What were the roles of women and children at Jamestown?

Jamestown Settlement Festive cooking

Cooking in re-created James fort, Jamestown Settlement

Although boys had been among the first settlers on the initial voyage of 1607 and the first women arrived the next year, women and children were few in number until 1620 when approximately 90 single women arrived with the clear intention of bringing a sense of permanence to the colony. Sir Edward Sandys, treasurer of the Virginia Company, stated that, “…the plantation can never flourish till families be planted and the respect of wives and children fix the people on the soil.”

The first women to arrive at Jamestown were Mistress Forrest and her maid, Anne Burras, who arrived in 1608. Anne Burras’ marriage to laborer, John Laydon several months later was the first Jamestown wedding. Living at Kecoughtan, they struggled during the most difficult of times, yet raised four daughters in the new Virginia wilderness.

Temperance Flowerdew, Joane Peirce and her daughter Joane were among the ill-fated 400 to arrive during 1609-10 timeframe just in time for them to experience the infamous “starving time.” All three survived during this time when approximately 75% of Jamestown’s population perished due to sickness and disease. Temperance, who went home to England, later returned as the wife of the new governor, Sir George Yeardley. Joane Peirce, the daughter, eventually became John Rolfe’s third wife following the death of Pocahontas.

Englishmen were very aware of the importance of women and families in the success of Jamestown. In 1619, while receiving grants of land from the Virginia Company as dividends for their time in Virginia, the male settlers also requested allotments of land for their wives, because “…in a newe plantation it is not knowen whether man or woman be the more necessary.” Women were given the status of “ancient planters” and were awarded land, like their male counterparts, if they arrived in Virginia by 1616 and met certain Company criteria.

In 1621, 57 other women arrived at Jamestown. Ranging in age from 16 to 28, they were all daughters of artisans and gentry. It appears these women were not coerced into coming. Instead, they may have looked upon this as an opportunity to start their lives anew in Virginia – where men outnumbered women six to one. Rather than serve the Virginia Company as indentured servants, they probably worked as seamstresses and laundresses. There may have been hundreds of “diverse others” who braved the crossing only to perish in the harsh conditions at Jamestown.

In the fall of 1618, it was reported that the City of London was shipping 100 boys and girls to Virginia. These children were destitute, supported by London parishes, and the relocation seemed an ideal arrangement for all parties concerned. Even though many of the children did not want to go, it was deemed best for them because they were being rescued from the streets and given an opportunity to learn some good crafts or trades. Around 250 destitute children were transported between 1617 and 1623 to the Virginia colony. Because there is only an occasional reference to children at Jamestown, very little is known about their daily lives.

Since the English transported their customs and traditions with them across the Atlantic, one can assume that children at Jamestown played games similar to those played in England such as jumping rope, running games or playing with yo-yos. Like their adult counterparts, much of their day must have been consumed with work or learning a trade. In England, the education of 17th-century children prepared them for life. For example, girls prepared for marriage and household duties, while boys frequently learned a skill or trade through an apprenticeship.

Several young English boys served the colony as interpreters. Samuel Collier, who arrived with the original settlers in 1607, lived for a time with a local tribe of Virginia Indians under Smith’s order to learn their language. Thirteen-year old Thomas Savage and fourteen-year old Henry Spelman also experienced life with the Virginia Indians. Both Thomas and Henry became important interpreters during their time with the tribes and, in the case of Henry Spelman, recorded important observations in his later writings.

Even though in 1620 men continued to outnumber women by about six to one, the role of both women and children should not be minimized. They were a stabilizing force in Virginia and played an indispensable role in the development of Jamestown from a military outpost to its establishment as the first permanent English settlement in North America.