VI.  Government

 

1.  Introduction.  In this section, I will explore how government evolved in the Northern Neck during the 1600s and 1700s.  I will identify, where known, those of my ancestors, listed in the tables in Section I, Introduction, who participated in government.

 

2.  Development.   Government in the Northern Neck seems to have started with the Church of England parish system, soon after the first English immigrants arrived in the mid-1600s.  With the parishes, came the establishment of vestries (like a board of directors) with responsibilities in the governing of the parish affairs.  Vestry members usually would be selected from the most economically well-off in the community and would always be men.  The parish affairs were quite broad, much more than just the running of a religious community; much broader than vestry affairs in today’s churches.  The responsibilities included: taking care of the poor and disabled; maintaining community facilities, such as roads and streams; and law and order. Basically, the responsibilities, other than religious affairs, included much of what governments eventually would be expected to handle.

 

As parish populations grew, with increasing immigration, and with more resources needed, a county governmental system evolved.  This is not surprising, as such a system existed in England, and the English immigrants would be quite familiar with English county functioning.  At the center of the county system is the courthouse community (see Section V, Property, Subsection 4, Courthouses for locations of the five Northern Neck courthouse communities, one for each county that eventually came to exist in the Northern Neck).

 

Initially, the whole of the Northern Neck, when a county system was enacted, consisted of one county, called Northumberland.  This did not last long, because growth in populations needed changes in government.  With increasing numbers of people, more resources were needed, as well as an effective system of allocating those resources, and breaking a large county into smaller ones was the approach taken.  Northumberland came into existence in 1648, and then: Lancaster, 1651; Westmoreland, 1653; Stafford, 1664, out of which came the remaining two counties of the Northern Neck – Richmond (1692) and King George (1720).

 

As mentioned in Section II, Demographics, Subsection 3, Immigration, an early group of settlers immigrated (in the 1640s) from Maryland to the south bank area of the Potomac River.  This group seems to me to have been made up of talented individuals, with shared values, who preceded to create the conditions for evolving a community possessing strong sustaining qualities necessary for long-term community success.  By success, I mean a community with strong voluntary participation, seeking welfare for the whole community, which I believe did occur in the group that came from Maryland.  Individuals in this group were Englishmen, and as Englishmen, knew and experienced the county system; but more than that, they had the skills to make the system eventually work well, starting from scratch.  This I think is a remarkable accomplishment, and accounts immeasurably for America’s success as a colony-to-nation experiment, when so many such experiments (for example, other communities on America’s east coast) failed to prosper.

 

Perhaps what this group experienced in Maryland, under Lord Baltimore’s governance, was authoritarianism, or some other defect, which was one of the reasons the group rebelled and left for the Northern Neck.  And perhaps that is why the group was motivated to proceed in the way it did - to develop the community it did, after arriving in the Northern Neck.

 

3.  Responsibilities.   Going from the 1600s to the 1700s, as populations increased, county government responsibilities continued to increase, with the size of government increasing.  New responsibilities included: tobacco industry oversight; road development and maintenance; river navigation oversight; and export/import regulations.   Road development and maintenance became a major county government responsibility with a scope previously unknown, as new, needed roads became indispensable.  New technologies were developing in road building and maintenance, such as using wood.   Also used as road covering were oyster shells, which were in large abundance due to the abundance of oysters in the waterways around the Northern Neck.   Large piles of oyster shells, accumulated over long periods by the Indians and their consumption of oysters, were present, and possibly represented an important readily-available resource.

 

As these new needs for government were evolving, public views on the needs and involvement of government likely was evolving.  These increased needs met increased burdens on the population through increased taxes.  So, beginning at around this time, in the Northern Neck and elsewhere, we likely see debates beginning on the role of government that have continued to the present.

 

As the Northern Neck counties grew, principally due to the farming industry, land-related complaints and disputes became numerous.  Addressing these became a critical role of the court system, a major part of the county government.  In addition to the adjudicating of land disputes, the court system also had such responsibilities as: picking local leaders; maintaining social order and morality; maintaining a system for orderly transfer of property; and raising taxes.  The court system’s capacity to meet these responsibilities were limited in the 1600s but increased significantly in the 1700s.

 

Complicating the court’s ability to resolve land-related disputes and oversee land ownership transfers was the status of the Northern Neck as a proprietary (Northern Neck land ownership granted by Charles II to fellow English men, who supported his restoration to power – see the above Section V, Property, Subsection 2, Land Ownership, for more on this proprietary arrangement).  Another court problem was lack of sufficient enforcement capacities to ensure its rulings were carried out.

 

As mentioned below, those occupying parish and government positions came from the wealthier land-owning classes (e.g., those in Class Level one and two, explained in Section IV, Culture, Subsection 2, Class Structure).  Some form of voting likely took place, even from the mid-1600s, to select these position occupants.  Those allowed to vote would evolve over time but with restrictions as to who could vote; restrictions that would include land ownership, race, gender, and religion. Voting during the 1700s was considered a privilege (and only for the privileged) and not a right.  Obviously, major changes in voting rights have occurred, coming forward to the present day. 

 

The implications of one’s vote, especially when considered collectively, i.e., the sum of everyone’s vote, are inseparable from attempts of achieving equality and justice for all.  Good, proper government is necessary for such attempts to be successful, and I believe the beginning of good, proper government can be found in Northern Neck county government evolution of the 1600s and 1700s, evidence by evolving changes and who was allowed to vote.

 

Taxes began almost immediately following the establishment of county governments in the middle 1600s.  Tax was imposed on each adult worker (greater than age 15) within a family unit.  This tax, called the tithable tax, would continue into the 1700s.  For example, in Lancaster County, in 1716, there were 314 taxpayers (family units).  These family units would include, as taxable: any slaves of working age; indentured servants under contract to the family; and adult children.  Of these 314 families, the following data exists:  113 families paid only one tithable; 94 families paid 2; 37 families paid 3; 22 families paid 4; 13 families paid 5; and 35 families paid more than 5. This data indicates that at least 775 adult workers (greater than age 15) existed in Lancaster County in 1716.  The 775 number assumes that for the 35 family units with more than 5 workers each family unit had 6, which is obviously too low (the correct number is not given in the county data).  So there must have been more than 775 adult workers in Lancaster County in 1716.

 

 Land was also taxed.

 

Poor requiring assistance existed.  Although initially churches provided any support available for the poor, by the late 1700s, county governments had taken over much of this responsibility.  Facilities (e.g., alms houses) and other support were available.

 

4.  County Positions.   Holding county government positions was considered an honor, a symbol for being well-respected in the community, and county residents aspired to such positions.  Until the late 1700s, as with Church of England parish vestries, only the most well-off, from largest land-holding families, usually obtained such positions.   Often the same families would supply the holders of these positions generation after generation.  Such positions included: commissioner; sheriff; justice of the peace; coroner; and surveyor of the roads.

 

My ancestors, those in the tables in Section I, Introduction, who held such positions included:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A commissioner in the 1600s would likely have ultimate authority in a county, possibly with other commissioners, for county government actions.  The term commissioner of the peace could be used at times.  Counties would have more than one commissioner, possibly 12, who would meet at least monthly.

 

A magistrate in the 1600s would likely have authority for judicial affairs related to county laws and regulations.  Magistrate roles could overlap with justice of the peace roles and the terms might be used interchangeably.

 

A justice of the peace in the 1600s and 1700s had various roles, including insuring an orderly community, county adherence to Colony laws, judging unlawful acts, and mediating disputes.  Justice of the peace roles could overlap with magistrate roles and the terms might be used interchangeably.  Justices should have had some knowledge and understanding of the law.

 

Sheriffs in the 1600s and 1700s had several functions (that could vary from county to county) related to assisting the judicial system, arresting and bringing people to trial, supervising the prison system, enforcing and collecting taxes.  The sheriff position starting developing in the late 1600s. Occasionally the term constable might be used instead of sheriff

 

Coroners in the 1600s and 1700s investigated the causes of death, documented deaths, and maintained related records.

 

Roads Surveyor (or Surveyor of the Roads) had responsibility for ensuring adequate county roads.

 

The pattern of only those from the largest land-holding families being elected to county (and colony) positions began to change in the latter part of the 1700s.  A possible factor accounting for this was the fervent being caused by the Virginia Colony friction with England over English rule of the colonies.  The fervent might have lead to wide-spread views that the largest land-owning families were too loyal to England.  An example of this would be the election of John Cralle, Jr. (Cralle is an ancestor name) to the Northumberland County government committee.  John  owned 170 acres, based on 1782 land tax records, and was not in the large land-owing class.  Officer selection in the county militia also began to go to others than those from the largest land-owning families.

 

5.  Colony Positions.   In addition to county-level government positions, positions at the colony-level were also aspired to.  Such positions included: House of Burgesses; Virginia Council; committee appointments; and 1776 Convention delegates.   Ancestors listed in the tables in Section I, Introduction, who held such positions include:

 

 

House of Burgesses

Walter Broadhurst (1618-1658)

John Carter (1613-1669)

John Champe, Jr. (1698-1763)

David Fox (1650-1702)

Richard Kenner (1635-1692)

Rodham Kenner (1671-1706)

John Mottrom (1610-1655)

John Washington (1631-1677)

 

Governor’s Council

William Ball (1615-1680)

Joseph Ball (1649-1711)

John Carter (1613-1669)

Robert Carter (1663-1732)

David Fox (1650-1702)

John Washington (1631-1677)

 

     Acting Deputy Governor

Robert Carter (1663-1732)

 

Committee Overseeing Trade with England

John Cralle (1724-1778)

 

1776 Fifth Virginia Convention

John Cralle (1724-1778)

 

 

Members of the House of Burgesses were elected by counties and had the function of legislating for the Virginia Colony.  In order to vote, one had to own land.  In the 1750s in Northumberland County, there were approximately 400 voters out of a population believed to be about 6,000. This proportion of voters to population size was likely fairly similar from county to county.  The House of Burgesses was one of two bodies, the other being the Governor’s Council, making up the Virginia Colony General Assembly.  The House of Burgesses was transformed into the House of Delegates after independence from England in 1776 and continues today as a Virginia legislative body.

 

The Governor’s Council (also known as The Council and The Council of State) was a group of 12 prominent men, appointed by the English monarchy, with the function of advising the governor and lieutenant governor.  The Council also served as a court in certain issues, the highest count in the Colony.  The Council was considered to be one half of the Virginia Colony General Assembly, with the other half being the House of Burgesses.  The Council was in existence from the early 1600s to 1776.  Appointments were for life.  The Council would make recommendations for sheriffs, militia officers, justices and other county appointments.  Such a system perpetuated the holding of county positions by family members and the most prominent (wealthiest) families.

 

From the above two paragraphs, a conclusion is that a very small number (proportionate to the population size) of wealthy men ruled Virginia during the 1600s and into the mid-1700s.

 

The Committee Overseeing Trade with England is believed to have been a County committee overseeing Northumberland trade with England.  Many Virginia counties set up such committees in 1774.

 

The 1776 Fifth Virginia Convention was the last of five conventions held in the 1774 to 1776 time period to consider Virginia’s response to various events happening in all the colonies related to the independence from England.  The fifth convention declared Virginia an independent state and produced Virginia’s first constitution and the Virginia Declaration of Rights.  Each Virginia county sent one delegate to the Fifth Convention.  John Cralle was Northumberland County’s delegate.

 

These 1770s conventions were critical in establishing a transitional period of governance between the Virginia Colony, under the rule of a foreign power – England, and a newly established, independent state – Virginia.  The conventions created a foundation of governance upon which the Virginia State system could and did build.

ancestor government position table
position
ancestor
dates
commissioner
John Washington (1631-1677)
1600s
commissioner
Nathaniel Pope (1603-1660)
1600s
coroner
David Fox (1650-1702)
1600s
coroner
John Washington (1631-1677)
1600s
justice of the peace
David Fox (1650-1702)
1600s
justice of the peace
John Claughton (1659-1726)
1600s
justice of the peace
William Ball (1610-1680)
1600s
justice of the peace
John Cralle (1660-1728)
1600s
justice of the peace
Richard Kenner (1635-1692)
1600s
justice of the peace
Clement Spilman (1620-1677)
1600s
justice of the peace
Augustine Washington (1694-1743)
1700s
justice of the peace
Joseph Ball (1694-1711)
1700s
justice of the peace
John Cralle (1724-1778)
1700s
magistrate
Nathaniel Pope (1603-1660)
1600s
magistrate
Thomas Matthew (1630-1703)
1600s
naval officer
John Washington (1631-1677)
1600s
sheriff
David Fox (1650-1702)
1600s
sheriff
Augustine Washington (1694-1743)
1700s
sheriff
Richard Claughton (1693-1773)
1700s
sheriff
John Champe, Jr. (1698-1763)
1700s
surveyor of the roads
John Cralle (1660-1728)
1600s
surveyor of the roads
John Cralle (1724-1778)
1700s
collector of taxes
John Cralle (1660-1728)
1600s