On November 18, 1618, two of the Virginia Company of London’s officers, Sir Thomas Smythe and Sir Edwin Sandys, drew up a set of instructions to the newly appointed governor, Sir George Yeardley. Unlike the three charters before it, this Charter, approved by King James I, not only dealt with matters of financing the Virginia Colony, it established a system of self-governance. Accordingly, it is referred to as the Great Charter of 1618.
Rather than relying on stock sales or a lottery to raise funds to support the struggling colonizing venture, it was decided that the colony’s greatest resource, land, would be utilized. This system of giving 50 acres of land to those who paid for their or other’s (including indentured servants’) passage was known as the headright system.
The Great Charter eliminated military law which had been used to rule the colony since 1610. Now the colony was to be jointly governed by elected representatives (burgesses) along with the King’s council and appointed governor. The first legislative meeting of these democratically elected burgesses would take place the following summer at the church in Jamestown. Years later, when the legislature became bicameral, it became known as the House of Burgesses. This legislative body begun in 1619, the first of if its kind in North America, still meets today and is known as the Virginia General Assembly.
Colonial Virginia’s process of self-rule was thereby institutionalized on 30 July 1619 and set an example for others to follow. As Virginians migrated in search of new opportunity, they took these lessons of self-rule they had learned and put them into practice in other colonies, territories and states.
In late July of 2019, there will be a large celebration commemorating the 400th anniversary of the first legislative assembly held in North America when Governor Sir George Yeardley, the King’s Council and 20 democratically elected burgesses met in the Jamestown Church on 30 July 1619.
Capt. Thomas Graves, a shareholder in the Virginia Company who came to Jamestown in 1608 aboard the Second Supply, was one of the original 20 burgesses representing Smythe’s Hundred and the tenth great grandfather of Lewis & Clark Company Governor, John Graves.
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