Archaeologists have discovered the bones of a man they believe is Sir George Yeardley, the Londoner who oversaw English America’s very first representative government – and also became one of the colonies’ original English slaveholders.
The body was found in a grave in the middle aisle of an early Jamestown church where it had been laid to rest with the hands positioned at the sides, all indicating a VIP burial. The team then used ground-penetrating radar technology to ascertain the build and age of the man at the time of death, confirming he was roughly 40 years old and supporting the theory that it may be Yeardley.
So, who was George Yeardley and why is this a big deal?
Yeardley was an Englishman and a soldier, who first ventured to the New World in 1610 on an expedition led by the fabulously-named Lord De La Warr. When they arrived in Newfoundland, the new colonists were greeted by the desperate and emaciated survivors of the Jamestown settlement – they had barely made it through the winter of 1609 after resorting to cannibalism. Warr's men, Yeardley included, shepherded the settlers back to Jamestown, where martial law was established to maintain control.
He left for England, only to return again in 1619 as the newly appointed Captain General and Lord Governor of Virginia. In what can be best described as a PR move to try to attract new residents to Jamestown, Yeardley oversaw the colony's transition from military state to civil society. This involved extending property rights to all settlers (provided you were white and male, of course), installing a judiciary-imposed rule of law, and creating the first elective government in English America. It was called the House of Burgesses.
"American society begins here at Jamestown," historian James Horn told BBC News.
"This is the place where private property was established and the rule of law and representative government. All those things were critical to the future of early America, and tragically, the development of slavery in this country."
That's right, the early colonists weren't only responsible for instituting representative government. They established a society founded on slave labor and Yeardley became one of the largest slaveholders of the time period.
"We had this canker at the heart of the democratic experiment and that is something important for people to know," Horn added.
At the moment, there is no definitive proof to say these are Sir George Yeardley's remains, but the team has found teeth that they hope will confirm their theory. Turi King, a geneticist from the University of Leicester who was involved in the identification of King Richard III in 2012, will work with the FBI to carry out DNA tests on the teeth, which they will then compare to the DNA of Yeardley's living relatives. Time will tell if it's a match.
Meanwhile, isotopic testing will be used to find out whether or not the man drank English water during his childhood. It won't offer conclusive proof but it will certainly add to the roster of evidence suggesting the body does indeed belong to Yeardley.
[H/T: BBC News]