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1676: Col. Thomas Hansford, the first American independence martyr

November 13th, 2010 Headsman

Col. Thomas Hansford was hanged “a loyal subject and a lover of my country” on this date in 1676 — America’s first executed political martyr, since that “country” was not England, but Virginia.

Robert Beverly‘s 1705 History of Virginia recalls the genesis of that milestone dispute between settlers and mother England.

The occasion of this rebellion is not easy to be discovered: but ’tis certain there were many things that concurred towards it. For it cannot be imagined, that upon the instigation of two or three traders only, who aimed at a monopoly of the Indian trade, as some pretend to say, the whole country would have fallen into so much distraction; in which people did not only hazard their necks by rebellion, but endeavored to ruin a governor, whom they all entirely loved, and had unanimously chosen; a gentleman who had devoted his whole life and estate to the service of the country, and against whom in thirty-five years experience there had never been one single complaint. Neither can it be supposed, that upon so slight grounds, they would make choice of a leader they hardly knew, to oppose a gentleman that had been so long and so deservedly the darling of the people. So that in all probability there was something else in the wind, without which the body of the country had never been engaged in that insurrection.

Four things may be reckoned to have been the main ingredients towards this intestine commotion, viz., First, The extreme low price of tobacco, and the ill usage of the planters in the exchange of goods for it, which the country, with all their earnest endeavors, could not remedy. Secondly, The splitting the colony into proprieties, contrary to the original charters; and the extravagant taxes they were forced to undergo, to relieve themselves from those grants. Thirdly, The heavy restraints and burdens laid upon their trade by act of Parliament in England. Fourthly, The disturbance given by the Indians.

Tobacco aside, these are grievances straight from the next century’s Declaration of Independence at the outset of the (more successful) American Revolution:

cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

… imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

So, tax revolt + political self-determination + impatience about arrangements with Indians who could be wiped out instead. Eventually, this would germinate a mighty empire.

In 1676, it germinated a colonial rebellion against the mighty empire — Bacon’s Rebellion, an unsuccessful rising that is easily read in retrospect as a prototype for the more illustrious revolt one century later.

The suppression of Bacon’s Rebellion also involved a rash of executions, which we’ve touched on before. King Charles II would complain that his Virginia governor’s severity “has taken more lives in that naked country than I have taken for the murder of my father.”

The man dignified to be the first of these executions — and therefore, if you like, the first man put to death in the service of American liberty — was actually nabbed by our historian’s father, also named Robert Beverly, “a parson calculated to the Lattitude of the Servis, which required descretion, Curage, & Celerity, as qualetys wholly subservant to military affares.” (source)

snapt up one Coll: Hansford, and his party … It is saide that Hansford, at (or a little before) the onslaut, had forsaken the Capitole of Marss, to pay his oblations in the Temple of Venus; which made him the easere preay to his enemies; but this I have onely upon report, and must not aver it upon my historicall reputation: But if it was soe, it was the last Sacryfize he ever after offered at the Shrine of that Luxurious Diety, for presently after that he came to Accomack, he had the ill luck to be the first Berginian borne that dyed upon a paire of Gallows. When that he came to the place of Execution (which was about a Mile removed from his prisson) he seemed very well resalved to undergo the utmost mallize of his not over kinde Destinie, onely Complaineing of the manner of his death: Being observed neather at the time of his tryall (which was by a Court Martiall) nor afterwards, to suplicate any other faviour, then that he might be shot like a Soulder, and not to be hang’d like a Dog. But it was tould him, that whwat he so passionately petitioned for could not be granted, in that he was not condem’d as he was merely a Soulder, but as a Rebell, taken in Arms against the King, whose Laws had ordained him that death. Dureing the short time he had to live, after his sentance, he approved to his best advantage for the well fare of his soule, by repentance and contrition for all his Sinns, in generall, excepting his Rebelellion, which he would not acknowledg; desireing the People, at the place of execution, to take notis that he dyed a Loyall Subject, and a lover of his Countrey; and that he had never taken up arms, but for the destruction of the Indians, who had murthered so many Christians.

(A modernized, and less atmospheric, version of the same passage can be read here.)

Hansford’s story and the larger one of Bacon’s Rebellion are treated at second hand in several public-domain histories available online — see here, here, and here.

It also seems that, besides being the first martyr to American liberty, Hansford also had the distinction of being the first native-born Virginian (white Virginian, we presume) ever executed.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Separatists,Soldiers,Treason,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions

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