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

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.

Photo: Metaweb / CC-BY

  • Female Arrivals To Jamestown Were Not Forced To Wed

    Female Arrivals To Jamestown Were Not Forced To Wed
    Photo: Sky TV / Youtube via Sky TV

    The Sky Television series, Jamestown, is only the latest to spread and encourage the false rumor that the women who arrived aboard two ships from England to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 were bought and paid for by male colonists. Some accounts - including in the Jamestown TV series - make the claim that women were forced to marry whomever "paid" for them and subjected to disrespect and abuse.

    None of this is true.  The Virginia Company of London - who owned and managed the Virginia Colony at the time - began a brief recruitment effort in 1618, advertising in England for women to apply for a sponsored immigration to the fledgling colony. Men in Virginia were encouraged to help financially sponsor one of the successful applicants; however, neither the women in England nor the men in Virginia were in communication with one another, signed no agreements, and none of the women were required to wed any of the colonial men.

    In fact, upon arrival to the colony, each woman joined an already established family. This provided her the privacy and security needed as she begun her new life as well as time to get to know the men before making her own decision as to who - or, if - she married. It is important to recognize the professionalism and courtesy extended by the Virginia Company of London in this specific incidence, since they could have quite easily forced women to wed the Virginia settlers. At the time the world saw women as property, and the numerous instances of women kidnapped and sold to Virginia shows that they probably could have done it without much hassle. 

  • The 1619 "Brides" Were Not The First Women In Virginia By A Long Shot

    The 1619 "Brides" Were Not The First Women In Virginia By A Long Shot
    Photo: Henry Howe / Wikimedia Commons

    While definitely true that a shortage of women in the Jamestown colony plagued the young settlement for years, the women who arrived on the "bride ships" were hardly the first ladies to join. Women began immigrating to Virginia from England in 1608, and a comparably large number of women were aboard the five-ship fleet of the famous Third Supply of that same year. One woman, Anne Burras, married carpenter John Laydon three months after she landed in Jamestown, becoming the first marriage in the colony.

    The owners of the Virginia Company, as well as the early colonial leaders, believed more permanent female settlers would encourage social and cultural stability in the colony. Men would be more likely to stay in Virginia if they had a wife and family.

  • Like All Important Guests, Women Arrived Late To The Party

    Like All Important Guests, Women Arrived Late To The Party
    Photo: John Wallaston the Younger/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    Let's face it: recruiting anyone at all to leave hearth and home for the wilds of Virginia proved a hard sell. At the same time the Virginia Company promoted their colonial venture, people returned from Jamestown to report life in the New World was a complete nightmare. The decision to cross the Atlantic only to deal with a strange land with unfamiliar and understandably angry peoples was a little easier for men to make, since society encouraged men to seek adventure and take risks. Furthermore, men, unlike women, required no personal protector to simply exist in the world without being harassed.

    These facts in mind, immigration to Virginia appealed even less to many women. Even by 1619, few European females existed in Jamestown and the surrounding area. There were a great many American tribal women, of course, but colonial officials frowned on men taking wives among them. Pocahontas, who married an Englishman in the early years of the colony, stood out as an exception. And yet, both officials and the male colonists themselves knew in order to develop a permanent settlement in the New World, both men and women were needed. Viewed as a powerful civilizing force, women undertook the familial and household tasks men found demeaning. Even though the 1619 "brides" were free to marry, or not, they were treated as the precious commodity that they absolutely were.

  • Once The Sell Was Made, The "Brides" Needed To Pass A Rigorous Application Process

    Once The Sell Was Made, The "Brides" Needed To Pass A Rigorous Application Process
    Photo: Sylvester Jordain / Wikimedia Commons

    Shareholders in the Virginia Company knew they needed to sweeten the deal in order to recruit the kinds of women they desired for settlement in their Jamestown Colony. Socially acceptable women from stable backgrounds were highly unlikely to embark for Virginia on a whim. Therefore, an advertisement appeared in London newspapers and plastered on the walls of buildings, asking for women of good family and reputation to apply for resettlement in Virginia. As the idea was pitched, it became the Christian - specifically, the Protestant - thing to do. Save the New World from the Spanish Papists! Convert the heathen natives! Also, each and every successful candidate would become mistress of her own household (after marriage to a male colonist), with her own gardens and grounds to tend.  

    Even today that sounds like a pretty good deal. But in the early 17th century, to an Englishwoman of even moderate means, it had the ring of a brilliant dream come true. Almost all of the land in England was owned by royal or noble persons, and any woman who managed to marry a man who could provide her with a spacious home and gardens, was fortunate indeed. And along came the Virginia Company guaranteeing the same. Why scrub floors and chamber pots the rest of your life when you can be a gentlewoman in Virginia?

    The competition was fairly keen. Even a quick perusal of the applications - which were discovered in England in recent decades - reveals the women did their utmost to showcase themselves, their backgrounds, skills and intentions. This tells a great deal more about the lack of opportunities in their homeland than any desire to relocate halfway across the world.

  • Older Women Vs. Younger: The Skills They Offered

    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.