Enquiries to the Governor of Virginia

Back in England, those appointed to supervise the colonies often wrote to governors to learn about the various colonies’ structure, affairs, etc. In 1670, these supervisors wrote to Virginia’s governor to inquire about the colonies government.


The King appointed a “Council on Foreign Plantations” that supervised all of the colonies. In 1670 these Councillors—great lords—in England wrote to Governor William Berkeley of Virginia, who was governor for more than 37 years in total. He wrote back to them in 1671 with his answers.

What kinds of concerns does that council have? What can you learn from Berkeley’s answers? What does this document tell you about the power of the British empire? About local governance? Look at question #15. How many colonists? How many “Christian servants”? How many “black slaves”? In response to Question #23, Berkeley expresses very strong opinions about education. What are Berkeley’s opinions about printing presses? And education? Why, do you think?

 Holly Brewer

Further Reading
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Inquiry 1st: What counsells, Assemblies, and Courts of Judicature are within your government, and of what nature and kinde?

Answer. There is a Governor and sixteene Counsellors, who have from his Sacred Majestie,[1] a Commission of Oyer and Terminer,[2] who judge and determine all Causes that are above fifteen pound sterling; for what is under, there are particular courts in every county, which are twenty in number.[3]

Appeals to assembly. Every year, at least the assembly is called, before whom lye appeals [from the lower courts], and this assembly is composed of two burgesses out of every county.

Taxes.There lay the necessary taxes, as the necessity of the war with the Indians, or their exigencies[4] require. . . .

3. Where the legislative and executive powers of your government are seated?

Answer. In the governor, council and assembly, and officers substituted by them.

4. What statute laws and ordinances are now made and in force?

Answer. The secretary of this country every year sends to the lord chancellor, or one of the principal secretaries, what laws are yearly made; which for the most part concern only our own private exigencies; for, contrary to the laws of England, we never did, nor dare make any,[5] only this, that no sale of land is good and legal, unless within three months after the conveyance it be recorded in the general court, or county courts.

5. What number of horse and foot[6] are within your government, and whether they be trained bands or standing forces?

Answer. All our freemen are bound to be trained every month in their particular counties, which we suppose, and do not much mistake in the calculation, are near eight thousand horse: there are more, but it is too chargeable for poor people, as wee are, to exercise them.

6. What castles and Forts are within your government, and how situated, as also what stores and provisions they are furnished withall?

Answer. There are five Forts in the country, two in James river and one in the three other rivers of York, Rappahannock and Potomeck; but God knows we have neither skill or ability to make or maintain them; for there is not, nor, as far as my enquiry can reach, ever was one ingenier [engineer] in the country, so that we are at continual charge to repair unskilfull and inartificial buildings of that nature. There is not above thirty great[7] and serviceable guns; this we yearly supply with powder and shot as far as our utmost abilities will permit us. . . .

8. What is the strength of your bordering neighbours, be they Indians or others, by sea and land; what correspondence do you keep with your neighbours?

Answer. We have no Europeans seated nearer to us than St. Christophers or Mexico that we know of, except some few French that are beyond New England. The Indians, our neighbours are absolutely subjected,[8] so that there is no fear of them. As for correspondence, we have none with any European strangers; nor is there a possibility to have it with our own nation further than our traffick concerns.

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9. What armes, ammunition and stores did you find upon the place, or have been sent you since, upon his majestyes account; when received; how employed; what quantity of them is there remaining, and where?

Answer. When I came into the country, I found one only ruinated Fort, with eight great guns, most unserviceable, and all dismounted but four, situated in a most unhealthy place, and where, if an enemy knew the soundings, he could keep out of the danger of the best guns in Europe. His majesty, in the time of the Dutch warr, sent us thirty great guns, most of which were lost in the ship that brought them. Before, or since this, we never had one great or small gun sent us, since my coming hither; nor, I believe, in twenty years before. All that have been sent by his sacred majesty, are still in the country, with a few more we lately bought.

10. What monies have been paid or appointed to be paid by his majesty, or levied within your government for and towards the buying of armes or making or maintaining of any Fortifications or castles, and how have the said monies been expended?

Answer. Besides those guns I mentioned, we never had any monies of his majesty towards the buying of ammunition or building of Forts. What monies can be spared out of the publick revenue, we yearly lay out in ammunition.

11. What are the boundaries and contents of the land, within your government?

Answer. As for the boundaries of our land, it was once great, ten degrees in latitude, but now it has pleased his majesty to confine us to halfe a degree.3 Knowingly, I speak this. Pray God it may be for his majesty’s service, but I much fear the contrary.

12. What commodities are there of the production, growth and manufacture of your plantation; and particularly, what materials are there already growing, or may be produced for shipping in the same?

Answer. Commodities of the growth of our country, we never had any but tobacco, which in this yet is considerable, that it yields his majesty a great revenue; but of late, we have begun to make silk, and so many mulberry trees are planted, and planting, that if we had skilfull men from Naples or Sicily to teach us the art of making it perfectly, in less than half an age, we should make as muck silk in an year as England did yearly expend three score years since; but now we hear it is grown to a greater excess, and more common and vulgar usage. Now, for shipping, we have admirable masts and very good oaks; but for iron ore I dare not say there is sufficient to keep one iron mill going for seven years.

13.[9] Whether salt-petre is or may be produced within your plantation, and if so, at what rate may it be delivered in England?

Answer. Salt-petre, we know of none in the country.

14. What rivers, harbours or roads are there in or about your plantation and government, and of what depth and soundings are they?

Answer. Rivers, we have four, as I named before, all able, safely and severally to bear an harbour a thousand ships of the greatest burthen. 

15. What number of planters, servants and slaves? . . .

Answer. We suppose, and I am very sure we do not much miscount, that there is in Virginia above forty thousand persons, men, women and children, and of which there are two thousand Black slaves, six thousand Christian servants,[10] for a short time, the rest are born in the country or have come in to settle and seat,[11] in bettering their condition in a growing country.

16. What number of English, Scots or Irish have for these seven yeares last past come yearly to plant and inhabite within your government; as also what blacks or slaves have been brought in within the said time?

Answer. Yearly, we suppose there comes in, of servants, about fifteen hundred, of which, most are English, few Scotch, and fewer Irish, and not above two or three ships of negroes in seven years.

17. What number of people have yearly died, within your plantation and government for these seven years last past, both whites and blacks?

Answer. All new plantations are, for an age or two, unhealthy, ’till they are thoroughly cleared of wood; but unless we had a particular register office, for the denoting of all that died, I cannot give a particular answer to this query, only this I can say, that there is not often unseasoned hands (as we term them) that die now, whereas heretofore not one of five escaped the first year.

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18. What number of ships do trade yearly to and from your plantation, and of what burthen are they?

Answer. English ships, near eighty come out of England and Ireland every year for tobacco; few New England ketches; but of our own, we never yet had more than two at one time, and those not more than twenty tuns burthen.

19. What obstructions do you find to the improvement of the trade and navigation of the plantations within your government?

Answer. Mighty and destructive, by that severe act of parliament[12] which excludes us the having any commerce with any nation in Europe but our own, so that we cannot add to our plantation any commodity that grows out of it, as olive trees, cotton or vines. Besides this, we cannot procure any skilfull men for one now hopefull commodity, silk; for it is not lawfull for us to carry a pipe stave, or a barrel of corn to any place in Europe out of the king’s dominions. Highly injurious to Virginia.If this were for his majesty’s service or the good of his subjects, we should not repine, whatever our sufferings are for it; but on my soul, it is the contrary for both. Character of the N. Endland men, who will break through it, if their interests lead them.And this is the cause why no small or great vessells are built here; for we are most obedient to all laws, whilst the New England men break through, and men trade to any place that their interest lead them. 

20. What advantages or improvements do you observe that may be gained to your trade and navigation?

Answer. None, unless we had liberty to transport our pipe staves, timber and corn to other places besides the king’s dominions.

21. What rates and duties are charged and payable upon any goods exported out of your plantation, whither of your own growth or manufacture, or otherwise, as also upon goods imported?

Answer. No goods, either exported or imported, pay any the least duties here, only two shillings the hogshead on tobacco exported, which is to defray all public charges; and this year we could not get an account of more than fifteen thousand hogsheads, out of which the king allows me a thousand yearly, with which I must maintain the port of my place, and one hundred intervening charges that cannot be put to public account. And I can knowingly affirm, that there is no government of ten years settlement, but has thrice as much allowed him. But I am supported by my hopes, that his gracious majesty will one day consider me.

Revenue to the king.22. What revenues doe or may arise to his majesty within your government, and of what nature is it; by whom is the same collected, and how answered and accounted to his majesty?

Answer. There is no revenue arising to his majesty but out of the quit-rents[13]; and this he hath given away to a deserving servant, Col. Henry Norwood. 

23. What course is taken about the instructing the people, within your government in the Christian religion; and what provision is there made for the paying of your ministry?

Answer. The same course that is taken in England out of towns; every man according to his ability instructing his children. We have Forty eight parishes, and our ministers are well paid, and by my consent should be better if they would pray oftener and preach less. But of all other commodities, so of this, the worst are sent us, and we had few that we could boast of, since the persecution in Cromwell’s tiranny drove divers worthy men hither.[14] But, I thank God, there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these hundred years; for learninghas brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects[15] into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!”

August the 20th 1671

Your Lordships most humble and most Obedient servant 

William Berkeley

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