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.