Monday, March 05, 2012

Marriage in Early America

The first permanent English colony in North America was established at Jamestown, Virginia on May 14, 1607 by the Virginia Company of London. The party consisted of 104 men who came to America not to settle but to become rich. Within a short time it became apparent to the colony’s sponsors that their great venture in the New World was in danger of being wrecked, “…on the shoals of dissolute, irresponsible, manhood.” It was not until the fall of 1608 that “the first gentlewoman and woman-servant” arrived. The gentlewoman was already married to colonist Thomas Forrest; the servant, Ann Burrus, would soon marry John Laydon, the first marriage to be solemnized in Virginia. More women crossed the Atlantic to Virginia and Maryland in the next several years, but they remained relatively few in number. By 1619, the Virginia House of Burgesses, petitioning that wives as well as husbands be eligible for grants of free land, argued that in a new colony, “it is not known whether man or woman be the most necessary.”

The Virginia Company’s London recruiters began searching for women of marriageable age, offering free passage to Virginia and trousseaus for girls of good reputation. New husbands reimbursed the company with 120 pounds of good leaf tobacco when they married. The first shipment of ninety “tobacco brides” arrived in Jamestown in the spring of 1620. The youngest was Jane Dier, aged fifteen. The oldest was Alice Burges, aged twenty-eight.

Some over eager British merchants, hired to provide the colonies with wives simply kidnapped any young woman who came to hand. In October 1618, a warrant was issued for one Owen Evans, who was kidnapping young women from their villages and sending them off to be sold in Virginia as indentured servants. As time went on, most of the single women who came to the Chesapeake Bay colonies voluntarily sold themselves as indentured servants. They re-paid the cost of their passage with a term of four or five years in service. At the end, the women were supposed to receive food, clothing, and tools to give them a start in life, then emerge into a world filled with wife-hungry young men and take their pick.

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