Laws in the Earliest Virginia Colony

Dateline Virginia: 1619. His Majesty’s Council in Virginia enacted these laws. Would you like to live under them? Updated 15 April 2017.

One interesting policy among many sets up a college for Indian boys to be taught in the Christian religion and in civil life.

No gaming (gambling) or drunkenness or “excess” of apparel!

For the full context of these laws, please click on You Are There! America’s Third and Fourth Government Meetings, August 1 and 2, 1619.

Slightly modernized transcription beings:

Here begin the laws drawn out of the Instructions given by his Majesty’s Council of Virginia in England to my lord La Warre, Captain Argall, & Sir George Yeardley, knight.

Conduct Towards the Indians

By this present General Assembly be it enacted that no injury or oppression be wrought by the English against the Indians whereby the present peace might be disturbed and ambient quarrels might be revived.

And farther be it ordained that the Chicohomini [Indians] are not to be excepted out of this Law, until either that such order come out of England, or that they do provoke us by some new injury;

Personal and Social Conduct

Against idleness, gaming, drunkenness and excess in apparel, the Assembly has enacted as follows:

First in detestation of idlers, be it enacted, that if any man be found to live as an idler or renegade, though a freed man, it shall be lawful for that Incorporation or Plantation to which he belongs to appoint him a Master to serve for wages till he show apparent signs of amendment.

Against gaming at dice & cards be it ordained by this present Assembly that the winner or winners shall lose all his or their winnings & both winners & losers shall forfeit ten shillings a man, one ten shillings whereof to go to the discoverer [the one who tells], and the rest to charitable & pious uses in the Incorporation where the faults are committed.

Against drunkenness be it also decreed that if any private person be found culpable thereof for the first time he is to be reproved privately by the Minister, the second time publicly, the third time to lie in bolts 12 hours in the House of the Provost Marshall & to pay his fees, and if he still continue in that vice, to undergo such severe punishment, as the Governor & Council of Estate shall think fit to be inflicted on him.

But if any Officer offend in this crime, the first time he shall receive a reproof from the Governor, the second time he shall openly be reproved in the Church by the minister, & the third time he shall first be committed & then degraded, provided it be understood that the Governor has always power to restore him, when he shall, in his discretion think fit;

Against excess of apparel, that every man be assessed in the Church for all public contributions; if he be unmarried according to his own apparel; if he be married, according to his own & his wives, or either of their apparel.

Converting and Educating Indians

As touching the instruction of drawing some of the better disposed of the Indians to converse with our people & to live & labour among them, the Assembly who know well their dispositions, think it fit to enjoin, at least to counsel those of the Colony neither utterly to reject them, nor yet to draw them to come in. But in case they will of themselves come voluntarily to places well peopled there to do service, in killing of deer, fishing, beating corn, & other works that then five or six may be admitted into every such place, and no more; & that with the consent of the Governor, provided that good guard in the night be kept upon them, for generally (though some amongst many may prove good) they are a most treacherous people, & quickly gone when they have done a villainy. And it were fit, a house were built for them to lodge in apart by themselves, and lone inhabitants by no means to entertain them.

Be it enacted by this present Assembly, that for laying a surer foundation of the conversion of the Indians to Christian Religion, each town, city, burrough, & particular plantation do obtain unto themselves by just means a certain number of the natives’ children to be educated by them in true Religion & civil course of life. Of which children the most toward boys in wit & graces of nature to be brought up by them in the first elements of literature, so as to be fitted for the College intended for them; that from thence [there] they may be sent to that work of conversion.

Crops and Other Products

As touching the business of planting corn, this present Assembly does ordain that year by year, all & every householder and householders, have in store for every servant whosoever they shall keep, & also for his or their own persons, whether they have any servants or none, one spare barrel of corn to be delivered out yearly either upon sale or exchange, as need shall require. For the neglect of which duty he shall be Subject to the censure of the Governor and Council of State; provided always that for the first year of every new man this Law shall not be in force.

About the plantation of Mulberry trees [for silk] be it enacted that every man, as he is seated upon his division, do for seven years together every year plant & maintain in growth six Mulberry trees at the least and as many more as he shall think convenient, & as his virtue & industry shall move him to plant, and that all such persons as shall neglect the yearly planting & maintaining of that small proportion, shall be Subject to the censure of the Governor and the Council of State;

Be it farther enacted, as concerning silk-flax that those men that are upon their division or settled habitation do this next year plant & dress 100 plants which, being found a commodity, may farther be increased. And whosoever do fail in the performance of this shall be subject to the punishment of the Governor and Council of state.

For hemp also both English and Indian, & for English flax & aniseeds, we do require & enjoin all householders of this Colony that have any of those seeds, to make trial thereof the next season.

Moreover, be it enacted by this present Assembly, that every householder do yearly plant & maintain ten vines, until they have attained to the art & experience of dressing a vineyard, either by their own industry, or by the instruction of some vigneron ; and that upon what penalty soever, the Governor & Council of State shall think fit to impose upon the neglecters of this Act.

Tradesmen and Their Pay

Be it also enacted that all necessary tradesmen, or so many as need shall require, such as are come over since the departure of Sir Thomas Dale, or that shall hereafter come shall work at their trades for any other man, each one being paid according to the quality of his trade & work, to be estimated, if he shall not be contented, by the Governor & Officers of the place where he works.

Owners, Tenants, and Servants

Be it further ordained by this General Assembly and we do by these presents enact that all contracts made in England between the owners of land & their tenants and servants which they shall send hither [here] may be caused to be duly performed, and that the offenders be punished as the Governor & Council of State shall think just & convenient.

Be it established also by this present Assembly, that no crafty or advantageous means be suffered [allowed] to be put in practice for the enticing away the tenants & servants of any particular plantation from the place where they are seated. And that it shall be the duty of the Governor & Council of State most severely to punish both the seducers & the seduced, and to return these latter into their former places.

Orders for the Magazine

Be it further enacted that the orders for the magazine [warehouse] lately made be exactly kept, & that the magazine be preserved from wrong & sinister practices & that according to the orders of court in England, all tobacco & sassafras be brought by the planters to the Cape Marchant [Cap or head Merchant] till such time as all the goods now or heretofore sent for the magazine be taken off their hands at the prices agreed on, that by this means the same going for England into one hand, the price thereof, may be upheld the better. And to the end [goal] that all the whole Colony may take notice of the last order of Court made in England, & all those whom it concerns may know how to observe it we hold it fit to publish it here for a Law among the rest of our laws, the which order is as follows.

Upon the 26 of October 1618, it was ordered that the magazine should continue during the term formerly prefixed, & that certain abuses now complained of should be reformed; and that for preventing of all impositions, save [except] the allowance of 25 in the hundred profit, the Governor shall have an invoice as well as the Cape Merchant [Cap or head Merchant] that if any abuse in the sale of the goods be offered, he upon intelligence & due examination thereof shall see it corrected.

And for the encouragement of particular hundreds [small districts], as Smyth’s Hundred, Martin’s Hundred, Lawne’s Hundred, & the like, it is agreed that what commodities are reaped upon any of their several Colonies, it shall be lawful for them to return the fame to their own adventurers, provided that the same commodity be of their own growing, without trading with any other, in one entire lump & not dispersed; and that at the determination of the joint stock the goods then remaining in the magazine shall be bought by the said particular Colonies before any other goods Which shall be sent by private men.

And it is moreover ordered that if the Lady La Warre, the Lady Dale, Captain Bargrave, & the rest, would unite themselves into a settled Colony, they might be capable of the same privileges that are granted to any of the foresaid hundreds.

Transcription ends.

There’s no doubt about it. Tobacco was king.

Once again, would you like to live under those laws?

Journal of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1619-1658/9, ed. by H. R. McIlwaine, Classic Reprint Series (orig. Richmond: 1915), pp. 8-11.

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