The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

The Earliest Recorded Shakespeare in America?

We know that a number of the founding fathers (and mothers) in 18th-century America knew their Shakespeare. John and Abigail Adams frequently quoted from Shakespeare in their letters; Thomas Jefferson recommended reading Shakespeare in a course of private study; and the Folger has a letter dated 1776 from General Charles Lee quoting from Richard III to complain that he is in the dark about the enemy’s intentions and where he should be: “I may be in the North, when as Richard the third says, I should serve my sovereign in the West” (Folger MS Y.c.1374 (1)). But what about the very first settlers—those who ventured to the new American lands in the 17th century? Bits and pieces of evidence have surfaced over the years, some of it detailed below, showing that a few of them brought Shakespeare editions with them. Most of the hard evidence, however, has dated from the 18th century. This past winter, the Folger Library purchased a book containing a remarkable piece of early evidence.

We acquired a copy of Juvenal’s Works, translated into English by Barten Holyday, and published in Oxford in 1673.

Title page of Holyday's translation of Juvenal's Works
Title page of Holyday’s translation of Juvenal’s Works, 269- 410f.

It contains the armorial bookplate of Edward Dale and a contemporary inscription in the front shows that the book was a gift of Sir William Skipwith to Major Edward Dale, Sept. 16, 1686. Below that is another inscription, “Edw. Dale to Edw. Carter.”

Inscription saying that the book was gifted from Sir William Skipwith to Major Edward Dale, September 16, 1686.
Gifted from Sir William Skipwith to Major Edward Dale, September 16, 1686.

What makes the volume especially exciting, however, is a list of the books in Major Dale’s library, drawn up by Thomas Carter and Edward Carter on February 16, 1695, after Major Dale’s death on February 2.

The right-hand page contains a list of books owned by Dale at the time of his death.
The right-hand page contains a list of books owned by Dale at the time of his death.

The list is written neatly on a blank leaf partway through the Juvenal and contains 34 entries, including John Donne’s Sermons (1640), Raleigh’s History of the World (1677), and Spenser’s Works (1679). And, half way down the page, “Shakespeares Workes – 1632 – Folio.”

Detail of the entry for Shakespeare's Second Folio.
Detail of the entry for Shakespeare’s Second Folio.

This entry may well be the earliest documentation of someone owning a copy of Shakespeare in America.

So who was Major Edward Dale?

major edward dale marker

Major Edward Dale (1620-1695) was a Royalist who came to Virginia in the 1650s after Charles I was executed and the Royalists were defeated by the Parliamentarians who took power under Cromwell. Dale married Diana Skipwith, daughter of Sir Henry Skipwith of Leicestershire. Their daughter Katherine (ca.1649-1703) married Thomas Carter of Virginia (ca.1630-1700), one of the men who wrote the book list. Thomas Carter owned a Book of Common Prayer (London, 1662), now in the Virginia Historical Society, which contains a number of annotations concerning the family, including Carter’s epitaph of his father-in-law.

He says that Dale

descended from an Ancient Family in England & came into ye Colly of Virga after the Death of his Unhappy Master Charles First.

And that Dale

enjoyed various Employments of Public Trust in ye Coty of Lancaster [Virginia] wch he Dischrged wth great Fidelity & Satisfacn to the Governor & People.1

Now the big question: is the list of Major Dale’s library the earliest documented evidence of a copy of Shakespeare owned in the New World? Bibliographers have known for some time that Sir William Penn owned at least two quartos of Shakespeare’s plays, Henry IV Part 2 (1600) and Richard III (1605), but there is no evidence that his son William Penn brought these with him when he came to his province of Pennsylvania in 1682.2 William Byrd II of Westover, Virginia (1674-1744) left an impressive library when he died in 1744, which included a copy of a Shakespeare Fourth Folio (1685).3 He may have brought this back with him when he returned in 1696 from his education in England. It was once thought that Cotton Mather owned a copy of the First Folio, but that copy, now in the Scheide Library at Princeton, has been re-assessed, and is documented as owned by William Parker in 1791.4 A couple of early eighteenth-century wills proved in Virginia mention copies of Shakespeare: the will of Arthur Spicer in 1700 and that of Edmund Berkeley in 1718, but both of these documents post-date the list of Major Dale’s books.5

It does appear, then, that Major Dale’s 1695 book list naming Shakespeare’s Second Folio is the earliest documentation of a Shakespeare in America.

The Juvenal, open to the list of Dale’s books, may be seen in our America’s Shakespeare exhibit, on view through July 24, 2016.

  1. A transcription of the annotations are available online.
  2. Edwin Eliott Willoughby, “The Reading of Shakespeare in Colonial America,” Papers of the Bibliographic Society of America 31.1 (1937): 46.
  3. Willoughby, 48.
  4. Anthony James West, The Shakespeare First Folio, Vol. II A New Worldwide Census (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 218, West 159.
  5. Willoughby, 48.

4 Comments


  • Thank you for the many contributions to bibliographic items particularly of the English Renaissance. As has been noted, John Adams caused Abigail to despair for his serious book purchases from England, Thomas Jefferson for the many volumes he shipped James Madison from France as the latter prepared for the Constitutional Convention but Thomas Dale’s listing has the highest significance that I hope will be incorporated in future historical research. Richard Murian

  • Very interesting to see the book called “Shakespeare’s Works” this early… I’d always assumed that [wrongly] calling the collected plays his “works” wouldn’t have happened in the 17th century. This seems to indicate that already in 1695 his poems didn’t register as significant. Or maybe it only indicates the person making the list simply assumed the poems were in there somewhere, even though not mentioned on the title page.

    • For an even earlier example, Humphrey Dyson (c.1582–1633) noted on his copy of _Troilus and Cressida_ (Huntington Library, Rare Books 59072) that the play was “printed amongest his [i.e. Shakespeare’s] workes.”

  • I onderful article and such a surprise. I am a descendant of Maj Edward Dale and Diana Skipwith by their youngest daughter Elizabeth who married William Rogers!


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