Distinguished Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg


Distinguished Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg


Visitors, Foreign
Presidents - United States
Celebrities - United States
Entertainers - United States
Kings, queens, rulers etc.
Gelatin silver prints
Color slides


Colonial Williamsburg has played host to numerous distinguished visitors in the form of foreign dignitaries and heads of state, royalty, musicians, actors, and writers. A significant series within Colonial Williamsburg's official archive of photos taken by staff photographers, the distinguished visitor images offer a fascinating glimpse into many historic occasions and special events that took place within the living history museum. A selection is offered here to give researchers a sense of the scope of the subjects represented.

Government officials, actors, and even sports stars, began arriving at Colonial Williamsburg soon after the museum opened its first exhibition buildings in the 1930s. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated Duke of Gloucester Street in 1934 becoming the first United States president to experience its beauty and historical significance.1 The completion of the Williamsburg Inn and Williamsburg Lodge offered gracious accommodations to attract other well-known guests. Child actress Shirley Temple celebrated her birthday in Williamsburg in 1938, while tennis star Helen Hull Jacobs registered as the first occupant at the Williamsburg Lodge in 1939.2

During World War II, trips to Colonial Williamsburg served as a form of indoctrination for servicemen from neighboring military bases. Troops watched orientation films, attended lectures, and toured the Historic Area as a way to remind them of what they were going overseas to fight for.3 In 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived for a post-war visit to Colonial Williamsburg that included drinks at the Raleigh Tavern, a tour of several exhibition buildings, and a special dinner at the Williamsburg Inn.4

The late 1940s marked the beginning of a steady stream of visits by foreign dignitaries. The United States Department of State began a custom of bringing foreign heads of state down from Washington, D.C. as part of their official visits to the United States. As a result, Colonial Williamsburg began expanding its focus to embrace a more international audience and celebrate some of the timeless democratic ideals embodied in the historic events that took place in colonial Virginia.5 The growing living history museum also attracted the attention of Walt Disney, who visited in 1948 and offered his perspectives and ideas on the museum's operations.6

During the 1950s, a standard protocol for VIP visits encompassed trips to Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, and Yorktown. Foreign visitors received a rapid overview of American history and ideals as a form of education by State Department officials. 7 Queen Elizabeth II's royal visit for the 250th anniversary of the arrival of settlers at Jamestown marked an important initial step towards strengthening ties between Great Britain and Colonial Williamsburg.8 A succession of British dignitaries, ranging from the Lord Mayor of London to the Prince of Wales, followed.

Colonial Williamsburg President Carlisle Humelsine used his former State Department connections to turn Colonial Williamsburg into what many dubbed "State Department South." He oversaw over one hundred visits by foreign dignitaries who came to the area as part of official State Department itineraries. The typical visit during the Humelsine era included a carriage ride, along with stops at major exhibition buildings, such as the Capitol and the Palace, as well as one or two of the trade shops.9

The 1960s and 1970s also witnessed a number of television stars descending upon Colonial Williamsburg with their accompanying production crews. Animal star Lassie performed in several scenes around the Historic Area as part of a larger travel series for his popular television show. Perry Como and John Wayne explored many aspects of Colonial Williamsburg during the filming of Perry Como's Early American Christmas in 1978.10

Visits by foreign heads of state culminated in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan hosted the Ninth Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations at Colonial Williamsburg. The unprecedented closure of the entire Historic Area for the weekend in May 1983 marked a gamble on the part of Colonial Williamsburg officials to generate more international interest via the three thousand journalists covering the event. 11 Participants included Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone of Japan, Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani of Italy, Prime Minister Elliot Trudeau of Canada, Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany, and President Francois Mitterand of France. Opera singer Leontyne Price also contributed to the event's pageantry by performing at one of the state dinners.12

In the decades which followed, a combination of actors, entertainers, sports stars, political candidates, and government leaders continued to visit in a steady stream of both official and "undercover" appearances. Two of the more high profile dignitaries included President Zhang Zemin of China in 1997 and a return visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 2007. Whether drawing large crowds or simply enjoying the peaceful charm with a few friends or Colonial Williamsburg escorts, each visitor has left their mark in the form of a fascinating legacy of photos.

(1) Donald J. Gonzalez, The Rockefellers at Williamsburg (McLean, Va.: EPM Publications, 1991), 102.
(2) Hugh DeSamper, Welcome to the Williamsburg Inn (Williamsburg, Va.: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in association with Lickle Publishing, Inc., 1997), 4.
(3) Anders Greenspan, Creating Colonial Williamsburg (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002), 154.
(4) Brian A. Dementi, Churchill & Eisenhower Together Again: A Virginia Visit (Manakin-Sabot, Va.: Dementi Milestone Publishing Inc., 2015), 85.
(5) Greenspan, 79.
(6) Gonzalez, 110.
(7) Greenspan, 117.
(8) Greenspan, 111.
(9) Gonzalez, 110.
(10) Mary Theobald, “Every Man a King: The VIPs Visit Colonial Williamsburg” Colonial Williamsburg Journal 23, No. 3 (Autumn 2001): 40.
(11) Greenspan, 153.
(12) “The World Comes to Williamsburg,” Colonial Williamsburg 4, No. 1 (Autumn 1983): 20.

For further information: Theobald, Mary, "Every Man a King: The VIPs Visit Colonial Williamsburg," Colonial Williamsburg Journal 23, No. 3 (Autumn 2001): 37-42.

Rights Holder

Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Collection Items

President Warren G. Harding
President Warren Harding (tipping hat in the back seat) rides in a car through the city of Williamsburg, ca. 1920s. President Harding served from 1921-1923 before dying in office. During his visit, Williamsburg had not yet been restored to its 18th…

Herbert Hoover
Herbert Hoover (second man from left) walking on the sidewalk past the President's House on the campus of the College of William & Mary, May 15, 1926. In his role as Secretary of Commerce under President Calvin Coolidge, Hoover visited Williamsburg…

Henry Ford and  Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin
Henry Ford (front row, far left) with Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin (second row, far left) and others during a visit to Colonial Williamsburg. Rev. Goodwin, the driving force behind the effort to restore Williamsburg to its 18th century appearance, originally…

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Gov. George C. Peery during the 1934 dedication of Duke of Gloucester Street. Williamsburg mayor Channing Hall stands in foreground.

Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple, beloved child star of the 1930s, visited Colonial Williamsburg in 1938. In this photograph, she is pictured with her father outside the Williamsburg Inn. Her visit included a tour of the Governor's Palace, cut slightly short by her…

Robert Frost
Acclaimed American poet Robert Frost enjoys a beverage in Chowing's Tavern on December 5, 1941. Frost had come to Williamsburg for a meeting of the College of William and Mary's Phi Beta Kappa society. At this particular meeting, Frost read several…

Sir Winston Churchill and General Dwight D. Eisenhower
During his 1946 tour of the United States with General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Sir Winston Churchill made plans to visit Colonial Williamsburg, now twelve years old after the opening of its Historic Area. Mr. Churchill and General Eisenhower arrived by…

President Harry Truman
President Harry S. Truman, flanked by several costumed interpreters, laughs as he descends the steps outside the Governor's Palace. President Truman was in Williamsburg in 1948 to receive an honorary degree from The College of William and Mary.…

Walt Disney
Walt Disney visited Colonial Williamsburg numerous times, including this visit with some of his staff. Kenneth Chorley, President of Colonial Williamsburg, on right.

Arturo Toscanini
Renowned Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini enjoys a tour of a garden in Colonial Williamsburg with a costumed interpreter. His 1950 visit came during the height of his popularity in the United States while conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

King Paul and Queen Frederika of Greece
King Paul and Queen Frederika of Greece descending the stairs at the WIlliamsburg Inn. The King and Queen were among the first foreign dignitaries to visit Colonial Williamsburg through the State Department program established by Colonial…

Her Majesty Elizabeth, The Queen Mother
Children clap in welcome for Her Majesty Elizabeth The Queen Mother of England during her 1954 visit to Williamsburg, Virginia. During her visit, the Queen Mother had dinner in King's Arms Tavern, enjoyed a carriage ride around the Historic Area, and…

Hiroshima Maidens
"Hiroshima Maidens," a group of Japanese women in the U.S. to treat disfigurements from the atomic bombing, visit Colonial Williamsburg on October 18, 1956. By October of 1956 the women had completed most of the surgeries, and were preparing to…

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England walking with Governor Thomas Stanley outside the Williamsburg Inn during her visit in 1957. The Queen's visit to Williamsburg came as part of her visit to Jamestown, celebrating the 350th anniversary of its…

Paul-Henri Spaak, Secretary General of NATO
Paul-Henri Spaak, Secretary General of NATO and Belgian statesman, is seated in a carriage in front of the Williamsburg Inn, preparing for a ride around the Historic Area.

King Muhammad V of Morocco
King Muhammad V of Morocco in the Capitol. King Muhammad visited Colonial Williamsburg in 1957 as part of a regular state visit. Colonial Williamsburg President Carlisle Humelsine invited the King to luncheon at Christiana Campbell's Tavern, a…

President and Mrs. Arturo Frondizi
President and Mrs. Arturo Frondizi of Argentina visit with interpreters outside of The Golden Ball. President Frondizi toured the United States as part of his official state visit, which included a ticker tape parade in New York City.

Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt in front of the Governor's Palace. Mrs. Roosevelt's visit to Colonial Williamsburg had a full schedule compared to other distinguished visitors. On her first morning in Williamsburg, Mrs. Roosevelt took tours of seven buildings…

King Zahir of Afghanistan
King Zahir and Queen Humaira Begum of Afghanistan during their visit to Colonial Williamsburg in 1963. The 'Last King of Afghanistan' visited Colonial Williamsburg with his wife as part of a tour of the United States.

Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia
Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia rides in a carriage with Williamsburg Mayor (Dr.) Henry M. Stryker, Colonial Williamsburg President Carlisle Humelsine, and others. Tito was in the United States for an informal visit to tour the nation. While visiting…
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