Jamestown Colonists Choosing Brides

Jamestown Colonists Choosing Brides

The Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown, Virginia

In its early days, the first English settlement in America had lots of men, tobacco, and land. All it needed was women.

“First comes love, then comes marriage,” the old nursery rhyme goes, but historically, first came money. Marriage was above all an economic transaction, and in no place was this more apparent than in the early 1600s in the Jamestown colony, where a severe gender imbalance threatened the fledgling colony’s future.

The men of Jamestown desperately wanted wives, but women were refusing to immigrate. They had heard disturbing reports of dissension, famine, and disease, and had decided it simply wasn’t worth it. Consequently, barely a decade after its founding in 1607, Jamestown was almost entirely male, and because these men were unable to find wives, they were deserting the colony in droves.

An immediate influx of women was needed to save the floundering colony its leaders suggested putting out an advertisement targeting wives. The women who responded to this marital request and agreed to marry unknown men in an unfamiliar land were in a sense America’s first mail-order brides.

The primary proponent of marital immigration was the Virginia Company treasurer Edwin Sandys, who successfully convinced his fellow board members that this was the best way to increase the colony’s female population, make “the men more setled [and] lesse moveable,” and decrease the number who “stay [in the colony] but to gett something and then return for England.”

Sandys’s harder task was persuading potential brides to come to Jamestown. Luckily, the financial obstacles to marriage in 17th-century England worked in his favor. Securing a home and setting up a domestic household were expensive. And unless they were born into wealth, most men and women needed to amass a significant nest egg before they could marry. For working-class Englishwomen, this typically meant years of domestic service. Downton Abbey notwithstanding, many found the prospect of scrubbing other people’s floors and chamber pots less than appealing. Marital immigration offered an attractive alternative.

The Virginia Company offered substantial incentives to the women who signed up to leave England for Jamestown. They were provided a dowry of clothing, linens, and other furnishings, free transportation to the colony, and even a plot of land. They were also promised their pick of wealthy husbands and provided with food and shelter while they made their decision. Like a 17th-century version of The Bachelorette, the women entertained dozens of eager suitors before eventually determining which one would receive the metaphorical rose.

After a husband was chosen, he would reimburse the Virginia Company for the travel expenses, furnishings, and land with 120 pounds (later raised to 150) of “good leaf” tobacco. This is roughly equivalent to $5,000 in today’s currency—an amount that only the relatively well-off could afford to part with. The tobacco payment was intended to cover the cost of the woman’s passage to Virginia and is why the Jamestown brides are sometimes referred to as “tobacco wives.” It is also why the women are frequently accused of having been sold.

Nevertheless, this characterization is false and reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the status of women in Jamestown. Although the financially strapped Virginia Company was eager to recoup the costs of sponsoring the Jamestown brides, it was not selling women. The arriving brides had full control over their marital choice, and the Company even accepted the possibility that with this freedom a woman might “unwarily or fondly … bestow her self” on a man who didn’t have enough wealth to put up 120 pounds of tobacco. If that happened, the Company simply requested that the man pay them back if and when he was able to do so.

The fact that the Jamestown brides were not sold is important and represents a conscious decision by the Company, which could have, as was easy and common at the time, kidnapped potential colonists instead. In 1615, King James responded to Virginia Governor Thomas Dale’s request for more colonists by shipping a hundred male felons to the colony. Shortly thereafter, a similar number of street urchins were rounded up and sent to Virginia.

These kidnappings were government-sponsored, but after the Virginia Company instituted a new incentive for immigrants in 1617, private individuals also began kidnapping men and women for the colonies. Under this new arrangement, called the headright system, settlers who financed their own passage to the Virginia colony received 50-acre tracts of land. The same amount of land was offered to anyone willing to sponsor the passage of a new settler. Speculators and planters were eager to take advantage of the latter offer, but they had difficulty finding willing recruits. Paying men and women to kidnap settlers solved this problem. By mid-century, thousands of unwilling immigrants were being shipped to the colony as indentured servants every year. One particularly prolific kidnapper was rumored to have abducted more than 6,000 victims.

So, if the Virginia Company had wanted to kidnap women to have enough colonial wives, it could have done so. In fact, in 1618 a man named Owen Evans, a messenger for the Privy Council, a group which directly advised the king, decided to try, and he nearly succeeded. Claiming he had government approval, Evans traveled to Somerset, England, and began forcing dozens of young women onto ships. Luckily, his deception was quickly exposed and the women were freed. Owens was then charged with treason and hanged, drawn, and quartered. However, the crime he was punished for was not kidnapping, but falsely using the king’s seal, a direct usurpation of royal authority. The kidnapping was barely mentioned.

Indeed, although private kidnappings were technically illegal, prosecutions were rare and punishments were minimal. In 1680, a woman named Ann Servant was fined a mere 13 shillings and sixpence for kidnapping and selling a young woman named Alice Flax. Similarly, in 1684, a couple was fined only 12 pence for kidnapping and selling a 16-year-old girl. In comparison, a horse thief would have been hanged.

Regardless of whether they could have gotten away with kidnapping, the leaders of the Virginia Company believed the role of colonial wife was too important to leave to reluctant or unwilling women. Instead, they insisted on voluntary marital immigration, which was a wise decision: A century later, French Louisiana attempted to solve its gender imbalance through forced immigration and the results were disastrous. Hundreds of women from Paris’s penitentiaries were shipped in to populate Louisiana. These women had no interest in marriage or the fate of the colony and they rapidly transformed it into a hotbed of crime and debauchery. In contrast, the voluntary immigration of women eager to start new lives in the New World is what made Jamestown’s bridal program a success.

It also had lasting implications for the colony’s gender relations. The colonial government offered female colonists freedoms and opportunities unavailable to most 17th-century Englishwomen. For instance, married women were subject to a legal disability known as coverture, or “covered woman.” Coverture held that upon marriage, a woman’s independent legal identity was subsumed or “covered” by her husband’s. Accordingly, married women in England could not hold property in their own name, alter or dispose of property without their husband’s consent (even if they inherited the property), make wills, or appoint executors without their husband’s agreement.

But in Virginia, the need for female immigration frequently caused leaders to relax or ignore the rules of coverture. In fact, even before the Jamestown brides were recruited, members of the Virginia House of Burgesses had recognized the unique position of female colonists and asked the Virginia Company to set aside parcels of land for both male and female colonists because “[i]n a newe plantation it is not knowen whether man or woman be the most necessary.” Then, when the Jamestown brides enlisted, a similar request was made to set aside a parcel of land for them as well.

Providing female colonists with free land was a substantial immigration incentive, but it was actually the generous property and inheritance laws that offered women the greatest benefit. Because malaria, dysentery, and influenza were widespread in colonial Virginia, early death was also common. This meant that most marriages were short, but the morbid upside was that colonial law and practice ensured widowed women were uncommonly well provided for. In England, widows were only required by law to receive one-third of their deceased husband’s estate. In Virginia, widows almost always inherited more than that. Among other things, this meant that colonial widows didn’t feel economic pressure to remarry after their husband’s death, and many chose to remain single.

Independent wealth also allowed colonial women to exert an unusual degree of control over their lives, particularly their marital decisions. In one well-known story, a Virginia woman named Sarah Harrison is recorded as refusing to go along with a crucial portion of the marriage ceremony. According to witnesses, when the clergyman asked for her promise to “obey,” Harrison answered, “No obey.” When the question was repeated, she gave the same response. After the third refusal, the reverend acquiesced to her demand and performed the ceremony with no mention of the promise to obey.

Harrison’s marriage is also remarkable because only a short time earlier, she had been engaged to another man. Harrison had even signed a contract promising to marry her first fiancé, and breaching a marriage contract was serious matter under English law at the time. Nevertheless, Harrison received no punishment.

In fact, she was one of many Virginian women who jilted their former fiancés. The most famous of these women was Cicely Jordan. In 1623, Jordan’s husband died. A few days later, she agreed to marry Reverend Greville Pooley. Jordan knew that such a quick engagement was scandalous, so she asked Pooley to keep it a secret. He didn’t, and, not surprisingly, Jordan dumped him. Pooley then sued Jordan for breach of promise. Based on his actions, Pooley seems like a horrid marriage prospect, but under the law at that time, his suit had merit, and he would have been expected to win, as Jordan had clearly breached her promise. Nevertheless, the Virginia government refused to punish her. Despite the law on the books, colonial women like Jordan were often exempted from the legal restrictions that controlled the lives and marital choices of their counterparts in England. For women considering marital immigration, this freedom may have been the greatest immigration incentive of all.

Like most Americans, the Jamestown brides came in search of a better life. It may seem surprising that an institution as derided and ridiculed as mail-order marriage could serve this role, but for the Jamestown brides, and the many women who came after them, marital immigration could be both empowering and liberating. Although most modern mail-order brides no longer receive trousseaus of clothing and linens, marital immigration can still provide a path to greater equality and opportunity. This was true in the 17th century, and it remains true today.

The Jamestown Brides: The Story of the Virginia Company’s Trade in Young English Wives

In 1621, fifty-six English women from good families crossed the Atlantic in response to the Virginia Company of London's call for maids “young and uncorrupt” to make wives for the planters of its new colony in Virginia. One in six of the maids could even claim gentry status. Although promised a free choice of husband, they were in effect being traded into marriage for a bride price of 150 pounds of best leaf tobacco, the profits to flow to individual investors. How did the company justify such a trade, and why did the women submit to such a risky enterprise? Delving into company and court records, ballads, pamphlets, sermons, letters, and original sources on both sides of the Atlantic, Potter turns detective as she tracks the women from their communities in England to their new homes in Virginia, illuminating women's lives in early modern England and in the New World.

The Jamestown Brides is Jennifer Potter's tenth book. Appointed as one of the first Royal Literary Fund Fellows at the British Library, she first came to Virginia to research Strange Blooms, The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants, her celebrated biography of the early seventeenth-century plantsmen, collectors of curiosities, and gardeners to King Charles I. She has also written novels, works about gardens and landscapes, and two cultural histories of flowers: The Rose, A True History and Seven Flowers and How They Shaped Our World. A long-time reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, Potter has enjoyed writing fellowships at leading British universities and at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland. She is currently a Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow and an Archaeology Ambassador for the Museum of London Archaeology.

This lecture was cosponsored with the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Virginia.

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Multiple Marriages

The Powhatans assumed that first marriages would last for life unless a spouse was captured in war. In that case, the remaining spouse was free to find another partner. But even without divorce , additional marriages were permitted. For instance, a married man could court and marry additional wives if he proved himself able to provide for them. Because wives were expensive, they became status symbols. Chiefs, especially the paramount chief, or mamanatowick, would take many wives. English observers did not record whether weroansquas, or female chiefs, ever took multiple husbands. It also is not clear whether there was a hierarchy of wives, how the household work was divided among the wives, and what their sleeping arrangements might have been. The paramount chief Powhatan kept a wife until she bore him a child, after which she would return home.

William Strachey , a Virginia Company of London secretary and author of The Historie of travaile into Virginia Britannia (1612), wrote that “According to the order and custome of sensuall heathenisme,” Powhatan may have had “many more then one hundred” wives who lived in various houses and took turns keeping him company: “when he lyeth on his bedd, one sittith at his head and another at his feet but when he sitteth at meat, or in presenting himself to any straungers, one sitteth on his right hand, and another on his leaft … .” Strachey continued that, of Powhatan’s many wives, he favored about a dozen, “in whose company he takes more delight then the rest, being for the most parte very young women … .” The Englishman may not have realized that all of these women were working wives, raising corn, cooking, and otherwise tending the mamanatowick, who, like all chiefs, was expected to entertain lavishly. Some of the wives were also expected to wear valuable furs, jewelry, and face paint, to impress visitors.

According to Henry Spelman, an English boy who became fluent in the Powhatans’ Algonquian dialect, Powhatan chose his wives based on their beauty. But a wife’s family background probably mattered, too. Chiefs like Powhatan had to be canny politicians, and they likely married wives from different towns in order to create in-laws who might serve as allies. By keeping his wives only until they bore a child, Powhatan was able to continue accumulating wives and to forge useful family connections through their children. Strachey also emphasized the importance of children, writing that many wives produced “manie children, who maie, if chaunce be, fight for them [their parents] when they are old, as also then feed and mayntein them.” Powhatan’s former wives, meanwhile, were free to remarry sometime after bearing their children—probably once the child was old enough to rejoin Powhatan’s household (about eight years old). In this way Powhatan could assume that each mother paid attention only to his child during that child’s formative years.

If the first marriage was for life, Strachey wrote, then all others were temporary. They were negotiated for a specified time, such as a year, “after which they [the spouses] may putt them awaye,” or decide not to renew the contract. But “if they keepe them longer then the tyme appointed, they must ever keepe them, how deformed, deceased, or unaccompaniable soever they may prove.” These kinds of marriages, in a society whose men regularly went to war, would have been particularly advantageous to the older widows.

Mail-order bride history: the main stages

The history mail order brides have is long and broad. It takes roots in the earliest ages, having several developing stages. Let`s find out the historical cases of marriages between people from different countries.

In the very beginning: politically arranged marriages

If to describe briefly, one of the descriptions for mail order brides is women married to foreigners who have chosen them previously. In ancient times, a woman`s consent wasn`t necessary to make her bride. Arranged that way marriages are part of humankind`s history since the very beginning. Leaders of tribes chose to marry a girl from another tribe to establish a deep partnership. Later, arranged marriages were common among the countries with kings ruling. This tradition was so integral that people still have many fairy tales describing such stories.

In between: colonist marriages and recruitment

With the flow of time, humankind invented ships and other water transportation. After establishing trade relations, the most progressive countries decided to explore and later colonize new lands. When men started living on free lands, they realized they lack something to create families, namely women`s existence. That fact encouraged them to contact their homelands to ask whether girls from their neighborhood, not necessarily acquainted, are willing to marry those men and start a new life abroad. In case of unsuccessful trying, one man decided to post an advertisement in a newspaper, approximately in the 17th century. This practice was significant until the 20th century.

Looking for a girl abroad via newspaper was relevant particularly during the colonization of America. For example, at the beginning of the 17th century, the leaders of the Jamestown Colony of Virginia put a call in Britain for women willing to live in the New World. During 2 years, almost 150 agreed. The motivation to change the place of living was different. Among them were wish to have an adventure, economic reasons, etc. The same story was relevant for other colonies, for example, in the New France case, when King Louis XIV put himself in charge of recruiting women for colonizers. He was successful in attracting 800 women in 10 years.

Close to our times: marriages and mail

In the 19th century, the mail system was already established. It developed the sphere of marriages of people from different corners of the world. As the colonization process didn`t stop, men were still searching for women willing to marry abroad. Those men found various ways of reaching girls. Some of them wrote letters to churches in their homelands to ask whether there was any decent girl. Some men decided to place personal advertisements in newspapers to describe their best features to attract a beautiful girl. In those times, first agents appear, as some men asked their familiars to take over searching and choose the best woman.

Later, in the 20th century, an advertisement was still a tool to meet a partner. The familiars asked by colonizers to help in selecting women in the 19th century became marriage agencies. With the liberalization of borders policies, more opportunities for international marriages appeared. If previously men-colonizers were searching for women of the same origin, in the 20th century, men began willing to marry someone of a different origin.

Jamestown Colonists Choosing Brides - History

International rivalries with Spain and France shaped the location of Jamestown and the settlement of Virginia. The shape of the channel in the James River was also a factor.

The English were not the first people to arrive in Virginia, just as Columbus was not the first person to realize the earth was round. Asian hunter-gatherers got here first, about 15,000 years earlier. The Spanish explored the Chesapeake Bay before the English. In 1570, the Spanish even sent Catholic missionaries to convert the natives in Virginia and to expand the power of Spain north from Cuba.

In 1565 the Spanish established the first permanent European settlement in North America, St. Augustine in Florida. That settlement never developed beyond its role as a fort (presidio). Its primary role was to prevent pirates or other nations from establishing a base for capturing Spanish ships carrying gold and silver home from the New World. St. Augustine also protected Catholic missionaries - but the Spanish never tried to "plant" a large number of permanent settlers there.

Jamestown was intended to become the core of a long-term settlement effort, creating new wealth for the London investors and recreating English society in North America. The colonists arrived at Jamestown after a 4-month journey from London.

The three ships, the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, left on December 16, 1606 from the docks at Blackwall on the Thames River, stopped at the Canary Islands for water, reached Martinique in the West Indies on March 23, sailed north from the Caribbean on April 10, reached Cape Henry on April 26 - and then spent over two weeks exploring places along the James River before settling at Jamestown on May 14, 1607. 1

the first colonists to reach Jamestown in 1607 started their trip by sailing eastward from the docks at Blackwall in London to reach the English Channel
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

  • why Europeans had the resources/interest to colonize a new world, while the Algonquians lacked draft animals, the wheel, metals, and writing
  • why the English, rather than some other culture, populated Virginia
  • why the English created a successful colony in Virginia rather than abandoned it in failure
    • and what adaptations the settlers had to make in order to succeed

    on the first trip to Jamestown, three English ships sailed south to the Canary Islands, then west to Martinique and other islands in the Caribbean, and finally north to the Chesapeake Bay
    Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

    The English spent over two weeks exploring the James River before choosing the site of their first settlement. Jamestown was placed on a peninsula with just a narrow link to the mainland, located 50 miles upstream from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The original 1606 instructions to the colony, written by investors in London before anyone understood the local geography, prioritized safety over convenience for travel between England-Virginia.

    The focus on safety was based on the French experience at Fort Caroline over 50 years earlier. The French settled in 1564 near the coastline in what today is Jacksonville, Florida. Within a year, the Spanish in nearby St. Augustine destroyed the fort and killed the French colonists attempting to flee. Jamestown was located far north of the Spanish base at St. Augustine and, in recognition of that threat, placed further inland: 2

    But if you choose your place so far up as a bark of fifty tuns will float, then you may lay all your provisions ashore with ease, and the better receive the trade of all the countries about you in the land and such a place you may perchance find a hundred miles from the river's mouth, and the further up the better.

    For if you sit down near the entrance, except it be in some island that is strong by nature, an enemy that may approach you on even ground, may easily pull you out and if he be driven to seek you a hundred miles [in] the land in boats, you shall from both sides of the river where it is narrowest, so beat them with your muskets as they shall never be able to prevail against you.

    Jamestown was located on the "Powhatan" river, according to John Smith's map
    Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606

    Fort Caroline was built in 1564, only seven miles from the coastline
    Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

    The English colonists who arrived in 1607 picked that site far upstream from the coast to avoid the Spanish. To a lesser extent, the English also feared the French and the Dutch. The constant international conflicts between European nations were a key factor in determining the location and the defenses of the new English colony halfway across the world.

    location of Jamestown, in relation to mouth of the Chesapeake Bay
    Map Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service Wetlands Mapper

    The Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery sailed past the later sites of Norfolk, Suffolk, Hampton, and Newport News. Those locations were clearly convenient places to settle and offered plenty of fresh water from inland streams and wells. Point Comfort would have been far more convenient. As economic historian Philip Alexander Bruce later noted: 3

    The proper site for the Colony was at the modern Hampton.

    the site of Hampton was closer to England - and would have avoided the delay in sailing/rowing upstream to Jamestown
    Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

    However, all the future ports in Hampton Roads (and of course the Eastern Shore) were too exposed to attack by one or more enemy ships. The fears were realistic at various times, pirates, Dutch, British, and Yankee attacks showed that settlements in Hampton Roads were vulnerable to enemy raids.

    In 1607 the English sailed "so far up as a bark of fifty tuns will float" and chose to settle on a peninsula that was almost an island. A slender neck of land on the northwest corner allowed access to the mainland, but could be defended easily against the Native Americans.

    Width of the peninsula, or at least descriptions of it, changed over time. In 1676 the peninsula was calculated to be 50 feet wide. In 1688, estimates were 60-90 feet, but in 1694 the "slender neck" had grow to be nearly 200 feet wide. By 1748 erosion had washed away the link, but a human-built causeway allowed regular access to Jamestown.

    during the Civil War, Union cartographers showed Jamestown as an island
    Source: US War Department, Atlas to accompany the official records of the Union and Confederate armies, Southeastern Virginia and Fort Monroe Showing the Approaches to Richmond and Petersburg (1862)

    Jamestown was an island at high tide during the American Revolution. By 1844 the isthmus had washed away completely, and a bridge over "Back River" connected the mainland to Jamestown Island. 4

    Jamestown was built on an peninsula that was connected to the mainland at the northwest corner, but storms have washed away/expanded that peninsula (a causeway provides road access now)
    Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

    In 1607 there were no permanent Native American villages on the peninsula. The Pasapaheghs hunted and fished there, but lived upstream closer to the Chickahominy River. Captain Gabriel Archer advocated for Archer's Hope because that site offered better onshore conditions, but the river channel was not deep enough there. Today, the Kingsmill Resort has covered Archer's Hope with houses and golf courses.

    Gabriel Archer proposed locating Jamestown on land just east of what is known today as College Creek Kingsmill Resort occupies the site now
    Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

    Edward Maria Wingfield chose the specific location, and the election that made him President of the Council occurred a day later. Wingfield probably asserted authority as the only investor in the Virginia Company of London to travel to Virginia, and as the recruiter of 40% of the colonists who arrived in 1607. Wingfield believed that his rejection of Gabriel Archer's preferred location for the town was a key reason the Council removed Wingfield from his office as President and imprisoned him for four months, starting in September 1607. 5

    The James River channel was deep enough at the north end of the island for ocean-going ships to dock at the riverbank, eliminating any need to ferry goods from ship to shore on smaller boats. The fort built in 1607 was not located exactly at the deep-water site, however it was built slightly downstream.

    The colonists may have grumbled about carrying everything that distance, but the military advantages of the fort's location were obvious to people of that time. The fort was built at a site where Spanish/French/Dutch warships would have to sail further away from the riverbank enemies would not be able to sail close to shore and bombard the English at point-blank range.

    Most ships that arrived at Jamestown during the first three years, outside of local trips by the colony's Discovery, came with the First Supply and Second Supply in 1608 and the Third Supply in 1609. Carrying substantial amounts of cargo from ship to fort was a rare event. 6

    modern navigation chart showing river channel at Jamestown Island
    Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Coast Survey, Chart 12248

    Most importantly, however, the island was far enough inland that any Spanish/French/Dutch ships would be spotted before they could reach Jamestown. As arriving enemy ships tacked back and forth to sail up the narrow river, the English would have time to prepare for defense and use gunfire effectively from the shoreline to attack the enemy ships ("beat them with your muskets") as they tacked back and forth in the narrow portion of the river.

    There were clear alternatives to Jamestown. The Elizabeth River offered an excellent harbor (it is currently home to the US Atlantic Fleet at Naval Station Norfolk), but that site was too close to the Atlantic Ocean and at risk of enemy attack with minimal warning.

    The English colonists could have settled further upstream than Jamestown. Their ships in 1607 were shallow draft. They would float in just a few feet of water, and the James River was easily navigated upstream to the Fall Line. The ships used by the English to sail across the Atlantic Ocean appear ridiculously small to modern viewers. Visitors to the Jamestown Settlement re-creation discover that the Discovery was the size of a modern school bus, and 21 people lived together in that small space for four months while crossing the Atlantic Ocean from London to Virginia. 7

    the ocean-going ships sailing to Jamestown in 1607 were tiny and crowded, so the colonists must have welcomed the opportunity to shift to a settlement on land at Jamestown
    Map Source: National Park Service, What Happened to the Three Ships?

    On that first visit in 1607, Christopher Newport did sail up the river until the Appomattox River. He stopped, and the location of the settlement was determined, before Newport discovered the falls on the James River at the current location of Richmond. There were no obvious, special locations for settlement that far upstream, and transatlantic shipping would be the lifeline for the new colony to receive supplies and reinforcements.

    The English in 1607 were far better prepared for a long-term occupation than Father Seguera and the Spanish missionaries when they landed nearby in 1570, but the Jamestown settlement depended upon resupply from England. Jamestown was located as close to the Atlantic Ocean as the initial colonial leaders thought was safe, rather than as far inland as ships could go, in order to balance military security with the logistics of getting back and forth to England.

    Just as Goldilocks in "The Story of the Three Bears" preferred porridge that was not too hot and not too cold, Jamestown Island was not too close to the ocean and not too far from the ocean. It was a just-right compromise location.

    Edward Maria Wingfield chose the specific location of Jamestown based on instructions from the Virginia Company in London
    Map Source: ESRI, GIS Online

    Jamestown was an international shipping point from the beginning in 1607, but the delivery of supplies from England was not always synchronized with colonial needs. The Virginia Company thought the colonists could trade with the Native Americans to meet basic needs, and the company lacked the capital to send multiple expeditions each year across the ocean just to ensure the colonists had enough food.

    The initial years at Jamestown were rough. With 20-20 hindsight, we know that the English needed more farmers willing to labor in growing food, and fewer gentlemen interested in adventure and treasure hunting without having to get their hands dirty in Virginia soil. Also, the island lacked fresh water springs, one reason the Pasapahegh chose to live elsewhere.

    In April, the runoff from upstream is powerful enough to push fresh water on the surface of the James River from the Fall Line all the way downstream to Jamestown Island. In the summer, and especially during the severe drought that affected the area during the early 1600's, the flow of fresh water slacks off and the boundary line in the James River between fresh/brackish water moves upstream past the island. The first colonists may have been sickened by drinking brackish water and suffered chronic salt poisoning until John Smith ordered a well to be dug in 1608. 8

    Trade with the Algonquian tribes provided an intermittent but unreliable source of corn and deer meat. Colonists started to die from disease during the first summer. Right after the First Supply ships arrived in January 1608, Jamestown was destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt, but conflicts within the colony's leadership and with the local Native Americans prevented acquisition of a reliable food supply.

    New leadership was sent with additional supplies and colonists in the 1609 Third Supply. Most of the eight ships in that convoy arrived in August, 1609, but the 300 new settlers arrived after the planting season, and the colonists in Virginia did not have adequate supplies to feed the additional mouths.

    The Sea Venture did not manage to complete the journey across the Atlantic Ocean. That ship, with the new governor Sir Thomas Gates, was wrecked at Bermuda.

    gravesites of settlers who died in first years at Jamestown, buried inside the walls of the fort to disguise the deaths from local Algonquians

    The Third Supply ships that did arrive did not carry enough food to feed those additional colonists through the winter until new crops would ripen in 1610, and that was of greater significance than the absence of Sir Thomas Gates. The winter of 1609-10 ended up being the "Starving Time," when the majority of the colonists at Jamestown died. Contemporary records report that one person even killed and ate his wife, after "powdering" the meat with salty-tasting gunpowder. Cannibalism is also documented by the bones of a 14-year old girl, excavated in 2012. Analysis at the Smithsonian Institution showed that her body was carved up by someone wielding a knife with their right hand. 9

    The 1606 instructions directed that the first English town be located where ships could arrive easily, but at a site that could be defended against attack. The Virginia Company in London knew that at the beginning, Jamestown would not be a self-sufficient community. It would be an isolated seaport at the end of the line for international trade, an outpost that required regular replenishment from Europe in its early years.

    Resupply trips from Europe required 12-18 weeks, until the Virginia Company in London hired Samuel Argall. In 1609 he identified a route along the 30th parallel that required only nine weeks at sea and reduced the risk of landing on Spanish-controlled islands in the Caribbean.

    The shorter route turned out to be key to the survival of Jamestown. Lord De La Warr used it when traveling to the colony in 1610, and arrived just in time to intercept the ships that were abandoning Jamestown completely after the "starving time" winter of 1609-1610. Had Lord De La Warr followed the traditional route used since Columbus in 1492, he would have found just an empty fort. 10

    Samuel Argall determined that turning west at the 30th parallel, rather than sailing south to catch the westerly winds at the latitude of the Caribbean, would reduce the London-Jamestown travel time by up to 50%
    Source: ESRI, GIS Online

    Had Sir Thomas Gates arrived with the rest of the Third Supply in 1609, Lord De La Warr may have found the colony already dispersing from Jamestown. The Virginia Company in London concluded within a year that the location chosen by Edward Maria Wingfield in 1607 that was not defensible against an attach by Spanish, French, or Dutch ships that might maneuver upstream.

    The instructions given to Gates in 1609 included directions to maintain Jamestown as a port of entry, but to shift most of the colonists to other locations that were more healthy - and more isolated, so attacking European forces would end up starving before the fortified English settlements would have to surrender: 11

    In the distribucon of yo men accordinge to these advises and relacons w c h wee haue receauded, we advise you to continue the Plantacon at James Towne with a Convenient nomber of men, but not as yo r situacon or Citty, because the place is vnholesome and but in the Marish of Virginia, and to keepe it onely as a fitt porte for yo r Shippes to ride before to ariue and vnlade att [arrive and unload at], butt neither shall you make it yo r principall Storehowse and Magazin either of armes victualls or goods, but because it is so accessable, with shippinge that an enemy may be easily vppon you with all the provision of ordinance and municon and it is not to be expected that anie fortification there can endure an enemy that hath the leasure to sitt downe before yt:

    The place you chose for yo r principall Residence and seate to haue yo r Catle pvisions of Corne foode and Magazin of other municon in, as yo r greatest strength trust and retraite, must be remouded some good distance from any navigable riuer except with small boates by w c h no enemy shall dare to seeke yo r habitacon and if in this place some good forticacon be made to w c h no ordinance can be brought by water, if you be pvided of victuall you may dispute possession till a straunger be wearied and starved.

    in 1611, Sir Thomas Dale located the second official Virginia Company settlement, Henricus, on a peninsula upstream from Jamestown
    Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606

    In 1611, Sir Thomas Dale started the new settlement at Henricus. It was more-defensible than Jamestown, located on a high bluff, but not isolated in the backcountry. Dale ignored the 1609 instructions to find an isolated location far from the water. He chose a peninsula along the river that could be easily fortified with a palisade, recognizing that the Native Americans posed a greater threat than any European country.

    The danger was demonstrated clearly in 1622, when Henricus was destroyed in the uprising led by Powhatan's successor Opechancanough.

    Jamestown was not attacked by Native Americans paddling across the James River during the first uprising led by Opechancanough in 1622, but European artists still included such an assault in their engravings
    Source: Brown University, John Carter Brown Library, Massacre at Jamestown, Virginia, 1622

    Today, the closest equivalent to Jamestown is Antarctica. Scientific facilities there are cut off from the rest of the world for several months a year. When humans colonize the moon and planets, or the seafloor, those new colonists will face a resupply a challenge not unlike what the English faced with Jamestown.

    English settlers in the land of the Powhatan

    Conflicts began immediately between the Powhatan people and the English the English colonists fired shots as soon as they arrived (due to a bad experience they had with the Spanish prior to their arrival). Within two weeks of the English arrival at Jamestown, deaths had occurred.

    The settlers had hoped for friendly relations and had planned to trade with the Virginia Indians for food. Captain Christopher Newport led the first English exploration party up the James River in 1607, when he met Parahunt, weroance of the Powhatan proper. The English initially mistook him for the paramount Powhatan (mamanatowick), his father Wahunsunacawh, who ruled the confederacy.

    Captain John Smith led a colorful life, even if his biography sometimes exaggerated his adventures.

    While on a hunting and trade mission on the Chickahominy River in December 1607, only seven months after building the fort on Jamestown Island, Captain John Smith, later president of the colony, was captured by Opechancanough, the younger brother of Wahunsunacawh. Smith became the first Englishman to meet the paramount chief Powhatan.

    Captain John Smith imagined that someday the Virginia Indians would be doing all the work for the English, but Powhatan envisioned something different: he wanted Smith and the colonists to forsake the swamp and instead live in one of his satellite towns called Capahosick where they would make metal tools for him in exchange for full provision.

    In this chromolithograph credited to the New England Chromo. Lith. Company, around 1870, Pocahontas saves the life of John Smith. The scene is idealized and relies on stereotypes of Native Americans rather than reliable information about the particulars of this historical moment. There are no mountains in Tidewater Virginia, for example, and the Powhatans lived not in tipis but in thatched houses. And the scene that Smith famously described in his Generall Historie (1624) did not take place outdoors but in a longhouse.

    Much later, when Smith was writing a book about his life, he claimed that during his captivity, Pocahontas, Chief Wahunsunacawh’s daughter, had dramatically saved him from Powhatan’s clubs, but historians differ as to whether or not this was propaganda, or an actual native ritual. Smith’s capture represented just an example of the diplomatic strategies employed by Wahunsunacawh to make the English cooperate with and contribute to his expanding control in this region. Smith was released when he falsely promised to move the colony to Capahosick, just as the chief wished.

    BONUS INFO: Six Inaccuracies in Disney’s Pocahontas

    The Coronation of Powhatan, oil on canvas, John Gadsby Chapman, 1835.

    In 1608, the leaders of Jamestown realized that Powhatan’s friendship was crucial to the survival of the small Jamestown colony. In the summer of that year, he tried to “crown” the paramount Chief, with a ceremonial crown, to make him an English “vassal.” They also gave Powhatan many European gifts, such as a pitcher, feather mattress, bed frame, and clothes. The coronation went badly because they asked Powhatan to kneel to receive the crown, which he refused to do. As a powerful leader, Powhatan followed two rules: “he who keeps his head higher than others ranks higher,” and “he who puts other people in a vulnerable position, without altering his own stance, ranks higher.” To finish the “coronation”, several English had to lean on Powhatan’s shoulders to get him low enough to place the crown on his head, as he was a tall man. Afterwards, the English might have thought that Powhatan had submitted to King James, whereas Powhatan likely thought nothing of the sort.

    After John Smith became president of the colony, he sent a force to occupy an island in Nansemond territory and drive the inhabitants away. At the same time, he sent another force to build a fort at the James River falls. He purchased a nearby fortified Powhatan village (present site of Richmond, Virginia) from another chief named Parahunt for some copper. Smith then renamed the village “Nonsuch,” and tried to persuade English colonists to live in it. Both these attempts at settling beyond Jamestown soon failed due to Powhatan resistance. Smith left Virginia for England in October 1609, never to return, because of an injury sustained in a gunpowder accident.


    Women played critical, though differing, roles in Virginia’s Indian, English, and African societies. The Indians of Tsenacomoco lived in a matrilineal society, meaning that power was inherited through the female line. Powhatan’s heirs were his brothers, sisters, and sisters’ children, but not his own children. Women such as Cockacoeske and Ann became chiefs in this way. But this custom also meant that Pocahontas was not a princess in the European sense. She may have been Powhatan’s “dearest daughter,” in the words of John Smith, but she had no special privileges, obligations or responsibilities other than those that pertained to all women. She gathered plants for food, cooked, helped to build houses, and—to the Englishmen’s surprise—worked the farms. Because the English believed that farming was men’s work, they assumed that Indian men must be lazy.

    When the English first arrived in Tsenacomoco, they brought no women with them, which the Indians found strange. Not until 1608 did the gentleman Thomas Forest bring his wife (name unknown) and her maid, Anne Burras. Burras later wed a carpenter, John Laydon, and their daughter Virginia was the first child born to English parents at Jamestown. Other women followed. Temperance Flowerdew arrived in 1609, survived the Starving Time, and later married two Virginia governors, George Yeardley and Francis West. Many women outlived their husbands and remarried several times. By combining the estates of past and present husbands, they sometimes became wealthy and, in certain ways, powerful. Frances Culpeper first married a governor of settlements in present-day North Carolina. When he died she married Sir William Berkeley, the long-serving governor of Virginia. After being widowed a second time, she married the colony’s treasurer, Philip Ludwell.

    Although sometimes involved in politics, Lady Berkeley, as she was known, nevertheless fit the English definition of a “good wife.” Legally, the concept of coverture applied to her and to all wives: while married they were “covered” by their husbands, who were undisputed heads of the household, managing the wife’s land and representing the entire family in court. As a result, Lady Berkeley and others like her mostly worked inside the home—cooking, cleaning, raising children, and entertaining—or supervised those who did. Not all women aspired to be good wives, however. Out of necessity, some helped their husbands and servants cultivate tobacco, a labor that many believed to be unbecoming of an Englishwoman. Others, like Jane Vobe and Christiana Campbell , ran taverns. Or, like Margaret Brent , they declined to marry and instead bought land and ran a plantation. Some white women resisted their traditional roles in other ways. The irascible James Blair chose as his bride seventeen-year-old Sarah Harrison of Surry County, but during their wedding ceremony in 1687 she refused to agree to obey her husband.

    Women faced some dangers that men did not. For instance, women servants and slaves were particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and other kinds of exploitation. The widowed servant Jane Dickenson complained in 1624 that her master, Dr. John Pott, was unfairly holding her for both her own and her dead husband’s term of service. Women whose behavior struck others as odd risked being accused of witchcraft . In Princess Anne County, Grace Sherwood faced such a charge. A trial in 1706 determined that she was, in fact, a witch, but instead of sentencing her to death, she was retried. The results of her new trial are not known, but Sherwood lived until 1740.

    Conflict and confusion over women’s roles actually helped to institutionalize slavery. In England, the government taxed households based on the amount of property owned. But in Virginia the General Assembly taxed individuals who contributed to the growing of tobacco. More people meant more tobacco and so a higher tax. Because white women were expected to be “good wives” and not work in the fields, they were not “tithable,” or eligible to be taxed. Enslaved African women did work in the fields, however, and in March 1643, the General Assembly passed a law making all “negro women at the age of sixteen years” tithable. According to the historian Kathleen Brown, this was the first time the assembly distinguished between white and black laborers. By the end of the seventeenth century, that distinction would become the basis for the South’s “peculiar institution.”

    Meet Real Women From Jamestown’s History

    If you’re a big Jamestown fan like we are, you know that women played a significant role in colonial Virginia. Over the past three seasons, we’ve seen Alice, Verity, Jocelyn and other women of the colony navigate all sorts of political and personal challenges in the New World. But the Jamestown we see on the screen – with witch trials, assault, and some serious plotting – is still a romanticized version of the truth. So what was life really like for women in Jamestown? We dug into the history books to find out more.

    Patsy Ferran as Mercy and Naomi Battrick as Jocelyn. Mercy and Jocelyn share a last moment together before the wedding

    We know the show is based on true history. After the first group of male colonists landed in Virginia in 1607, the gender imbalance started to become a problem. Women were in high demand, so Jamestown’s leaders set up a marital immigration process to bring wives to the colony.

    Leaving England for Jamestown allowed working-class Englishwomen to avoid a life of domestic service in their home country. It turns out that female colonists enjoyed freedoms that they probably would have never gotten back in England. Unlike on the show, women were usually given the honor of choosing their husband after they arrived. Once a woman chose her new husband, the man would pay back the Virginia Company and cover the costs of getting her to the New World in the form of “good leaf” tobacco – leading to the term “tobacco wives.”

    Women who came to the colony could become landowners themselves, and if they become widows – as we've seen with Jocelyn – they were allowed to inherit substantial amounts of land which made them economically independent and gave them the option of choosing not to re-marry. What a novel idea!

    Of course, English women were not the only women in Virginia at this time. Colonists encountered Native Americans, and captured Africans arrived in 1619 and were forced into servitude.

    Here are some stories from real-life women in colonial Virginia.

    Temperance Flowerdew Barrow Yeardley West
    Temperance is one of the only characters from Jamestown based on a real person. Now, this was one tough woman! She arrived in Jamestown after a treacherous voyage from England, just ahead of the “Starving Time,” a harsh winter in which 80 percent of Jamestown’s colonists died. But Temperance survived – and thrived. Her husband from England died in 1613 and she went on to marry George Yeardley, future governor of Virginia. And (possible spoiler alert!) when George died and left her land in his will, Temperance became one of the wealthiest women in all of Virginia.

    Claire Cox as Temperance and Jason Flemyng as Governor Yeardley and Kalani Queypo as Chacrow

    Cockacoeske, “Queen of the Pamunkey”
    One of the reasons we love Jamestown is its inclusive representation of Native Americans on screen. After her husband died, Cockacoeske became the leader of the Pamunkey, one of the remaining Powhatan tribes. Playing a crucial role in political negotiations between the English colonists and Indians, Cockacoeske managed to protect her tribe from future attacks. She met with colonial leaders, including Governor William Berkeley, and signed the Treaty of Middle Plantation, which gave the tribes legal protections under Virginia’s Royal government.

    Anne Burras
    Anne was venturing into the unknown when she arrived in Jamestown in 1608 at just 14 years old. Like Mercy, she came as a maidservant – but that all changed when her mistress died. Just two months later, Anne took part in the first known marriage in the colony when she married laborer John Laydon. Along with Temperance Flowerdew, her resilience helped her survive the deadly winter of 1609, and go on to flourish – she had four daughters in the colony.

    Abiola Ogubiyi as Maria and Abubakar Salim as Pedro

    Angelo was the first documented African woman in the Jamestown settlement. Like Maria and Pedro, she arrived in 1619 from the Portuguese colony of Angola, and was originally bound for Mexico before her ship was intercepted in the Caribbean. The Africans were taken to Virginia and bought by wealthy English planters. Sadly, not much else is known about Angelo's life, aside from her being listed in official documents as a servant in the household of Capt. William Pierce in 1625.

    Sarah Harrison
    Sarah Harrison’s story shows that the independent streak of many of Jamestown’s women is surprisingly accurate. According to records, Harrison refused to comply with a key part of a marriage ceremony. When the officiant asked for her promise to “obey” her husband, Harrison supposedly said “No obey.” She repeated the response two more times, until the clergyman skipped over that part of the ceremony. We don't know about you, but we could see Verity doing the same thing!

    Ann Jackson
    Ann Jackson’s quest for a new life did not go as planned. She sailed for Virginia in 1621 in a group of 56 skilled women, hoping to join her brother, who was already living in the colony. Along with 17 other women, she was captured by Powhatan Indians in an attack on the settlement in 1622. She survived six years in captivity – but after her experiences in the new world, she would eventually return to England.

    Digital Producer, creating news, food, history, and arts content and everything in between.

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