The First Execution in America

Ryan Fan death penalty has had a troubled and complicated history in human history. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the death penalty was first codified in history under the Code of Hammurabi, which made 25 crimes punishable by death. These included adultery, attempted suicide, and helping slaves escape. Murder was not a law punishable by death, showing the death penalty has always been an extreme punishment, often used for unjust laws.

But over the course of civilization, the death penalty would evolve. Michael Reggio at Frontline says the Draconian Code of Athens in the 7th Century BCE made death the penalty for every crime. Virginia, in 1612, would also seek the death penalty as a punishment for minor and petty crimes.

The American precedent of the death penalty started from the very earliest days of the British colonies. This is the story of the first person executed in America, George Kendall, a mutineer and Spanish spy in Jamestown — who was not only given the death penalty, but ordered to death by firing squad.

George Kendall

The first man executed in America was George Kendall, a member of the first council appointed to Jamestown from Britain. According to Natasha Frost at History, Kendall was one of seven council members who journeyed for four months from Great Britain to the New World. In 1606, King James I outlined a joint charter for two companies to journey to northern and southern Virginia. One sent by the Plymouth Company failed to plant a colony, while one sent by the London Company made the Jamestown colony.

The University of Virginia states that once the colonists arrived, they faced immediate opposition from local Native Americans. They arrived at a part of land called Cape Henry, then went up the river to what they would call Jamestown, to honor King James I.

The men on the council did not get along. Their names were Bartholomew Gosnold, Christopher Newport, George Kendall, John Martin, George Percy, John Ratcliffe, John Smith, and Edward Maria Wingfield. John Smith would later be known as the leader of Jamestown, but apparently, according to the University of Virginia, he was “in chains when the little band reached Virginia.” Along with the council, there were 100 men, many of whom were gentlemen unacquainted with the tasks needed to make the land habitable.

The president of the council would be Edward Maria Wingfield, and there would be a massive power struggle between John Smith and Wingfield. The men regarded Wingfield as incompetent, and Smith demanded a trial for the charges against him. Smith was later released. After several months, Smith would become the de facto leader of the group as the men quickly lost respect for Wingfield.

Frost notes the people who came to Jamestown expected to find silver and gold, but instead, all they found was illness and discord. During the building of the first fortifications in the new land, two men, in particular, would not get along — Captains George Kendall and Wingfield.

Discord would build once supplies diminished as well. Kendall played an integral part in building the fortifications on the island. Historian Frank E. Gizzard notes Wingfield struggled to hold on to power as the relationship between the councilors deteriorated. Wingfield lost his support most due to his pursuit of peaceful relations with local Native Americans, as he received instructions “not to offend the naturals” by the London Virginia Company.

Kendall did not agree with Wingfield’s peaceful policy with Native Americans after the colony was attacked twice. On one occasion, Christopher Newport was preparing to return to England, and his ship was attacked and ransacked.

Kendall was shortly arrested then thrown into a makeshift jail, and he was “voted off the council, arrested and confined.” After Wingfield was deposed, Kendall was allowed to leave the ship as long as he didn’t carry a weapon.

Eventually, Kendall was ordered to death and executed by a firing squad. To this day, no one knows whether Kendall was killed for treason or for mutiny.

In a 1962 issue of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, historian Phillip Barbour questioned whether Kendall was a mutineer or an intelligencer. An intelligencer is a fancier word for a spy, and Barbour states there was tremendous evidence as to why Kendall was killed in the first place, but it just isn’t carefully examined.

After Newport left for England, it seemed like the only person who could hold the men together was council member Bartholomew Gosnold. However, Gosnold died two months after Newport left.

Kendall then started plotting against Wingfield. He worked with a man named Gabriel Archer, and Archer worked to sow distrust against Wingfield’s ability as a leader. The plot worked — Wingfield would be put in prison once Kendall was released. And once Kendall left the prison, he talked aired dirty laundry about the council. Discord and turmoil within the colony would continue to grow as the colony ran out of food. Some wanted to send a ship back to England to return with supplies, while John Smith wanted to obtain corn from the Native Americans.

The boat, however, crashed on land, and an altercation broke out. A blacksmith named James Read and Captain John Ratcliffe got into a fight, and Ratcliffe beat Read, but Read fought back. Fighting back against Ratcliffe constituted treason since, in the words of Barbour, Ratcliffe was “the representative of the sacred majesty of James I.” Read was scheduled to be hanged.

However, before Read right reached the noose, he asked to speak privately to Ratcliffe. After much discussion, Read revealed Kendall was responsible for the “mutiny,” and Kendall was then condemned to be shot to death by a jury. Read would be absolved and reinstated to work.

Kendall made an appeal for an arrest of judgment — he appealed that Ratcliffe was not the real name of the man announcing his sentence— it was actually John Sicklemore. However, the council just got member John Martin to read the sentence instead, and the appeal was overridden. Kendall’s execution would be quite unusual because Kendall was shot to death, not hanged, an indication of how much his influence was feared by the other members of the council. Barbour notes almost all of the leaders of the colony were accused of mutiny at some point — only Kendall’s led to death, suggesting that the other council members saw him as a very dangerous man.

There was also evidence George Kendall was a spy for Spain. A man on the voyage, Francis Maguel, said:

“The English in that country…have tried in that Ford of theirs at Jamestown an English Captain, a Catholic, called Captain Tindol, because they learned that he had tried to get to Spain in order to reveal to His Majesty all about the country and many plans of the English, which he knew.”

Barbour emphasizes Tindol actually was George Kendall because of the possibility “K” was confused with “T” and the disuse of “K” in Spanish. Tindol and Kendall were both captains, tried for the same offense. Kendall was very sympathetic to Catholics during his life. Barbour also says trying to get to Spain spill the plans of the colony was a severe offense — enough for the council to order such a grand execution.


Whether Kendall was a spy or a mutineer doesn’t matter much now — he remains the first person in American history who was given the death penalty and executed. Four years after Kendall was executed, Virginia’s governor signed the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws, which gave the death penalty for minor offenses and crimes. While death penalty executions like that of Kendall were unprecedented before, they would quickly become the norm rather than the exception, as an extreme punishment for unjust crimes.

While few would be killed by firing squad like Kendall, Virginia has used the death penalty more than any other state in America, according to the Associated Press, with almost 1,400 executions in the state’s history. Texas closely follows. State lawmakers recently abolished the death penalty, leaving two men on Virginia’s death row sentenced to life in prison without parole instead.

A family member of a murder victim saw the perpetrator executed in 2017. She then wrote a letter asking lawmakers to abolish the death penalty:

“By voting for abolition, we are showing the way, that if Virginia — the state with the longest history and the most people executed — if we can do it, so can other states,” she said.
Photo of a reenactment of Jamestown from the U.S. Navy — Public Domain

Originally published on CrimeBeat on March 11, 2021.

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