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Gender in Jamestown

Marie Daucks was a twenty-five year old widow when she signed up to go to Jamestown. Barbara Burchens was just seventeen and unmarried when she decided to travel across the ocean. They were among the 57 'maids' sent to Jamestown by the Virginia Company in 1621 in an effort to raise morale and improve the quality of life in the struggling colony.

It was not the first time the company had tried to do something about the gender imbalance in the colony. But earlier efforts had met neither success nor approval; too few women were sent, the men complained, and even by Virginia's standards they left a lot to be desired. So this time around, the company was more selective in its recruitment. The young women had to present letters of recommendation—letters which spoke to their character and domestic skills. As a result, the women who made the trip were far from the most desperate of England's poor. Among the 57 women sent in 1621 were eight with ties to the English gentry; another twelve were the daughters of artisans. Ranging in ages from 15 to 28, with an average age of twenty, these women could not be classified as destitute. But they were united by a certain disadvantage—virtually all were economically vulnerable. The group included only two widows, but there were numerous orphans and several young women that had recently lost their fathers. While not the most desperate of London's poor, the girls and women who decided to go to Jamestown faced an uncertain future in England.

Land of Opportunity?

America thus offered an opportunity of sorts—perhaps not very different from the opportunity offered the vast majority of men who made the trip to America as indentured servants. Both bound themselves to a stranger; both accepted an arrangement that severely compromised their freedom. Of course, the risks undertaken by the young women were also distinctive in many ways. They had to submit to a different sort of indignity in rapidly negotiating marriages to virtually unknown men. And their economic prospects were narrowed by the simple fact of their gender. But in the end, the calculation for both sexes was much the same—the women accepted the risks of migration, and the uncertainties inherent in linking their futures to a stranger, for the prospect of a life more promising than the one they were leaving behind.

Given the dangers of life in Virginia, it is hard to believe that anyone would make this choice. Mortality rates had improved only a little in the decade and a half since Jamestown was first settled. Since 1607, about 6000 settlers had been sent to Virginia but only 1200 were still alive. In the colony's worst winter, 440 of the town's 500 people had died of starvation and disease.

Moreover, as soon as the women landed, they had to set about finding a partner. The company insisted that they would not actually be auctioned off, reassuring the women that they would have ultimate control over all marital arrangements. But the bottom line was that they could only marry a man able to provide the company with 150 pounds of tobacco as compensation for the trouble and expense of delivering the young woman. And unless they found a man to marry, they could never survive in the colony.

For the 57 women who traveled to Virginia in 1621, the good news was that most had found partners by the following spring. The bad news was that the Pamunkeys, unsettled by the recent growth of the English colony, attacked the settlement, killing more than 400 people. Marie Daucks, the recently arrived widow, and teenager Barbara Burchens were among those killed.

But if this year was like most others, the women faced an even more dangerous threat than Indian attack—the usual period of 'seasoning' that greeted every immigrant. Jamestown sat in the middle of a hot and humid swamp. Disease was a constant threat, especially during the summer months when most of the ships arrived. The result was that a shocking percentage of the immigrants to Jamestown died within months of their arrival. And if a woman survived her first year and found a suitable marriage partner, she faced the additional challenge of pregnancy. An enormous risk for women everywhere in the seventeenth century, pregnancy rendered women particularly vulnerable to the malaria that struck the colony on a regular basis.

Life in Jamestown was no picnic. The set of challenges that had to be weighed against the benefits that might reward those who survived the ordeals were extraordinary. But if a woman did survive her first year, and if she did live through the Indian attacks and the dangers of pregnancy, she probably did realize a better future than the one lying before her in England. When all was said and done, the women who traveled to Virginia probably did make the right choice.

Rarity Becomes Leverage

For starters, the women benefited from their rarity. There were three and a half men for every woman in Virginia in 1625—and by century's end there were still three men for every two women.14 This meant that virtually all women married. And within marriage, women in Virginia were able to parlay their rarity into increased control over the property accumulated during marriage. For example, whereas in England the customary practice, reinforced by law, was for a man to leave his wife a third of his property upon his death, with the rest to be divided among his children, women in the Chesapeake usually received a larger share of their late husbands' estates. Moreover, widows were more commonly named as executors of their husbands' estates, thereby increasing their ability to fend off any challenges to the will.

Even with property, Virginia was a risky place for an unmarried woman in the seventeenth century. Therefore, widows generally remarried—often before the corpses of their dead husbands turned cold. Jane Sparrow waited only five days before remarrying after the death of her husband. But she was unusual; most women waited much longer—a good month or so. But their suitors were as anxious to seal the match as they were, for the property these women brought with them from their first marriages made them valuable catches. A number of the men who rose to the top of Virginia society in the first half of the century did so by marrying well. But a number of widows played the marriage game just as skillfully. Being both rare and wealthy, many negotiated even greater security by arranging what amounted to prenuptial agreements, shielding a portion of their property from their new husbands.

The peculiar circumstances of Virginia therefore led to some atypical marital patterns—patterns that may have provided additional compensation to women for the extraordinary risks attached to migrating to the colony. Sarah Offley, for example, began her marital career fairly commonly in 1627 by marrying a former servant. But after his death in 1640, she was able to marry up. Within a year, she married into one of the wealthier families in the colony—one guesses that the property she brought from her first marriage was part of the attraction. When her second husband died three years later, she married for a third time. She was now over 40 years old, but she controlled a considerable amount of property—a fact that no doubt appealed to her new 23-year-old husband.15

By the eighteenth century, the peculiar demographics that contributed to the unusual opportunities for women in Virginia had begun to normalize. Mortality rates improved and men and women lived longer. The gender ratio moved toward parity as natural reproduction contributed more and more to overall population growth. In many ways, the marital patterns and more general condition of women within Virginia took on a more typical caste. But probate patterns remained much the same; women continued to receive a larger share of their late husbands' estates than was the norm elsewhere. As a result, it appears that the bold women who migrated to Jamestown in the seventeenth century—or the ones who lived, at least—improved not only their own lives but also the lives of future generations of Virginia women.

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