The Role of the Governor in Granting Virginia Land

The royal governor in Jamestown and (between 1699-1775) in Williamsburg handled the grants issued in the king's name from the colonial offices in Virginia. In many cases, the titular governor was just a crony of the king and never visited Virginia, assigning that responsibility to deputies. For example, throughout his term in office "Governor" Spotswood was actually a subordinate for Lord Orkney. The lord pocketed a portion of the job's salary and allowed Spotswood the rest, along with a free hand to handle affairs in Virginia.

The Virginia governors were responsible for signing the headrights, surveys, and land patents. The governor received instructions from London, and his actions were overseen by the Privy Council that advised the King. Legislation passed by the House of Burgesses was not officially enacted until the king had confirmed it. This provided a system of checks and balances that limited the potential of the king's representative becoming too closely allied with the interests of the colony rather than the king - and the speculators who organized land companies to obtain large grants of land in the mid-eighteenth century had to obtain confirmation of their rights in England.

The Pistole Fee

Governor Dunmore triggered a harsh dispute when he arrived in Williamsburg in 1751, and started to charge for processing a fee for signing land patents. The fee was one pistole, a unit of Spanish money. (Cash was scarce in the colony, where most debts were repaid in tobacco or not resolved until someone died and their estate was settled. Spanish coins were welcomed, and most Virginia homes were near Tidewater rivers - where each dock could serve as an international seaport.)

The Virginia gentry objected not only to the fee, but also to the idea that an appointed royal official could impose it without approval by the elected members of the House of Burgesses. The House sent the Attorney General of the colony, Peyton Randolph, to England to lobby against the fee. Dunmore relented, but refused to allow an appropriation by the House of 2,500 to reimburse Randolph for his expenses. A power struggle between the governor and the legislature over the pistole fee illustrates that "no taxation without representation" was a serious issue 10 years before the Stamp Act crisis and 20 years before the American Revolution.


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