Gates was born at Colyford in Colyton Parish, Devonshire, in the southwest of England. Little is known about his early life; his date of birth and the identity of his parents are unknown. As a lieutenant in Captain Christopher Carleill's company, he sailed with Sir Francis Drake's so-called American Armada, a twenty-five-ship fleet with 2,300 men. On November 16–17, 1585, Drake destroyed the town of Santiago, in the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa, before proceeding to the West Indies, where on January 1–3, 1586, he sacked the port of Santo Domingo, on the island of Hispaniola. On February 9, Drake attacked Cartagena, on the Spanish Main, and his men burned the Spanish settlement at St. Augustine (in present-day Florida).
The book's dedicatee was another of Gates's shipmates, Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, who came to serve as Gates's patron and mentor. In 1591, Gates accompanied Essex to Normandy, where the earl, commissioned a general for the occasion, lent his army in support of Henry IV, the Huguenot claimant to the French throne. In June 1596, Gates was with Essex again when an English fleet—under the command of the earl; England's Lord High Admiral, Charles Howard, baron of Effingham; and Sir Walter Raleigh—sacked the Spanish port city of Cádiz. The earl, who was particularly close with Queen Elizabeth, knighted Gates for gallantry at Cádiz, an honor that later was royally confirmed. (Essex and the queen eventually fell out, and after being convicted of plotting against her, he was executed in 1601.) And in 1597, Gates joined the Islands Voyage, in which an English fleet, led by Essex and Raleigh, unsuccessfully attacked the Portuguese-held Azores.
Gates did not immediately join the colonists, however. Rather than help to found Jamestown in 1607, he continued on in the Netherlands. Then, early in 1608, he requested a year's leave of absence from the States General, which was granted on April 24, 1608. Gates was preparing, finally, for a trip to Virginia.
Voyage to Virginia
On June 2, Gates departed for Virginia aboard the flagship Sea Venture (or Sea Adventure), one of nine ships carrying a total of about 500 settlers. As the colony's governor, Gates served as the resupply mission's land commander, with Sir George Somers, as the newly appointed admiral of Virginia, its commander at sea. On July 24, the fleet was scattered by a violent storm in the Atlantic, and the Sea Venture—captained by Christopher Newport and carrying, among others, Somers, John Rolfe, William Strachey, the Reverend Richard Bucke, and George Yeardley, an old subordinate of Gates's—sprang a serious leak. After a harrowing several days, the ship ran aground near the Bermudas, a fishhook-shaped group of islands situated about 640 miles east of present-day Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
There, the castaways spent ten months attempting to repair the Sea Venture before, finally, building two new ships, Deliverance and Patience. Although Gates and Somers had been comrades on the Islands Voyage of 1597, in Bermuda they argued over who held the overall command, with one observer writing that the two had "an affection of disgraceinge one another, and crossing their designes." In March 1610, Gates—demonstrating his penchant for strict military order—oversaw the execution of Henry Paine, a gentleman who had planned to escape the island with some stolen supplies. Several of Paine's alleged conspirators also were executed.
Once the new ships were completed, the castaways, long thought lost at sea, set sail for Virginia, arriving on May 21, 1610. Strachey's account of the adventure, A true reportory of the wracke, and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight, was published in 1625 and probably served, years earlier, as source material for William Shakespeare's play The Tempest.
Governor of Virginia
In an attempt to instill military discipline, Gates issued on his first day at Jamestown the first of a set of regulations published in 1612 as For the Colony in Virginea Brittania. Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, &c. Food, not discipline, proved most important, however, and, unable to procure adequate provisions, Gates ordered the colony abandoned after just a few weeks; he planned to sail his charges to Newfoundland, where they would find passage back to England aboard the fishing fleet. The colonists happily loaded what they could onto four pinnaces, and buried the fort's cannon near the main gate. They likely would have burned the fort down as good riddance were it not for Gates's insistence that, according to Percy, they "let the towne Stande."
On June 8, as Gates and company sailed toward the Chesapeake, they encountered ships commanded by Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr, who identified himself as Virginia's new governor and, much to the colonists' disappointment, ordered them back to Jamestown. Earlier in the year, on February 28, the Virginia Company had commissioned De La Warr governor and captain-general for life, and he departed for America a few weeks later in command of substantial reinforcements, including additional colonists and a year's worth of supplies. On June 10, now ensconced at Jamestown and having heard a sermon by the Reverend Richard Bucke, he named Gates his deputy.
On July 20, Gates weighed anchor for home, and his arrival was in many respects triumphant. Having survived the disastrous Sea Venture voyage, having staked out Bermuda for future planting, and having helped save the Jamestown colony, he was a hero in England. And as it happened, the Virginia Company—reeling from war, starvation, and disease in Virginia, not to mention all the attendant bad publicity at home—needed such a hero. Investment in the company had fallen off, but Gates's tale of survival and redemption provided the sort of narrative that propagandists can easily exploit. In A True Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia, a report issued around November 1610, the company suggested that the story was animated by "the direct line of Gods providence."
Return to Virginia
Gates immediately set about improving the defensive posture of the colonists, constructing three forts at the mouth of the James River. According to a later report by the General Assembly, he also "erected some buildinges in and about James Towne," including a governor's house, an additional blockhouse, and a new wharf. He even cultivated a garden containing small but vigorously growing fruit trees. These may have been tended to by Gates's daughters, whose mother (name unknown) had died on the transatlantic voyage. Rather than see them pursue their fortunes in Virginia, Gates sent them back home with Christopher Newport in December 1611. At his death, Gates had at least two sons, Thomas and Anthony, and three daughters, Margaret, Mary, and Elizabeth.
Meanwhile, in September 1611, Gates took advantage of the soldiers he had brought from England and dispatched Dale to near the falls of the James. There he attacked and defeated the Powhatans and founded the City of Henrico, or Henricus, the first permanent English settlement outside Jamestown. This milestone made possible another cluster of settlements, founded by Dale and known as the New Bermudas or Bermuda Incorporation: Bermuda City, Bermuda Hundred, Digges Hundred, the Upper Hundred (or Curles), and West and Shirley Hundred and Island.
Although the Gates and Dale regimes were criticized because of the often harsh measures meted out in accordance with the Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, both leaders were credited with saving the colony from extinction. In England, Gates continued to promote the Virginia Company's interests, warning his superiors that the colony would fail if not adequately supplied.
On November 3, 1620, James I appointed Gates to the Council for New England, a project of the Virginia Company of Plymouth. Around that time, officials of the Virginia Company of London sought his advice on building a fort in Virginia, citing his military skill and his knowledge of the colony. Gates responded by stating that he could recommend a Frenchman known to possess such skills and who might be persuaded to move to Virginia. But rather than return to Virginia himself, Gates moved back to the Netherlands and died there sometime before September 7, 1622. On that date, Sir Dudley Carleton informed an English official of Gates's death, describing him as "an ancient honest gentlemen of this nation."
November 16–17, 1585 - An English naval fleet under the command of Sir Francis Drake destroys the town of Santiago, in the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa.
February 9, 1586 - An English naval fleet under the command of Sir Francis Drake attacks Cartagena, on the Spanish Main, and his men go on to burn the Spanish settlement at St. Augustine (in present-day Florida).
1589 - Thomas Gates edits and publishes A summarie and true discourse of Sir Francis Drakes West Indian voyage, an account of Drake's so-called American Armada, of which Gates is a veteran.
1591 - Thomas Gates accompanies Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, to Normandy, where the earl, commissioned a general for the occasion, lends his army in support of Henry IV, the Huguenot claimant to the French throne.
June 1596 - On behalf of Queen Elizabeth, Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, knights Thomas Gates for gallantry after the English sack of the Spanish port city of Cádiz.
1597 - Sir Thomas Gates takes part in the Islands Voyage, in which an English fleet led by Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, and Sir Walter Raleigh attacks the Portuguese-held Azores. The raid is unsuccessful.
March 14, 1598 - Sir Thomas Gates is admitted to Gray's Inn, one of London's Inns of Court.
1599 - Sir Thomas Gates enters public service at Plymouth, England.
November 1606 - Sir Thomas Gates first meets Sir Thomas Dale in Oudewater, South Holland, where the two serve as infantry officers in the army of the States General of the Netherlands.
April 24, 1608 - The States General of the Netherlands grants Sir Thomas Gates's request for a year's leave of absence. Gates, who commands a company of foot soldiers in the Dutch army, is preparing for a trip to Virginia.
May–June 1609 - The Virginia Company of London issues the colony's new governor, Sir Thomas Gates, confidential "Instruccions orders and Constitucions by way of advise sett downe declared and propounded to Sir Thomas Gates knight Governour of Virginia … for the Direccion of the affaires of that Countrey."
November 1610 - In A True Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia, the Virginia Company of London, hurt by lack of investment, rebuts its critics and argues for continued colonization efforts. The report suggests that Virginia's survival has come through "the direct line of Gods providence."
December 1611 - Captain Christopher Newport leads a return trip to England that includes the daughters of Lieutenant Governor Sir Thomas Gates. Their mother had died on the transatlantic voyage earlier in the year.
April 1613 - Samuel Argall uses his extensive knowledge of the Potomac River–northern Chesapeake area and its Indian population to kidnap Pocahontas while she is with the Patawomeck—an event that ultimately helps to bring the devastating First Anglo-Powhatan War to a conclusion in 1614.
March 1614 - Lieutenant Governor Sir Thomas Gates returns to England, leaving Sir Thomas Dale in command of the colony.
1618 - Sir Thomas Gates wins compensation from the States General of the Netherlands for the period he was in Virginia and absent from army duty.
November 1619 - In a speech before the Virginia Company of London's Quarter Court, the company's new treasurer, Sir Edwin Sandys, praises Sir Thomas Gates's "Wisdom, Industry, and Valour."
November 3, 1620 - King James I appoints Sir Thomas Gates to the Council for New England, a project of the Virginia Company of Plymouth.
September 7, 1622 - Sir Dudley Carleton writes a letter informing an English official of the death, in the Netherlands, of Sir Thomas Gates, describing him as "an ancient honest gentlemen of this nation."
June 13, 1623 - Thomas Gates, the son of former Virginia governor Sir Thomas Gates, is given administration of his late father's estate.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
McCartney, M. Sir Thomas Gates (d. 1622). (2014, May 25). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Gates_Sir_Thomas_d_1622.
- MLA Citation:
McCartney, Martha. "Sir Thomas Gates (d. 1622)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 25 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: August 2, 2011 | Last modified: May 25, 2014
Contributed by Martha McCartney, a historian and independent researcher in Williamsburg.