Courts in Colonial Virginia



Courts in Colonial Virginia

Duties of the Local Courts

Local Court Procedures and Personnel

Colonial Punishments

Court Architecture & Democracy

Order in the Court Web Adventure

18th C. Legal Terms


Mock Trial of Abigail Briggs

Order in the Court Teacher Guide

Other Classroom Activities

Most of the laws for colonial Virginia were written in Britain, thousands of miles away. Many times the lawmakers had no idea what would actually work for the people in America. Even though they considered themselves English, people in America had to interpret and enforce the laws to match local conditions. It helped that these British-made laws were enforced by people who lived in the colony itself.

Capitol, Williamsburg, Virginia
Colonial Williamsburg Magazine, Summer 1991

Diagram of Capitol
Click to see General Court

Twelve members of the Legislative Council and the Royal governor served as a court part of the year. It was called the General Court because it served the whole colony. Since Williamsburg was the capital of colonial Virginia, the General Court met at the capitol in that city. In April and October they heard cases related to the king’s law and criminal cases against free subjects of the king.

General Court Meeting
Colonial Williamsburg Magazine, Summer 1991

What about the other kinds of legal issues?
Who was responsible for handling those?
What about crimes involving people who were not “free subjects”?

Virginia had enslaved people and indentured servants, who needed protection by the courts. Also, many problems were not criminal issues but conflicts between people over property or business agreements.

The local people of colonial Williamsburg needed other kinds of legal support. Since there were few government agencies or banks in the colonies, it was important to have legally binding records of such things as land deeds, debts, wills, and business contracts. The General Court did not have time or interest in doing these things. County or Hustings Courts were appointed to perform these roles and handled cases involving them.

Husting Court
Colonial Williamsburg Magazine, Summer 1991

In the early years, the colonial courts were weak. The court system did eventually get stronger by the mid 18th century as it evolved to match life in Virginia. As it did, more and more colonists began to support it. The court helped society in America become one ruled by law.

As a result, two levels of courts developed in colonial Virginia. The General Court was for the whole colony, The County and Hustings Court handled local issues and disputes. In the early years the local courts were weak. By the mid 18th century, however, the local courts were seen as an irreplaceable part of the community and an important element of representative government in America.