Established in 1607, Jamestown was the first permanent British colony in America. But it nearly didn’t survive. The fact it did, is due in large part to Sir George Yeardley, a military man, social reformer – and one of the first English slaveholders in the colonies. Archaeologists now think they’ve discovered his remains.
Barely 60 people survived the winter of 1609 at Jamestown. Hundreds had died of starvation or were picked off by Powhatan Indians if they ventured beyond the walls of the settlement.
By the time relief arrived in 1610, conditions were so dire that some of the settlers had resorted to cannibalism. Sir Thomas Gates, who headed the first rescue mission, was so appalled by the suffering he decided to evacuate the colony and head for Newfoundland where he hoped to find passage back to England.
But as they waited for the tide to turn, a longboat was spotted coming towards them. It was an advance party of another expedition headed by Lord De La Warr consisting of three ships, 150 colonists and enough food to last a year. It also carried Captain George Yeardley, who was to have such an impact on the future of America.
Much to their distress, the Jamestown survivors were ordered back to the fort and Yeardley was one of the commanders in charge of imposing martial law to keep order.
“Things couldn’t have been worse. But Yeardley and Gates turned it around,” says historian and author Jim Horn, President of Jamestown Rediscovery, which manages the historic site.
Yeardley returned to England in 1616 and two years later was appointed Captain General and Lord Governor of Virginia. He arrived back at Jamestown in April 1619 with instructions to transform the colony from a military regime to a civil society in an effort to attract more settlers.
“The Virginia Company (which controlled the colony) wanted a society that was an improvement on England,” says Dr Horn author of an upcoming book, 1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy.
“There would be work for all and everyone would have a role and a place in society – even Indian people, which was quite progressive for the time. It was a Christian commonwealth that included the Powhatan Indians and it was Sir George Yeardley’s task to implement those Great Reforms.”
Private property was extended to white males, the rule of law based on the English judicial system was introduced and representative government established the principle of consent by the governed. Support for the Church of England was another key component.
“I think he was a very intelligent man, but he was also clearly someone on the make,” says Dr Horn.
“In Virginia at this time you could make a fortune from tobacco if you had the resources to acquire land and labour. In 1619, around the time of the General Assembly (which introduced the Great Reforms) the first enslaved Africans arrived in the colony and Sir George became one of the largest English slave owners. They remained in his family for half a century.”
The story of America’s earliest democratic experiment and the beginnings of slavery is often eclipsed by the arrival of the Plymouth Rock pilgrims in 1620 and the Massachusetts pilgrims a decade later.
“But American society begins here at Jamestown. This is the place where private property was established and the rule of law and representative government. All those things were critical to the future of early America, and tragically, the development of slavery in this country.
“Racism did not develop out of the Civil War; it did not develop out of the great migrations of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. It was already well established in this country and reaches back over 400 years. We had this canker at the heart of the democratic experiment and that is something important for people to know.”
That’s why the discovery of the remains of Sir George Yeardley – if indeed they are his – is so significant.
The grave is located in what was the middle aisle of one of the first churches at Jamestown. Another church was built on top but the position indicates a high status burial. It is one of hundreds of graves of early colonists but a monumental tombstone, discovered in the early 1900s, and other records directed archaeologists from Jamestown Rediscovery to this particular site.
Ground-penetrating radar confirmed the presence of a skeleton of the right age and build for Yeardley who died in 1627 aged about 40.
DNA taken from teeth and bones and matched against his known living descendants will help confirm – or disprove his identity. Tests are being carried out by the FBI and Professor Turi King, a geneticist at the University of Leicester who helped identify the remains of King Richard III found under a city car park in 2012.
Only fragments of the skull were found in the grave but DNA can also be extracted from teeth and Professor King believes she has enough material to work with.
The results could take several months but should be available in time for next year’s 400th Anniversary of Sir George Yeardley’s Great Reforms and the first General Assembly which introduced them.