A gracious host, the Governor’s Palace met the needs of nine governors and the Continental Army. Tom Spear details the venerable building’s past.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is Behind the Scenes, where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I'm asking Tom Spear, and at Colonial Williamsburg, he's an historical interpreter at the Governor's Palace. I should know this, but I don't: How long was the Governor's Palace the Governor's Palace?
Tom Spear: It was used from approximately 1716 until 1780.
Lloyd: I know the first two Virginia governors, not royal governors, but they lived there. How many royal governors were there?
Tom: There were seven who actually lived at the Governor's Palace.
Lloyd: There had to be differences – among them, between them – in how they lived, what rooms they used for what. So, when I walk into the Governor's Palace now, whose Governor's Palace was it?
Tom: This is the home, the official residence of the last of the seven royal governors, of John Murray, the fourth Earl of Dunmore. He came to Virginia in 1771, and was here for five years.
Lloyd: Did he have children?
Tom: He had seven children, and his wife.
Lloyd: Oh, my. And a few maids to go along with that, I should think.
Tom: Indeed, yes.
Lloyd: Did the governors make a difference, as to who lived there, and what it was like?
Tom: They did. Of course, their circumstances were different through the years with what they had to contend with. The first governor, Alexander Spotswood -- the one responsible for getting the palace built -- actually had quite a tough time and the Virginians had him recalled by the king in 1722. So, there was definitely tension at times. But, many of them got along quite well. Lord Botetourt, the next-to-last, was well loved by the people. We have a statue of him that remains from the 18th century that was made in his honor. Lord Dunmore started out pretty well, but he, of course, fell in the opinion of the Virginians.
Lloyd: It's tough to read Virginia history and not get the impression that he wasn't the most beloved man we'd ever known. As people walk through, and they see the way Lord Dunmore had it, what are their questions? What do they ask you?
Tom: Well, of course, the first question when they walk in the front door is, "Why are all these weapons all over the walls?" I have to remind them that this is British tradition dating back at least to medieval times, and continuing to this present day in 2007. They still have the weapons there. They are, of course, a sign of power and authority, and have given comfort to Virginians through the years, because they're to be used by the Virginians. Of course, we used them also after the last royal governor leaves, in a little different way.
Lloyd: (Laughs.) In a way he probably would not have hoped for. Do they ask about the people, the governors?
Tom: They do, indeed. They want to know more about what this individual is like, and what he's facing, and about his family – his wife and his children. Of course, we try to cover all that. Especially on the second floor, because that is the family's space, domestic space up there.
Lloyd: I guess the same conditions apply in the White House. There is a family space above, and the ground space and basement level are workspace.
Tom: Exactly right. We try to emphasize that connection, that you can get a feel for that too, yes.
Lloyd: You had Botetourt, who was a very popular governor, and you had Spotswood, who was recalled, and Dunmore, who was essentially driven out. That leaves four others kind of in the middle, there. Who?
Tom: The others were: Governor Gooch, Governor Dinwiddie, Governor Drysdale, Governor Fauquier.
Lloyd: Three of the four have counties named for them in Virginia, but Drysdale, no county.
Tom: No, as a matter of fact, his time was rather bland, you might say, in Virginia. He was a pretty laissez faire type. So, there wasn't really a lot of tension, kind of a quiet time. But you know, Dunmore had a county named for him at one time, and they took that back. And of course, Spotswood has Spotsylvania County.
Lloyd: Now, Spotswood led an expedition to the western frontier. Well, the western frontier was about where Roanoke is nowadays. But that was really quite famous, wasn't it?
Tom: It was. The Knights of the Golden Horseshoe. He got together some of the notables, and he got together an expedition with all the amenities, and he gave them golden horseshoes as remembrances of that. He was very aware of the importance of dealing with the Indians, and he was showing the potential of the West. He took them to the edge, to look across to start thinking that way, and how we needed to start thinking about our defense out there, also. So, early on, he had that vision.
Lloyd: Dunmore actually was, at one point fairly early on in his office, quite active in defense against Indians.
Tom: Absolutely. Almost up to the very end, actually. Yes he was. That was a great hope of his. As a matter of fact, he had met with a friend of his, Lord Shelbourne, years before he came to Virginia. They had discussed Dunmore being in the Western parts of Virginia. He had claimed 20,000 acres for each of his sons, out in that area, which was restricted by the king. He and Washington were pretty good friends, because they both had that common interest in western land. In 1774, just a year before he left the palace, he personally led the Virginians out to fight and defeat Chief Cornstalk of the Shawnee, out on the Ohio River. So, he came back a hero in December of '74.
Lloyd: Which didn't last terribly long.
Tom: Didn't last too long, no it didn't.
Lloyd: Shows you how ephemeral that can be. You mentioned Spotswood and the golden horseshoe he gave each of his companions. I have read somewhere that none of those golden horseshoes remain.
Tom: I think that's correct, as far as I know.
Lloyd: I was thinking, if there was one, it probably would be at the palace, so if you don't know about it …
Tom: Yes, I have never seen one. I've been here 23 years.
Lloyd: I would like to see one, just to see what it looks like.
Tom: I would, too. I would love to see one.
Lloyd: Because, in those days, they didn't do things halfway. If he had golden horseshoes made for them, they had to be pretty nice, or he wouldn't have passed them out. I'd just like to see what it looked like. Who was the hardest governor on the palace?
Tom: As far as working with the people, or on the building itself?
Lloyd: On the building itself.
Tom: I would think Lord Dunmore, as far as I know. He made more use of it, because he had expanded it, of course, in anticipation of his family coming. There was a good bit of money spent on the palace while he was there. We don't know just what he did. We believe we have some ideas of his expansion, but when he first came, he was here over two years without a family. Then they came and joined him, six of the children.
Lloyd: If there were six kids, you figure you'd build more bedrooms.
Tom: Exactly right. As we are interpreting the palace today, focusing on Lord Dunmore, we specify where the various children were, including the third floor.
Lloyd: I didn't know there was one.
Tom: Oh, it's a very large space, yes.
Lloyd: Standing outside looking at it, a normal person would not see that as a home. It looks like more than where somebody lived. The truth of the matter is, for the governors, that was home. Do we know how much it cost, originally?
Tom: When they first began, £3,000 were put aside. But that quickly was used up and they were adding more. Governor Spotswood supposedly put some of his own money into the project, and he was accused by the colonists of lavishing away the colonists' money.
Lloyd: Well, governors are always accused of that. Has the palace ever been used as anything other than the palace?
Tom: Yes, in the interim. Lord Dunmore left the palace June the 8th of 1775. He didn't leave Virginia that time, he went to the coast and stayed another year. But, in the interim, it was used by the Army of General Charles Lee of the American Army. He had it for a short time, on his way down to the Carolinas to fight. He was commander of the Southern Army, so he was there for a while.
Lloyd: I just remembered something. Was the palace used after the Siege of Yorktown as a hospital?
Tom: Yes, it was. In 1780, the capitol had moved to Richmond. Governor Jefferson had moved up there, so the building was empty for several months. Then, in the late summer of 1781, General Washington took over the palace as a hospital for his American sick and wounded from Yorktown.
Lloyd: It wasn't long after Jefferson moved the capitol to Richmond and Washington used it as a hospital, the palace burned, right?
Tom: Exactly right. As it was being used as a hospital, just two months after the victory of Yorktown, December 22nd, 1781. It caught fire, and within a few hours, in the middle of the night, it was totally destroyed.
Lloyd: So, just wiped out?
Tom: Totally collapsed. They used what they could of what had fallen into the cellars, and of course, it was a wonderful treasure trove for our archaeologists, as they began to rebuild in the late '20s, early '30s. The two advance buildings survived.
Lloyd: For most of its history, it was a home to somebody. Seven royal governors, two elected or appointed, I don't remember.
Tom: Elected. By the assembly. One year at a time.
Lloyd: Didn't trust them a whole lot, and didn't give them a whole lot of time to make mischief.
Tom: And had term limits, too. After three terms.
Lloyd: That's right, Henry served three. And passed it off to Jefferson, who served two. And then Nelson, I've forgotten what he served.
Tom: And you know, Henry was governor later, two more times up in Richmond. You had to sit out a while, and then you were eligible again. So as soon as he was eligible, they elected him two more times.
Lloyd: Oh, really? I know it's sort of ridiculous, but you get this sort of desire that the original palace was still there. Even though, for any intent and purpose, it looked exactly like this one looks. But you'd like to walk around where people walked before. But the palace is a lot of fun. It's one of the things that people never forget, they'll be talking about that when they can't remember what the rest of the town looked like.
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check history.org often, we’ll post more for you to download and hear.