Jamestown Interpretive Essays

Jamestown Statehouse: Phases of Development


Images of Statehouse at Different Phases of Development



            Many statehouses have quartered the General Assembly of Virginia throughout its long history. In 1619, John Pory, the self-styled speaker of the first General Assembly, identified its original home at Jamestown when he recorded that “the most convenient place we could find to sit in was the Quire of the churche.” The choir space was roomy enough to accommodate of the governor-general, his councillors, and the burgesses, all of whom sat together as one body, and the little frame church lodged the fledgling legislature for another two decades. Convening in sacred space also reinforced a connection between Divine inspiration and lawmaking. An Anglican priest, who preached at the opening of assembly sessions, invariably recalled that sturdy link for his hearers, who, like him, saw God’s hand in all their daily life and work.


            By the 1630s the choir became less suitable. As the population spread outward from Jamestown there were more settlements. More settlements meant more voters, more voters sent more burgesses to Jamestown, and more burgesses cramped the church whenever the General Assembly came to town. Then too, the church vestry undertook the raising of a larger, more commodious brick edifice, and while construction was under way, the assembly could not meet in the church. Evicting the assembly also pleased some parishioners who chafed at mixing the sacred with the profane. Governor Sir John Harvey tried to provide a permanent, purpose built building when he cajoled the councillors and burgesses to join him in voting taxes to erect a “State howse.” Harvey left office before any work began, and what to do next fell to his succesor, Sir Francis Wyatt.


            Wyatt chose not to engage contractors for the new building. Instead he seized another opportunity that unexpectedly presented itself after ex-governor Harvey went bankrupt. Harvey was in desperate need of ready money to clear his debts, and he disposed of his belongings on the best terms he could. One of his most attractive assets was his private residence and its outbuildings, which sat in the New Town quarter of the little metropolis. He offered it to the provincial, and after a round of hard bargaining, Wyatt and the General Assembly purchased the property with the “State howse” funds and converted it into a capitol.


            Owing to the destruction of the relevant paperwork, exactly how the former Harvey buildings accommodated the provincial government is largely mysterious. For certain, a tenement lodged the governor and council when they met in executives sessions or sat as the colony’s highest judicial body— the General Court. The tenement also doubled as the meeting place for the James City County. Evidently, parts of the residence were meant for use as a town hall, a record office for the secretary of the colony, and a chamber for the General Assembly and its committees.


            The assembly’s uses of its space underwent significant modification after 1643. Governor Sir William Berkeley encouraged the burgesses who attended the General Assembly of March 1642/43  to sit apart as a House of Burgesses, and for the first time in its existence, the body became a bicameral legislature. This lone structural change led to a fundamental reconfiguration of the assembly’s meeting space because a single room that held the governor, councillors, and burgesses sufficed no longer. Now the house needed a place of its own where it could debate unhindered and in secret. The clerk of the house had to have an office too. Again, the lack of records clouds how Harvey’s house was tailored to these new spatial requirements. Perhaps Governor Berkeley and the Council of State used the tenement as their legislative chamber. Perhaps too Sir William planned a new capitol compound, as King Charles I had commanded, but if so, nothing in his known papers reveals that he did.


            Fire destroyed the Harvey complex around 1655, and for nearly a decade, during which time the two houses of the General Assembly met in separate buildings. Thus, when Sir William Berkeley was recalled to office in 1660, the burgesses petitioned him to take “into his care the building of a state-house” and voted funds for him to hire the necessary workers. That plea got lost in the shuffle that came with the restoration of royal authority in the colony Berkeley’s sojourn in London in the spring of 1661.


            Berkeley lobbied the crown in behalf of Virginia’s interests for more than a year. When he sailed westward for the Old Dominion in September 1662, he carried new instructions from King Charles II. Once home, he recalled the General Assembly of March 1660/61–March 1675/76 to implement those royal orders that required legislative enactment. One such commanded the erection of towns across the colony, and it became the basis of the town act of December 1662 (Hening, Statutes at Large, 2: 172-176). That statute inspired what may be styled the earliest flirtation with urban renewal in North America because it called forth a plan to revitalize Jamestown before any other towns were built. To that purpose, Berkeley engaged John Underhill, a York County justice of the peace and an experienced land surveyor, to lay out the new town site on an unused tract that lay north and slightly west of the church. There would rise the first of thirty-two brick houses, all built to the same specifications and all paid for either by private developers or the county courts. Almost as soon the General Assembly recessed, sawyers started cutting logs and fashioning them into joists, rafters, flooring, and other timbering. Brick makers fired their kilns to produce thousands of bricks and roofing tiles, while limeburners and brick masons gathered materials for mortar. Teams of workers and draft animals were rounded up too. Work began in earnest in the spring of 1663. By fall four so-called “county houses” neared completion. Each rose to a height of 18 feet from ground level. Enclosing an inside area of 40  by 20 feet, each was laid end to end so that the four formed a range that ran eastward from the shore of the James River. (Four additional houses of similar dimensions that shared their forty-foot walls with the original dwellings were put up at a later time.)


            When the General Assembly reconvened in September 1663, it appropriated thirty thousand pounds of tobacco, plus “what ever more it shall amount to next yeare,” as incentives to Governor Berkeley to project a statehouse “of such dimensions [as he] shall find Convenient for the Reception of Generall Courts and Assemblyes and accommodation of the Committees.” By design, this new building would fulfill the spatial requirements of a bicameral legislature. There would be separate chambers for the Council of State and the House of Burgesses, where each could deliberate privately, and in the case of the council, where it also could hear cases when it acted as the General Court. Committees, the clerk of the house, the secretary of the colony would all get office space too, and possibly the governor as well. However he apportioned the rooms, Berkeley integrated the statehouse into the existing brick complex. Thus, the new building stood 18 feet high, was 20 feet wide, and 74 feet long, and it shared a twenty-foot party wall with the easternmost county house.


            Work on the statehouse proceeded speedily enough for it to be occupied by the spring of 1665. Costs associated with defending Virginia during the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1664-1667) slowed construction, but by the early 1670s the job was finally done. The completed statehouse fulfilled its purpose for only short time before it was ravaged by fire in 1676 when the rebel Nathaniel Bacon torched Jamestown during the rebellion that bears his name.


            As the embers cooled there was talk of moving the capital from Jamestown to a site across the York River in the vicinity of the modern community of Gloucester Point, but Jamestonians mustered enough clout in the General Assembly to kill legislation for that purpose. Rebuilding the statehouse, and all of Jamestown, was long in coming, and the assembly reverted to the old habit of sitting in taverns or private residences. The reason for the slow pace of recovery was grounded more in politics than anything else. With Governor Berkeley no longer in the picture, and an aggressive crown determined to rein in the General Assembly, reconstruction fell prisoner to the tugging between governor and legislature that became commonplace in the decades after 1676. Governor Francis Howard, 5th baron Howard of Effingham tried unsuccessfully to coax the assembly into providing him with an official residence at public expense. He had rather better luck in expediting repairs to the statehouse. In 1684, with his blessing, “Articles between his Excellency and the Speaker in behalfe of the Generall Assembly And the Honorable Collo. Phillip Ludwell [were drafted] for the Rebuilding the state house.”


            Within eighteen months, Ludwell finished repairs to a ground floor chamber and an upstairs room. The chamber could hold the House of Burgesses, but the upper room was too tiny for the Council of State. Besides, the burgesses wanted the latter space for their clerk. Effingham and his councillors balked, which soured relations with the burgesses who were already embittered towards the governor. Relations worsened after a subsequent, highly contentious dust-up over the wording of a bill to create more towns in the colony. Effingham blamed Ludwell as one of the arch troublemakers, and so he dismissed his enemy from all offices. That dismissal left the reconstruction of the statehouse in limbo until the assembly gave the job to Henry Hartwell in 1686.


            The work dragged on into the mid-1690s before the statehouse returned to a semblance of its condition before Nathaniel Bacon set the town afire. Sadly, the restored capitol lasted but a short while. On 20 October 1698, fire gutted it once more. This time there would be no effort at restoration. At the urging of Governor Francis Nicholson the General Assembly voted to move the seat of government elsewhere, and in 1699 Williamsburg became the new capital of Virginia.


            The story of the Jamestown statehouses is an important and fascinating one in it own right. However, its significance pales when compared to the story of what happened within the walls of those buildings. That tale has to do with what is arguably the most enduring legacy of Jamestown—the rise of popular government. No one who backed the Virginia venture in 1606 anticipated such a result, nor did the colonists who sailed on Susan Constant, Godspeed, or Discovery expect to rule themselves. The General Assembly itself was meant to be nothing more than a corporate appendage that would help the Virginia Company of London salvage its colonial operation. Fate intervened, and in the eight decades between the first session of the assembly and its last, the members slowly turned a management device into a little parliament. As successive governors, councillors, and burgesses addressed the needs of the moment, they learned the arts and mysteries of power, and the uses to which power could be put for good or for ill. Those lessons resulted less from “landmark decisions” but rather more from the routines of making laws in the interests of those the members represented. Thus, the statehouse bore witness to how, by twists and turns, the mundane workings of the General Assembly wove an important strand in the American tradition of self-governance.


            After Jamestown was abandoned, the land reverted entirely to private hands, and during the eighteenth century, the remnants of the public buildings were pulled down for their bricks, which were recycled into fences, walkways, and private houses in near by sections of James City County. Within a matter of decades, traces of the statehouse complex disappeared beneath the ground, where they lay more or less untouched until the end of the nineteenth century. Not long after the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities acquired title to the portion of Jamestown Island that contained the church tower ruin, a pioneer historic sites archaeologist and army engineer, Colonel Samuel H. Yonge, set about trying to locate the statehouse foundations. His search for clues in the documentary record was severely hampered because fire, war, and carelessness destroyed all but a small portion of the provincial archives. Nevertheless, Yonge used what leads he could find and dug in what seemed the likeliest of locations. He soon unearthed a large block of foundations. To his eye four of them appeared to fit the specifications of the town act of 1662, whereas a fifth seemed a likely candidate for the statehouse, so he termed them collectively, “the Ludwell Statehouse Group.”


            Yonge’s deductions were not unassailable because he could reconcile all of the disparities between clues he found in the documentary evidence and those he picked out of the ground. During the 1930s, and again in the 1950s, archaeologists better trained than Yonge wrestled with the problem, but achieved results no more conclusive than his. The combination of recent documentary recoveries and archaeological investigations have filled in blanks that earlier scholars could not. As a result the preponderance of the known evidence supports the conclusion that Yonge’s original findings were correct.


Suggestions for further reading:

Warren M. Billings. A Little Parliament: The Virginia General Assembly in the Seventeenth Century. Richmond, 2004.

Warren M. Billings. Sir William Berkeley and the Forging of Colonial Virginia. Baton Rouge, 2004.

Cary Carson, et al. “Description and Analysis of Structure 144, Jamestown Virginia: Report to APVA Jamestown Rediscovery.” Williamsburg, 2002.

William M. Kelso and Beverly Straube. Jamestown Rediscovery, 1999-2004. Richmond, 2004.

William Waller Hening, ed. The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, facsimile edition. Charlottesville, 1969, originally published at Richmond, New York, and Philadelphia, 1809–1823.

John Pendleton Kennedy and H. R. McIlwaine, eds., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Colonial Virginia, 1619–1658/59; 1659/60–1693. Richmond, 1914–1915.




Crandall ShifflettŠ 1999, 2000