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).
On June 8, 1586, Drake visited the fledgling English colony on Roanoke Island in the Carolina Sounds, probably intending to leave supplies, some small vessels, and additional settlers—actually, Spanish prisoners. However, instead of reinforcing the settlement, Drake helped evacuate the hungry colonists after a three-day hurricane. Three years later, Gates edited and published A summarie and true discourse of Sir Francis Drakes West Indian voyage, an account of the expedition that, according to its dedication, was “begun by Captaine [Walter] Bigges, who ended his life in the said voyage” and “afterwards finished (as I thinke) by his Lieutenant Maister Croftes or some other.”
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 was admitted to Gray’s Inn, one of London’s Inns of Court, on March 14, 1598, and entered public service at Plymouth in 1599. Sometime early in the reign of James I, who succeeded Elizabeth to the throne in 1603, he enlisted in the army of the States General of the Netherlands, serving as captain of a company of foot-soldiers in the war against Spain. During this time, he also took a leading role on behalf of the Virginia Company of London’s petition to colonize the Chesapeake Bay. Gates’s interest in the project may have come from his association with Raleigh, who had financed the Roanoke voyages, or with Thomas Smythe, later the treasurer of the Virginia Company, who, like Gates, had been knighted at Cádiz. Whatever the case, Gates’s name was listed first on the charter that King James issued the company on April 10, 1606.
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
From its start, the Virginia colony had been plagued by hunger, disease, bad weather, bickering leaders, and poor relations with the Indians of Tsenacomoco. With an eye toward reform, James I issued a second royal charter on May 23, 1609, transferring control from the Crown to private investors, led by Gates’s old comrade Sir Thomas Smythe and represented by the Virginia Council. In addition, the second charter authorized the Council to appoint a resident governor who would be advised, but could not be deposed, by a council of his own. Before it was abolished, however, the royal council appointed Gates governor in May 1609 and issued him confidential instructions on Virginia’s priorities. Besides extracting various natural resources from the land and sending them back to England, the colonists were authorized to capture Tsenacomoco’s paramount chief, Powhatan (Wahunsonacock) if he proved uncooperative and to redirect his tribute to the English. They were urged to move the colony’s seat upstream from disease-ridden Jamestown to a location nearer the falls of the James River.
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
On May 21, 1610, Gates, Somers, and the survivors of the Sea Venture anchored at Fort Algernon, Point Comfort, where they found Captain James Davis and 30 relatively healthy colonists. Up the James River, however, things were drastically different. On May 24, Gates arrived at Jamestown to find 60 gaunt remnants of the 240 or so people who had crowded into James Fort the previous November. These men and women, under the command of George Percy, had barely survived what came to be known as the Starving Time. Unlike at Fort Algernon, where all the colonists had survived the winter, the Virginia Indians had made it impossible for the James Fort settlers to hunt or forage.
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 June 12, De La Warr confirmed the Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall first issued by Gates and added to them. He also decided to wage war in earnest against the Indians. Hostilities had begun in the autumn prior to the Starving Time with fights at both ends of the James. Then, in November 1609, Powhatan’s men had ambushed a group of colonists, torturing to death Captain John Ratcliffe. Now De La Warr ordered Gates to Warraskoyack, ten or mroe miles west of Point Comfort, where one of his men, Humphrey Blunt, was captured and tortured to death by the Indians. On July 9, Gates’s men retaliated by luring Kecoughtan warriors to the riverbank with a drummer who imitated a traditional Powhatan greeting. The subsequent English attack killed twelve to fourteen Indians.
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 served as an outspoken advocate for the company at a crucial time, persuading the investors to fund two additional expeditions to Virginia. The first of these was led by Sir Thomas Dale, an acquaintance of Gates dating back to November 1606, when the two met in Oudewater, South Holland. Dale arrived in Virginia on May 19, 1611, with about 300 well-armed soldiers. Finding that De La Warr had left the colony due to illness, Dale assumed the position of deputy governor. On June 22 he issued an expanded version of the Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, enforcing strict discipline on the colony’s military personnel. Also in June, Dale and his men attacked the Nansemond Indians near the mouth of the James, and, late in the month, fought off a Spanish reconnaissance mission at Point Comfort. Then, in August, Gates returned to Virginia at the head of a second expedition, which included three ships, 280 men, 20 women, 200 heads of cattle, 200 swine, and various other supplies and equipment. Spying the fleet as it entered the bay, Dale feared that the Spanish had returned. In the end, however, he welcomed his old comrade back to Virginia, and Gates became the colony’s lieutenant governor.
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.
When Gates returned to England in March 1614, leaving Dale in command, the colonists had the upper hand in the still-raging First Anglo-Powhatan War. The settlements on the upper James had forced the Powhatans to evacuate much of their territory on the river, and in April 1613 Captain Samuel Argall captured Pocahontas, daughter of the paramount chief Powhatan. Bargaining for the girl’s return helped to end the war, although, in the end, she did not return to the Powhatans. Instead, a month after Gates’s departure, she married John Rolfe.
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.
In 1618 Gates received compensation from the Dutch for the period he was absent from the Netherlands. Like Dale, he was credited with developing the Virginia colony into a base of trading operations, thereby enhancing commerce with the Dutch. In a November 1619 speech before the Virginia Company’s Quarter Court, the company’s new treasurer, Sir Edwin Sandys, praised Gates’s “Wisdom, Industry, and Valour, accompanied with exceeding Paines and Patience, in the Midst of Many Difficulties.” A few months later, Gates joined other Virginia Company “hard-liners,” or those who favored a military-style government, in protesting the appointment of Gates’s former subordinate Sir George Yeardley as Virginia’s governor. They disapproved of Yeardley’s policies, which they felt were too lenient, and they contended that he was unqualified to serve. Probably because he disapproved of the direction in which the Virginia Company’s colonizing project was headed, Gates began disposing of his company stock. Between March and June 1620, for example, he sold 60 shares, collectively worth 6,000 acres of land. At his death, he retained 50 shares.
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.”