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America's Early History Lives Again in Williamsburg

Williamsburg, Virginia

The city of Williamsburg, Virginia, is one of the most popular historical attractions in the United States. Established in the 17th century, it was for a while the capital of the colony of Virginia and the site of several historical events during America's Revolutionary War. Our reporter recently visited Williamsburg for a look at its colonial past and events leading to the U.S. Independence Day celebrations.

The streets of Williamsburg look just like they did in the summer of 1781, when British soldiers occupied Williamsburg toward the end of the Revolutionary War. The British only stayed for a week, then marched out of town on July 4th, five years to the day after the American colonies had first declared their independence. Tim Suthpin is the director of historic programs at colonial Williamsburg.

"This is probably the beginning of what we call Americans, right here," said Tim Suthpin. "We started as a British colony; we became more removed, detached from that British ancestry and we became Americans right here in Williamsburg."

Three hundred fifty actors and re-enactors are creating the British military presence in town - setting up camp and harassing the colonists, to recreate the atmosphere of 200 years ago.

The annual event attracts thousands of tourists and history buffs every year. Carl Kavanagh and his family came from New Jersey for the celebrations.

"You're walking in the footsteps of George Washington here, you're seeing everything that they saw," said Carl Kavanagh. "You're experiencing the heat, the smells and the buildings. Everything about how it was two, three hundred years ago. It's a great opportunity to gather that information and enjoy it at the same time."

Colonial Williamsburg consists of 120 hectares of authentic and restored buildings and landmarks dating to the Revolutionary War and even back further - to the first British settlers who started a plantation and later built the colony. After the war, the town fell into disrepair but was rebuilt by billionaire John D. Rockefeller in the early 20th century, to preserve the atmosphere and ideals of 18th century America. Clyde Haulman is the city's mayor:

"I think a lot of people think of Williamsburg and think it's a museum," said Clyde Haulman. "Well, it is but it's a living museum. You go down the street and you participate in the revolutionary city, that's the best that a museum does, then go to the farmer's market, you'll see small town America. You have all those things here."

The three million visitors who fill the streets of Williamsburg every year are immersed not only in early American life but in the struggle of a small, new country to find its own identity.

"I think it's awesome that a place like this exists, that the children and everybody in America and throughout the world can come and see where democracy began and where it developed over the course of history and the course of time," said Carl Kavanagh.

Besides being an historic site, Williamsburg is also the home of one of America's oldest universities, the College of William and Mary. It is part of an historic triangle that includes the site of the 1607 Jamestown settlement and the Yorktown battlefield, where the Revolutionary War ended. Most importantly it's where early Americans decided to build a new society based on equality and liberty.