In the summer of 1619 the slave ship San Juan Bautista was bound for the Spanish port of Veracruz when it was attacked by British privateers, who captured several dozen of the Africans found aboard. The British vessels then made for Virginia. While at anchor off Point Comfort near Hampton Roads, the privateers sold 19 of the Africans to some of the wealthier planters of the Jamestown colony, in exchange for provisions for their ships, before sailing to Bermuda. There were no laws defining slavery in the Virginia colony at the time, but these were the first slaves to be brought to English North America. By the end of the following year, 32 slaves were recorded in the Virginia population.
Although the Africans were brought to Virginia as slaves some of them later acquired the status of indentured servants from their masters, and when the period of indenture was completed they became free men. In 1619 the colony established the first representative government in North America, which became the Virginia House of Burgesses, and established that only English born and their male descendants were eligible to vote. Thus neither the German and Polish artisans in the colony nor the Africans, nor women, were recognized as having voting rights.
Until 1619 the colony which by then consisted of numerous small towns, villages, hamlets, and plantations, was run under military authority. Control was in the hands of the governor, appointed by the commissioners in London. In 1619, following the instructions of the Virginia Company in London, the General Assembly was created, which met in Jamestown’s recently completed wooden church. The General Assembly oversaw the economic, legal, and religious affairs of the colony, and controlled negotiations with the natives of the Powhatan confederacy. It also assumed independent control of the colony’s military affairs. The assembly also sat as a court of law, adjudicating cases brought before it both civil and criminal.
By the middle of the following decade the Assembly managed the affairs of English settlements on the York peninsula, the Eastern shore of Virginia, and as far inland as present day Richmond. The area of the original Jamestown settlement became less populated as settlers moved inland, and the importance of James Fort as a means of defense grew less critical. Other fortresses were erected at strategic points on tributaries of the James River, which became a nautical highway connecting the settlements and the plantations along its banks. By 1630 Middle Plantation, which later became Williamsburg, was designated as the anchor for a wooden palisade across the peninsula separating native lands from those of the English. It was completed in 1634.
In 1624 the Virginia Company was dissolved when its charter was revoked by order of King James. The colony continued to grow steadily, with those fleeing religious and political oppression in England choosing to relocate to the North American possessions. Virginia also received those unhappy with the growing Puritan colonies in the Cape Cod region of New England. In 1634, under the royal command of King Charles I, the colony of Virginia was divided into eight shires, with Jamestown designated as James City and located in James City Shire. The shires were the original eight counties of Virginia. Each shire was named by the Burgesses of the General Assembly, and had its own local officers.
The royal decree also established the cities of Elizabeth City, Charles City, and James City, though the settlement was still for the most part referred to as Jamestown in local parlance. The Virginia colony grew steadily during the next several decades, especially in the tidewater areas along Chesapeake Bay and the inland rivers of the Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James. Other conflicts with the natives led to the Powhatan Confederacy crumbling into its several tribes independently of each other, and wars between the tribes and the whites continued as English settlement pushed the natives back along the rivers and streams of inland Virginia.
During Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 Jamestown was overrun and burned, but the town was rebuilt and remained the capital of the colony, though the Burgesses met in Middle Plantation during the rebuilding of the statehouse. In 1698 the statehouse again burned to the ground, and the Burgesses again met in the new College of William and Mary at Middle Plantation. While there the Burgesses decided to permanently move the capital to the site, renaming Middle Plantation Williamsburg in honor of their sovereign. Work soon began on a home for the Assembly and the Governor in the thriving town, and Jamestown lost its last measure of importance to the colony.
By the time of the American Revolution most of the village of Jamestown was gone, its church abandoned by its congregation, the palisaded fort collapsed and overgrown, and most of the fields cultivated in tobacco and wheat. Jamestown itself gradually returned to the condition in which it appeared when the first English settlers arrived in 1607, minus the population of the Powhatan Confederacy. In the late twentieth century archaeological studies have located the sites of many of the early Jamestown buildings, including the first brickworks and ironworks in North America, which nature reclaimed from the early founders of what became the Commonwealth of Virginia.
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