This is the Virginia of the Native Americans, that British American colonial women would have found in the early years of the 1600s. Hand-colored illustration of Theodor de Bry's (1528-1598) engraved illustration of the Native American village of Secoton, which accompanied the text of Thomas Hariot's book of 1588 entitled A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.
Excerpts from Virginia Women: The First 200 Years
By Anne Firor Scott & Suzanne Lebsock
By their labor & by their care for the succeeding generations, Native American women, white women, and, later, black women played an indispensable part in making Virginia what it was & what it would become.
The First Virginians - Native American women, or Indians, as the Europeans called the native people of the Americas, were here first. There were perhaps15,000 Indians of various language groups living in what is now Virginia when the English arrived.
The English were surprised to find Native American women doing most of what they called work: planting, harvesting, house building, producing pots & baskets—as well as cooking & child care—were all women’s work. The Native American men went hunting & fishing, activities that in England were often considered to be recreation. Like the English, the Native Americans made a clear distinction between “women’s work” & “men’s work,” & the men never liked to be caught doing the former. Occasionally, an Native American woman would rise to be chief of the tribe, but since the English had a queen themselves, this did not surprise them so much.
The men fish, hunt, fowle, goe to the wars, make the weeres, botes, & such like manly exercises & all laboures abroad. The women, as the weaker sort, be put to the easier workes, to sow their corne, to weed & cleanse the same . . . for, by reason of the rankness & lustines of the grownd, such weedes spring up very easely & thick . . . likewise the women plant & attend the gardins, dresse the meate brought home, make their broaths & pockerchicory drinckes, make matts & basketts, pownd their wheat, make their bread, prepare their vessels, beare all kindes of burthens, & such like, & to which the children sett their handes, helping their mothers. Source: William Strachey, The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia (1612).
The planters in Virginia — we would call them small farmers, though a few already had large tracts of land—were a hardy lot, survivors of numerous diseases, of the starving time, & of various skirmishes with their Indian neighbors. They also had a reputation for cruelty to servants. This makes us wonder why boys & girls would come to Virginia in the first place, to work for strange families in an unknown wilderness.
To find an answer, we must look at the place they came from. England in the early seventeenth century was plagued with poverty & unemployment . . . The enclosure of farming land to make sheep pastures had displaced many people in the countryside at a time when the population was growing. When young people from the country went to London or Liverpool in search of work, they found themselves competing with many others like themselves. Girls who would normally have gone into service—that is, gone to work in the houses of well-to-do families—had a harder & harder time finding places. Some of the most adventurous or the most desperate chose to make for the New World, rather than starve in the Old [World]. There were persistent stories, too, of greedy ship owners who kidnapped men & women in the streets of the cities & brought them to Virginia to sell. One way & another, perhaps 85 percent of the early settlers were indentured servants.
What the indentured servants found in Virginia was in some ways like what they had known at home, but in other ways very different. A country girl who had been used to working in the fields for her father might not be surprised to find herself cultivating tobacco, which she would be put to doing if her master were a small farmer. If her time was bought by a large family, one with many male servants, her work would be cooking & washing & helping the housewife with all the chores, much as she would have helped her mother at home.
Either way, it was a hard life. Every newcomer had to withstand the ordeal of “seasoning”—catching, then surviving the diseases prevalent in the new environment. Many more English people died from disease than from arrows & tomahawks. Half of the colonists in the first shiploads died during their first five months in Virginia. The death rate among Indians eventually proved even higher. Many more Indians died from germs than from gunfire, for the English brought with them diseases for which Indians had no immunity.
If the servant were tough enough to escape death from disease, she likely found herself not only made to work very hard but also punished if she did not live up to the master’s expectations. A deposition taken in Lower Norfolk County in 1649 told a gruesome story of a mistress who beat her woman servant “more liken a dogge than like a Christian” until the servant thought her back was broken. The court records include a good deal of this kind of abuse.
These were some of the hazards of life for a woman servant, but life was not all bad. For the lucky ones who survived their term of service, husbands were easy to come by; in the early years, white men outnumbered white women by a ratio of 4 to 1. Land was readily available. During most of the 17C any free English person who came to Virginia or paid for another to come could have 50 acres of land free. Servants finishing their terms could sometimes save enough to buy land, & when a husband & wife were healthy, hardworking, & competent farmers, they might move rapidly to become what they never could have aspired to be in England—landowners.
Of course it was a matter of hard work & hard living. Houses were 1-room affairs with—sometimes—a loft for the children to sleep in. Furniture amounted to a mattress or two, a couple of stools, & perhaps a chest. If we could visit a family at mealtime we might see them with a dinner of cornbread or mush, pork, & wild berries set on the chest or the floor. There is no table, & only the parents can sit, since there are not enough stools to go around. Everyone eats with wooden spoons from wooden trenchers. The woman, if we look closely, is very likely pregnant or holding a small baby to nurse.
Life was painfully uncertain. One child in 5 died before its first birthday, & half had lost at least 1 parent by their 13th birthday. People of all ages died from “agues” & “fevers”—some of which today we could recognize as smallpox, typhoid, dysentery, whooping cough, measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, pneumonia, influenza, & malaria.
The high death rate meant that family composition was forever changing. A given husband, wife, & children might suddenly become a husband & children if the mother died; then the man took a new wife; they had a few children; then the husband died & the wife married again; the new husband already had a child by his dead wife; & so it went. Nothing we have seen in our own day of high divorce rates & multiple families can match the 17C. Some adolescents were completely on their own; others, orphaned, were “bound out” to work for a family until they were grown.
There had to be a constant stream of immigrants to keep up with the deaths. Yet the white population grew rapidly. In 1634 there had been 5,000 whites in the whole colony; in 25 years the number grew to nearly 25,000.
Already a class structure was beginning to be visible. Look through a shelf of books about early Virginia. One minute you read about William Fitzhugh with his baronial house & imported silver decorated with a family crest. A few minutes later you find a county court dealing with men & women so poor they were “cast on the parish” for support. Still lower on the scale were slaves, brought by force from Africa & increasingly condemned to a lifetime of harsh servitude. By the late 17C, the rough equality of the Virginia frontier was giving way to a highly stratified society.
Such stratification—the division of people into gentry, the middle classes, & the lower orders—was much like what the colonists had known in England. The legal status of slaves was not fully established until about 1700. A Dutch trader brought the 1st blacks to Virginia in 1619, & their numbers grew slowly at first. Like the whites, the early Africans had a terrible time with disease; 1 in 4 died during their 1st year in Virginia. Also like the whites, men in the early days greatly outnumbered women, making it difficult for Africans to form families.
The institution of slavery evolved slowly, & at first some Africans were treated much like white indentured servants. The greatest known success story was that of Mary Johnson. Brought to Virginia in 1622, she worked as a servant; for a time, she was the only woman on that plantation. When she gained her freedom, she married, raised 4 healthy children, & with her family farmed a 250-acre plantation.
These occasional chances for freedom were not to last. From 1662 onward, a series of new laws defined slavery in its full, rigid brutality. By 1700 the typical black Virginia woman was a slave—property—and like any other property, she could be bought, sold, traded, or gambled away. She would be a slave all her life, & so would her children, who might be sold away from her at any time. She could be exploited, whipped, or even beaten to death at her master’s whim. While most slave owners had the self-restraint not to kill valuable property, some did not.
In years to come, white Virginians would prefer to forget the horrors of the slave system. In the meantime, in the late 17C, whites accepted any system that provided laborers to work their tobacco. By 1700, black slaves were rapidly replacing white indentured servants as the major labor force on Virginia’s plantations.
The first 92 years in Virginia were extremely difficult. Everyone had endured extraordinary hardships, & for Indian, English, & African women alike, survival itself was a triumph. Yet these groups suffered & prospered in varying degrees. For black women, as we just saw, these were years largely of tragedy. The plight of Native American women was equally, if not more, tragic. For Native American women, the invasion of the English had meant families pushed off their land & death from new diseases & weapons—a truly staggering reduction in numbers. By 1700, the Native American population of Virginia was only one-tenth of what it had been 100 years earlier. Only on the western frontier could the native people still hope to oppose the rapid spread of white families into their territory & hunting grounds.
White settlers had their share of trouble, but despite disease, starvation, & warfare, for them their 1st century in Virginia witnessed remarkable achievements: a colony built, sustained, & launched upon impressive growth. Land had been cleared, crops planted, trade initiated, wealth created. Though no one at the time or since gave them much credit, all this could not have been done without the women.
The women who took part in these achievements saw them through the prism of daily life: constant work, childbearing, nursing the sick, caring for the aged, ingenuity in the use of materials. Husbands & wives worked together to create families & acquire property. The woman who went back to London in 1629 to brag that she had started with nothing & now could keep a better home in Virginia than one could do in England on 400 pounds a year was not exceptional.
[See: This text is excerpted from an essay originally published as a Colonial Williamsburg Foundation The Foundations of America book of the same title. The book is now out of print.]