Governor Dale

and cruel Governor Dale, who broke men on the wheel

Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster

In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named. This is the sixth in a series giving brief biographies of these men. Go here to read the biography of Simon Girty, here to read the “biography” of the Reverend John Smeet,  here to read the biography of Major Walter Butler, here to read the biography of Thomas Morton and here to read the biography of King Philip.  Today we look at Governor Thomas Dale.

The Virginia colony was close to collapse.  Too many useless “gentlemen” of leisure who had come to the New World thinking they could pick gold off the ground and quickly return to England rich.  They had not bargained for a hard pioneer life and many seemed to prefer starvation rather than forsaking their lazy habits.  Into this fiasco in the making came Thomas Dale in 1611.  A Surrey man, Dale had served both as a soldier in the Netherlands and in the Navy.  He was a military man to his marrow and something of a martinet.  The Virginia Company, realizing that strong leadership was needed if the new colony was not to dissolve into anarchy appointed Dale as Deputy Governor and as “Marshall of Virginia”.

When he got to Jamestown Dale was alarmed at the dilapidated condition of the buildings and immediately convened a meeting of the council to appoint crews to begin rebuilding Jamestown.  Dale would serve as acting Governor for the colony for three and a half months in 1611 and in 1614-1616.  In the interim Dale served as “Marshall”.  Whatever his title, while he was in the colony it was clear to all that he was in charge.

He introduced the first code of laws to the colony, popularly known as Dale’s code, which is quite severe.  However, coming into a literally lawless community I can see why Dale would have erred on the side of sternness.

Dale, without consulting anyone, ordered the cessation of the nonsensical communal farming system and assigned plots of land to the colonists.  Production of crops immediately increased.

Dale founded Bermuda Hundred, Bermuda City and Henricus which was destroyed in the Great Massacre of 1622 which killed one-third of the settlers.  He established a salt works and gave needed impetus to the fishing industry.

Dale left Virginia in 1616 on the same ship that carried Pocahontas and her husband John Rolfe, the first English tobacco planter, to England.  Dale wrote A True Relation of the State of Virginia, Left by Sir Thomas Dale, Knight, in May last, 1616.  He never returned to Virginia, dying on a military expedition to the East Indies in 1619.  A man as severe as Dale could never hope to be loved by the people he ruled, his presence on the jury of the damned in The Devil and Daniel Webster is tribute to that fact, but it is hard not to believe that without him the Virginia colony might well not have survived.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. Sir Thomas Dale may be most famous for a letter that was written to him by Virginia tobacco planter John Rolfe in 1614, in which he justified his reasons for marrying Pocahontas. Clearly, John Rolfe was in love with Pocahontas, and says as much in his letter to Dale. But such carnal reasons weren’t going to be enough to satisfy the race-conscious man in charge of the Virginia colony. So, Rolfe appealed to love of God and country in his explanation:

    “… for the good of this plantation, for the honour of our countrie, for the glory of God, for my owne salvation, and for the converting to the true knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, an unbeleeving creature, namely Pokahuntas.”

    Dale was so impressed by Rolfe’s letter and his reasons for marrying the Indian princess, that he decided to ask Chief Wahunsonacock, aka Powhatan, if he could marry another one of his daughters who was only 12 years old. Powhatan wisely refused.

  2. And, by the way, Governor Dale could thank John Rolfe for being the person responsible for saving the Virginia colony. Without the tobacco hybrid that Rolfe first planted and experimented with, Virginia would have had no viable economic means of survival. And the 8-year “Peace of Pocahontas” brought about by Rolfe’s marriage to the favorite daughter of Powhatan, bought the colonists valuable time to establish an economic and political foothold in Virginia.

    By the time Powhatan’s brother Opecancanough attacked the Virginia colony in 1622, killing 1/4 of the population, it was too late for the Indians. The colonists were there to stay by that point.

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