Jamestown, Virginia, was the first permanent English settlement in North America. It also was the site of the first labor strike on this continent – a strike for voting rights that the workers won on or about July 21, 1619.
And 1619 proved to be a watershed year in at least two other ways – the arrival of the first Africans, who came against their will, and the beginning of an influx of English women recruited to be wives to male settlers.
The story begins several years earlier. The Virginia Company of London founded Jamestown in 1607, but Capt. John Smith and other leaders soon recognized that this first contingent of English settlers did not have enough skills to thrive and prosper. In 1608, the Virginia Company began recruiting and sending skilled craftsmen and artisans from Central and Eastern Europe – mostly Poles and Germans – to help out in Jamestown. Their skills included making pitch, tar, resin, soap ashes, glass and other products needed both in the colony and for profitable commercial export.
Then, in April 1619, England sent George Yeardley to be the first royal governor or the Virginia colony. The settlers prepared to elect their first House of Burgesses (forerunner of today’s Virginia General Assembly), but voting rights were granted only to land-owning men of English origin, ages 17 and over.
Angered, the Central and Eastern European workers went on strike. The colony’s English leaders relented, and the Virginia Company recorded the following on July 21, 1619: “Upon some dispute of the Polonians resident in Virginia, it was now agreed (not withstanding any former order to contrary) that they shallbe enfranchized, and made as free as any inhabitant there whatsoever …” What’s more, their skills were recognized as so valuable that the settlement called for the craftsmen to teach “some young men … for the benefitt of the Country hereafter.”
With the strike settled, the election proceeded. And on July 30, 1619, the colonial House of Burgesses convened its first session in the Jamestown church.
While the 1619 election and convening of the first legislature marked the roots of democracy in America, an event occurred just a few weeks later that has continued to undermine our nation’s ideals about freedom through the present day. In late August 1619, the first 20 Africans – stolen from a Portuguese slave ship by English privateers – were brought to Virginia aboard a ship called the White Lion, first to Point Comfort (now part of the city of Hampton) and then on to Jamestown and sold in exchange for food.
The year 1619 also figures prominently in the histories of women and of tobacco.
A few English women had trickled into Virginia starting in 1608 but, according to Encyclopedia Virginia, “The colonists at Jamestown hoped to recreate in Virginia the patriarchal social structure they had known in England, where a man had authority over his wife and all dependent members of his household.”
Encyclopedia Virginia continues: “In 1619, officials of the Virginia Company of London decided to recruit respectable women to, as Company treasurer Sir Edwin Sandys put it, ‘make wifes to the inhabitants and by that meanes to make the men there more setled and lesse moveable.’ Married landowners, as heads of households with authority over their wives and children, would add stability to life in the colony. Their wives would work in the home, produce food in their gardens, and raise children. Ninety ‘younge, handsome and honestly educated maydes’ were shipped to the colony in 1620. In 1621, the Virginia Company sent fifty-seven marriageable women between the ages of fifteen and twenty-eight.”
The encyclopedia entry adds: “A wife procured in this manner cost 120 pounds of tobacco per head—six times the cost of a male indentured servant.”
“Jamestown Colony: A Political, Social, and Cultural History,” by Frank E. Grizzard Jr. And D. Boyd Smith (pages 171-2, subsection on “Polish Workers).
“Polish artisans strike for the right to vote, Jamestown, Virginia, 1619,” Global Nonviolent Action Database.
“First Poles Arrive,” Southeastern Virginia Historical Marker