May 1611 | First Lawman in the Colonies?

 Sir Thomas Dale, ca. 1609-1619, oil on canvas. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund.

“Whose valor having shined in the Westerne, was set in the Easterne India.”   
-Epitaph for Sir Thomas Dale

When Sir Thomas Dale arrived in Chesapeake Bay in May of 1611, the settlement of Jamestown was four years old and had already lost hundreds of colonists to battle, starvation, and disease. During the winter of 1609-10, appropriately known as the starving time, two-thirds of the colony had died leaving only 60 survivors. To help the colony thrive, a new governor was appointed and a system of laws established called the Articles, Lawes, and Orders, Divine, Politique, and Martiall for the Colony in Virginea.

As marshal, Dale enforced the new civil and military codes and perfected them. These codes, often referred to as Dale’s Laws, were notably severe, even in a time known for harsh justice. Jamestown grew under his discipline, but in 1619 colonists opted for a more representative form of government and established a General Assembly with laws more closely modeled on English common law.

Sir Thomas Dale left the colony in 1616 and returned to England along with colonist John Rolfe and his wife, Pocahontas. Safely home, Dale boasted that he had “returned from the hardest taske that ever I undertooke & by the blessing of god have wth poor means left the Collonye in great prosperitye & peace contrarye to many men's expectation.” After Jamestown, Dale went to the East Indies and fought the Dutch near Java. He died from illness off the east coast of India in 1619 and a tomb was erected for him there.

Should Dale be considered the first law enforcement officer in what would become the United States of America? His power and authority was exponentially greater than that of any modern law enforcement officer—he was, in essence, the colony’s entire criminal justice system. But clearly some of the duties of law enforcement that we know today intersect with the duties of his position as marshal. There is no definitive answer. Perhaps the true first officer would be in the earliest Spanish, French or Dutch colonies or within Native American societies. For now, Dale provides an interesting window into the question of how we define law enforcement and how that definitition reflects our society.