The Old Dominion – Settling Virginia

Slaves were brought to Virginia in 1619.

Slaves were brought to Virginia in 1619.

Tobacco became the staple product of the colony, and experiments were made in producing soap, glass, silk, and wine. A better class of emigrants came over, and in 1619 a shipload of “respectable maidens” arrived, who were auctioned off to the bachelor planters for so many pounds of tobacco apiece. At the same time, the sharing of harvests in common was abandoned, and the settlers were given their lands in full ownership.

The year 1619, which brought the Virginian’s wives and lands, is memorable also for two events of great significance for slavery and later history of the colonies and the nation. In that year the government’s first cargo of black slaves was brought to the colony, and the ‘first representative assembly convened on American soil. On July 30th, two citizens from each plantation met with the governor and his six councilors in the little church at Jamestown. This tiny legislature of 27 members, after enacting various laws for the colony, adjourned on August 4th. Spanish, French, and Dutch settlements existed in America at the time of this first Virginia assembly, but none of them had or copied later the system of representative government. Democracy was England’s gift to the New World.

The man to whom Virginia owed this great boon of self-government, and whose name should be known and honored by every American, was Sir Edwin Sandys, treasurer of the London Company. Sandys belonged to the country party in Parliament, who was making James’ life miserable by their resistance to his arbitrary government based on “divine right,” or responsibility to God alone for his royal acts. In the meantime, Gondomar, the Spanish minister in London, whispered in James’s ear that assemblies like that in Virginia were “hotbeds of sedition.”

But, James had let the London Company get out of his hands by the new charter, and when he tried to interfere in their election of a treasurer, they rebuked him by choosing one of the most prominent of the country party, the Earl of Southampton. Not being able to dictate to the company, James resolved to destroy it. In a moment of great depression for the colony, just after a horrible Indian massacre in 1622 and a famine, James commenced suit against the company, which a subservient court declared had overstepped its legal rights and forfeited its charter. James then took the colony into his own hands and sent over men to govern it that was responsible only to his Privy Council. Virginia thus became a “royal province” in 1624, and remained so for one hundred fifty years, until the American Revolution.

Virginia Colony Government

Virginia Colony Government

James intended to suppress the “seminary of sedition” too and rule the colony by a committee province of his courtiers. But he died before he had a chance to extinguish the liberties of Virginia, and his son, Charles I, hoping to get the monopoly of the tobacco trade in return for the favor, allowed the House of Burgesses to continue. So, Virginia furnished the pattern which sooner or later nearly all the American colonies reproduced, namely, that of a governor with a small council appointed by the English king, and a legislature, or assembly, elected by the people of the colony.

The people of Virginia were very loyal to the Stuarts. When the quarrel between King and Parliament in England reached the stage of the civil war in 1642, and Charles I was driven from his throne and beheaded in 1649, many of his supporters in England immigrated to Virginia, giving the colony a decidedly aristocratic character. And, when Charles II was restored to his father’s throne in 1660, the Virginian citizens recognized his authority so promptly and enthusiastically that he called them “the best of his distant children.”

He even elevated Virginia to the proud position of a “dominion,” by quartering its arms (the old seal of the Virginia Company) on his royal shield with the arms of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The Virginians were very proud of this distinction, and remembering that they were the oldest as well as the most faithful of the Stuart settlements in America, adopted the name of “The Old Dominion.”

Though there were actually many occasions of dispute between the governors sent over by the king and the legislature elected by the people, only one incident of prime importance occurred to disturb the peaceful history of the Old Dominion under its royal masters. In 1675 the Susquehannock Indians were harassing the upper settlements of the colony, and Governor William Berkeley, who was profiting largely by his private interest in the fur trade, refused to send a force of militia to punish them. He was supported by an “old and rotten” House of Burgesses, which he had kept in office, doing his bidding, for 14 years.

A young and popular planter named Nathaniel Bacon, who had seen one of his overseers murdered by the Indians, put himself at the head of 300 volunteers and demanded an officer’s commission of Governor Berkeley. Berkeley refused, and Bacon marched against the Indians without any commission, utterly routing them and saving the colony from tomahawk and firebrand.

Nathaniel Bacon

Nathaniel Bacon

The governor proclaimed Bacon a rebel and set a price upon his head. In the distressing civil war which followed, the governor was driven from his capital and Jamestown was burned by the “rebels.” But, Bacon died of dysentery shortly after his victory, and his party, being made up only of his personal following, fell to pieces. Berkeley returned and took grim vengeance on Bacon’s supporters until the citizens petitioned him to “spill no more blood.”

Bacon’s Rebellion, despite its deplorable features, did good work. It showed that the colonists dared to act for themselves. It forced the dissolution of the “old and rotten” assembly and the choice of a new one representing the will of the people. It led to the recall of Governor Berkeley by King Charles II, who explained indignantly when he heard of the governor’s cruel reprisals: “That old fool has taken away more lives in that naked country than I did here for the murder of my father.” And, finally, it showed that the people of the Old Dominion, though loyal to their king, had no intention of submitting to an arbitrary governor in collusion with a corrupt assembly.

Today, historic Jamestown is part of the Colonial National Historic Park. The park provides views of both Old Towne, where a triangular fort was constructed by English settlers in the spring of 1607, as well as New Towne, east of the fort, which was first surveyed in the 1620s. Jamestown served as the capital of Virginia until 1699, when it was moved to Williamsburg.

Jointly administered by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and the National Park Service, the site is located at 1368 Colonial Parkway, Jamestown, Virginia.

Jamestown ships

Replicas of the three ships which carried settlers to the Virginia
settlement in 1607 are docked in the harbor. Photo courtesy
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

By David Saville Muzzey, 1920. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2019.


Also See:

Jamestown – First Successful English Settlement

Nathaniel Bacon — First American Rebel

New England Settlements

The Proprietary Colonies


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