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The Bride Ships Of 1620, Colonial America's First Transatlantic Party Buses

Updated October 4, 2019 88.5k views10 items

Jamestown, Virginia, arose as the first permanent English settlement in the New World, largely thanks to the strength and resilience of the Jamestown colony brides. The initial group of settlers, all male, arrived and built James Fort in 1607, a private, corporate adventure. Much opportunity, along with much risk, lay waiting in the New World. But within a year, the men already complained about the lack of female company. To satisfy the colonial men, the Virginia Company sent over the bride ships of 1619, enticing the women with hopes for a better life while satiating the men's demands. Ninety women were selected that year, with a smaller group chosen and sent out several years later.

Commonly referred to as the tobacco brides of Jamestown, similar to the casket girls who settled in Louisiana in the 18th century, these women gained new rights and freedoms that Europe kept out of their reach. Despite how pop culture commonly depicts them, Jamestown colony women married who they liked, and many actually owned property of their own, something unheard of in Europe. While life was definitely not easy for them, the women of Jamestown were instrumental in creating new lives and new opportunities for the future women of colonial America.

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  • Older Women Vs. Younger: The Skills They Offered

    Photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    Some things are ever the same, no matter time or place. The women who applied to become "brides" to Jamestown knew exactly how to pitch themselves to the Virginia Company, depending on their age.

    According to David R Ransome's article "Wives for Virginia, 1621"  (The William and Mary Quarterly, 48 1, 3-18) the female applicants' ages ranged from 15 to 28. Yes, in 1618, 15 was considered marriageable age. The 28-year-olds actually pushed into old age, believe it or not.

    A rundown of their claimed skills is very telling of the value of youth and beauty versus age and experience. The 14 to 16 crowd boasted of gold and silver lace making skills. While no woman left a record stating her reasons, it may well have been that the youngest ladies knew they would be in highest demand among the Jamestown "grooms," which in turn would mean the most rich and powerful men picked first from the youngest, freshest ladies. What other sort of colonist would desire lace making skills in a wife? Only the very rich, that's who. Why marry a poor farmer who needed a wife he could work to death in house and field when you can marry a member of the colonial Council, wear silks, and crochet lace? The youngest women knew exactly what they were doing.

    But what about the women on the other end of the age scale? The 26 to 28-year-old women claimed a wide range of practical skills, the kind of skills actually needed in Virginia (Ransome 15). For every perfumed colonial leader desirous of a wife there existed dozens of small farmers and plantation owners who needed clever, strong women as wives. The older ladies listed, among other skills, brewing, baking, vegetable gardening, sewing, butchering, livestock managing, and even light carpentry skills.

    In the end? Looks and youth didn't matter. Every single woman who wanted a husband and her own household settled down with the man of her choice in very short order.

  • The Brides Came From A Wide Variety Of English Backgrounds

    The Virginia Company did request that only decent women of good family need apply. But what did they mean by that? How was a woman to know if she qualified? Most importantly, the Company wanted to make sure successful applicants were not or had not engaged in the sex trade (which was very common at the time, for a variety of social reasons) or had a serious drinking problem. The women also had to provide letters of reference, and be known in their community as moral and upright. Historian David Ransome, in his Wives for Virginia, 1621  (The William and Mary Quarterly, 48 1, 3-18) provides details about the women's background and the types of evidence they provided to support their application (Ransone, 14-15).

    Naturally, the women sought out only those letter writers whom they knew would produce a glowing letter. Recommendations from priests, employers, teachers, and even neighbors were submitted. Any of the women who could make any - however tangentially - connection to the nobility most definitely included that in her application. Two of the successful applicants claimed kinship to a knight. Others claimed connections to successful merchants, educators, and priests (Ransome, 12-14)

    Essentially, the women were all of middling to poor-but-polite society, who may or may not have padded their credentials.

  • Some Brides May Have Tried To Escape Ship Before Departure

    Photo: Jacob Knijff/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    While this is only a theory, it stands to reason at least some of the women who boarded the ship Marmaduke to Virginia became frightened and angry when the discovery was made that none of the supplies promised them were on board (Zug 91) and ( O'Neill 234-235). In other words, all but two of the women would arrive in Virginia with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Two of the women brought along small bags, similar to what we would call a carry-on today.

    Virginia Company records suggest there was at least some protestation from the women before departure. After the Marmaduke left port, the Virginia Company wrote a letter to the Colonial Council in Jamestown (knowing full well the ship with the women and no supplies would arrive ahead of the letter) apologizing for not following through with their promise to outfit the women in their new lives, "We had no means to putt provisions aboard." (O'Neill 234-235). What we do know is that all who boarded arrived in Jamestown six weeks later. The question remains, did they stay aboard willingly? And if so, did shame keep them there? What would it have been like to return home after the discovery of such an important promise? All the praise, the celebratory send offs, the boasting that was undoubtedly done, who would return home after that? 

  • Earlier Efforts To Attract "Decent" Women Were Miserable Failures

    Photo: WilliamHogarth/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    As mentioned earlier in this story, women began arriving in Jamestown as early as 1608. The first woman, a Mistress Forrest, who came to settle in Virginia with her husband, brought along her maid, Anne Burras, who was courted and feted by all the men of Jamestown and married soon thereafter.

    Over the next year more women arrived. The colony was already begging the Virginia Company to do something about the dearth of females. The trouble was, few people -male or female - wanted to go to Virginia. It was viewed as a dangerous wilderness where people went to die. So, the Company began rounding up some of the innumerable street people of London, and taking on convicted criminals housed in New Gate and the Old Bailey prisons. "Transportation" to Virginia became a very common method of punishment, a choice to prisoners that proved to be wildly popular over the alternative (death). Therefore, most of the female arrivals to Virginia in the earliest years were not the sort of women colonists wished to marry. Indeed, a colonial official wrote to the Virginia Company, despairing that the women who were being sent were of such low quality that if the Company could do no better, they shouldn't bother at all.

    Truly, colonials might be second-class citizens with no women around, but even they had standards.