Thomas West was born on July 9, 1576, the son of Thomas West, second, or eleventh, baron De La Warr, and Anne Knollys West, of Wherwell, Hampshire, England, where mostly likely he was born and christened. The barony De La Warr (pronounced “de la ware”) was created first in 1299 and then again, due to a legal dispute, in 1570. As such, the baron’s number depends on a willingness to recognize the second creation, which started its count again at one.
The family possessed impeccable social and political connections that assisted West in his career. He entered the Queen’s College, University of Oxford, at age fifteen on March 9, 1592. Like many other young men he left without taking a degree, but the university awarded him and more than a dozen other dignitaries an MA in 1605 on the occasion of a visit by the king. West married Cecilia, or Cecily, Shirley on November 25, 1596, at St.-Dunstan-in-the-West, a church in London. They had six daughters and one son. After a year’s tour of Italy, West won election to the House of Commons from Lymington and served in the Parliament that met from October 1597 until February 1598.
He soldiered in the Low Countries and campaigned in Ireland with Robert Devereaux, second earl of Essex. A victory against Phelim MacFeagh O’Byrne near Arklow, County Wicklow, on the east coast of Ireland, on June 30, 1599, led to West’s knighthood a couple of weeks later. Suspected of complicity in Essex’s hapless revolt against Queen Elizabeth I, West was imprisoned briefly in 1601, but the earl absolved him of any guilt. With the cloud of suspicion lifted, West became a privy councillor to the queen and to her successor, James I. When West’s father died in March 1602, he succeeded to the barony and thereafter signed himself Tho: Lawarre.
In November 1606 the king appointed De La Warr to the royal council that oversaw the Virginia Company of London. De La Warr invested £500 in the company, by far the largest investment of any company officer during the following decade. During the critical first years of the Virginia colony, De La Warr monitored from London the deteriorating situation in the colony and worked toward revamping its governance. He may have assisted in drafting the Charter of 1609, which abolished the royal council and authorized the company to appoint a resident governor with the power to name his subordinate officers. Noble rank, stature at court, military experience, and his own substantial personal investment in the company combined to make De La Warr the obvious choice as Virginia’s governor, and on February 28, 1610, the company commissioned him governor and captain-general for life.
De La Warr departed from London a few weeks later in command of a substantial expedition of colonists, supplies, and ships. The swiftness of his departure and the number of resources suggest that his appointment had been agreed to long before the date of his commission and the first references to it in the company’s surviving records. De La Warr’s fleet arrived in Virginia early in June 1610. As it entered the James River, it encounteredand the survivors of the of November 1609–May 1610. They had and were setting sail for Newfoundland to catch a ride to England aboard the fishing fleet. De La Warr’s timely arrival with reinforcements and provisions prevented Virginia from becoming another failed venture like the colony on in the 1580s.
De La Warr reorganized the colony along the military lines that the company had envisioned. To that end, he implemented harsh civil regulations akin to what the English had imposed on their troops in the Netherlands and Ireland.subsequently added military regulations, and the combined orders were published in London under the title (1612). The military regime stabilized Virginia, though it gave rise to choruses of complaints from the settlers and did little to ensure the colony’s profitability.
De La Warr attacked theIndians of with a fierceness and brutality that matched his fighting in Ireland. After an attack by the Paspahegh Indians, De La Warr’s soldiers , killing the chief’s captured wife and two children. Two villages of Warraskoyack Indians were burned and their corn stolen. Still, the bloodshed brought no resolution to the (1609–1614) by the time the governor left Virginia. Chronic ill health, including dysentery and scurvy, drove De La Warr to flee the colony in the spring of 1611 in search of relief. His abrupt return to London caused such consternation in the company that later in the year he defended himself by publishing .
Three of De La Warr’s brothers also took active parts in the colonization of Virginia. Francis West sailed to Virginia within 1608. He served on the from 1609 until his death and as governor from November 1627 through February 1629. Nathaniel West and John West (1590–1659) may have gone to Virginia together in 1618. The latter established himself as a prominent military officer, a member of the Council, and acting governor from 1635 to 1637.
One of the early settlements on the James River, West and Shirley Hundred, probably acquired its name from the family names of the governor and his wife.named a cape and a bay for De La Warr during voyages along the mid-Atlantic coast in 1610 and 1612. The river that empties into that bay and one of the principal Indian tribes that dwelled in its vicinity also acquired his name in English-language discourse, as did the American state, all spelled as one word, Delaware.
Early in 1618 De La Warr boarded the Neptune to return to Virginia and resume his work as governor, but he died en route on July 7, 1618. John Pory reported in the autumn that De La Warr had “dyed in Canada,” suggesting that the governor died near the coast north of the charter boundaries of Virginia, probably off Nova Scotia or perhaps Newfoundland. One of De La Warr’s servants later testified that the governor’s body was carried to Virginia and buried there.