There’s an archaearium—an archaeology museum—on the site of the original Jamestown settlement in Virginia, where you can get a little peek into life as one of the first colonists. Especially intriguing is the reconstructed face of a lovely young girl—she is a face without a name, so the archaeologists have dubbed her Jane. She is not Anne Burras, who is a name without a face—we don’t know what she looked like. But seeing Jane’s face brought to life helped me imagine the story of Anne, one of the first English women to come to what we white folks call the “new world.”
In 1607, as you learned in 5th grade social studies, three boats landed on a mosquito-infested swamp of an island in the Virginia colony with 104 men and boys and 39 crew members, establishing Jamestown, named for the English king. This was a serious business venture; the Virginia company initially didn’t want women there to distract the men from the main focus of the enterprise: finding gold and silver. King James (the one with the bible named after him) gave his permission for the Virginia Company’s venture partly because he’d get his cut of the gold, but also to expand the influence of, you guessed it, King James.
The first two Englishwomen, arriving one year later in 1608 on the second ship to land on this spot, were Mrs. Thomas Forrest and her fourteen-year-old maid, Anne Burras. Anne was an indentured servant, so she was prohibited from marrying until she’d served out her contract. But Mrs. Forrest didn’t live long apparently, freeing Anne to marry a few months later.
Wait, what—she fell in love and married that quickly? No. To say life was precarious in the colony is a severe understatement. The first women here had only one choice to survive—to find a husband quickly. So in late 1608, the first Christian marriage took place between Anne and John Laydon, a carpenter, one of the original settlers. A year later the first child born to English parents in Jamestown came along, a little girl they named Virginia.
It wasn’t too long after Anne married before the Virginia Company realized that if the settlement didn’t get firmly established, their investment wouldn’t pay off. And settlements don’t get very settled without women. So the firm started shipping in women as prospective brides and servants, charging 120 lbs. of tobacco for each one.
Given the hit or miss nature of life in the colony, why would a girl want to sign up for that? As bad as it was in Jamestown, life for women in England was often worse. Most of the early women who came to Jamestown were from poor families that could not support them, and most were from around London. Being a maid for the wealthy, pretty much the only job a poor woman could get, was hard work, long hours, low pay; and sexual abuse was common. With no one to provide for her or protect her in London’s dangerous slums, she might choose the voyage to America.
Sometimes she emigrated as an indentured servant—she signed a contract in England to work in Jamestown without wages. For many women, and men too, signing on as an indentured servant was the only way out of the old world. When she arrived, the colonist who took her on would reimburse the Virginia Company for her voyage expenses, and she worked without pay for between four and seven years.
Or, when a woman emigrated to the colony, the Virginia Company paid for her transport and provided her with a small bundle of clothing and other necessities. On arrival in Jamestown, she would set about finding a husband—at that time there were hardly any women for all those men, so she likely had a choice. Then the colonist who married her was responsible for repaying the Virginia Company for his wife’s transport and provisions.
But for some women it wasn’t a choice. Turns out, you could make a good profit with a payment of 120 lbs. of tobacco. By 1618, women in England were being kidnapped, dropped on a boat and shipped out for America. Kidnappers might have to pay a small fine, but why stop—the value of the tobacco reward was so much greater than the fine. In 1619, 90 young women arrived at Jamestown to become wives to the settlers, bringing the price of 150 pounds of tobacco each; I guess demand was still outstripping supply. They were called “tobacco brides.”
But that was later, when the settlement was getting a little more established and growing. Arriving as early as she did, Anne Burras was lucky it seems—she and her little family survived the “starving time.” In the winter of 1609-10, all but about 60 settlers died out of a population of 20 women and 470 men. Perhaps not surprising considering that there was no reliable source of food, rampant disease, and the fact that the neighboring Powhatan Indians, dismayed at the growth of the colony, turned hostile and made it dangerous to hunt outside the fort.
“Jane,” she of the sweet nameless face in the archaearium that was reconstructed from her skull, was not so lucky. Archaeologists discovered her partial skull and tibia during a 2012 excavation of an early 17th-century trash deposit inside the fort, dated to that desperate winter. Jane was identified as a 14-year-old girl from England who arrived in Jamestown a year later than Anne, in August 1609. Her skull showed, let’s just say, “physical evidence consistent with survival cannibalism.” Given how little is known about both of these girls, their circumstances may have been so similar, although their fates diverged. Suggesting that, especially for girls, a voyage out of the old world into the new in those early days really was a roll of the dice.
- “Jane” image: http://news.sciencemag.org/2013/05/jamestown-bones-show-signs-cannibalism
- Jamestown settlement, http://www.nps.gov/colo/images/20080125152941.jpg
- All other images: © 2014 Sue Cummings and Bruce Howard. All rights reserved.