By Paul Aron
The Great Charter of Virginia, which the Virginia Company issued in 1618 and which authorized the Jamestown Colonists to call a General Assembly of elected representatives, set the Colony on the road to democracy. In some sense, it also brought into being America’s first organized protection force.
When George Yeardley, Virginia’s royal governor, entered the church at Jamestown for the first session of the Assembly in July 1619, he was most likely accompanied by a guard of halberdiers. The halberdiers — so called because they carried the two-handed pole weapon known as a halberd — were not a police force in the way we think of them today. But they were there to keep order and protect the governor, making them the forerunner of the Virginia Capitol Police, which is now charged with protecting state agencies, state employees, elected officials and visitors.
John Pory, secretary for the Colony, kept a journal in which he recorded the proceedings of the first Assembly. He did not mention the governor’s guards, but other sources indicate the halberdiers would have accompanied the governor. William Strachey’s 1610 report noted that “when the lord governor and captain general goes to church, he is accompanied with...a guard of halberdiers in his lordship’s livery, fair red cloaks, to the number of fifty, both on each side and behind him.”
According to Capitol Police spokesman Joe Macenka, the agency settled on 1618 as the date for its origins to correspond with the Great Charter. While documents like Strachey’s indicate some police-related activities in the years leading up to the first Assembly, there appeared to be a great deal of fluidity in the size and types of these activities. The Great Charter set the stage for a more stable landscape of government and finances, and from that point on, a more defined picture of the police component emerged.
Neal Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg’s associate curator of costume and textiles, has re-created the uniform of the halberdiers for an exhibit now on display at the Virginia Capitol in Richmond to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Virginia Capitol Police.
Hurst drew on Strachey’s descriptions from 1610 and 1611. He also re-created for the exhibit the uniforms of the Virginia State Garrison regiment of 1778. The 1778 regiment was stationed in Williamsburg and its uniforms were used in 1972 as models for Colonial Williamsburg’s Fifes and Drums. In 1801, the force became the Public Guard when the capital moved to Richmond.
“Full-scale reproductions will allow visitors to come face to face with Virginia’s earliest police force,” Hurst said.
Virginia’s first protective force was ordered by the Virginia Company in 1618. It consisted of halberdiers armed with a pole that resembled a long-handled ax. Those who served in the Virginia State Garrison in Williamsburg wore a blue and red uniform. Today, the Virginia Capitol Police guard lawmakers in the Capitol building in Richmond. (Tom Green/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
TIn early America, a community’s protection often fell to citizen volunteers who conducted watches and engaged in services that, on their face, had little to do with crime prevention, such as finding lost children and animals and lighting street lamps. Such an arrangement was documented in Boston in the 1630s, when local ordinances called for a night watch, which amounted to more of a warning system than a system of enforcement.
Constables and sheriffs, who also sometimes served in this role, might apprehend suspected criminals — but they also might survey land and perform weddings.
The watches were largely ineffective, said Gary Potter, a crime historian at Eastern Kentucky University, because the volunteers often slept and drank while on duty.
According to Potter, centralized police departments began to emerge in America in the 19th century. These police forces consisted of full-time officers employed by departments that answered to a central government authority.
Boston lays claim to organizing America’s first publicly funded police force in 1838.
In 2019, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is celebrating 40 years of interpreting the stories and experiences of African Americans who lived in 18th-century Williamsburg.
George Washington’s often contentious relationship with his mother shaped the leader he became