The three men who issued and first administered the laws were all career army officers, and because the largest part of the code was the law martial for the governing of the soldiers, the code has been misunderstood as imposing martial law on everyone in the colony. It has also been wrongly called Dale’s Laws, as if Deputy Governor Sir Thomas Dale, who administered the code for much of the time that it was in effect, was its sole or principal author.
The Virginia Company received a new charter in 1609 that authorized it to send a military governor to the struggling colony. Sir Thomas Gates sailed for Virginia in 1609, but his ship, the Sea Venture, was wrecked on Bermuda in a hurricane. When he arrived in Virginia in May 1610, he found the remnant of the garrison at Jamestown that had survived the deadly winter known as the Starving Time. On May 24, 1610, Gates issued the first of the orders that William Strachey compiled and published in England in 1612 in a book entitled For the Colony in Virginea Britannia. Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, &c.
Gates and the surviving colonists decided within weeks to pack up and sail for Newfoundland to catch a ride back to England aboard the fishing fleet. On the way down the James River, they met a relief expedition under the command of Thomas West, baron De La Warr, who had been appointed governor of the colony by the Virginia Company. The survivors returned to Jamestown. On June 12, 1610, De La Warr confirmed and began adding to the regulations that Gates had first announced. It is not possible from Strachey’s compilation to know in most instances who issued which orders or whether the governors issued them in the same sequence in which Strachey published them. Some orders, such as those mentioning a new well that was dug later, clearly postdate the first Gates and De La Warr orders. The whole body of laws that Strachey compiled before returning to England in 1612 fills eighteen pages in his book. In the title he called them “Divine” and “Morall” laws and in another part “Divine” and “Politique” laws.
In May 1611, Sir Thomas Dale arrived in Virginia with supplies, livestock, and many new settlers. He commanded a large and well-equipped military force and on June 22, 1611, issued a detailed law martial for the governing of the soldiers. It fills sixty-nine pages of Strachey’s book and was a fairly standard military code prescribing the duties and responsibilities of all the officers and men and imposing severe corporal punishments or death for infractions of discipline. Dale ordered that the guard publicly read a seven-page prayer twice each day. He administered the colony most of the time until the spring of 1616 during the long absences of Gates and De La Warr, but it is unlikely that he subjected the civilian residents of Virginia to the law martial. The orders imposed on civilians, to which Dale very likely added others, were strict enough to give the laws an evil reputation, and Dale’s administration of them was harsh enough to earn him much criticism then and thereafter.
The laws specified the responsibilities of ministers and required every person to attend church twice every Sunday. The laws established procedures for the disposal of the property of colonists who died, regulated trade with Indians, prohibited unnecessary killing of livestock, required houses and bedding to be kept clean, and forbade washing soiled clothing and cooking utensils or doing “the necessities of nature” within a quarter mile of the new well. The laws also regulated the collection of debts and trading with men aboard ships, and they required tradesmen, cooks, laundry women, and others to work at their tasks and the men to muster for defense when summoned.
The laws ordered severe corporal punishment for many offenses, such as having a bodkin driven through the tongue for cursing or speaking disrespectfully of the clergy or company officials. The code imposed whippings and other physical punishment for gambling, failing to attend church, fornication, adultery, unnecessarily killing livestock, or stealing agricultural implements or other people’s crops.
The list of crimes to be punished with death was long: blasphemy, uttering treasonous words or words critical of the company, murder, sodomy, robbery, swearing false oaths, bearing false witness, trading with Indians without permission, stealing from Indians, cheating the company or the cape merchant (who operated the company’s storehouse), trading with sailors without permission, and sending goods out of the colony without permission. It prescribed death for a third offence for several of the crimes to be punished in the first or second instance by whipping, standing in the stocks or at the pillory, or having the tongue bored through or cut out.
The laws required that every minister “read all these lawes and ordinances, publickly in the assembly of the congregation.”
It is very likely that Dale (as well as Gates and De La Warr during their occasional short residences in Virginia) issued more orders after Strachey left Virginia early in 1612, but those orders, or laws, have not survived. Strict enforcement of the code, for which Dale was noteworthy, helped the company restore order and discipline in Virginia. The company’s military governors administered the code until April 18, 1619, when Sir George Yeardley arrived in Jamestown and began governing under the new Great Charter of 1618. From July 30 to August 4, 1619, he presided over the first meeting of the General Assembly of Virginia that adopted the first laws of the new civilian government.