What Our Ancestors Accomplished
Popular interpretations of our nation’s early history often make it appear that the genius of our form of government stemmed from a Founding Fathers’ epiphany that resulted in adoption of our Constitution in 1787. In reality, it was the result of over a century and a half of political innovation and tension, self-education and, finally, power struggles that began at Jamestown in 1616 and later in New England. Our ancestors enabled and engaged in our own nation building that has resulted in our society, culture and country.
Jamestown’s founding has a deeper meaning than merely being one of our national origins. It was the seminal incident that introduced the opportunities to innovate the many profound social, entrepreneurial, political, and economic tenets that have come down to us through our history. Its pervasive and lasting effect is what has differentiated Jamestown from all other English and European colonial settlements that were among our origins. That lasting effect is the best evidence of its contribution to establishing our nation.
In 1618, the Virginia Company of London, which not only sponsored but governed the settlement, directed our ancestors to convene a General Assembly as a measure of delegated governance to better manage their affairs and finances locally. That Assembly, which met in the church at Jamestown on July 30, 1619, was the first such governing body in the New World. It was a unicameral legislature composed of the Company’s appointed governor, Council of State (councilors, or advisors) and “burgesses” elected by each of the colony’s settlements and Jamestown. (NOTE: The Assembly became bicameral in 1642 when the House of Burgesses was formed and met separately from the Council of State.)
At the demise of the Virginia Company in 1624, it would become a new venture into self- governance that would forever influence the political development of England’s colonies and our own form of government; it created the momentum for our own nation building. Here began our nation’s lineage, tracing on down through the Virginia experience that led to the Federalist Papers, Virginia Plan at the Constitutional Convention and adoption of the Constitution itself.
Most accounts relate only the beginning of Jamestown’s story: the seventeen years following the 1607 landing. However, Professor Warren M. Billings tells us that the significance of Jamestown lies beyond them: “[It] was in the decades after 1624 that the social, political, and economic implications of those [earlier] developments played out, and Virginia became a place quite unlike anything the [colony’s] backers envisioned, even in their wildest dreams.”
In addition to their attributes, faith, courage and determination, what our ancestors then accomplished is as relevant and important as who they were and when they came. Their 17th-century achievements instigated what we are today.
Following is a summary of how our ancestors began innovating and building our nation while Jamestown served as Virginia’s colonial capital:
- Introduction of private land ownership by the common person (1616)
- Initiation of the practice of land grants (as headrights in 1617, which continued through 1779, though used less in the 18th century), extended then to Revolutionary War veterans, and on through the 19th century, the last as homestead grants
- Establishment of the tobacco industry, creating capital that helped enable our nation’s economic development and country’s founding (from 1616)
- Adoption of a legal code based on English common law, as directed by the Virginia Company (1618) and the foundation of our legal system
- Convening of the General Assembly as America’s first elected, representative legislature (1619), also as directed by the Virginia Company, affirmed in 1639, still extant
- Enfranchisement of all free men (from 1619 until 1670)
- Experienced the first recorded landing in Virginia of Africans of undetermined bondage (1619); slavery was introduced in the 1650s following the leads of the Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies and took hold in Virginia at the turn of the 18th century
- Enabled ownership of private property by wives (1619)
- Importation of marriageable women by the Virginia Company to help create families and sustain Jamestown’s viability (1620-1); a practice that endured into the 19th century to further the populating of our-then frontier.
- Establishment of free enterprise as our economic system (1620)
- Innovation and experimentation in institutionalized self-governance (1620s-1670s)
- Adaptation of the English county court system that eventually became a major feature of our American jurisprudence structure (1634)
- Creation of the then-unique concept of geographical legislative representation (as compared with the English Member of Parliament being unobligated to his constituents).
- Creation of our real estate industry (in 1634, the Privy Council confirmed the colonists’ private property rights and in 1639 the crown assured that they would have perpetual value, thus enabling their land transactions to form into a functional market)
- Enabling entrepreneurship: land ownership by the private citizen drew entrepreneurial opportunity seekers from England who demonstrated success in America for immigrants who followed (1630s-on)
- Adoption of a bicameral legislature; it became the template for our Congress and most of our state governing bodies (1642)
- Creation of what became our unique Congressional institution of an elected Speaker of the House (1642/43)
- Establishment of the first reservations for American Indians (1646)
- Initiation of our American westward movement in the 1670s
- Institution of the protection from self-incrimination, which eventually became our Fifth Amendment (1677).
- While not an accomplishment by any stretch of imagination, nevertheless a major effect on our nation building: Introduction of chattel plantation slavery in the 1680s
These accomplishments and innovations demonstrate why Jamestown has a deeper, salient and more profound meaning than being just one among our national origins. It was where major threads of our heritage were spun and woven into our national fabric and the building of our nation began. Our ancestors’ most important achievement was their success in learning to self-govern and cultivating their own rule of law and civil society.
For more details about current research focused on early Jamestown, please go to the Society’s Reading Resources. Historic Jamestown offers a brief history, as does Encyclopedia Virginia. The Society also offers a chronology of the Jamestown period. For more about what transpired from the 1619 General Assembly, see Billings, Warren M.: A Little Parliament; The Virginia General Assembly in the Seventeenth Century (Richmond, The Library of Virginia, in partnership with Jamestown 2007/Jamestown Yorktown Foundation. 2004.)
This is adapted from a forthcoming essay by James H. McCall. He is a descendant of Ancient Planters Richard and Isabella Pace, whose family was witness to this entire saga.
The individual who is most popularly associated with Jamestown’s earliest years is Captain John Smith. He was among the 104 who first landed at Jamestown and brought with him an accomplished military career.
The combination of his assertive nature and lesser-class status created conflicts with hereditary aristocrats who composed the rest of the colony’s leadership; they almost hung him on at least two occasions. Nevertheless, the combination of his leadership skills and their deaths and departures cast him into the colony’s presidency about a year after the landing. His attributes generated respect that enabled him to deal more or less successfully with the indigenous Powhatan tribes and their chiefs. This gave rise to very unlikely but popular legends about the young (10 or 12 year-old) Pocahontas.
He also brought discipline to the settlement at one of its most precarious times, successfully explored the entire Tidewater region and produced a map of it that was still being used well into the nineteenth century. After a devastating injury, he returned to England in October 1609. Without his leadership, Jamestown suffered the calamitous “starving times” in the winter of 1609-10 and was almost abandoned.
He voyaged again to explore and map the coasts of Massachusetts and Maine in 1616, and coined the regional name of New England. He wrote accounts of Jamestown that have been important sources of what we know and understand today. He died a childless bachelor in 1631 after a successful writing career. (Note: Three biographies on our Reading List offer more details and insights into his life.)
Ask About Our Speakers and Educational Programs
First California Company offers experienced speakers who can lecture and organize educational programs about Jamestown and its history, profiles of members’ ancestors, the life and customs of the period, summaries of current research at the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological site at Historic Jamestown and the development at Jamestown of tenets that became some of America’s most precious personal, economic and legal rights.
These lectures and programs are designed to foster understanding of Jamestown’s place in early American history, and as help and aid to instruction for organizations, schools and groups learning about its founding and history and its settlers: the stories of our ancestors. First California Company speakers are available to present these programs to any school, organization and group. For more information, please contact our Governor.