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Primary Source of the Month

Williamsburg Magazine. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Williamsburg Magazine. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Buildings can also be primary sources. They can tell stories about their purpose, location, and the people who used it. The history of the Magazine in Williamsburg has many twists and turns.

In 1714, the General Assembly had asked Governor Alexander Spotswood to build "a good substantial house of brick" to protect the colony's arms and munitions. The occasion was the shipment of powder and muskets from Queen Anne's government in England. The city's 17th-century magazine, if it still stood, seems to have been inadequate. Spotswood was authorized to spend £200 from taxes collected on the import of liquor and slaves.

Spotswood's Magazine safeguarded shot, powder, flints, tents, tools, swords, pikes, canteens, cooking utensils, and as many as 3,000 Brown Bess flintlocks—equipment needed for defense against Indians, slave revolts, local riots, and pirate raids. So many munitions arrived from 1754 to 1763 in the course of the French and Indian War that the additions of a high perimeter wall and Guardhouse were necessary. But with the departure of the government for Richmond during the Revolution, the Magazine saw less service as a powder horn, as it was sometimes called.

During the night of April 20–21, 1775, British sailors acting on royal governor Lord Dunmore's orders removed gunpowder from the Magazine. Although violence was averted, the Gunpowder Incident helped move Virginians toward revolution.

After the Revolution, an arsenal at Williamsburg was no longer needed, although Confederate forces did store powder in the magazine during the Civil War. At various times, the building was used as a market, a Baptist meetinghouse, a dancing school, and finally a livery stable.

Builders tore down its perimeter wall in 1856 and used the bricks for the foundation of a nearby church. A wall of the Magazine itself collapsed February 6, 1888, and one-half of another the next day. September 9, 1889, the Magazine's roof burned, with only its finial escaping the flames. Repaired, the building became a museum, and the front and back windows were replaced with larger stained-glass panes. Colonial Williamsburg restored the structure in 1934 and 1935, rebuilding the brick wall and Guardhouse. In 1946, Colonial Williamsburg leased the Magazine and began its restoration. It reopened as an exhibition July 4, 1949, and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities sold the building to Colonial Williamsburg in 1986.