Pioneering female colonists changed Jamestown

More than 400 years after the first female settlers arrived at Jamestown, the trail of evidence they left behind is thin and elusive.

Of more than 1 million artifacts unearthed there over the past two decades, archaeologists say only a couple of dozen can be linked to the first small trickle of English women.

Surviving records are so few and fragmentary that most of their names and fates remain unknown, lost in an information desert that has stymied students of early Virginia for years.

Despite this dearth of clues about the women who began stepping ashore in 1608, however, there's no doubt among historians about the significance of their arrival — or how they began to transform the colony through their presence.

As Virginia Company Treasurer Sir Edwin Sandy wrote in 1620 — when the first large group of English women landed — "the plantation can never flourish till families be planted and the respect of wives and children fix the people on the soil."

"They knew they needed a population anchored by family life. It was the only way to make the colony permanent and stable," says Martha McCartney, author of "Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers 1607-1635: A Biographical Dictionary."

"And for that they needed women."

Native presence

Made up of men and boys, the first band of 104 settlers founded Jamestown on May 14, 1607.

But it wasn't long before the fort they built became a magnet for Indian women.

So large is the number of Native American artifacts recovered from the site that it now ranks as one of the nation's biggest collections of native objects from the early 1600s, says William M. Kelso, director of the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project.

Among them are thousands of mussel-shell beads in various states of manufacture — plus the stone drills that Virginia's Indian women used to make them.

Evidence of native-made ceramics is widespread, too, and includes many vessels associated with such domestic tasks as cooking.

"The artifacts tell you that there are lots of Indians at Jamestown," Kelso says.

"And it's the Indian women."

Not to be forgotten is the early importance of Pocahontas — a daughter of paramount Indian Chief Powhatan — and her role in bringing food to the hungry English settlers during the winter of 1608-09.

Kidnapped by the English in 1613, her conversion to Christianity and marriage to colonist John Rolfe in 1614 made her a powerful symbol for the colony's investors, who eagerly showed her off in London.

And until her untimely death in 1617 her close links to the English helped promote peace with her father's people.

"She saved the colony during the first 'Starving Time,'" Kelso says.

"She helped the English take root."

Pioneer women

Despite the early and often critical role native women played, the absence of female colonists was felt from the beginning.

"Women did the domestic work — the work the men in Jamestown did not want to do," College of William and Mary historian Julie Richter says, reeling off a list of tasks that includes cooking, cleaning, laundry and disposing of waste water.

"And everyone knew that if the colony was going to be more than a military outpost this kind of work had to be done."

Still, the first two women who arrived in October 1608 were the relatively well-to-do wife of a male colonist and her maid servant.

Though the numbers are hard to pin down, about 30 others left for Virginia the following year, though not all survived the voyage, independent archaeological curator Bly Straube says.

These women, too, accompanied their spouses, fathers or masters privately rather than through any recruiting effort by the Virginia Company.

"The earlier women who came are different," Straube says.

"They were well-connected when they got here."

A decade later, the colony's investors began enlisting women in earnest, assembling two large groups of nearly 150 that stepped ashore in 1620 and '21.

Most came from the families of artisans, tradesmen and gentrymen and — along with letters of recommendation — possessed such practical domestic skills as brewing and dairying.

Still more important was their status as single women in a place where men outnumbered them by more than three to one.

"They came to be married — and on paper they had a choice," Straube says.

"But in effect they were sold."

Fearful risks

Just how unpromising life in England must have been even for such respectable and relatively well-placed women can be seen in the challenges they faced by sailing to Virginia.

Of the first group that came in 1608 and 1609, few survived the brutal "Starving Time" that nearly snuffed the colony out during the winter of 1609-10.

Even those who arrived later and found enough to eat died from disease in frightful numbers during their first year.

"Imagine what it must have been like to sail up the James and see all these tree-lined shores — and hear all these tales about the Indians and the dangers they posed?" McCartney says.

"The risks they took were tremendous."

Still, Virginia offered prospects impossible to imagine in England, including a male-to-female ratio that virtually insured every woman could be married shortly after her arrival.

Some married multiple times, building their wealth and attractiveness as brides by outliving their spouses.

"Life was very harsh in Virginia. But it gave you a chance to get something you couldn't get in England — and that was land," Richter says.

"Here you could move up in a way that you could never have done at home."

Landmark impact

Few such opportunities greeted the first African women, who began arriving as unwilling captives in 1619.

Though some went on to gain their freedom, marry and acquire land, most faced harsh, precarious and often short lives after which their names were forgotten.

"The only one we can relate to a household was named Angelo," Kelso says, describing the lack of surviving information shrouding the 1619 arrivals.

"She lived at Jamestown in the household of Capt. William Pierce."

The artifact trail left by the first female colonists is similarly broken and insubstantial, with only small rings and fragments of bodkins — which they wore in their hair — among the four or five handfuls of objects that mark their presence, Jamestown Rediscovery Curator Merry Outlaw says.

But as their numbers grew, the volume of artifacts they left behind expanded, including some telltale indications of their growing impact.

"When the Virginia Company began recruiting women in 1619, they specifically asked for women who could weave or brew or had dairying skills as cheesemaking," she says.

"So the first dairy-related ceramics such as milk pans start to show up in the late 1610s — and in the 1620s they show up in huge numbers."

Both the Indians and the Spanish recognized the significance of this growing female presence.

What had been a struggling military outpost manned by male adventurers was being transformed, with one of King James' councillors declaring that it was "time to plant with women as well as men; that the plantation may spread into generations."

"I don't think you can underestimate the importance of women to Jamestown," Richter says.

"When they started to come in any number, it meant the English planned to stay."

Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.

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