Laws at Jamestown


Elementary, Middle


Students will evaluate laws at Jamestown in order to understand changes that occurred in the government in 1619.

Standards of Learning:

VA SOLs: VS 1 a, e, h; VS 3 a, c, d, f
National Standards for History: Historical Analysis & Interpretation; Historical Issues & Analysis & Decision-Making

Materials Needed for Activity:

Lawes, Divine, Morall and Martiall
Laws at Jamestown – Making Decisions Worksheet
Laws from the General Assembly of Virginia – Handout

Other Helpful Resources:

Life at Jamestown – Essay
The Virginia Company of London – Essay
Company Charters and Challenges – Essay
The Great Charter and First Assembly – Essay

Teacher Background:

The first charter granted by King James I of England to the Virginia Company established a seven-man council in Virginia to carry out Company directives. Though Captain Christopher Newport had been given “sole charge and command” of all the persons aboard the three ships that set sail from England in December 1606, the Virginia Company sealed in a box the names of the seven men selected to be councilors in Virginia and expressly commanded that it not be opened until they reached their destination. This created a measure of uncertainty in the men’s minds about who would be in charge in Virginia. From the time they landed at Jamestown in 1607, lack of strong leadership was a continuing problem. Internal squabbles, deceit and death reduced this body to a mere few and finally only one by the winter of 1608-1609.

One of the lessons the Virginia Company learned during the few years of colonization in Virginia was that clear lines of authority had to be established. Investors in the Virginia Company were very unhappy with the situation as it existed so after much discussion and evaluation of the problem, they asked the king for a new charter which he granted in May 1609. This charter called for a sole governor who led with a group of appointed advisors. This governor was given extensive powers including the right to enforce martial law, if necessary. These changes were nearly too little and too late, for Jamestown was just then experiencing its “starving time.”

The first man to hold the position of governor was Sir Thomas West, Lord de la Warr, with Sir Thomas Gates as lieutenant governor. It was left to Gates to establish a strict code of laws upon his arrival in May 1610, which were later expanded under Lord de la Warr. These became known as “Laws Divine, Morall and Martiall.” They included duties and obligations of settlers as well as penalties for transgressions. Among other things, officers were required to ensure that all those under their command attended divine service twice daily, in the morning and evening, and to punish anyone who blasphemed “God’s holy name” or challenged the authority of a preacher or minister. There was to be one church, one God, and one law. No dissension would be tolerated. Sir Thomas Dale built upon this strict enforcement of law when he arrived in March 1611. Even though these laws were very harsh, many felt that extreme measures were necessary in order for the colony to have any chance of surviving.

The harsh regime was not especially attractive to potential colonists. In 1618 the leadership of the Virginia Company issued a new set of instructions, often called the Great Charter, which contained provisions designed to encourage private investment and immigration. Because the Company was concerned that the colony’s severe martial code would discourage this from occurring, it instructed the governor-elect, Sir George Yeardley, to introduce “just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people.” Subsequently, two new councils were created: a council of state, whose members were selected by the Virginia Company of London, to assist the governor in his duties, and a General Assembly that included the Council and two “burgesses” from every town, hundred, and particular plantation, “Chosen by the [free] inhabitants.” This new political structure reduced the power of the governor, who previously had been appointed for life. Under the new rules, Council decisions were made by majority vote, with the governor only casting the deciding vote in the case of a tie. The General Assembly was to be the voice of the people of Virginia, providing a check on the power of the governor and council.

Members of Virginia’s first legislative assembly gathered at Jamestown’s church on July 30, 1619. Thus began the first representative government in the European colonies. Before adjourning, the burgesses had adopted new laws for the colonists as well as regulations designed to spur economic growth.

Each of the changes that took place from 1609 to the time Virginia became a royal colony in 1624 reflected a “trial and error” approach to a very difficult situation, both economically and politically. Martial law was a temporary measure designed to bring order to a chaotic situation. Over time, the colonists were able to adapt to changing conditions and grow into self-rule from what was near-dictatorial powers of the colony’s governor.


Step 1: Review with students the harsh conditions which existed in Jamestown during the early years including “the starving time” of 1609-10 and the leadership challenges that persisted after that. Remind students that the gentlemen running the Virginia Company stayed in England and made decisions from there on how to run the colony.

Step 2: Remind students that a society’s body of laws reflects that society’s concerns and fears as well as aspirations. Ask students what is meant by “martial law”. Rule by the military. Ask why the Virginia Company instituted martial law in 1610-11. What fears and/or concerns might have prompted this? Lack of discipline among colonists; lack of work ethic; fears of trouble with native population. What hopes or aspirations might have played a part in this decision? A determination to see the colony succeed. What are some advantages and disadvantages of martial law? Advantages include maintaining order and gaining obedience from people; disadvantages include being unattractive to newcomers and harshness of rules,

Step 3: Remind students that in the next six or seven years after the implementation of martial law, the Company was working to stabilize the colony and to encourage investment and immigration. Discuss how martial law might interfere with these objectives. Tell students they are going to have an opportunity to make decisions about some of the laws at Jamestown which had existed since martial law was begun in 1609-10.

Step 4: Divide the class into six groups. Give each group a copy of two of the 12 laws included in the simplified version of the original Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, etc., compiled by William Strachey and published in England in 1612.

Step 5: Present the following scenario to the class: Scenario: You are a group of investors from the Virginia Company that has come to Jamestown to make decisions about what has to occur in order to encourage more investment and immigration to the colony. One of the things you are evaluating is the whole idea of martial law and how these laws might be affecting the colony. Your job, as a member of this group, is to consider the law you have been assigned, including the reasons for these laws in the first place and how effective they are in Virginia. Are the reasons for these laws and their effect sufficient enough to keep them as they are? Now, evaluate their impact upon people in England who may wish to invest in the colony or immigrate to the colony. You will need to make decisions about whether to keep the laws as they are or to make some changes.

Step 6: Distribute the Laws at Jamestown – Making Decisions Worksheet to each group. Members should try to reach consensus and assign a member to report out for the group.

Step 7: After groups have completed their worksheet, have them report on their discussions, decision and recommendations. If possible, have the class reach consensus on what recommendations should be made to the Virginia Company in London.

Step 8: After students have completed their work, share with them that the Virginia Company issued new instructions in 1618 which changed the governance from strict martial law to a more representative type of government. These instructions, later called “The Great Charter”, and the meeting of the general assembly at Jamestown laid the foundation for the U.S. Constitution many years later.

Summary Activity:

Pass out the Laws from the General Assembly of Virginia handout, and review some of the laws passed by the first General Assembly in 1619. Ask students how their recommendations compare with these laws. Were they similar or different? If so, how?

Lesson plans made possible by Archibald Andrews Marks.