“I have . . . adhered unto the lawes divine, and orders politique, and martiall of his Lordship . . . as I have found either the necessitie of the present State of the Colonie to require.”
Thomas Gates and the body of laws he instituted in Jamestown, Virginia, are often credited with saving the English settlement when all hope seemed lost. After several catastrophically unsuccessful attempts to establish a permanent colony in North America, the hopes of English expansion were riding on Jamestown, and initial reports from the colony sounded promising. However, when Thomas Gates arrived at the colony in 1610, he found it in a state of disarray. In hopes of saving the colony, he issued the Articles, Laws, and Orders, Devine, Politic, and Martial for the Colony in Virginia, which established strict rules for behavior in the colony. The colonists disliked the Articles, Laws, and Orders because of the harsh penalties, but the struggling colony eventually got back on its feet, strengthened its hold on the land, and later thrived as a trading post.
After nearly a year of being shipwrecked in the Bermuda islands while on his way to North America, Thomas Gates finally arrived at the Jamestown, Virginia, settlement in 1610. However, he did not find the “land of plenty” touted to Virginia Company investors back in England; the settlement was in rough shape, as were the colonists themselves. Most had not survived the winter because they were unable to grow enough crops to feed themselves, and the local Powhatan tribe had prevented them from hunting or foraging outside their fort. Disagreements among the leadership of the settlement and the perceived laziness of the colonists led to catastrophic results, and the situation seemed beyond repair.
As a lifelong military man, Gates believed that establishing strict rules was the only way to save the settlement. He wrote the Articles, Laws, and Orders to clearly define how the colonists must behave and established strict penalties for failure to comply. Many of these rules focused on how exactly one must worship God, and nearly every infraction—from murder to praying only once per day—was punishable by death.
Within weeks of his arrival, Gates declared the colony a failure and attempted to evacuate the colonists to England. This attempt was thwarted by Thomas West, who had been sent from England to serve as the new governor of the colony. Upon intercepting the evacuating colonists, he ordered them to turn back and try again.
West and his successor Sir Thomas Dale both reaffirmed the articles, even though some changes were made over the years. Leaders of the colony respected Gates’s military experience highly and believed his strict approach was the only chance the colony had for survival. However, the articles were wildly unpopular with the colonists, who felt that the rules were too strict and the punishments too severe.
Despite some misgivings, the colony stabilized and eventually thrived as a trading post, connecting the eastern coast of North America with England and eventually other trading partners in Europe. Even though he only lived in Jamestown for a relatively short time, Gates is often credited for saving the colony through the strict discipline and guidance he provided at such a crucial time in its history.
Thomas Gates was born in Devonshire, England, although neither the date nor the identity of his parents is known. He joined the military and gained extensive experience sailing as a lieutenant under Captain Christopher Carleill before studying law at Gray’s Inn in 1598. He then joined the army of the States General of the Netherlands and fought in the war against Spain.
Gates was also an investor in the Virginia Company of London, which was founded in 1606 to organize and fund the establishment of English colonies in North America. In 1608, Gates obtained leave from the Dutch army to make the trip to Virginia, but he encountered a difficult obstacle: His ship Sea Venture (or Sea Adventure) was shipwrecked near the Bermuda islands during a severe storm. It took about ten months for the shipwrecked crew to build two new ships and complete the journey to Virginia.
When Gates finally arrived at Jamestown on May 24, 1610, he found that many colonists had died, and those who remained were starving. He issued articles, or rules, in attempt to save the colony, but within a few weeks, he ordered the colony abandoned. He attempted to evacuate the colonists to England but was intercepted by Thomas West, who had been sent from England as the colony’s new governor. West sent the colonists back to Jamestown, but Gates himself returned to England a few weeks later, where he received a hero’s welcome and managed to revitalize public support and funding for England’s colonization efforts.
Gates returned to Virginia in 1611 as lieutenant governor under Sir Thomas Dale. Dale had modified and added to Gates’s articles, but they were still in effect. Gates set out to improve the colony’s defenses by building additional fortifications. He had also brought with him a number of English soldiers, who fought the Powhatans to secure more land and eventually led to the founding of additional colonies nearby.
Gates’s articles were published in 1612 in London as part of William Strachey’s For The Colony in Virginea Britannia: Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, &c. Strachey’s compilation also included West and Dale’s later additions to Gates’s articles. With Dale in command of the colony, Gates returned to England in 1614. In 1620, he was appointed to the Council for New England, another project of the Virginia Company. However, later in his life, Gates sold off many of his shares of the Virginia Company and took little interest in continuing his involvement with the venture, expressing his displeasure at the increasingly lenient governing of the settlements. He eventually moved back to the Netherlands, where he later died. News of his death reached England via a letter dated September 7, 1622, but the exact date of his death is unknown.
On several occasions during the late sixteenth century, England tried to establish permanent colonial settlements in North America. The Spanish had already achieved great success in South America, founding several colonies in areas rich in natural resources such as gold and exotic spices. Likewise, the French had settled in what was to become northeastern Canada and were successfully using the Saint Lawrence River for fishing and trading.
Eager to take advantage of the newly discovered continent, England laid claim to the eastern coast of North America between present-day Maine and Georgia. The first English colony was established at Roanoke, a small island off the coast of present-day North Carolina, in 1585. But by 1587, all the original colonists had disappeared— exactly what happened to them remains one of America’s great mysteries.
For several decades, the English were content to attack Spanish ships returning from the Americas and stealing their valuable cargo. However, by the early seventeenth century, the English decided to pursue colonization in North America with renewed enthusiasm. On April 10, 1606, King James I of England officially chartered the Virginia Company of London, whose primary mission was to organize, fund, and establish a permanent English settlement in North America somewhere between what is now North Carolina and New York, in hopes of bringing great wealth and power to England. The company had several very wealthy investors, including Thomas Gates. However, it has been reported that more than one thousand investors belonging to all different economic classes eventually bought shares in the Virginia Company. This illustrated the high level of public enthusiasm for establishing an English colony in North America.
On April 26, 1607, 144 men and boys landed their ships at the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. They established a small colony there, called Cape Henry. However, most of the colonists continued up the river to settle another colony, which they named Jamestown, officially established on May 14, 1607.
Almost immediately, the colony began to face significant troubles. The Virginia Company was not only chartered to establish the colony; the settlers were deemed “employees” of the company and, in addition to surviving in the New World, their job was to make a profit for the Virginia Company. However, this turned out to be much more difficult than anticipated. Disagreement among the colony’s leaders and between the leaders and the rest of the settlers led to a lack of cooperation on vital tasks such as growing food crops. In addition, the local Powhatan tribe aggressively defended their land, making it nearly impossible for the colonists to leave their protective fort in order to forage and hunt.
In an effort to help the struggling colony, England sent nine ships carrying more than six hundred colonists to Jamestown between 1608 and 1609. Among these was Thomas Gates, who was sent to help the colony get back on track and start producing profits for the Virginia Company investors. Unfortunately, Gates’s ship the Sea Venture was caught in a bad storm and, about three days shy of landing in Virginia, was shipwrecked in the Bermuda islands, several hundred miles off the coast of present-day North Carolina.
The passengers and crew of the Sea Venture were stranded for nearly a year, during which time they attempted to repair their battered ship and then finally built two new ships in order to complete their trip to Virginia. Accounts later made by other passengers of suggest that Gates had stepped up to take charge of the crew’s repair and rebuilding efforts, enforcing strict military discipline on those who would ultimately be responsible for everyone’s survival. These efforts paid off, and on May 21, 1610, two aptly named ships, Patience and Deliverance, landed in Virginia, where they were greeted by Captain James Davis and about thirty relatively happy and healthy colonists.
Gates and his party continued traveling up the river, but when they finally arrived at Jamestown on May 24, they found that only sixty of the original group of more than two hundred colonists had managed to survive what became known as the Starving Time, and even they were struggling to stay alive. The Sea Venture crew had brought a great deal of food to Virginia from the Bermudas, but Gates immediately sensed this would only provide a temporary solution to a much larger problem and would not in itself be sufficient to save the colony.
Gates was a man who loved discipline and order. As a longtime member of the military, he had traveled the seas extensively under well-known captains, including Christopher Carleill and Sir Francis Drake. He recognized the high level of discipline and teamwork that would be necessary if the colony had any chance of survival, and he immediately established the Articles, Laws, and Orders, Devine, Politic, and Martial for the Colony of Virginia to rule Jamestown. These rules were officially recorded and published by William Strachey in 1612.
However, after assessing the situation for only a few weeks, Gates declared the food situation hopeless and ordered the colony abandoned. He attempted to evacuate the few surviving colonists back to England through Newfoundland, but this effort was intercepted by Thomas West, Lord de la Warr, who had been sent from England as the colony’s new governor. West ordered the colonists to return to Jamestown.
Since giving up was no longer an option, Gates set to work to understand the reasons for the settlers’ failure to successfully establish a colony. Food was clearly an issue, as the local Powhatan tribe was effectively preventing the colonists from accessing any resources outside of their small fort. Additionally, infighting among the leaders of the colony meant that the limited resources the settlers did have were not being used effectively. With each colonist worrying only about his own survival, the colony was doomed to fail. Finally, the efforts to generate profits, both for the Virginia Company and for personal gain, caused many colonists to spend too much time searching for gold and other riches and not enough time procuring food. Gates’s articles were the colony’s last hope to pull itself together and find a way to make it in the new world.
At the time of the Jamestown settlement, religion and government were closely tied in many places around the world, including England. As such, a significant portion of the Articles, Laws, and Orders defined exactly how one must worship God and how many times a day one must worship. The penalty for nonconformity was execution. Rather than using religion to motivate colonists to treat one another well, its purpose within the articles was simply to enforce conformity and compliance among the colonists.
Gates believed this strict discipline was necessary to save the colony. In the opening paragraph, he clearly establishes that “no good service can be performed, or warre well managed, where militarie discipline is not observed.” The rules sometimes seemed trivial and the penalties always seemed harsh, but Gates believed them to be necessary.
As for the laws themselves, the first eight spelled out the requirements for religious observance within the colony. Everyone was required to attend weekly sermons and religious education classes (“Catechisms”) on the Sabbath as well as twice-daily prayer services, or be punished by execution. The Articles, Laws, and Orders left absolutely no room for religious freedom of any kind; even if one adhered to the same beliefs as the majority, it was still necessary to participate in all of the rituals exactly as described in the articles or risk death.
The preacher also played an important role in the leadership of the colony. Article 5 required that colonists show proper “reverent regard” to the preachers, or risk being whipped and required to beg publicly for forgiveness during weekly services. Article 33 further expanded the preacher’s power by declaring that he must interview all newly arriving colonists to determine their level of religious piety. If he deemed them insufficiently pious, they were required to submit to any additional education he believed necessary to bring them up to the colony’s standards. If the new arrivals refused to comply, they would be whipped and required to beg publicly for forgiveness during Sabbath services until the minister believed they were ready to be forgiven.
The Articles, Laws, and Orders gave the preachers a great deal of control over ensuring the conformity of all current and future settlers, which Gates believed was vital to maintaining peace and productivity within the colony and therefore enabling its survival. To exercise this power, there were rules directed toward the behavior of the preachers as well: Article 7 established that preachers must “duly preach every Sabbath day in the forenoone, and Catechise in the afternoone, and weekly say the divine service, twice every day, and preach every Wednesday” or risk “losing their Entertainment” (that is, employment or provisions).
Since the main purpose of the Articles, Laws, and Orders was to stabilize the struggling colony by enforcing conformity and order, they also addressed how the settlers must respect and obey the colony’s leaders. This included King James I, since he was the ultimate ruler of the colony even though he had never set foot in Jamestown and never would. Any “traiterous words” spoken by colonists against the king would be punishable by death, as it was vitally important to remove any dissent before an uprising could occur.
Article 12 went even further, and prohibited saying anything negative at all about the colony or its leaders, including truthful statements that could contradict the rosy picture of colonial life painted by the official reports. Punishment for the first offence was public whipping; a second offence carried a three-year prison term; the third and final offence was punishable by death. In order to survive, the colony would need more money, more supplies, and more colonists to be sent from England, and it was therefore imperative that public enthusiasm for the colonization effort remain high to ensure continued investments. Anything that could jeopardize these future investments would be met with harsh punishment.
Finally, the Articles, Laws, and Orders addressed a number of acts that Gates believed would undermine the colony and should therefore be discouraged through harsh punishment. Murder was punishable by execution, as were rape, adultery, homosexuality, and theft. Gates especially singled out stealing food from any store, garden, or other location; this problem had run rampant in the colony due to the dire food situation over the winter, and Gates knew that food had to be safely and properly rationed in order to ensure the survival of the greatest number of people.
Gates believed not only in the importance of writing down the rules that must be followed, but also in strict enforcement and military discipline. In Gates’s mind, no one was exempt from following these rules—including the colony’s leadership. He firmly believed that strict pious behavior and conformity was the key to saving the colony, which is not surprising in light of his extensive military experience. This discipline enabled Gates to organize the Sea Venture crew to build the new ships needed to complete the trip to Virginia, and he believed a heavy-handed approach would work again.
Understandably, these rules were incredibly unpopular with the colonists. These first settlers were also highly religious people who did not necessarily oppose the idea that religion should play a central role in their lives. However, Gates’s vision of a society where people were terrified to miss even a single prayer session lest they be whipped and eventually killed was not shared among the people who actually had to live there. A significant number of the infractions in the Articles, Laws, and Orders were punishable by death, and while Gates’s desire to enforce law and order in the colony was understandable given its struggles, threatening to kill colonists for any violation was not a popular solution. However, despite these protests, the colony finally managed to gain traction and eventually thrive under Gates’s rules.
When West assumed his role as governor of Jamestown on June 10, he affirmed Gates’s articles as the ruling document for Jamestown and added some additional provisions. He also encouraged the colonists to engage in outright war with the American Indians, in hopes that they would eventually be able to forage, hunt, and explore outside of their small fort. Gates himself left the colony on July 20 and returned to England to a hero’s welcome for surviving the Sea Venture shipwreck. His reappearance and reports of the colony helped inject some much-needed enthusiasm back into public support for the Virginia Company and England’s colonization efforts, even though not all of the news was good.
In 1611, Gates returned to Virginia as lieutenant governor under Sir Thomas Dale, after West had fallen ill and left Jamestown. A version of Gates’s original Articles, Laws, and Orders was still in effect, and his new objectives included improving the colony’s defenses by building additional fortifications. This second expedition to Virginia also included many new settlers, a significant number of whom were former English soldiers. These soldiers were brought to Jamestown to fight against the Powhatans, in an effort to make the colony more secure and eventually allow it to expand. Many of these battles were successful and led to the founding of additional colonies nearby. When Gates returned to England in March 1614, the colonists were still fighting the Powhatans, but their future seemed more secure.
Gates’s articles remained unpopular with the colonists, but he is often credited with saving Jamestown and paving the way for it to develop into a viable trading post along the eastern coast. Later leadership in the colony relaxed many of Gates’s strict rules and even stricter penalties for noncompliance, which greatly displeased Gates. Although the Virginia Company continued to consult him in matters concerning the colony and its governance, Gates showed little interest, perhaps because he disagreed so vehemently with the new leadership. He often expressed his disapproval and fought against the company’s appointment of leaders who he believed would be too lenient to govern the colony effectively. He also sold many of his shares in the company, allegedly because of his increasing disapproval of the direction it was taking with its colonization efforts and leadership appointments.
Perhaps the most important element of Gates’s Articles, Laws, and Orders, Devine, Politic, and Martial for the Colony in Virginia was its emphasis on conformity and obedience. A lifelong military man, Gates valued law and order, and he firmly believed that the only way to save the struggling colony was to impose strict rules that left little room for interpretation or lenience. These strict rules and harsh punishments may have been unpopular with the settlers, but the ultimate success of the colony is often credited to Gates, lending credence to his insistence that such extreme measures were necessary for its survival.
Religion played a very significant role in government during this time, especially in the Jamestown colony. Many of Gates’s articles laid out exactly how worship was to be conducted, and failure to conform could be punishable by death. This reinforced conformity among the settlers, which Gates believed was necessary to keep the peace and efficiency required for survival. In an environment where there was little food, few colonists, threats of attack from the American Indians, and few ways to seek help if the situation took a turn for the worse, it was necessary for everyone to work together toward the common cause. Enforcing regular religious practice was another way to ensure uniformity among the colonists and to keep everyone in line.
The articles also established harsh penalties for anyone believed to be sowing seeds of discontent among the settlers by speaking ill of the king or the colony’s local leadership. With so few people, it was vitally important that every single person could work together for the common good, and Gates believed that any possibility of overthrow needed to be prevented. Even sharing negative information about the colony in general could be severely punished, as it was likewise necessary that public support for, and investment in, the colonization efforts remain high back in England. Without this support, Jamestown had no chance at all for survival, especially in its difficult early years.
Gates’s rules were strict and the punishments harsh, but the strict discipline he enforced on the settlers has long been credited with saving the colony and its people.
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