The 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution™, highlighted the significance and modern relevance of several important events that occurred in Virginia in 1619. These events strongly influenced the development of the colony and shaped the foundation of the United States.
THE FIRST REPRESENTATIVE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY IN VIRGINIA
In 1618, a faction within the Virginia Company pushed through a series of reforms resulting in the “Great Charter,” a set of instructions sent to George Yeardley, who was set to begin a term as governor in 1619. Officials authorized Yeardley to oversee the selection of two male settlers from each of the eleven major settlement areas to attend a “General Assembly” with the purpose of passing laws and hopefully improving management in the colony.Read More
This new form of government divided political and judicial power between the governor, a council appointed by the Virginia Company, and the new General Assembly. The representatives, called burgesses, sat with the governor and his appointed council as the Assembly. The governor could veto legislation or dissolve the Assembly.
The meeting of the first General Assembly took place from July 30 through August 4 in the church in Jamestown, probably because the church was the largest building at the time. John Pory, Secretary of the Colony, served as Speaker of the Assembly. Six appointed council members attended along with 20 selected burgesses. The two burgesses selected from John Martin’s plantation (located in present day Prince George County) were not allowed to sit because of a problem with Martin’s land patent. Members of the General Assembly were formed into several committees, tasked with reviewing aspects of the Great Charter sent from the Virginia Company, as well as working on new laws based on concerns brought by the burgesses to the Assembly. All laws passed by the Assembly were subject to the approval of the Virginia Company in England.
The General Assembly also acted as a high court of justice and heard complaints of a judicial nature. Later, in 1634, courts would be established for minor offenses, but major cases were brought before the Assembly.
After 1619 the General Assembly met only sporadically, and formal recognition of the Assembly by the English crown did not come until 1627. The Virginia Company continued to appoint governors and issue instructions, but representation of the will of the people had begun. The concept of parliamentary government was brought to Virginia, and the General Assembly gradually evolved into a two-house form of government (1640s). This bicameral legislature continues today as Virginia’s General Assembly. It became the model for other English colonies and eventually the basis for the democratic government of the United States of America.
THE ARRIVAL OF THE FIRST AFRICANS TO ENGLISH NORTH AMERICA
In August 1619, a privateering vessel flying the flag of the Dutch Republic arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia (in present-day Hampton). According to John Rolfe, the ship held no cargo but “20 and odd” Africans, who were traded to Governor George Yeardley and Cape Merchant Abraham Peirsey in exchange for provisions. These individuals, originally captured by Portuguese slavers in West Central Africa (likely modern-day Angola), were the first recorded Africans to arrive in English North America.Read More
While the White Lion, which carried the first Africans to Virginia, did fly a Dutch flag, modern research has revealed that both the ship and its captain, John Jope, were English. Jope held a letter of marque from Vlissingen, a notorious privateer haven in the Netherlands, which allowed him to legally plunder Spanish and Portuguese vessels. He could not have done so under English authority, as England and Spain were at peace in 1619. While patrolling the Gulf of Mexico in late July or early August 1619, Jope encountered the Treasurer, another privateering vessel captained by Daniel Elfrith. Sailing in consort with one another, the White Lion and the Treasurer managed to capture a Portuguese slave trading vessel, the São João Bautista (Saint John the Baptist), which was bound for Vera Cruz, Mexico.
Jope and Elfrith soon discovered that the São João Bautista, which departed from the Angolan port city of Luanda, was carrying approximately 350 enslaved Africans. Luis Mendes de Vasconcellos, the Portuguese governor of Angola, enslaved approximately fifty thousand Africans between 1617 and 1621, sending them from Luanda to colonies in Spanish America. It is likely that many of the enslaved Africans onboard the São João Bautista were skilled laborers from West Central Africa’s urban centers, and many were likely Christians as well, converted by the Portuguese before or after their capture. After taking on as many captive Africans as their ships could carry, Jope and Elfrith chose to sail north to the Virginia colony.
While John Rolfe’s account confirms that the enslaved Africans aboard the White Lion were left in Virginia in 1619, the same cannot be said of those aboard the Treasurer. After receiving word that representatives of the Governor were heading to Point Comfort, the Treasurer abruptly departed Virginia, heading for Bermuda. As John Rolfe knew, the reason for this swift departure was because Governor Yeardley questioned the validity of the Treasurer’s letter of marque, and had planned to question Captain Elfrith about his acts of alleged piracy against the Spanish. The Treasurer did not return to Virginia until February 1620.
Despite the fact that slavery was not officially acknowledged in the laws of Virginia until 1661, there can be no mistaking that the first Africans brought to the colony aboard the White Lion were treated much as slaves were in other European colonies, regardless of age or gender. Scattered amongst a variety of plantations, including those owned by Governor Yeardley, they were immediately treated as commodities by the colonial elite. In rare instances, some Africans were allowed to work their own land, earn an income, and eventually purchase their freedom, but most were assigned to heavy labor in fields, kitchens, and outhouses. The African population in Virginia remained quite small for the next several decades, with only 300 Africans residing in the colony by 1650. By 1680, however, that number had increased to 3,000 and by 1704, to 10,000.
WOMEN IN EARLY VIRGINIA
When the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery arrived in Virginia with a group of 104 settlers in 1607, women were not among them. Despite the references to habitation and plantation in the Jamestown colony’s charter, the Virginia Company sent men to Virginia primarily to explore the region and discover how to best exploit its natural resources for commercial profit. These men did not initially expect to settle permanently in Virginia, and thus they rarely traveled with their families.Read More
The first English women to come to Virginia, Mistress Forest and her maid Anne Burras, arrived as the only two women amongst Jamestown’s second supply of colonists in 1608. Other women followed in subsequent years but were not sent in any systematic fashion.
After many years of hardship, Virginia Company officials recognized that they would need to establish a family structure in the colony if they wished to bring stability to Virginia and ensure that Jamestown became a permanent settlement. They viewed the family as the basic building block of society and government, and argued that “The plantation can never flourish till families be planted and the respect of wives and children fix the people on the soil.” In November 1619, under the leadership of Sir Edwyn Sandys, the Virginia Company declared its intention to recruit “a fit hundredth . . . of women, maids young and uncorrupt to make wives to the Inhabitants and by that means to make the men there more settled and less movable.” 90 women arrived in Jamestown in May 1620, followed by another 57 women in 1621.
In Virginia, as in England, women were subject to the doctrine of coverture, meaning that their legal rights were surrendered to their husbands. They could not vote, hold public office, or control their own property. Upon the death of their husbands, some widows obtained freedom from the legal and economic control of men, and were able to consolidate wealth and property of their own, engage in trade, and protect their interests in court.
Long before English women arrived in the colony, some Native American women lived amongst the English settlers at Jamestown. Women held an important role in Native American society. Amongst the Powhatan people of Virginia, the position of chief was inherited through the female line, and women could hold positions of significant authority, although few ever did. The daily responsibilities of Powhatan men and women were also divided along gendered lines. Women were responsible for farming, foraging, home construction, and child care, giving them a great deal of influence through their control of the tribes’ primary food supply. Men were responsible for hunting, fishing, and managing political or military councils.
The first documented African women in Virginia arrived in 1619 after having been held as slaves aboard a Portuguese trade vessel. In the colony’s early years, some African women were treated as servants, able to earn their freedom after five to seven years of bondage. Mary, an African woman who arrived in Virginia in 1623, was able to obtain her freedom and marry Anthony Johnson, a former servant. The couple started their own tobacco plantation on the Eastern Shore, eventually owning 250 acres of land. Some African women were also held by planters as lifelong slaves, despite the lack of any law guaranteeing their right to do so until the 1660s.
THANKSGIVING IN VIRGINIA, 1619
In the 16th and 17th centuries, European settlers and explorers in America frequently gave thanks to God after experiencing good fortune or completing an arduous journey. Before Europeans arrived in the New World, Native American peoples marked successful harvests with feasts and communal celebration. While these events are reminiscent of America’s modern Thanksgiving, they were traditionally spontaneous affairs, as opposed to regularly scheduled celebrations.Read More
In February 1619, the Virginia Company granted four investors 8,000 acres of property for the settlement of a plantation along the James River, to be called Berkeley Hundred. These investors soon invited Sir George Yeardley, Governor of the Virginia colony, to join in their endeavor, and recruited 38 men to send to Virginia as tenants and servants aboard the ship Margaret. Captain John Woodlief was also chosen to act as the plantation’s commander. Before leaving England in September 1619, Woodlief was given written instructions from the plantation’s investors, including instructions which stated:
That the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon (plantation) in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty god.
While no documentation survives to confirm whether or not the settlers of Berkeley Plantation followed the Virginia Company’s instructions after arriving in Virginia on December 4th, 1619, it is reasonable to assume that they would have followed such an official order. Given the lack of any permanent structures at the landing site and the crew’s presumed lack of supplies after traveling across the Atlantic, the first Thanksgiving at Berkeley would not have included a grand feast. Instead, the plantation’s settlers would have held a formal religious observance, thanking God for their safe arrival in Virginia.
Unlike earlier expressions of thanksgiving which took place in the New World, the observance at Berkeley Plantation was unique because it was both the first officially sanctioned Thanksgiving in America as well as the first Thanksgiving designed to become part of an annual tradition.
In 1620, 50 more settlers arrived at Berkeley, including several women and children. The plantation enjoyed a period of peaceful development until March 1622 when the Second Anglo-Powhatan War began. Eleven of Berkeley Plantation’s citizens, including investor George Thorpe, were killed in the conflict, and the survivors were forced to evacuate to safer plantations. Berkeley Plantation remained empty for several years, as evidenced by the plantation’s absence in the 1625 Virginia census.
The history of America’s first Thanksgiving holiday was lost for centuries until Dr. Lyon G. Tyler, son of President John Tyler, discovered the records of Berkeley Plantation investor John Smyth in 1931. In 1962, Virginia Senator John J. Wicker contacted the White House to chastise President John F. Kennedy for neglecting to mention Virginia in his annual Thanksgiving Proclamation. He received a response from prominent historian and Special Assistant to the President Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who admitted that Virginia was indeed the site of the first Thanksgiving and that Kennedy’s failure to include Virginia in his annual proclamation was a result of “unconquerable New England bias on the part of the White House staff.” In 1963, President Kennedy appeared to amend for his earlier mistake by crediting “our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts” for their role in the creation of the Thanksgiving holiday.
ENTREPRENEURIALISM AND ECONOMIC INNOVATION IN VIRGINIA
From its inception in 1607, the entire Virginia enterprise was an expression of corporate entrepreneurialism, a private joint stock trading company. Originally, all land was owned by the Virginia Company and all work was done for the Company, with the idea of turning profits for the Company stockholders. There was no individual private enterprise or encouragement for private entrepreneurs. Technically, this system lasted until the demise of the Company in 1624.Read More
However, around 1614 the first semi-private land grants were made to colonists, allotting three acres of land upon which settlers could plant tobacco as long as they also planted corn for common use. In 1616 the Company had realized no profits to pay those who had purchased stock in 1609 under a seven-year term. In order to compensate investors, Company officials began a land distribution system under the 1618 “Great Charter” and accompanying “Instructions,” with provisions for reforming the colony politically, economically and socially. The Company’s goal was to create an orderly government and society and to control who would get land and how. This system rewarded individuals with 100 acres of land in Virginia for every share of stock they had purchased or 50 acres if they paid the transportation costs of themselves or others to the colony. They could send over servants and supplies to establish “particular plantations” upon which most would grow tobacco.
In 1618, the Company’s new leader, Sir Edwin Sandys, sought new ways to economically diversify the colony and increase population. In 1619, Company officials sent instructions indicating the ways they hoped to create profits from pursuits other than tobacco. The list was adopted during the meeting of the first General Assembly in July 1619.
The Company, acting as the entrepreneur, enacted legislation that every man, seated upon his land division or grant, should plant and maintain a specified number of mulberry trees (on which silkworms feed, which then produce silk), grow hemp and flax, and plant and maintain vines. They ordered colonists to experiment with different plants in a new environment. The Assembly also regulated how settlers traded with the Indians and established prices for the tobacco cultivated by private landowners. Finally, they allowed tradesmen and artisans to come to Virginia, rent a house and some land, and be paid for their work, upon condition that they continue to perform their trade.
Because of regulation and controls set by the Company, the spirit of free enterprise was not realized for individuals during the Company period. The Company was the innovator, the corporate entrepreneur that decided how to diversify the attempts at profit-making. Unfortunately, most of their attempts failed to produce the profits they sought. Even later ventures into ironworks and sawmills did not help produce profits. In May/June 1623, Virginia Company officials noted in despair: “The many wilde & vast projects set on foot all at one time, viz 3 Iron works, saw mills, planting of silkgrass, vines, mulbury trees, potashes, pitch, tarr and salt &c … by a handful of men that were not able to build houses, plant corne to lodge & feed themselves & so came to nothing.” Most entrepreneurial attempts at diversification by the Virginia Company would ultimately fail with the failure of the Company in 1624. Tobacco would still produce the largest profits.
Since the first General Assembly of 1619, when entrepreneurship began taking root, Virginia has been at the vanguard of what has become the free enterprise system in the United States of America. Virginia continues to lead the advancement of entrepreneurship in sectors such as technology.