Who Runs Virginia — Antiquarian Edition

Virginia history lovers rejoice! The House Clerk’s Office has unveiled the Database of House Members (DOME), which offers biographical and legislative service information on every House member since the House of Burgesses first convened in July 1619. A random selection of the tidbits contained in this historical treasure trove:

The first speaker of the House of Burgesses, meeting only 12 years after the founding of Jamestown, was John Pory. States the biographical summary:

Pory’s familiarity with parliamentary practice is evident in the assembly’s reliance upon committees, its decisions on the credentials of its members, its procedure in voting on legislation after three readings, and its determination of a judicial case after hearing testimony at “The Barre.” After it had levied a tax that included provision to pay Pory for his “great paines and labour,” the assembly was prorogued on 4 August 1619, and Pory prepared copies of the legislation for the localities that had sent representatives to Jamestown.

Jumping ahead 54 years…. Amidst unsettling raids and skirmishes with Indians, Nathaniel Bacon was elected by the citizens of Henrico County in 1676 to represent the interests of the frontiersmen. Arrested and then pardoned by Governor Berkeley, Bacon marched on Jamestown and chased the governor from the capital. Much confusion ensued in the struggle known to history as “Bacon’s Rebellion.” Bacon managed to burn down the capital before dying of dysentery, and the rebellion disintegrated soon after. Apparently, Bacon made a better rebel and Indian fighter than legislator. According to the Encyclopedia Virginia, during a respite in the hostilities…

Berkeley … yielded to the demands of Bacon and his supporters, and the assembly rapidly completed work on the laws of the session. Although later writers referred to these statutes as “Bacon’s laws,” the extant evidence indicates that he took little or no interest in the proceedings of the assembly.

Scroll ahead to 1869, and you can find the biography of William H. Brisby, born a free black in New Kent County, one of the first African-Americans to serve in the General Assembly during Reconstruction. He was married to Marinda Brisby, of Pamunkey Indian origins.

Prior to the Civil War he established himself as a blacksmith. He worked on the construction of the Richmond and York River Railroad. He later testified that the slave regime’s withholding of education made him a Unionist, and as late as 1860 he signed with his mark. By 1863, however, he could sign his name and later obtained books related to the law. Mr. Brisby represented New Kent County in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1869 to 1871, serving on the Officers and Offices at the Capitol Committee. A landowner, he later served on the New Kent Board of Supervisors from 1871 to at least 1881 and was a justice of the peace from 1870 until 1910. A fisherman as well, Mr. Brisby helped slaves and escaped Union prisoners of war slip out of Richmond during the American Civil War, stowing them away in his cargo transports. Mr. Brisby died in 1916.​

Fascinating stuff.

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