Biography of Thomas Dale

You could write a great movie script about a man like Thomas Dale. He wasn’t the most light-hearted of guys, and he ruled with an iron fist. He didn’t believe in fuzzy bunnies, candy or rainbows. Luxury didn’t exist in the New World. He was a military man–knighted by King James I, he knew you had to do what needed to be done in order to survive. If one of his underlings refused a work order, that underling would be granted three years work as a slave instead. If that didn’t work, death would suffice. You were free only so long as you followed the rule of order.

While the harshness of his rule might be undeniable, so too was his effectiveness. He was sent to the Virginia Colony to act as the “Marshall of Virginia” by the Virginia Company of London for exactly that reason. His reputation was solid. He arrived in Jamestown as part of a three ship entourage on May 19 of 1611, only a year after The Starving Time, a brutal winter period that saw the vast majority of the colonists die of hunger. He immediately set forth to make things better. He started by calling the Jamestown Council to order. During this session, he established guidelines for rebuilding the colony.

Before he arrived, the settlers might as well have been living as a pack of animals. Thomas Dale helped establish “Dale’s Code”, or more formally the “Articles, Lawes, and Orders Divine, Politique, and Martiall” which was a strict code of laws.

Economic prosperity was no more than a distant mirage before Dale arrived. He increased the amount of land granted to settlers that had already been living in the colony, while later arrivals to Jamestown would be provided with less. This allowed veteran settlers to markedly increase food production. The economy would become much healthier after John Rolfe’s hybrid tobacco yield in 1614. During that same year, Dale established the production of salt.

These policies worked in part due to other actions: if you were caught stealing extra rations, you were strapped to a tree and left to starve. In addition, Dale attacked the Native American tribes that had once surrounded Jamestown, and helped end the first Powhatan War.

Dale also recognized how terrible a location the original Jamestown was built upon. He gave up the relative discomfort of the old site, and dreamed instead of new potential at the junction between the Appomattox and James Rivers. This location never panned out. He also began to develop at a location that would eventually be named Farrars Island, but that was destroyed by a Native American massacre that resulted in the deaths of a third of the colonists present at the time. By that time, Dale had already returned to England.