An English baron in early 17th century America: Thomas West (1577-1618), 3rd Baron De La Warr

To mark Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th president of the United States, Dr Ben Coates of our Lords 1558-1603 section explains the surprising connection between the state of Delaware and the English peerage…

The new American president, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., was born in Pennsylvania, but moved as a child to Delaware, which he subsequently represented in Congress as a senator for over 30 years. The state of Delaware owes its name to an early 17th century English peer, Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, who never set foot in the territory which would later become the state, but who played an important part in the early English colonization of North America.

Although West’s title is now standardly spelt ‘De La Warr’, it is a very old one, dating back to the 13th century, and consequently there has been considerable variation in the spelling over the years. West signed himself ‘Tho[mas] Lawarre’ (see for instance TNA, SP14/64/53), but contemporaries sometimes referred to him as ‘Delaware’ (TNA, PC2/27, f. 24v). Despite the antiquity of their title, the Wests’ recent history was troubled. Thomas’ grandfather, William West, had been accused of attempting to poison his childless uncle, the 9th Lord De La Warr, and only secured the title by a new creation in 1570. Moreover, heavy debts obliged the family to sell many of their lands. As a result, when Thomas West succeeded his father in 1602 he inherited what he described as ‘a very broken estate’ (HMC Hatfield, xii. 84). Like other barons with more status than property, such as Edward Cromwell, 3rd Lord Cromwell, and George Tuchet, 11th Lord Audley, De La Warr sought to recoup his family’s fortunes in England’s expanding colonial empire. However, while Cromwell and Audley turned to Ireland for this purpose, De La Warr looked to America.

In 1607 the first permanent English settlement on the North American mainland was established by the Virginia Company at Jamestown. Two years later the Company appointed De La Warr governor of the colony, and he set sail for Virginia on 1 April 1610. His arrival in Chesapeake Bay in early June saved the nascent settlement. A recent war with the Powhatans, the local native inhabitants, had gone so badly for the English that they’d abandoned Jamestown, and were about to return to England when De La Warr, accompanied by substantial reinforcements, sailed into the bay. Jamestown was re-established and new forts constructed, while a fresh offensive was launched against the Powhatans. However, De La Warr soon fell ill. He later wrote that he was ‘welcomed by a hot and violent ague’, followed by ‘the flux …: then the cramp’, and finally an attack of gout, an ailment from which he had previously suffered (Narratives of Early Virginia ed. L. G. Tyler, 210). This led him to leave Virginia, returning to England in June 1611. Nevertheless, he remained formally the governor of the colony, and in his absence the settlers named Delaware Bay in his honour.

A modern reconstruction of Jamestown, Virginia (Creative Commons – CC BY-SA 4.0)

Back in England De La Warr and his wife introduced that celebrated Native American, Pocahontas, to the royal court in 1616. Two years later the baron set sail again to return to Virginia, but died en route, shortly after being feasted by the Iberian governor of the Azores – leading to suspicions that he’d been poisoned. Two of De La Warr’s brothers, Francis and John, later served as acting governors of Virginia, but subsequent barons De La Warr had little connection with the colonies. Nevertheless, Thomas West’s contribution to the early history of British America lives on in the names of Delaware Bay and River, from which the eponymous state derived its name.

BC

Further reading:

A. Brown, Genesis of the United States (1964)

J.F. Fausz, ‘An “Abundance of Blood Shed on Both Sides”: England’s First Indian War’, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography xcviii. 3-56

Records of the Virginia Company of London, ed. S.M. Kingsbury (1906-35)

Narratives of Early Virginia ed. L. G. Tyler (1959)

Biographies of the 3rd Lord De La Warr, the 3rd Lord Cromwell, and the 11th Lord Audley (later 1st earl of Castlehaven) will appear in the History of Parliament’s volumes on ‘The House of Lords 1604-1629’ ed. Andrew Thrush (due out this month).

One thought on “An English baron in early 17th century America: Thomas West (1577-1618), 3rd Baron De La Warr

  1. Pocahontas was the bride in arguably the first interracial marriage in North America. She later made a home near my home town of King’s Lynn. Obviously I never learned anything about her at school because we only studied white people’s history.

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