ENTRY

Chiles, Walter (1609–after July 6, 1653)

SUMMARY

Walter Chiles was a member of the House of Burgesses (serving intermittently through the 1640s), a member of the governor’s Council (1651), and Speaker of the House of Burgesses (1653). The son of a merchant in Bristol, England, Chiles fitted out his own ship and settled in Virginia by 1638. He served as a burgess during the 1640s and sat on the governor’s Council in 1651. Chiles enjoyed success trading with the English and the Dutch, but in 1652 one of his ships was seized off the Eastern Shore for violating Parliament’s Navigation Act prohibiting unauthorized trade with the Netherlands. The resulting controversy spilled over into the General Assembly, where Chiles was elected Speaker of the House of Burgesses on July 6, 1653, in opposition to the governor, Richard Bennett. Having illustrated the independence of the House of Burgesses, Chiles resigned a day later, citing the impropriety of presiding over the body while it arranged a deal to resolve the conflict over his ship. He may have died soon afterwards, but the time and place of his death are not known.

Chiles was probably the son of Walter Chiles (also Childs or Childes) and was born in Bristol, England, where his father was a textile merchant. His mother’s name is uncertain. Baptized in the church of Saint Mary Redcliffe, in Bristol, on March 20, 1609, Chiles entered the textile trade there, married a woman named Elizabeth, whose maiden name may have been Sanders, and had at least two sons.

Chiles made his first recorded trip to Virginia in the service of the merchants William Harris and Nicholas Jolly aboard the Blessing, probably in 1636. By 1638 Chiles had fitted out his own ship and returned to the colony with his wife and sons. During the next few years he patented about 1,000 acres of land in Charles City County and regularly traveled between Virginia and England transporting merchandise and immigrants. In hope of expanding his business, Chiles joined three other men in June 1641 in petitioning the General Assembly for permission to “undertake the discovery of a new river or unknowne land bearing west southerly from Appomattake river.” The assembly granted them a license in January 1642 and renewed it in 1643, but the Anglo-Powhatan War of 1644–1646 temporarily halted exploration and closed trading opportunities in the west. They did not attempt to obtain another license.

Chiles was elected a burgess from Charles City County for the assembly that met on January 12, 1642, and signed a declaration against a revival of the Virginia Company of London. He represented the county again in 1643 and took part in the last meetings of the General Assembly as a unicameral body and the first sessions of the House of Burgesses as a separate branch of the assembly. About that time the county court unsuccessfully recommended him to the governor for appointment as sheriff of Charles City County. Chiles then moved to James City County, which he represented in the assemblies that began on November 20, 1645; October 5, 1646; and October 10, 1649. It is possible that his absence from some of the intervening legislative sessions was a consequence of trips to England.

On March 23, 1650, Chiles purchased from Sir William Berkeley the brick house in Jamestown where governors had resided for more than a decade. Owning one of the largest and finest dwellings in the colony and acquiring a new title of lieutenant colonel, Chiles had clearly become a man of importance, and the governor appointed him to the Council. Because most of the Council’s records for the period are lost, almost nothing is known about his tenure. The only surviving documents recording his attendance at Council meetings are dated May 21 and September 20, 1651. Chiles did not remain a councillor after Virginia surrendered to Parliament in March 1652, perhaps because he was not in Virginia at that time.

Chiles was still engaged in trade. He owned his own ships and may have carried messages between the governor and the Crown and, after the future king Charles II fled England for the Netherlands, between the government in Virginia and the court in exile. Late in January 1652 Chiles sailed for Rotterdam in his ship the Fame of Virginia. Five months later he returned and anchored off the Eastern Shore. As the ship was departing for Jamestown on June 13, a local militia captain detained it for violating Parliament’s Navigation Act, which forbade unauthorized trade with the Netherlands. Chiles informed the county court that the terms of Virginia’s surrender to Parliament exempted Virginians from that interdiction of trade, but faced with a new charge that Dutch merchants were the real owners of the ship, he remained fearful that his property might still be lost. Eastern Shore taxpayers worried that because a county militia officer had attempted to confiscate the ship, they might have to pay Chiles for the Fame of Virginia. The following summer Chiles embraced an opportunity to preserve his investment by agreeing to exchange one vessel for another. For £400 he acquired another ship that had been seized for violating the law, the larger Leopoldus of Dunkirk, and its valuable cargo.

The resulting legal complications and their political and commercial ramifications required the General Assembly to intervene. When the assembly met on July 5, 1653, Chiles was a burgess from James City County and also a candidate for Speaker. Governor Richard Bennett, anxious not to add another complication to an already difficult situation, advised the burgesses not to choose Chiles. The burgesses, jealous of the right to elect their own officers without executive interference, elected Chiles Speaker of the House anyway and so notified the governor. The next day Chiles resigned, citing the impropriety of presiding over the House of Burgesses while it settled the question of who owned the Fame of Virginia. Preconcerted or not, these acts of political theater enabled the House of Burgesses to preserve the right to elect the Speaker, Chiles received the honor of being elected, and by resigning he made it possible for the governor and other members of the assembly to resolve the controversies and seal the deal that gave him the Leopoldus of Dunkirk. The episode was important in preserving the independence of the House of Burgesses as a powerful parliamentary body during a time of political uncertainty, and it led to a peaceful solution of most of the problems.

Walter Chiles’s name drops from documents relating to public affairs with the conclusion of the assembly session about a week later, and it is probable that he died not long thereafter. Dutch documents place a “Walter Chiels, merchant, living in the Virginias” in Amsterdam in August 1654 and indicate that he intended to sail for New Netherland the following month. The wording of an order of the Charles City County Court on December 17, 1655, indicates that Chiles might have still been alive then, but on November 5 of that year, when a deed he had executed in 1652 was recorded in James City County, a witness authenticated the document, suggesting that Chiles might have been dead by that date. The widow of his namesake son stated on November 20, 1673, that Walter Chiles had died in or about 1653.

MAP
TIMELINE
March 20, 1609
Walter Chiles is baptized in the church of Saint Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, England.
1636
Walter Chiles makes his first recorded trip to Virginia in the service of merchants William Harris and Nicholas Jolly aboard the Blessing.
1638
By this year, Walter Chiles has fitted out his own ship and returned to Virginia with his wife, Elizabeth, and sons.
June 1641
Walter Chiles and three other men petition the General Assembly for permission to explore land and waterways west of the Appomattox River. They are granted a license in January 1642.
January 12, 1642
Walter Chiles represents Charles City County as a burgess in the General Assembly at the session that begins on this date.
1643
Walter Chiles represents Charles City County as a burgess in the General Assembly.
November 20, 1645
Walter Chiles represents James City County in the House of Burgesses at the session that begins on this date.
October 5, 1646
Walter Chiles represents James City County in the House of Burgesses at the session that begins on this date.
October 10, 1649
Walter Chiles represents James City County in the House of Burgesses at the session that begins on this date.
March 23, 1650
Walter Chiles purchases from Sir William Berkeley a brick house in Jamestown where governors had resided for more than a decade.
1651
Walter Chiles serves on the governor's Council.
January 1652
Walter Chiles sails to the Netherlands in his ship the Fame of Virginia. He returns to the Virginia colony five months later.
June 13, 1652
A local militia captain detains Walter Chiles's ship the Fame of Virginia for violating the Navigation Act, which forbids unauthorized trade with the Netherlands.
1653
Walter Chiles buys the ship Leopoldus of Dunkirk, which had been seized for violating the Navigation Act, for £400.
July 5, 1653
Against the wishes of Governor Richard Bennett, the House of Burgesses elects as its Speaker Walter Chiles, a representative from James City County.
July 6, 1653
A day after being elected to the position, Walter Chiles resigns as Speaker of the House of Burgesses. He does so to allow the burgesses to resolve the controversy surrounding his ship the Fame of Virginia.
November 20, 1673
The namesake son of Walter Chiles states that his father died in or about 1653.
FURTHER READING
  • Gentry, Daphne. “Walter Chiles.” In Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, edited by Sara Bearss et al., 210–212. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006.
  • Kukla, Jon. Speakers and Clerks of the Virginia House of Burgesses, 1643–1776. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1981.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Gentry, Daphne. Chiles, Walter (1609–after July 6, 1653). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/chiles-walter-1609-after-july-6-1653.
MLA Citation:
Gentry, Daphne. "Chiles, Walter (1609–after July 6, 1653)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 04 Aug. 2021
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