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The Virginia House of Burgesses was the elected lower house in the legislative assembly in the New World established in the Colony of Virginia in 1619. Over time, the name came to represent the entire official legislative body of the Colony of Virginia, and later, after the American Revolution, the General Assemblymarker of the Commonwealth of Virginiamarker.

Burgess originally meant a freeman of a borough or burgh. It later came to mean an elected or appointed official of a municipality, or the representative of a borough in the English House of Commons.

The Virginia Company ended its monopoly on land ownership, believing that the colonists would display greater initiative if they could gain ownership of land. The changes encouraged private investment from the colony's settlers, which allowed them to own land rather than simply being sharecroppers. The company designed four large corporations, termed citties [sic], to encompass the developed portion of the colony. Company officials adopted English Common Law as the basis of their system in the Virginia colony, replacing the governor as the final voice on legal matters.

The first conflict emerged with the Polish community in Jamestown, who controlled such vital industries as tar, pitch making, and glass blowing. These skills were extremely vital to the new settlement. When the House of Burgesses met in 1619, they excluded the Polish community and threatened their rights. In reaction, the Poles launched the first recorded strike in the New World. In need of Polish industries, the House of Burgesses extended the "rights of Englishmen" to the Poles (who included some East Prussians.) In 1620, in an effort to create a more stable society, the company dispatched a boatload of marriageable women to the colony; the going rate was 120 pounds of tobacco for each bride.

The changes of 1619 also created a legislative body to be elected by the colonists called the House of Burgesses, similar to the British Parliamentmarker, that would meet once annually at Jamestown. (In Bermudamarker, previously part of Virginia, the House of Assembly was created that same year).

Prompted by the Virginia Company, colonial governor Sir George Yeardley helped facilitate elections of representatives, called "burgesses", to this new legislative body that would come from eleven boroughs adjacent to the James River, along with eleven additional burgesses.

The first meeting of the Houses occurred on July 30, 1619, at Jamestown. It was the first such assembly in the Americas. The initial session accomplished little, however; it was cut short by an outbreak of malaria. The assembly had 22 members who represented the following constituencies:

  • The governor, who was appointed to his position by the company officials in London
  • The governor's council, six prominent citizens selected by the governor
  • The burgesses (representatives) from various locales, initially the larger plantations and later in Virginia history from the counties.


After 1619, The King of England gained greater control in Virginia, restricting the powers of the House of Burgesses. They could make laws and levy taxes, but their work was voted on by the governor of Virginia and the company council in England, who had veto power. The H.O.B., as the house is also known, was the first form of representative government in the American colonies .

Royal colony

In 1624, the Virginia Company lost its charter, and Virginia became a royal colony. As a Royal Colony, the House of Burgesses consisted of two members from every county in Virginia and one member from each of the following: the City of Williamsburgmarker, the City of Jamestown, the City of Norfolkmarker, and the College of William and Marymarker. The House of Burgesses continued to meet, but its influence was severely restricted. Despite limitations on its actions, the assembly listed within its later ranks such notables as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, who would assume a major leadership role in the movement toward independence.

End of the House of Burgesses

In 1769, members of the House of Burgesses were addressing the issue of British taxation with no representation. Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee were leading the committee in discussion. The committee then moved on to private petitions concerning fish traps but then one of Lord Botetourt's aides entered, declaring that, "Mr. Speaker, The Governor commands the immediate Attendance of your House in the Council Chamber".

Peyton Randolph, the speaker of the house, led the men into the chamber. Botetourt then commanded, "I have heard of your resolves, and auger ill of their Effect: You have made it my Duty to dissolve you; and you are dissolved accordingly."

Many of the members of the House of Burgesses met in the Raleigh Tavern and planned the early stages of recourse. At the time they contemplate no act of revolution. This is when George Washington and Patrick Henry started to speak privately about their ideas on revolution.

In 1770, the House of Burgesses reformed. It was not long until the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in 1776, and the House of Burgesses was transformed into the Virginia House of Delegates.


In 1699, the seat of the House of Burgesses was moved to Middle Plantation, soon renamed Williamsburgmarker, in honor of King William III. The Burgesses met there in two consecutive Capitol buildings (the first use of the word in the British Colonies).

In December 1779, they moved the capital city to Richmondmarker for safety reasons during the American Revolutionary War. The present Capitol at Colonial Williamsburgmarker is a reconstruction of the earlier of the two lost buildings.


The Assembly became the Virginia House of Delegates in 1776, forming the lower house of the Virginia General Assemblymarker, the legislative branch of the Commonwealth of Virginiamarker.

In honor of the original House of Burgesses, every other year, the Virginia General Assembly traditionally leaves the current Virginia State Capitolmarker in Richmondmarker, and meets for one day in the restored Capitolmarker at Colonial Williamsburgmarker.

In 2006, the Assembly held a special session at Jamestown to mark the 400th anniversary of its founding as part of the Jamestown 2007 celebration.

See also



  • Hatch, Charles E., Jr., (1956 rev). America's Oldest Legislative Assembly & Its Jamestown Statehouses, Appendix II. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service.

  • Mayer, Henry A Son of Thunder, Patrick Henry and the American Republic. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.

  • Seidner, Stanley S. (1976). In Quest of a Cultural Identity: An Inquiry for the Polish Community. New York, New York: IUME, Teachers College, Columbia University. ISBN ERIC ED167674.

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