Settlers of Jamestown
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Jamestown settlers with weapons, circa 1607. The first man to be sentenced to death among the colonists was killed by a firing squad.

The seven original councillors of what would soon become the colony of Jamestown, Virginia, had voyaged for four long months between Great Britain and the New World. After nearly three weeks of looking, they chose the land for their new settlement of over 100 people on a swampy island in what is today the James River. Among them were two men at odds with one another: their president, Captain Edward Maria Wingfield, and young Captain George Kendall.

Less than two years after his arrival in the country, Kendall would be executed—though for which crime remained somewhat of a mystery.

The island was isolated and cramped, with limited water and swathes of mosquitos. Rather than vast fortunes of silver and gold, the settlers instead found hostile Native Americans, sickness and discord. Kendall got to work building fortifications on the island out of “boughs of tree cast together in a half-moon,” but tensions were brewing as supplies dwindled. Eventually, writes Frank E. Grizzard in his history of the colony, Kendall was “voted off the council, arrested and confined” to their ship.

In the meantime, others in the group were plotting to overthrow their elected president. Wingfield was eventually ejected and replaced, and Kendall was allowed to leave the ship, if he agreed not to carry a weapon. Even a new leader couldn’t dissipate the rising disharmony among the men, however. When James Read, a blacksmith, attempted to strike their new president, he was sentenced to death—but managed to escape almost with the noose around his neck by revealing that Kendall had hatched a plan with the deposed Wingfield to carry out a mutiny. Kendall was thus tried, condemned and killed by a firing squad.

But the story was more complicated than that. The death penalty was not a common punishment for mutiny: after all, the others embroiled in the plot had all been spared. Kendall seems to have been a man of rank and influence, writes the historian Philip L. Barbour. He was at once a genuine threat and above being hanged like a common criminal. A curious reference to “heinous matters” in the men’s accounts reveals the truth: Kendall was up to something far more serious than simple mutiny—he had double-crossed not just his leader, but his entire country, as a spy for the Spanish.

Francisco Maguel, an Irishman, was with the men when Kendall died and travelled to America with them, Barbour explains. Speaking to the Irish archbishop on his return, Maguel told them how the English had tried a man “because they learned that he had tried to get to Spain in order to reveal to His Majesty all about this country and many plans of the English.” This treason, if accurate, would have more than warranted the death penalty, even if Kendall’s high rank got him out of a common hanging.

Kendall earned himself a place in history as the first known person to be sentenced to the Western death penalty in what is today the United States. For centuries, he has been little more than a footnote in textbooks—until 1996, when archaeologists found the skeleton of a young white man buried in the walls of the original fort in Jamestown. The person had been shot multiple times, and buried in a coffin, suggesting a person of status. Could this have been Kendall?

Four years after Kendall’s execution, Virginia’s governor codified the death penalty by law. All sorts of crimes carried this punishment, from fraternizing with Native Americans to stealing fruit or killing chickens without permission. For the next two centuries, public hangings became commonplace in the state and across the country more generally.

But in the 19th century, the tide began to turn. In a small number of states, starting with Pennsylvania, the death penalty was abolished either entirely or for all crimes except treason. (Kendall, therefore, would not have been safe.) The last two centuries have seen even more states shifting in their allegiance to the death penalty, adjusting over the years to court rulings and changing political climates.

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