Archaeologists in Jamestown, Virginia, have discovered a skeleton that may belong to the man who helped establish two major institutions—representative government and slavery—in the English colonies nearly 400 years ago.
That man was Sir George Yeardley, the three-time governor of the Virginia Colony. In the summer of 1619, he carried out orders from the Virginia Company to unite its settlements “under Equal and like Law and orders.” That same summer, Africans arrived in the Virginia Colony for the first time to live under unequal and different law and orders. Yeardley purchased and enslaved some of them, making him one of the first slaveholders in the English colonies.
Researchers from Jamestown Rediscovery and the Smithsonian still need to perform tests on the skeleton before they can say whether it belongs to Yeardley, and this could take months. Turi King, the geneticist and archaeologist who helped identify remains of Richard III in a parking lot in 2012, told The Washington Post she’ll help track down living relatives of Yeardley to see if there’s a DNA match-up.
Archaeologists first discovered the skeleton with a mostly intact body and a missing skull. Luckily, archaeologist Mary Anna Hartley found 10 teeth at the gravesite that could provide valuable DNA and diet information. She and her colleagues matched this up with pieces of a jaw and skull previously discovered at the site.
The skeleton was in a prominent spot in a Jamestown church graveyard, suggesting it belonged to someone of Yeardley’s importance. As governor, Yeardley established the first elected representatives in the English colonies.
Beginning in 1619, each Virginia settlement elected two “burgesses,” or delegates, to represent it in legislative session with Governor Yeardley and the governor’s Council (a group of wealthy, prominent settlers). Together, the governor, Council and elected burgesses formed the first General Assembly of Virginia. In 1643, the General Assembly split into two parts: the governor and Council formed the “upper” house and the elected representatives formed the “lower” house, known as the House of Burgesses.
During the same summer that Yeardley granted new political power to white male voters, he deprived kidnapped people from West-Central Africa of their liberty and freedom. Even though Virginia didn’t yet have laws sanctioning slavery, Yeardley purchased and enslaved some of these people who’d unwillingly left the modern-day country of Angola. This helped establish American chattel slavery, which lasted for nearly 250 years.
News about the possible discovery of Yeardley’s bones arrives as the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation prepares to commemorate the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ arrival in the English colonies. In addition, the 2019 commemoration will recognize the first elected representatives for white male settlers and other developments in 1619.