Monday, May 8, 2017

1608 The Role of Native American, Slave, & European Women at Jamestown, Virginia

"...the plantation can never florish till families be planted & the respect of wives and children fix the people on the soil." Sir Edwin Sandy, Treasurer Virginia Company of London, 1620

The 1st of the British colonies to take hold in North America was Jamestown. On the basis of a charter which King James I granted to the Virginia (or London) Company, a group of about 100 men set out for the Chesapeake Bay in 1607. Seeking to avoid conflict with the Spanish, who settled & exploited the Americas 1st, they chose a site about 60 kilometers up the James River from the bay. Made up of townsmen & adventurers more interested in finding gold than farming, the group was unequipped by temperament or ability to embark upon a completely new life in the wilderness.

Some hoped to convert the Native Americans to Protestant Christianity. Some wanted to establish an English hold on the New World & exploit its resources. Most desired to find its fabled gold & riches & a few longed to discover a northwest passage to the treasures of the Orient.

Among them, Captain John Smith emerged as the dominant figure. Despite quarrels, starvation & Indian attacks, his ability to enforce discipline held the little colony together through its 1st year. In 1609 Smith returned to England, & in his absence, the colony descended into anarchy. 

The 1st English women arrived in Virginia, when Captain Christopher Newport brought 2 female settlers to Jamestown on his 2nd supply ship in October of 1608.

During the winter of 1609-1610, the majority of the colonists succumbed to disease. Only 60 of the original 300 settlers were still alive by May 1610.

Once the commercial resources were discovered, the company's revenues would continue only if the outpost became permanent. For Jamestown to survive, many unstable conditions had to be overcome. 1. A clash of cultures existed between the Englishmen & the Native Americans with whom they soon found to need to trade & hoped to Christianize. 2. Settlers were unprepared for the rugged frontier life in a wilderness. 3. Many settlers intended to remain in Virginia only long enough to make their fortune & then return home to England.

It was not long, however, before a development occurred that revolutionized Virginia's economy. In 1612, John Rolfe began cross-breeding imported tobacco seed from the West Indies with native plants & produced a new variety that was pleasing to European taste. The 1st shipment of this tobacco reached London in 1614. Within a decade it had become Virginia's chief source of revenue.

Prosperity did not come quickly, however, & the death rate from disease & Indian attacks remained extraordinarily high. Between 1607-1624 approximately 14,000 people migrated to the colony, yet only 1,132 were living there in 1624. On recommendation of a royal commission, the king dissolved the Virginia Company, & he made it a royal colony that year.

Providing the stability needed for Jamestown's survival was the indispensable role played by Virginia women. Their initial arrival in 1608 & throughout the next few years contributed greatly to Jamestown's ultimate success. Lord Bacon, a member of His Majesty's Council for Virginia, stated about 1620 that "When a plantation grows to strength, then it is time to plant with women as well as with men; that the plantation may spread into generations, & not be ever pieced from without."


The 1st woman to foster stability in Jamestown was not an English woman but a native Virginian. Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, was among the first Native Americans to bring harvest foods to the early settlers. 

Indian women of the Powhatan society interacted with the colonists from the start, accompanying male emissaries sent to the Fort by Chief Powhatan — at times bringing food which saved the settlers from starvation.  

After being captured & held for the ransom of peace by the English colonists, Pocahontas eventually married tobacco entrepenur John Rolfe. This early Virginia woman helped create the "Peace of Pocahontas," which for several years, appeased the clash between the 2 cultures.

Anne Burras

One of the 1st English women to arrive & help provide a home life in the rugged Virginia wilderness was young Anne Burras. Anne was the personal maid of Mistress Forrest who came to Jamestown in 1608 to join her husband. Although the fate of Mistress Forrest remains uncertain, that of Anne Burras is well known. Her marriage to carpenter John Laydon 2 months after her arrival became the 1st Jamestown wedding. While Jamestown fought the become a permanent settlement, Anne & John began a more intimate struggle to raise a family of 4 daughters in the Virginia wilderness. Certainly, Anne & her family began the stabilization process which would eventually spur the colony's growth.  Little else is known of Anne except that she survived the Indian attack of 1622 — which killed an estimated 347 colonists & was the beginning of a war with the Native Americans that lasted for 10 years.  She was still living in Virginia in 1625.

Temperance Flowerdew

Another young woman, Temperance Flowerdew, 1590-1628, arrived with 400 ill-fated settlers in the fall of 1609. Temperance Flowerdew was the daughter of Anthony Flowerdew of Hethersett County, Norfolk, England & Martha Stanley of Scottow, Norfolk, England. 

The following winter, dubbed the "Starving Time," saw over 80 percent of Jamestown succumb to sickness, disease & starvation. Temperance survived this season of hardship but soon returned to England.  

Three years later in 1613, Temperance married George Yeardley & over the course of the next few years had 3 children, a daughter Elizabeth (1614-15), & 2 sons, Argoll (1618) & Francis (1623). In 1616, Deputy Governor George Yeardly secured a peace with the Chickahominy Indians that enabled the colonists to trade for food & live in peace for 2 years. His term ended in 1617. Traveling to England, George Yeardley was knighted in 1618, & given a commission as Governor of Virginia. In 1619, Governor Yeardley initiated the 1st legislative assembly by ordering representatives from all parts of the colony to convene at the Jamestown church on July 3, 1619 to determine the laws that would govern them.  This later became known as the House of Burgesses.

Governor Yeardley named his Virginia patent grant of 1,000 acres in honor of his wife:  Flowerdew Hundred.  Sir Yeardly commissioned the building of America’s 1st windmill on the plantation in 1621.  Notably 15 of the 1st 20 Africans brought to the Jamestown colony resided at the plantation.  Whether they were there in slavery or indentured servitude, it is not clear.  Indentured servitude was common in the early days of the colony.  The colony had no institutionalized slavery enacted into law until 1662, when the need for labor in the tobacco-dependent economy intensified.

Temperance survived another harrowing event that occurred in the early morning hours of March 22, 1622, when a carefully orchestrated attack by the Powhatan Indians wiped out 25% of the colonists.  Records note that Flowerdew Hundred lost 6 of the 30 or so people who lived & worked there.

In 1627, Temperance’s husband died & she remarried his successor, Governor Francis West on March 31, 1628.  Unfortunately Temperance died just 9 months later in December 1628. Her many years in Virginia as a wife & mother helped fill the gap in Jamestown's early family life.

Jane Pierce

Jane Pierce, the daughter of Captain William Pierce & his wife Joan., set out on her journey to the New World in 1609 with the group of 500 new settlers destined for the Jamestown settlement.

Jane traveled to the new colony of Virginia with her mother on the Blessing, one of 9 ships that traveled together in consort from England.  Captain Pierce traveled with the other leaders on the flagship, the Sea Venture.  The violent hurricane battered the ships & separated Jane’s ship from that of her father’s.  Weeks later, the Blessing straggled into Jamestown, but when her father’s ship never arrived, Jane & her mother believed Captain Pierce had been lost at sea.

They had little time to grieve, however, as their focus was on surviving the terrible Starving Time during that 1st winter. Both Jane & her mother were among the few survivors come spring.

Then in May, 1610, some 10 months after they said goodbye to her father, Jane, along with her mother, enjoyed a thrilling, unexpected reunion with Captain Pierce when the survivors of the Sea Venture shipwreck on Bermuda arrived at Jamestown. Jane grew up in Jamestown learning from her mother, known as the master gardener of the Jamestown settlement. 

John Rolfe became well-acquainted with Captain Pierce during the Sea Venture voyage & the 10 months stranded on the island of Bermuda.  Upon the tragic death of his wife, Rebecca (Pocahontas) in England in 1617, John Rolfe returned to Jamestown. In 1619, Jane married John Rolfe. They had a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1620, who died in 1635 at the age of 15. Jane’s husband, John Rolfe, died in 1622.

The mother of a 2 year old girl, Jane remarried that year to Captain Roger Smith.

The need for a more permanent colony may have led the male leaders back in England, who were interested in making a profit, to revised thinking about the role of women.  The traditional English role of women seemed to enlarge & shift a bit, as they created a sense of permanence & “home” in the wilderness of Virginia. Their importance & standing began to grow a little. Jamestown’s women provided the stability needed for its survival.

In July 1619, settlers were granted acres of land dependent on the time & situation of their arrival. This was the beginning of private property for Virginia men. These men, however, asked that land also be allotted for their wives who were just as deserving "...because that in a newe plantation it is not knowen whether man or woman be the most necessary."

The Virginia Company of London seemed to agree that women were indeed quite necessary. They hoped to anchor their discontented bachelors to the soil of Virginia by using women as a stabilizing factor. They ordered in 1619 that "...a fit hundredth might be sent of women, maids young & uncorrupt, to make wives to the inhabitants & by that means to make the men there more settled & less movable...." Ninety arrived in 1620 & the company records reported in May of 1622 that, "57 young maids have been sent to make wives for the planters, divers of which were well married before the coming away of the ships."

Slave Women

From 1618-1620, the Portuguese fought the people of Ndongo in western Africa. Thousands of Africans were abducted by African warlords & mercenaries employed by the Portuguese in Angola. Many were marched from their villages to the port of Luanda. Some escaped. Some died. Two to 300 survivors would be packed together on a vessel for the journey across the sea as slaves. 

In August 1619, a privateer vessel, White Lion, landed in Virginia at Point Comfort (present day Hampton, Virginia) with a cargo of more than 20 Africans stolen from a Portuguese slave ship named Sao Jao Bautista bound for Veracruz, Mexico. A short time after the White Lion stopped at Point Comfort, another vessel, the Treasurer, arrived carrying more Africans.

The status of the Africans in Virginia, at that moment, is uncertain, but some were “bought” by Governor Yeardley & Abraham Peirsey — meaning they were either slaves or indentured servants. Without papers of indenture (as carried by most white servants), these new arrivals had no protected legal standing & could be easily exploited.

From 1619 on, African women — brought to Virginia against their will — were also a vital part of the female history of Jamestown & Virginia. Few records exist to shed light on the lives of the 1st Africans in Virginia — either before or after their arrival; however, there is some historical information about one of them — a young woman called “Angela” who came on the Treasurer in 1619. The Muster Roll of 1625 reveals that Angela was still in Virginia — a servant in the household of Captain William Peirce.

It is believed that Jamestown would not have survived as a permanent settlement without the daring women who were willing to leave behind their English homes & face the challenges of a strange new land. These women created a sense of stability in the untamed wilderness of Virginia. They helped the settlers see Virginia not just as a temporary place for profit or adventure, but as a country in which to forge a new home.

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Bruse, Philip. History of Virginia Colonial Period 1607-1763
Ibid., Social Life of Virginia in the 17th Century
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Lebsock, Suzanne. A Share of Honour: Virginia Women 1600-1945
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Information from the National Park Service at Jamestown, Virginia