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Virginia Treasures: Beyond Brideships – The Women of Jamestown 1607-1622

Virginia’s Jamestown Settlement was established in 1607 by an initial group of 104 English men and boys. It is often believed that the first group of women arrived at the colony in 1619, but, as participants learned in a recent presentation, this isn’t exactly true. Mark Summers, public historian for the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeology Project, shared the fascinating history of women in early Jamestown in an edition of AARP Virginia’s Virginia Treasures Series.

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Historic Jamestowne historians Amy Stallings and Kaylan Stevenson portray two of the young women who came to Virginia to marry planters with Director of Living History Willie Balderson. Photo by Chuck Durfor.

While the colony was named after King James I, it had a rocky start, no thanks to its namesake, who didn’t want to pay for a new colony. Subsequently, a private company, the Virginia Company of London, raised funds and paid for the voyage. It was, said Summers, “the SpaceX of its time,” with private investors contributing towards its outcome, as they do in modern times.

Why were no women part of the initial settlement? The original intent was to send soldiers and businessmen to the New World to gather gold and silver, and then return to England with the treasures. Jamestown was not initially intended to be a colony but instead a business venture, said Summers.

Jamestown was England’s first “permanent” settlement in the New World. Prior to its establishment in 1607, England had tried – and failed – for 110 years to establish a colony in the New World. The success of Jamestown was thus important to the British.

The Virginia Company did not want Jamestown to become an embarrassment to England like the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke in North Carolina, Summers said. From 1585 to about 1590, the Roanoke colony included many civilian women and children. But a war with Spain prevented the British from sending needed supply ships to Roanoke. When the ships finally arrived, they found the colony abandoned.

Summers compared Roanoke to the 1986 Challenger space shuttle mission, which was intended to showcase the first civilian in space, but ended in disaster.

Roanoke’s failure highlighted the dangers of and put the brakes on civilian colonization, just as Challenger did for civilian space travel.

While the first residents of Jamestown were men, there were women at the fort, just not English women. Summers said that archaeological artifacts uncovered in 1994 shows evidence of Powhatan women living in the fort, likely as servants for the English. Reports from Spanish spies also suggest there were some 40 to 50 Powhatan women who served as “wives” to the English, even though English men were instructed not to interact with natives.

The first two recorded English women in Jamestown were Ann Burras, a servant, and “Mistress Forrest,” the wife of a prominent person, arriving on an early supply ship. Forrest died shortly after arrival, and Burras, who was probably her servant, married carpenter John Laydon in 1608, the first English marriage in the colony. Life would have been very difficult for Burras as the only English woman, and marriage gave her some degree of protection.

By 1609, the Virginia Company realized there was no gold or silver to be found, but they didn’t want to abandon the colony. Instead, they offered embellished enticements to help build the colony with families, “like a bad timeshare ad,” said Summers. Nine ships loaded with supplies, men, women, and children left England in 1609. It was a horrible voyage. The ships were badly battered by a hurricane, and they dumped supplies overboard to lessen the ships’ weight. Several ships were lost.

When the remaining ships, including two carrying women and children, eventually made it to Jamestown, they did not have the supplies the colonists desperately needed. This began the period of Jamestown history known as the “Starving Time.” Around this same time, relations with the Powhatan, who had previously helped the settlers by providing food and supplies, deteriorated rapidly. The Powhatan tried to seize the fort, cutting off the settlers’ ability to hunt or fish. The Powhatan also killed off most of the soldiers, so most of the remaining settlers were now civilians, trapped within the fort with few provisions.

During the “Starving Time,” only 60 of the approximately 400 settlers survived. They ate rats, dogs, snakes, shoe leather, and even dead horses. Notably, about one third of the survivors were women, including Ann Burras Layton, once the only English woman in the settlement.

Why a higher percentage of women were able to survive, said Summers, is that they likely banded together and bonded across social classes. They also likely armed themselves to protect against the horrors of cannibalism.

In 2012, an archaeological study at a colonial kitchen site in the fort uncovered the skull of a 14-year-old girl in a trash pit. On the skull were the same marks as the remains of slaughtered horses and dogs, indicating she was a victim of cannibalism. Nicknamed “Jane,” it’s unknown who she was, but she probably was a kitchen maid. Summers said the other women in the settlement possibly bonded together after seeing what happened to “Jane” as a way to protect themselves and each other.

Jamestown was rescued and reinforced in 1610. The new governor, Lord Delaware, cleared out the trash and implemented martial law, under which women were given specific jobs. Remember Ann Burras Laydon? She was ordered to make 10 shirts but only given thread for eight, forcing her to decide between making 10 shirts of all the same size or eight in different sizes. She made 10 and was whipped for violating martial law.

Lord Delaware also took revenge on the Powhatan. In 1613, Chief Powhatan’s 17-year-old daughter Pocahontas was living with the Patowmack tribe when she was captured by the English and held as ransom to trade for English soldiers held by the Powhatan tribe. Her father refused the deal, so Pocahontas assimilated with the English, including converting to Christianity and changing her name to Rebecca. In 1614, she married English settler John Rolfe. The marriage was politically expedient because it helped build peace between the Powhatan and the English.

Stability returned to the settlement by 1619, and martial law was lifted. Back in England, the Virginia Company recruited brides for the colonists, requiring them to be “good women” with sponsors and references in return for a free voyage. Ninety women arrived in the colony, and men were required to bid at auction for the right to marry the women, who had the final say. The men would pay for successful bids in tobacco, leading to the women being known as “Tobacco Brides.” The tobacco income received by the Virginia Company for the bride auctions was the first time the company turned a profit in Jamestown. Two additional shipments of “Tobacco Brides” arrived in the colony in 1621 and 1622.

Also in 1619, the first group of African Americans arrived in Jamestown. They had originally been kidnapped by the Portuguese and later captured by British privateers, who sold them to the colony in return for provisions.

One of the first African American women documented in the colony was Angela, who became the property of Joan Pierce, one of the English women who bravely survived the “Starving Time.”

While Pierce’s ownership of another person after previously bonding across class lines may be shocking by today’s standards, Summers emphasized that “everyone at Jamestown suffered, some more than others.” The settlers had different experiences with different outcomes. “No one should be blamed for not surviving something that was difficult to survive,” he said.

The next Virginia Treasures program will be Enslaved and Free Servants at the Confederate President’s House at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 19. Please click here to register.

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