15 August 2017

Gun Ownership in Colonial Virginia

While rereading A True Relation (1608) by John Smith, a statement about most guns being packed away caught my eye. I noticed the statement because it provides corroborating evidence for an assertion that I read on the Jamestown Rediscovery website.

On 22 April 1607, according to Smith,* He, Captain Christopher Newport, and twenty others set out upriver to explore and gather food for the nascent colony. While they were away, the fort at Jamestown on which construction had barely begun, was attacked by about 400 Indians. The English colonists were fortunate in their ability to repel the attacks because most of the guns were still packed away in shipping containers. The exceptions were those possessed by "gentlemen". Smith noted, "...their Armes beeing then in drievats and few ready but certain Gentlemen of their own" (35).

The Jamestown Rediscovery website mentions restrictions on ownership and access to firearms in the England of James I.
There had been no major military battles in England since the war against Spain that ended in 1603; so, at the time of Jamestown’s settlement there was a shortage of arms and armor in England for the Virginia Company to supply to its colony. The English government strictly controlled all the military equipment, which was stored in city armories or private households of the rural gentry.
"Arms and Armor," Jamestown Rediscovery (accessed 15 August 2017).
For centuries leading up to this time, men in England had a duty to be trained in the use of arms for service in the militia, as well as for service in the defense of themselves and their neighbors. But, ownership of weapons was not yet articulated as a right. Moreover, there were restrictions, especially on concealable weapons--crossbows and firearms less than a yard in length. Additional restrictions were put into place early in the reign of James I (1603-1625).

In To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right (1994), Joyce Lee Malcolm traces how the duty to bear arms became a right as articulated in the English Bill of Rights of 1689. She suggests that gun ownership among the common people, as well as by the gentry, was widespread in rural England, and most of England was rural. But, she also notes that James I restricted firearm, crossbows, and hunting dogs through a series game acts in 1604, 1605, and 1609.
These acts altered the property qualification needed to hunt far more materially than any act in the preceding two centuries; made it illegal for unqualified persons to keep coursing dogs, sell game, use guns, crossbows, or other devices to take game; and brought some poaching cases before the kingdom's highest courts.
Malcolm, To Keep and Bear Arms, 13.
The needs for self defense and for hunting certainly differed in colonial Virginia than in the home country. Although perhaps difficult, the colonists were supplied with firearms. But, it appears that when they first arrived, guns were not individual possessions for the majority. Smith was a soldier and had pistols. Others were armed as needed, such as when on guard duty. Gentlemen possessed their own arms and these were all that were readily available during the first Indian attack.

As the settlement at Jamestown grew and expanded along the James River, those with farms certainly had firearms. That was not inconsistent with the practice in England where land owners ordinarily possessed firearms and other weapons for hunting and for self-defense. Slowly, during the fifteen years from 1607-1622, the English also began to instruct their Indian neighbors in the use of these weapons.

This training was negotiated. The English wished to offer religious training to the Natives. Opechancanough, chief of the Powhatans, agreed to this religious training on the stipulation that firearms training came as part of the package. In 1622, Opechancanough led his people to slaughter one-quarter of the English colonists, most of them in their own homes with their own weapons.

Over the course of the rest of the century, ownership of firearms expanded. As ownership expanded, the duty of Englishmen to be prepared for service in the militia also developed into a right to own and use firearms. It was a long process, and one that is not well-documented.

*21 May 1607, according to Lyon Gardiner Tyler, editor of Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907) 33. My source for Smith's True Relation is this book, 27-71, digitized at American Journeys.

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