George Yeardley was born in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, in Southwark, London. He came from a middling background and while still a young man took to a life of soldiering. In the Netherlands, where he served in a company of foot, he met Sir Thomas Gates and it was likely through Gates’s influence that Yeardley subsequently joined the large fleet bound for Virginia that left England in June 1609. When his ship, the Sea Venture, was wrecked on Bermuda, he was stranded there with Gates and other leaders of the expedition for over nine months. He eventually reached Virginia in May 1610 and was straightaway placed in a position of authority. He served as a captain of Lt. Governor Sir Thomas Gates’ guard and helped lead an expedition to discover gold and silver mines in the interior. Playing an important role in the war of 1609-1614 against the Powhatans, he later served briefly as deputy governor in 1616 before returning to England the following year.
Yeardley was appointed lord governor of Virginia in the fall of 1618 following news of the unexpected death of the incumbent governor, Lord De La Warr, at sea on his way back to the colony. To bolster his social standing, Yeardley was knighted by the king and sailed back to Virginia in early 1619. Before leaving, he was given detailed instructions by the Virginia Company to carry out a comprehensive range of reforms set out in the “Great Charter” and other documents. When he arrived, Yeardley found the Virginia colony in financial and political difficulty caused largely by acting governor Samuel Argall. He immediately restored the colony to order and then began implementing the Company’s reforms, including administering the widespread distribution of land to settlers, establishing the rule of law and a court system based on English practice, and overseeing the creation of the General Assembly, the first representative government in America.
Sir George Yeardley presided over the first assembly made up of his council and 22 burgesses drawn from English settlements along the James River Valley from July 30-August 4, 1619. This meeting, held in the newly-built timber church at Jamestown, occurred just a few weeks before the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia who had been captured from a Spanish ship in the Gulf of Mexico. Yeardley purchased several, eight of whom were living on his property on Jamestown Island in 1625. Their arrival and purchase by wealthy and well-connected planters marked the beginning of de facto slavery in the colony.
Yeardley left office in 1621 to pursue his own personal interests and a few years later returned to England following the demise of the Virginia Company and the decision of the king, Charles I, to govern Virginia as a royal colony. He successfully pleaded with the king’s officials in London to allow the General Assembly to continue meeting. Reappointed lord governor in 1626, he died the next year at which time he was one of the largest landowners and richest men in Virginia.
A grave discovered in the chancel of the 1617 church at Jamestown may be Yeardley’s. See the links below for more information.