Circa 1611, the Virginia Colony was organized as a corporation, with a charter direct from the King of England, the stock-holders known as Adventurers.

The corporation was a failure especially with the Indians being extremely inhospitable. The constant war with the Indians and a growing food crisis left the colonists at wits end and anarchy lurking on the horizon - especially at Jamestown. None of this was helped by the fact that many of the colonists were not volunteers:

"They were children, servants, convicts, or rebels....

"Military justice ... was the key to maintaining social order in Virginia."1

Sir Thomas Dale was chosen to be the new manager of the Virginia Colony. He arrived in 1610 with men and supplies. His mandate included that he:

"... proceed rather as Chancellor then a judge, rather upon the natural right and equity then upon the niceness and letter of the law."

Dale's lawsHe was also given a new set of laws for the Colony, 88 articles in total, laws which eventually took his name and are known as Dale's Laws, the first set of laws in English North America. But other Englishmen were more likely the authors of these severe laws of which Thomas Dale seems to have been but the messenger and enforcer - men like William Strachey, the one-time secretary of Jamestown.

As horrific as they were, Dale's Laws were certainly implemented, as several contemporary accounts have survived. According to Hall, Finkelman and Ely:

"Many of these punishments were carried out. One man who stole a few pints of oatmeal had a needle thrust through his tongue and was then chained to a tree until he starved.

"Punishment under the laws for running away to the Indians was particularly savage. One Englishman recorded punishments ordered by the governor in 1612 against some men who had gone to live with the Indians and then been recaptured: "Some he appointed to be hanged. Some he burned. Some to be broken upon wheels. Others to be staked and some to be shot to death."

It seems ironic that the Indians, who the English thought of as heathen savages, would see the English torture their own like this and probably shared a similar sentiment about them. As for Virginia, the state would issue a Declaration of Rights in 1776 showing that the historical episode of Dale's Laws was just that, and nothing more.

These drastic, siege-mentality Dale's Laws remained in force until 1619.

Dale's Laws smack of theocracy, Old testament, Bible-smacking, religious fanatics were it not for the concurrent military tone through these most early laws of what is now the United States of America. One can only imagine, if not hope that the civilian population of the Colony of Virginia was an unruly bunch to deserve this draconian set of laws, almost unbelievable by today's standards.

Editor's Note (May 20, 2012) - Liberties taken with the original text: we've changed a few spellings because otherwise, you'd find yourself scratching your head every few sentences. For example, we've changed "Virginea" to "Virginia"; "lawes" to "laws"; "martiall" to "martial"; "politique" to "politic"; "Captaine" to "Captain"; "Generall" to General; "Governour" to "Governor"; "againe" to "again", "Deputie" to "Deputy", "principall" to "principal"; "hath" to "has", "chiefe" to "chief"; "alwaies" to "always"; "waies" to "ways"; "murther" to "murder"; "sithence" to "since"; etc. Some we can't be sure of so we've left as is in the original 1611 text; eg. "banne". Also, some omissions have been made for economy of space, and are marked as [...]. This includes the entire second part which had some 55 articles dealing strictly with the punishments of soldiers for their offences.


WHEREAS his Majesty like himself a most zealous Prince has in his own Realm a principal care of true Religion, and reverence to God,and has always strictly commanded his Generals and Governors, with all his forces wherever, to let their ways be like his ends, for :he glory of God.

AND FORSOMUCH as no good service can be performed, or war well managed, where military discipline is not observed, and military discipline cannot be kept, where the rules or chief parts thereof, be not certainly set down, and generally known, I have (with the advice and counsel of Sir Thomas Gates Knight, Lieutenant General), adhered unto the laws divine, and orders politic and martial of his Lordship (the same exemplified), an addition of such others, as I have found either the necessity of the present State of the Colony to require, or the infancy, and weakness of the body thereof, as yet able to digest, and do now publish them to all persons in the Colony, that they may as well take knowledge of the Law themselves, as of the penalty and punishment, which without partiality shall be inflicted upon the breakers of the same. [...]

2. That no man speak impiously or maliciously, against the holy and blessed Trinity, or any of the three persons, that is to say, against God the Father, God the Son, and God the holy Ghost, or against the known Articles of the Christian faith, upon pain of death.

3. That no man blaspheme God's holy name upon pain of death, or use unlawful oaths, taking the name of God in vain, curse or bane, upon pain of severe punishment for the first offence so committed; and for the second, to have a bodkin (i.e. needle) thrust through his tongue; and if he continue the blaspheming of God's holy name, for the third time so offending, he shall be brought to a martial court, and there receive censure of death for his offence.

4. No man shall use any traitorous words against his Majesty's Person, or royal authority
upon pain of death.

5. No man shall speak any word, or do any act, which may tend to the derision, or despite of God's holy word upon pain of death. Nor shall any man unworthily demean himself unto any Preacher, or Minister of the same, but generally hold them in all reverent regard, and dutiful entreaty, otherwise he the offender shall openly be whipped three times, and ask public forgiveness in the assembly of the congregation three several Sabbath days.

6. Every man and woman duly twice a day upon the first Towling of the Bell shall upon the working days repair unto the Church to hear divine Service upon pain of losing his or her day's allowance for the first omission, for the second to be whipped, and for the third to be condemned to the galleys for six months. Likewise no man or woman shall dare to violate or break the Sabbath by any gaming, public or private abroad, or at home, but duly sanctify and observe the same, both himself and his family, by preparing themselves at home with private prayer, that they may be the better fitted for the public according to the commandments of God, and the orders of our Church, as also every man and woman shall repair in the morning to the divine service, and sermons preached upon the Sabbath day, and in the afternoon to divine service, and Catechizing, upon pain for the first fault to lose their provision and allowance for the whole week following, for the second to lose the said allowance and also to be whipped, and for the third to suffer death. [...]

8. He that upon pretended malice, shall murder or take away the Iife of any man, shall be punished with death.

9. No man shall commit the horrible and detestable sins of sodomy upon pain of death; and he or she that can be lawfully convict of adultery shall be punished with death. No man shall ravish or force any woman, maid or Indian, or other, upon pain of death, and know ye that he or she, that shall commit fornication, and evident proof made thereof, for their first fault shall be whipped, for their second they shall be whipped, and for their third shall be whipped three times a week for one month, and ask public forgiveness in the Assembly of the Congregation.

10. No man shall be found guilty of Sacrilege, which is a trespass as well committed in violating and abusing any sacred ministry, duty or office of the Church, irreverently, or profanely, as by being a Church robber, to filch, steal or carry away any thing out of the Church appertaining thereunto, or unto any holy and consecrated place, to the divine Service of God, which no man should do upon pain of death. Likewise he that shall rob the store of any commodities therein, of what quality soever, whether provisions of victuals, or of arms, trucking stuff, apparel, linen or wollen, hose or shoes, hats or caps, Instruments or tools of steels, iron, etc., or shall rob from his fellow soldier or neighbour, any thing that is his, victuals, apparel, household stuff, tool, or what necessary else soever, by water or land, out of boat, house, or knapsack, shall be punished with death.

11. He that shall take an oath untruly, or bear false witness in any cause, or against anyman whatsoever, shall be punished with death.

12. No manner of person whatsoever, shall dare to detract, slander, calumniate or utter unseemly, and unfitting speeches, either against his Majesty's Honourable Council for this Colony, resident in England, or against the Committees, Assistants unto the said Council, or against the zealous endeavors and intentions of the whole body of Adventurers for this pious and Christian plantation, or against any public book or books which by their mature advice and grave wisdom, shall be thought fit to be set forth and published for the advancement of the good of this Colony, and the felicity thereof, upon pain for the first time so offending, to be whipped three several times, and upon his knees to acknowledge his offence and to ask forgiveness upon the Sabbath day in the assembly of the congregation, and for the second time so offending to be condemned to the galley for three years, and for the third time so offending to be punished with death. [...]

14. No man shall give any disgraceful words, or commit any act to the disgrace of any person in this Colony, or any part thereof, upon pain of being tied head and feet together, upon the guard every night for the space of one month, besides to be publicly disgraced himself, and be made uncapable ever after to possess any place, or execute any office in this employment.

15. No man of what condition soever shall barter, truck or trade with the Indians, except he be thereunto appointed by lawful authority, upon pain of death.

Dale's laws16. No man shall rifle or despoil, by force or violence, take away any thing from any lndian coming to trade, or otherwise, upon pain of death.

17. No Cape Merchant, or Provant Master or Munition Master, or Truck Master, or keeper of any store, shall at any time embezzle, sell, or give away any thing under his charge to any favorite ... upon pain of death. [...]

19. There shall no Captain, Master, Mariner, sailor, or any else of what quality or condition soever, belonging to any ship or ships, at this time remaining, or which shall hereafter arrive within this our river, bargain, buy, truck or trade with any one member in this Colony, man, woman, or child, for any tool or instrument of iron, steel or what else, whether appertaining to Smith Carpenter, Joyner, Shipwright, or any manual occupation, or handicraft man whatsoever resident within our Colony, nor shall they buy or bargain for any apparel, linen or wollen, household-stuff, bed, bedding, sheet towels, napkins, brass, pewter or such like, either for ready money or provisions, nor shall they exchange their provisions of what quality soever, whether butter, cheese, bisket, meat, oatmeal, Aquavite, oil, bacon, any kind of spice, or such like, for any such aforesaid instruments or tools, apparel or household-stuff at any time, or so long as they shall here remain, from the date of these presents upon pain of loss of their wages in England, confiscation and forfeiture of such their monies and provisions, and upon peril beside of such corporal punishment as shall be inflicted upon them by verdict and censure of a martial court; Nor shall any officer, soldier or trades man, or any else of what sort soever, members of this Colony, dare to sell any such tool or instruments, necessary and useful for the business of the Colony, or truck, sell, exchange or give away his apparel or household stuff of what sort soever, unto any such seaman, either for money, or any such foresaid provisions, upon pain of 3 times several whipping for the one offender, and the other upon peril of incurring censure, whether of disgrace or addition of such punishment as shall be thought fit by a Court martial.

20. Whereas sometimes heretofore the covetous and wide affections of some greedy and ill disposed seamen, sailors and mariners, laying hold upon the advantage of the present necessity, under which the Colony sometimes suffered, have sold unto our people provisions of meal, oatmeal, bisket, butter, cheese etc., at unreasonable rates, and prices unconscionable: for avoiding the like to be now put in practise, there shall no captain, master, mariner or sailor, or what officer else belonging to any ship or ships now within our river, or hereafter which shall arrive, shall dare to bargain, exchange, barter, truck, trade or sell, upon pain of death, unto any one landman member of this present Colony, any provisions of what kind soever, above the determined valuations and prices set down and proclaimed and sent therefore unto each of our several ships to be fixed upon your Maine mast, to the intent that want of due notice and ignorance in this case, be no excuse or plea, for any one offender herein.

21. Since we are not to be a little careful, and our young cattle & breeders may be cherished, that by the preservation and increase of them, the Colony here may receive in due time assured and great benefit, and the adventurers at home may be eased of so great a burden, by sending unto us yearly supplies of this kind, which now here for a while, carefully attended, may turn their supplies unto us into provisions of other qualities, when of these we shall be able to subsist our selves, and which we may in short time, be powerful enough to (?), if we will according to our own knowledge of what is good for our selves, forbear to work into our own want, again, by over hasty destroying and devouring the stocks, apu owners of so profitable succeeding a commodity, as increase of cattle, kine, hogs, goats, poultry etc., must of necessity be granted, in every common man's judgment, to render unto us. Now know ye therefore, these promises carefully considered, that it is our will and pleasure, that every one, of what quality or condition soever he be, in this present Colony, to take due notice of this our Edict, whereby we do strictly charge and command that no man shall dare to kill, or destroy any bull, cow, calf, mare, horse, colt, goat, swine, cock, hen, chicken, dog, turkey or any tame cattle or poultry, of what condition soever, whether his own or appertaining to another man, without leave from the General, upon pain of death in the principal, and in the accessory, burning in the hand and loss of his ears and unto the concealer of the same four and twenty hours whipping with addition of further punishment as shall be thought fit by the censure, and verdict of a Martial Court.

22. There shall no man or woman, launderer or launderess, dare to wash any unclean linen, drive bucks or throw out the water or suds of foul clothes in the open street within the Pallizadoes or within forty feet of the same, nor rench and make clean any kettle, pot, or pan or such like vessel within twenty feet of the old well or new pump; Nor shall any one aforesaid, within less than a quarter of one mile from the Pallizadoes, dare to do the necessities of nature, since by these unmanly, slothful and loathsome immodesties, the whole Fort may be choked and poisoned with ill airs, and so corrupt (as in all reason cannot but much infect the same) and this shall they take notice of, and avoid upon pain of whipping and further punishment, as shall be thought mete, by the censure of a Martial Court.

23. No man shall embezzle, lose, or willingly break or fraudulently make away, either spade, shovel, hatchet, axe, mattocke, or other tool or instrument upon pain of whipping. [...]

25. Every man shall have an especial and due care, to keep his house sweet and clean, as also so much of the street as lieth before his door, and especially he shall so provide, and set his bedstead whereon he lieth, that it may stand three foot at least from the ground, as he will answer the contrary at a Martial Court. [...]

Dale's laws sample

28. No soldier or tradesman but shall be read, both in the morning & in the afternoon, upon the beating of the drum, to go out unto his work, nor shall he return home or from his work, before the drum beat again, and the officer appointed for that business, bring him of, upon peril for the first fault to lie upon the Guard head and heels together all night; for the second time so faulting to be whipped; and for the third time so offending to be condemned to the Galleys for a year.

29. No man or woman, (upon pain  of death) shall run away from the Colony to Powhathan or any savage Weroance else whatsoever.

30. He that shall conspire any thing against the person of the Lord Govenor and Captain General, against the Lieutenant General or against the Marshall, or against any public service commanded by them,for the dignity and advancement of the good of the Colony, shall be punished with death; AND he that shall have knowledge of any such pretended act of disloyalty of treason and shall not reveal the same unto his Captain, or unto the Governor of that fort or town wherein he is, within the space of one hour, shall for the concealing of the same after that time, be not only held an accessory, but alike culpable as the principal traitor or conspirator, and for the same likewise he shall suffer death.

31. What man or woman soever, shall rob any garden, public or private, being set to weed the same, or wilfully pluck up therein any root, herb or flower, to spoil and waste or steal the same, or rob any vineyard or gather up the grapes, or steal any ears of the corn growing, whether in the ground belonging to the same fort or town where he dwelleth, or in any other, shall be punished with death. [...]

32. There is not one man nor woman in this Colony now present, or hereafter to arrive, but shall give up an account of his and their faith, and religion, and repair unto the Minister, that by his conference with them, he may understand, and gather, whether heretofore they have been sufficiently instructed, and catechized in the principles and grounds of Religion.... If they shall refuse so to repair unto him, and he the Minister give notice thereof unto the Governor, or that chief officer of that town or fort wherein he or she, the parties so offending shall remain, the Governor shall cause the offender for his first time of refusal, to be whipped; for the second time to be whipped twice, and to acknowledge his fault upon the Sabbath day, in the assembly of the congregation; and for the third time to be whipped every day until he hath made the same acknowledgment, and asked forgiveness for the same, and shall repair unto the Minster, to be further instructed as aforesaid: and upon the Sabbath when the Minister shall catechize, and of him demand any question concerning his faith and knowledge, he shall not refuse to make answer upon the same peril. [...]

35. No Captain, master, or mariner, of what condition soever, shall depart or carry out of our river, any ship, bark, galley, pinnace etc., roaders belonging to the Colony, either now therein, or hither arriving, without leave and commission from the General or chief Commander of the Colony, upon pain of death.

36. No man or woman whatsoever, members of this Colony shall sell or give unto any Captain, mariner, master or sailor etc., any commodity of this country, of what quality soever, to be transported out of the Colony for his or their own private uses, upon pain of death.

37. All such bakers as are appointed to bake bread, or what else, either for the store to be given out in general, or for any one in particular, shall not steal nor embezzle, lose or defraud any man of his due and proper weight and measure, nor use any dishonest and deceitful trick to make the bread weigh heavier, or make it coarser upon purpose to keep back any part or measure of the flower or meal committed unto him, nor ask, take, or detain any one loaf more or less for his hire or pains for so baking, since whilst he who delivered unto him such meal or flower, being to attend the business of the Colony, such baker or bakers are imposed upon no other service or duties but only so to bake for such as do work, and this shall he take notice of, upon pain for the first time offending herein of losing his ears; and for the second time to be condemned a year to the galleys; and for the third time offending, to be condemned to the galleys for three years.

[unnumbered] • All such cooks as are appointed to seeth, bake or dress any manner of way, flesh, fish, or what else, of what kind soever, either for the general company, or for any private man, shall not make less or cut away any part or parcel of such flesh, fish, etc. Nor detain or demand any part or parcel as allowance or hire for his so dressing the same, since as aforesaid of the baker, he or they such cook or cooks, exempted from other public works abroad, are to attend such seething and dressing of such public flesh, fish, or other provisions of what kind soever, as their service and duties expected from them by the Colony, and this shall they take notice of, upon pain for the first time offending herein, of losing his ears; and for the second time to be condemned a year to the galleys; and for the third time offending to be condemned to the galleys for three years.

[unnumbered] • All fishermen, dressers of sturgeon or such like appointed to fish, or to cure the said sturgeon for the use of the Colony, shall give a just and true account of all such fish as they shall tally by day or night, of what kind soever, the same to bring unto the Governor. AS ALSO of all such kegs of sturgeon or caviar as they shall prepare and cure upon peril for the first time offending herein, of losing his ear; and for the second time to be condemned a year to the galleys; and for the third time offending, to be condemned to the galleys for three years.

[unnumbered] • Every Minister or preacher shall every Sabbath day before Catechising, read all these laws and ordinances, publicly in the assembly of the congregation upon pain of his entertainment checked for that week.


  • Hal, K., Finkelman, P, and Ely, J., American Legal History, 3rd Ed. (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 5-12
  • Konig, David, Dale's Laws and the Non-Common Law Origins of Criminal Justice in Virginia, 26 Am. J. Legal Hist. 354 (1982 - NOTE #1, at page 357 and 367).
  • Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, Encyclopedia Virginia []

end image