The Jamestown Lottery
By Ken Zurski
The winner of the first lottery designed to help the colonists of the New World is a man named Thomas Sharplisse, a tailor from London.
We know this rather trivial historical fact thanks in part to a another man named John Stow who decided to chronicle English life in in the 16th century. His book Survey of London was released in 1598, a life’s work indeed, since he was dead just seven years later at the age of 80.
At the start of the 17th century, however, other diarists picked up the slack, commissioned by King James I, and continued to record anecdotes and life experiences of fellow Londoners. The Stow’s Chronicles is the result.
And because of it, we know the name: Thomas Sharplisse.
Sharplisse had nothing to do with America except, as other Londoners did at the time, a passing interest in what was going on in the New World. It was after all 1612. The stock holding Virginia Company of London, had funded the first English colony in North America, the struggling James Towne, or more commonly known as Jamestown, named of course in honor of his majesty.
The newly established settlement (actually it was the second incarnation, the first was James Fort) was reeling from sickness, starvation and occasional attacks by hostile Indians. They were in desperate need for more supplies, but the Virginia Company was broke. So the King approved a lottery, a game of chance really, but also an opportunity for fellow countryman to invest at a time when charitable contributions didn’t exist.
Marketing for the lottery was in the guise of a song:
To London, worthy Gentlelmen,
goe venture there your chaunce:
good lucke standes now in readinesse,
your fortunes to advance
In June of 1612, Sharplisse was among the crowd that gathered in a specially constructed “Lotterie house” near St. Paul’s Church in London to watch tickets drawn in the first Great Standing Lottery or the Jamestown Lottery as it is more referred to today.
Little else is known about Sharplisse except that he spent two-shillings-and-sixpence on the chance. And according to Stow’s Chronicles, Shaprlisse’s ticket was the Grand Prize winner – four thousand crowns in “fayre plate, which was sent to his house in a very stately manner.” It was a fortune at the time.
Two Anglican churches took home smaller winnings
After the Virginia Company paid for the prizes, salesman, managers, and other expenses, the remaining revenue covered the cost of shipping people and supplies to Jamestown. It was such a vital resource that Captain John Smith referred to the lottery as “the real and substantial food.” Disappointing, however, was the turn out. Nearly 60-thousand lottery tickets went unsold. Eventually, the crown banned lotteries that benefited Jamestown because of complaints that they were robbing England of money.
More than a century later, the First Continental Congress tried a lottery to help pay for the Revolutionary War.
(Some text was reprinted from The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution; Source: Colonial America Lottery by Steve Swain)