Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

“By the Meanes of Women”: Jamestown on the Vanguard of English Women’s Settlement

· October 28th, 2019 · 2 Comments

by Emily Sackett

Emily Sackett was awarded an OI–Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation fellowship in spring 2019. She spent the month of September 2019 in residence at the Omohundro Institute and conducted extensive research in the collections at Jamestown Island. The OI offers numerous short-term fellowships for scholars—from advanced graduate students to senior scholars. Applications for the fall 2020 round of fellowships are due Friday, November 1, 2019.

My month at the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation and the Omohundro Institute allowed me to focus on the approach to women’s settlement in the first decades of the Virginia colony. My dissertation, “Women Wanted: Gender, Race, and the Origins of American Plantation Societies, 1607-1720,” examines the founding generations of women in English plantation America. It investigates how gender shaped Virginia, Barbados, and Carolina across the first generations of settlement, with a special focus on the intersectional dynamics of race and gender as these colonies became slave societies. My research originates from the perspective that historians should not take for granted the arrival of white women in early America, especially in future plantation societies, places notorious for high mortality rates, where more men immigrated than women. As the first English colony to reckon with the necessity of white women in a settlement built for agricultural productivity, Virginia and its founders are central to this story. 

One of my central goals for this project is understanding how colonial founders with grand ambitions for their settlements decided how and why to value women’s immigration to the colonies. This element of the dissertation most frequently requires engagement with early modern gender theories social thought. However, in the letters of Edwin Sandys stored in the Virginia Company Archives database, I located a more personal potential influence on the company leader. Sandys was an architect of the reforms of 1619 that refocused the Virginia Company’s goals on peopling the colony with a broad range of English settlers, including the fifty-seven young women that the colony famously recruited as brides.[i] In Sandys’ letters to his friends in the Ferrar family, he speaks frequently of his wife, Katherine, emphasizing her spiritedness and resilience. Despite illness and frailty following childbirth, Sandys frequently remarks that Katherine, “will by no meanes be persuaded to stay behynd me.”[ii] Sandys’ perception of his wife’s hardiness cannot account for the entirety of his belief that women would improve Virginia and thrive in a colonial context, but his letters do indicate a certain faith in individual women’s strength and conviction.

Fragments of a cheese strainer
Milk pan fragments

At the same time, artifacts from Jamestown Rediscovery bring to life the skills that won young English women passage to Virginia. Many of the women recruited to make wives for the settlers under the 1619 reforms gave descriptions of their skills in traditionally feminine work. Artifacts associated with these forms of women’s labor survive in the collections. Dairying and spinning were among the jobs most closely associated with wifely labor in England; Jamestown bride Ann Tanner came recommended with both skills. The collections at Jamestown Rediscovery include the fragments a cheese strainer, as well as two milk pans (one of which was made locally by Thomas Ward, the colony’s first potter). The presence of several spindle whorls indicate the presence of settlers, likely women, who could spin. Much physical evidence survives to indicate women’s employment at sewing, especially a number of thimbles small enough to fit a woman’s fingers. One of the young women recruited to the colony, nineteen year old Audry Hoare, had apprenticed a dressmaker in Buckinghamshire and could make “all manner of buttons.” Of the many buttons in the Jamestown Rediscovery collections, there are in fact a few surviving fabric buttons which could have been made on site at Jamestown. Despite the general observation that men greatly outnumbered women in Virginia’s first decades, women’s work was valued and employed in the settlement practically from the beginning.[iii]

Fabric button

Even decades after the demise of the Virginia Company, women recalled the centrality of their gender in the colonizing project. In 1650, when Governor William Berkeley was married in Virginia (not to the infamous Frances Culpepper Berkeley, but the governor’s yet-unnamed first wife), the colony’s new first lady received a letter from the young Virginia Ferrar, the daughter of former Virginia Company deputy John Ferrar. A bookbinder, silkworm cultivator, and broadside collaborator, Virginia Ferrar was herself a remarkable woman, whose family interest in Virginia likely drove her to correspond with Lady Berkeley on the subject of women’s place in colonial leadership. In a letter available on the Virginia Company Archives database, Ferrar urged Lady Berkeley to consider the power she could have in promoting settlement from her position of influence as the governor’s wife.

Spindle whorl

In the letter, Ferrar reminds Lady Berkeley that Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Isabella of Spain funded colonial projects when male monarchs wouldn’t, placing the first lady within a tradition of powerful women who drove colonization forward when men failed to answer the call. According to Ferrar, men had encountered their “first findings out by the meanes of women,” and she believed that if Lady Berkeley promoted the colony well, “Soon are men planted by the command of an other of her sexe.” Furthermore, if Berkeley could find a way to help advance the colony, the men of the colony would view her, “not as a lady but as a chief promotor of the business.” Perhaps by 1650 the men governing Virginia had forgotten the literal stock once placed in women’s role in the colony, but women still involved in the colonial project certainly had not.[iv]

[i] David R. Ransome, “Wives for Virginia, 1621,” William and Mary Quarterly 48, no. 1 (January 1991), 3-13; Misha Ewen, “‘Poore Soules’: Migration, Labor, and Visions for Commonwealth in Virginia,” in Virginia 1619: Slavery and Freedom in the Making of English America,” (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History, 2019) 133-149.

[ii] Letter from Edwin Sandys to John Ferrar, 3 December 1621, Ferrar Papers 337.

[iii] Ferrar Papers 306, 309. Many, many thanks to Merry Outlaw and Leah Stricker at Jamestown Rediscovery for allowing me to work with these artifacts and for sharing the depth of your knowledge with me. I felt so at home in the wonderful environment of your collections space.

[iv] Letter from Virginia Ferrar to Lady Berkeley, 20 August 1650, Ferrar Papers 1176

2 Responses

  1. Martha McCartney says:

    I suggest that you take a look at Jennifer K. Potter’s recently published book on the Jamestown Brides, as it adds many useful insights and goes beyond David Ransome’s seminal work. You also might want to chat with Dr. Bly Straube, who’s now at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, as she was at JR for 21 years and also has experience in analyzing other very early sites. Jordan’s Point (Jordan’s Journey) immediately comes to mind.

  2. Emily Sackett says:

    I read Potter’s book shortly after completing my fellowship! It was incredibly useful, as you say. I was especially fascinated and convinced by Potter’s theory of how Virginia’s demographics in 1621 actually hindered the success of the brides program, despite the colony’s significant gender ratio disparity. I also heard much about Dr. Straube and her work at Jamestown Rediscovery, so I’m sure you’re right to suggest that I should get in contact with her.

    Thank you for taking the time to read my post. I’m certainly aware of your experience with this subject!

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