginia Peninsula. In November 1786, the hospital was repaired and reopened. By 1833, the hospital had expanded into a four-building complex and housed 55 patients.

Patient's Cell in the Public Hospital

Patients quartered in the hospital during its early years were subjected to monotonous and rather uneventful lives. They were usually confined to their cells for the majority of the day, with the exception of meal time and exercise (although these were not structured activities). The hospital was more like a prison, and its ineffectiveness at curing patients was noticed by the Board of Directors in 1835. In 1837, they appointed Philip Barziza as the new administrator and assigned him to improve the hospital's conditions. In order to create a new image, they had to rebrand the hospital. In 1841, The Public Hospital was renamed the Eastern Lunatic Asylum. That same year, Dr. John Galt II, great-grandson of James Galt, was appointed the hospital's first full-time superintendent. In 1844, he, along with twelve other mental hospital coordinators, formed the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane (quite the mouthful). This organization preceded today's American Psychiatric Association.

Galt and his contemporaries were proponents of "moral management." This was a relatively new concept in mental health practices. Its tenants called for positive reinforcement, abandonment of restraints and forced medication, and reward-based systems of behavior. After adopting this method of treatment, Galt claimed that his curing rate increased and so did the quality of life for chronic patients. Galt oversaw the asylum during its most prevalent years. During his tenure as superintendent, the complex's capacity expanded from 55 patients to 300 by 1859.

During the Civil War, the asylum was sacked by Union troops, which caused drastic food and supply shortages. The capacity of the asylum was essentially cut in half to account for the disrepair. Additionally, curing rates dropped below 10% and the hospital regressed into more primitive forms of treatment. Galt's methods of practice were reintroduced in 1877 when Dr. Harvey Black took over the superintendent position.

From 1877 to 1883, the asylum rebounded in terms of patients housed, reaching 447 at one point. However, this rebuilding run would come to an abrupt end in 1885, when the main hospital building was gutted by fire, resulting in the death of one patient and the displacement of 224 more. It took nearly two decades for the hospital to be fully restored. In 1894, it was renamed Eastern State Hospital and by 1935, over 2000 patients were housed there. Beginning in 1937, patients were slowly transferred out of the facility to a new hospital complex across town. By the mid-20th century, the old hospital closed its doors for good. Today, you can see a small exhibit above the Williamsburg Art Museums that chronicles the hospital's history and displays the methods and devices of mental health treatment.

The Art Museums of Williamsburg

There are two Art Museums: the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. Both are housed in the same building as the Public Hospital Exhibit. You may think, just by outward appearance, that these displays might not be all too big. Well, appearances can be deceiving. The museums are located under the Hospital building and are quite extensive.

The first exhibit I checked out was on the Archaeology and Reconstruction of Colonial Williamsburg (shocker that I would check this one out first). On display are some fascinating architectural and personal items from when the buildings were reconstructed. One of the most interesting display shows the artifacts recovered from rat nests in the Wetherburn Tavern during the 1960s, ranging from textile scraps to china pieces. Across the hall is an exhibit on the history and reconstruction efforts of the Charlton Coffeehouse. On display are structural artifacts and scaled models of the coffeehouse through the reconstruction process.

Colonial Furniture on Display

The second half of the lower-level exhibits displays some extremely detailed and intricate porcelain and silver pieces. From tea cups and platters to elaborate jewelry, visitors can get a sense of how elaborate the colonial social elites lived. There is, however, one item that stands out from the rest...that would be Seal of George Washington's Coat of Arms. Made of citrine and gold, this small artifact was one of the most personal items to the American legend. It is even depicted in some of his portraits! The gold socket of the seal was believed to have been made by Williamsburg silversmith James Craig in 1771.

Up the staircase and to the right begins one of the largest exhibits in the museum. Hundreds of pieces of furniture, portraits, and musical instruments are on display and categorized by colony/state and region of America. It is very interesting to compare the artistic styles and craftsmanship of each region.

Also on the second level are more of the folk art displays. There is a lot of maritime art (ships and woodwork), tobacco figurines, doll houses and toys, and textiles. One my favorites from the folk art museum are the African American Quilts. The quilts on display were made between 1870 and 1990. They incorporate a mixture of textile patterns, themes, and styles from Anglo-American and traditional African roots. No two quilts are alike, which speaks to the artistic freedom associated with the art.

That's the really abridged version of what these two museums have to offer! There are about a dozen of other exhibits I didn't even mention because--let's be honest--this article would go on forever. You will be awestruck at the amount of artifacts on display. If you take your time and fully appreciate each exhibit, you will surely spend at least two hours here. I highly recommend walking through.

Governor's Palace

The word 'palace' is well-fitted for this structure. As the largest building in Williamsburg, the Governor's Palace was home to Virginia's powerful political elite for sixty years. It was a symbol of power and influence, lavishness and wealth. While the original mansion burned down in 1781, an exact replica stands in its place today and offers tourists insight to the imposing legacy of Virginia's colonial government.

Construction for the palace was authorized by the Virginia General Assembly and Governor Edward Nott in 1705. Due to accounting errors and lack of funding, the palace stood uncompleted for over sixteen years. By time of its completion in 1722, Alexander Spotswood was the governor. According to the Colonial Williamsburg history site, the final product was "a five-bay Georgian home laid up in Flemish bond with glazed headers and rubbed brick window jambs and lintels. It had three floors of about 3,380 square feet each, a cellar with 11 wine bins, a row of dormers in the roof, and an iron balcony at the central upper window. Just inside the gate – guarded by a stone unicorn on one side and a stone lion on the other – stood two one-and-one-half story brick advance buildings with gabled roofs [which] ran perpendicular to the main structure." In addition, the 63-acre property consisted of a "Palace Green" that extended to Duke of Gloucester Street, formal terraced garden, stable, carriage house, and other various outbuildings.

Governor's Palace

The palace functioned as the governor's residence and office space. Visitors would enter into a lavish front hall, decorated with sabers, muskets, and cavalry swords, displaying the military power and might of England. The hall was also adorned with rich wood and marble fixtures and the Royal Coat of Arms. While the majority of business was conducted in this hall and its adjoining rooms on the first floor, important visitors would be invited to the governor's chamber of power on the second floor.

Each governor made their own changes to the property over the years. Between 1749 and 1752, Governor Dinwiddie made some of the most significant. He built a large dining hall and elegant ballroom at the rear of the palace to entertain guests and throw extravagant parties.

In 1775, Lord Dunmore was Governor of Virginia. At this time, there was growing unrest in the colonies due to the relentless taxation from the King. And as a proxy to the King, Dunmore was not too popular with the colonists. Fearing civil unrest and revolution, Dunmore ordered for the removal of the gunpowder magazine from town and to make the palace a garrison. Forty soldiers were sent to protect the governor and his family. On June 8 of that year, Dunmore fled the colonies back to England. Abandoned, the Governor's Palace was requisitioned by General Charles Lee of the Continental Army and sanctioned a hospital. After the Battle of Yorktown, the palace was overwhelmed with the wounded and dying. Over 150 of them were buried in the gardens.

On December 22, 1781, the Palace met its fiery end while still serving in the capacity of a hospital. The fire originated in the basement of the structure while over 100 patients lay in their beds. Amazingly, all but one survived the blaze. The ruins returned to the earth over the next century and a half. In 1930, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation began archaeological excavations of the site and in 1934 reconstructed the palace.

Bruton Parish Church

The original Bruton Parish predates Williamsburg, back when the area was called Middle Plantation. The first Anglican house of worship was built around 1660. In 1677, John Page donated money and land to establish a new brick church for the parish. Reverend Rowland Jones, the parish's first rector, dedicated the second church on January 6, 1684.

The church was the center of civilian life, figuratively and literally. Religious practice was especially important in colonial times and the location of the second church was directly in the center of town. This church served the community for nearly thirty years until it fell into disrepair. The Virginia General Assembly approved construction for the third and final church on December 5, 1710. Interestingly enough, construction was funded by taxes imposed on slave and liquor sales. The current Bruton Parish Church was completed in 1715.

Bruton Parish Church

In 1781, after the Battle of Yorktown, the church served as a storehouse and hospital. The turmoil of the war left the church in a state of disrepair. Over the next half century, Bruton Parish would undergo extensive repairs and renovations, including the addition of a town clock in its steeple in 1840.

Surrounding the church is an ancient graveyard dating back to the 17th century. Some of the notables buried on the church grounds are Governors Francis Fauquier and Edward Nott, rector Rowland Jones, Judge Nathaniel Tucker, and two of Martha Washington's infant children.

The Bruton Parish Church has been active for over 300 years and still serves a large Episcopal congregation. The church also hosts regular organ concerts, ghost tours, and other special events that attract thousands each week, making it one of the most popular destinations in Colonial Williamsburg. More on the Bruton Parish Church can be found HERE!

Capitol Building

Virginia was home to the oldest representative government in British Colonial North America. In 1619, twelve years after the founding of Jamestown, the Virginia House of Burgesses convened for the first time. While the colony was under charter and governors were appointed by the King himself, the House of Burgesses consisted of elected legislative officials from the colonists themselves ('colonists' meaning landowning white males). While representation was selectively-based, it was still the first form of self-governance in the colonies. Additionally, its bicameral legislative structure served as a model for our modern-day congressional system.

The House of Burgesses congregated in Jamestown between 1619-1704. During that span, the Jamestown Statehouse burned down three times. After the third time in 1698, legislators believed it was time for a change of location. On May 18, 1699, the capitol of Virginia was moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg. However, the Capitol Building wasn't completed until November 1705. To combat the threat of fire--a common theme with some of the aforementioned buildings--the building was constructed without fireplaces, much to the dismay of the legislators. Eventually, after griping from the representatives about the cold and damp conditions, fireplaces were constructed in 1723. A little over two decades later in 1747, the Capitol Building burned down (ironic, right?). The building was reconstructed between 1748-53.

Capitol Building

On May 29, 1765, Patrick Henry delivered his famous "Caesar-Brutus" speech ("Give me liberty, or give me death!"). He was speaking of the unjust and unfair taxes levied against the colonists shortly after the French and Indian War and urged the Virginia General Assembly to fight taxation without representation. His oration was received by legislators such as George Washington, George Mason, and Thomas Jefferson--future revolutionaries and Founding Fathers. In May 1776, the Assembly unanimously voted to support the Revolution.

The Capitol Building was last used by legislative committees in December 1779. That following year, the soon-to-be-state's capitol was moved further inland to Richmond. Between 1780 and 1793, the old Capitol Building served as a law school, military hospital, and female academy. Its west wing was demolished in 1793 with its left soon to follow in 1832. In 1881, the remaining foundation was completely demolished. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation reconstructed the first structure (1705-47) in the 1930s.

Charlton Coffeehouse

Coffeehouses came into popularity during the late 16th/early 17th centuries and served the community as a place of inter-social mingling and discussion. Certainly, the alehouses and taverns could offer the same amenities, but coffeehouses provided a little bit more class and distinction. Here, social boundaries were transcended for constructive debate on sociopolitical issues. Coffeehouses were one of the few localities where poor(-er) men could interject their ideas into different societal spheres of influence.

Richard Charlton constructed his establishment in 1762. Located a few feet from the Capitol Building, his business attracted the likes of politicians and lawmakers, as well as common townsfolk, and provided people the unique opportunity to discuss daily proceedings shortly after the day's adjournment. These discussions proved to be beneficial and constructive to the community...well, most of the time. In 1765, George Mercer, the stamp distributor of the area, was the target of exceptional hatred. The Stamp Act had been recently passed and the Williamsburg populous were displeased (to say the least) with the increased taxes. They formed an angry mob and paraded through the streets with an effigy of his on fire. Mercer sought refuge from the blood-thirsty crowd and hid in Charlton's Coffeehouse under the protection of Governor Fauquier.

Today, the coffeehouse stands reconstructed in its original location. Visitors can take a tour of the inside of the building, engage in some era-specific political banter, and drink some coffee or some of Charlton's famous hot chocolate.

Bassett Hall

Bassett Hall was constructed between 1753-66 by Philip Johnson, a member of the House of Burgesses. The property was purchased from the Johnson Family in 1800 by Martha Washington's nephew, Burwell Bassett, whom the estate is now named after. During the Civil War, shortly after the Battle of Williamsburg, Bassett Hall was the temporary home for Union cavalryman George A. Custer. Custer--whose claim to fame (or infamy rather) came at the Battle of Little Big Horn June 25-26, 1876--spent ten days here as a wedding guest for Confederate soldier and fellow West Point graduate John W. Lea.

Bassett Hall

Bassett Hall is more widely recognized as the Rockefeller estate. In 1926, Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin introduced John Rockefeller to the house and he instantly fell in love with it. Bassett Hall was supposedly one of Rockefeller's favorite residences. Here, Rockefeller spent his time coordinating the reconstructive efforts of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and watching his dream of a historically and culturally-significant tourist destination become a reality.

Today, Bassett Hall is open to the public and reflects the lifestyle of the Rockefellers during the 1930s and 40s. If you want more information on the families and events of Bassett Hall that predates the Rockefellers, I found this very in-depth and extensive dissertation paper by Melissa Jones that will give you more information than you ever thought possible (124 pages worth!). Click HERE for the PDF!

College of William and Mary

William and Mary is the second-oldest college in the nation and one of the most academically-rigorous. The likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Tyler, James Monroe, Chief Justice John Marshall, Jill Ellis, Mike Tomlin, Jon Stewart, and many other notables have studied and graduated from this esteemed university. What drew me to William and Mary, besides the history and educational opportunities, was the people. The campus community loves to celebrate traditions and pioneer new ones, support and embrace diversity and equality, and provide an overall environment of love and compassion. I can honestly say that I wouldn't be where I am today without the bonds and friendships formed during my time as an undergraduate at the college. I am proud to call William and Mary my alma mater. One Tribe. One Family.

With that said, here's a brief history of the college (with additional information HERE):

The college got its start on February 8, 1693, when King William III and Queen Mary II issued a royal charter that granted to "make, found, and establish a certain Place of Universal Study, a perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and the good arts and sciences." The Reverend Dr. James Blair of Bruton Parish was appointed as the college's first president. The college served primarily as an Anglican school, but also operated as an Indian School in a much smaller capacity.

On August 8, 1695, the first foundation bricks were laid down for the College Building, known today as the Wren Building, the oldest academic building still in use in the United States. The structure was completed in 1700 and served many purposes. Aside from academics, the building housed the Virginia General Assembly from 1700-1704 and was the living quarters for the college occupants. It is of popular belief that the College Building was designed by Christopher Wren, a famous royal architect of the time. While there is little evidence to support this position, the structure still bears his name today. The original building burned down October 29, 1705, the first of three times over the course of its history. The reconstruction process was drawn out until 1723. In 1729, Henry Cary, the contractor for the Governor's Palace and Capitol Building, laid the foundation for a chapel and crypt, in which Governor Botetourt, Sir John Randolph, and others are entombed. During the Revolution, the college was abandoned and the Wren Building served as a French hospital. The building would survive the Revolutionary War, but would burn again for a second time in 1859. When the Civil War broke out, the Confederate Army used the building as a headquarters and hospital. When Union forces overtook Williamsburg in 1862, they burned down the Wren Building for a third and final time. The building wasn't completely restored until the 1930s. Today, it is still used by William and Mary students for academic purposes and serves as a Colonial Williamsburg exhibit.

Lord Botetourt Statue in front of the Wren Building

During the 1700s, William and Mary thrived as an institution of higher learning. It expanded its curriculum by establishing the nation's first law school in 1779. George Wythe, the pioneer of America's legal education system, served as the College's first law professor and taught the likes of future presidents Jefferson and Monroe, John Marshall, and Henry Clay. George Washington received his surveyor's certificate in 1749 and served as the Chancellor of the College from 1788 until his death in 1799. In 1776, the college established the first Greek letter honor society, Phi Beta Kappa.

With the onset of the Revolutionary War, the college severed ties with Great Britain. Despite the chaos and destruction of the war, the college was left relatively unscathed. In June 1781, Lord Cornwallis marched his troops into Williamsburg and made the President's House on campus his headquarters before moving down the peninsula later that year towards Yorktown.

It was during the Civil War in which the college received the most destruction. Closed from 1861-69, the campus was used as a hospital, barracks, and headquarters by both Union and Confederate troops. During Union occupation, the college was ransacked, burned, and left in a state of great disrepair. Reconstruction and Virginia's reinstatement to the Union didn't help to refurbish the broken campus as persistent requests for war reparations were denied by Congress. Benjamin Ewell, William and Mary's 16th president, reopened the campus with his own personal funds, but could only keep the college open until 1881. In 1888, the state legislature issued William and Mary a substitute charter to resume operations and would begin to receive Federal funding in 1893.

Lyon Tyler, son of President John Tyler, became the college's 17th president in 1888 and would serve this position for over thirty years. In 1918, he helped William and Mary become one of the first coeducational institutions in Virginia. In 1919, he was succeeded by J.A.C. Chandler, who is credited--along with Rev. Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin--with recruiting the Rockefellers to fund the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He also founded the School of Education in the 1930s. Despite the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the college thrived. The student attendance quadrupled and faculty numbered over one hundred. In 1935, the Sunken Gardens were constructed, a popular location today for students and tourists. In 1951, Hulon Willis becomes the first black student to enroll at William and Mary and receives his Masters of Education in 1956. Nearly a decade later, Karen Ely, Lynn Briley, and Janet Brown become the first black female and first residential students of the college. It's safe to say that the 20th century was a time of great change and social progression for the college. Today, the college is home to a diverse student body of nearly 6300 students, each one of them a unique display of what makes William and Mary such a special and revered institution.

For more information on Colonial Williamsburg, click HERE

For more information on the History of CW, click HERE

For more information on the Battle of Williamsburg, click HERE

For more information on William and Mary, click HERE

For more information on notable William and Mary alumni, click HERE


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