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1620–2020: Censuses Count!

census 1620

A mural in Jamestown Settlement’s refreshed exhibition galleries by Bruce McPherson reflects the population of Jamestown in 1620, which marked the first systematic count of people living in America’s first permanent English colony. The colony’s population totaled 928.

It is 2020, and America is counting! The United States Census Bureau hopes to tally every person in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the 5 U.S. territories and record data such as sex, age, race and location. This is the 24th census since 1790 when Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution mandated that it take place every ten years. But, did you know that there was a census in Virginia 400 years ago?

A census in March 1620 records 928 people living in Virginia. It is likely that the data was compiled during the second meeting of the Virginia colony’s General Assembly, which Governor George Yeardley set to convene on March 1, 1620. We do not know whether they met because there are no known minutes of that session.

The four documents that collectively comprise the March 1620 census, or “ye generall Muster of Virginia,” have been carefully preserved by Cambridge University’s Magdalene College. They came to light during the early 1990s, when Dr. David Ransome compiled a list of the documents known as the Ferrar Papers. This remarkable collection is part of the so-called “lost records” of the Virginia Company of London, some of which were displayed at Jamestown Settlement last year as part of the special exhibition, “TENACITY: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia.

Thanks to the records assembled at “ye beginning of March 1619”—that is March 1620, New  Style*—we know that there were 892 European colonists living in Virginia. The population included 670 able-bodied men, 119 women, 39 “serviceable boys,” and 57 children. This large number of youths and children included the young orphans rounded up from the streets of London and shipped to Virginia the previous year. Besides Europeans, the Virginia colony included 32 Africans (17 women and 15 men) and 4 Indians, all described as “Others not Christians in service of the English” and “in ye service of severall planters.”

The census also recorded that the Virginia colonists had an ample supply of publicly and privately owned military equipment; 222 “habitable houses,” not counting barns and storehouses; and 39 boats and shallops—vessels whose shallow draft made them useful in navigating coastal waters. There was an abundance of livestock (identified as cattle, horses and mares, goats and kids, and tame swine) and one official noted that, “The Swine of the fforest belonginge to the publique” were so numerous they couldn’t be counted. The official further noted that there was an adequate supply of stored food and added that since “the muster was finished and summed up, the frygott [frigott] hath brought home” another 400 bushels of corn procured from the Indians and more was expected from the Eastern Shore. He proffered that these provisions, if preserved properly, would sustain another 500 settlers until the next harvest.

visitors in galleryThe demographic data in the census is broken down by each of the company-sponsored plantations and privately sponsored communities. For instance, 117 people were living at “James City”: 84 men, 24 women and 9 children. This community also had 112 cattle: 9 oxen and a bull that belonged to the public and 22 bulls and 80 kine (cows) owned by private individuals. Some of the people and livestock attributed to James City probably were living in the Neck O’Land, a small plantation directly behind Jamestown Island, and some may have been residing on the mainland just west of Jamestown Island.

Among the important information gleaned from the 1620 census is the fact that there were 32 Africans in the colony at that time. Well-known is John Rolfe’s mention in January 1620 of the arrival of “20 and odd Negroes” on one of the two privateering vessels that sailed to the colony in late August and early September 1619. Since the census tally was made just a few months later, these first documented Africans probably numbered closer to 30 than 20.  The census-takers failed to say where the Africans were living, but some almost certainly were part of the Jamestown households headed by Sir George Yeardley and Captain William Peirce. Peirce was one of those who had met the first arrivals at Point Comfort.  Other locations for these first documented Africans are suggested by the 1624 census and the 1625 muster. A substantial number of African men and women were living at Flowerdew Hundred, the plantation owned by Abraham Peirsey, who also met Virginia’s first Africans when they came ashore. Others lived at Kecoughtan and in the Neck O’Land behind Jamestown Island.

The 1620 census shows that the English colony was poised for success and this may have been the intent of the Virginia Company. Settlement spread rapidly during Sir George Yeardley’s first term as governor (April 19, 1619, to November 18, 1621), during which time 18 or 19 new plantations were established. The overwhelming majority of them were thinly scattered along both sides of the James River, to the west of the Chickahominy River’s mouth. In fact, only four or five of the newly seated properties lay within the oligohaline zone, where the sluggish exchange between freshwater and salt water traps contaminants. This raises the possibility that Yeardley, who had been second in command at Bermuda Hundred (a settlement near the mouth of the Appomattox River) during Sir Thomas Dale’s government, shared his superiors’ view that the land above Jamestown was the healthiest and therefore the most desirable. Undoubtedly, the Virginia Indians watched anxiously, as settlement intruded more deeply into their territory.

Whereas Virginia Company administrators probably ordered the March 1620 census to provide them with a better understanding of the scope and assets of their Virginia venture and to entice new investments, the 2020 U.S. census provides data to benefit the population. Not only will it determine the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade, but it will also serve as a tool for the distribution of federal monies. And, just as the census that preceded it by 400 years, the 2020 census will provide a demographic snapshot in time that becomes a valuable resource for researchers of the future. The count counts!

Martha W. McCartney is a recognized independent research historian who has studied the people and places of Virginia for many years. She is author of 12 books and more than 200 published articles, including A Study of Africans and African Americans on Jamestown Island and Green Spring (2003), Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers 1607-1635: A Biographical Dictionary (2007) and Jamestown People to 1800 (2012). McCartney’s “An Early Virginia Census Reprised,” Archeological Society of Virginia Quarterly Bulletin 54:4 (1999), provides a deeper look at this topic.


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