SALT LAKE CITY — The name “Jamestown” evokes thoughts of Pocahontas, John Smith and the mystery of the Croatan. But according to author Jennifer Potter, there’s an equally fascinating part of the story that remains overlooked.
Potter wrote “The Jamestown Brides: The Story of England’s ‘Maids for Virginia’” (Oxford University Press, 384 pages, adult nonfiction). Her book tells the story of 56 women who were shipped to Jamestown, Virginia, as brides for the settlers in 1620.
Potter was doing research for another book when she happened across a mysterious article by English scholar David Ransome, “Wives for Virginia, 1621.”
“The bare facts of Ransome’s account ... read like a sales catalogue, informing prospective husbands about the women’s parentage, upbringing and skills,” Potter said in an email interview with the blog From the Desk of Kurt Manwaring.
“Immediately, I wanted to know more,” she said. “Who were these brave young women prepared to travel into the unknown? What sort of lives were they leading in England? What happened to them when they reached the New World?”
Without access to the women’s journals, Potter searched for a way to tell the story without putting words in the mouths of her subjects.
Potter visited the same places the women lived — both in England and America. She carefully analyzed the merchant lists that documented the women’s transport. And she immersed herself as fully as possible into what is known of the culture of the times.
The resulting story is equal parts inspiration, tragedy and mystery.
The women ranged in ages from 15 to 28 and were of a higher social class than might be expected. One in six was either a gentleman’s daughter or related to gentry, Potter said. The parents of 25-year-old Cicely Bray from Gloucestershire, for example, were considered “gentlefolk of good esteem.”
The relative affluence of the women raises another important question: Why did they agree to the ordeal in the first place?
“A fascinating question that has no clear answer, I’m afraid,” Potter said. “The Virginia Company will undoubtedly have glossed over the risks they were taking.”
Virginia, Potter explained, was a very dangerous place back then, and most settlers died within their first few years.
According to Potter, the Virginia Company’s promise of a husband was attractive. Society expected all women to marry, but finding a mate was becoming harder and harder.
“But might some have traveled from a sense of adventure, too?” Potter asked.
She said only one of these brides’ testimonials has survived. Dated nine months before she set sail, the widowed Ann Richards’ testimonial “paints her as a woman of honest life and conversation, who was ‘minded and purposed to dwell elsewhere.’”
Regardless of motive, the women were likely shocked once they arrived in Jamestown. The tiny colony paled in comparison to the populated London they left behind, and the Virginia Company stacked the deck of potential husbands in favor of a relatively few “seasoned settlers.”
“The gentry women among the newcomers must have felt especially deceived,” Potter said.
Emotional considerations were soon set aside as the colony was attacked by Indians only three months after the maids arrived in Virginia. Those who survived faced drastically reduced supplies and, due to fear, were prevented from replanting outside their palisaded enclosures.
Potter has traced the final state of about one third of the women. Some of them were killed by Native Americans, and a few became servants to Virginia Company representatives.
Of those who found husbands, three married “ancient planters” — anyone who had arrived in the colony by 1616, Potter explained. At least two of these marriages produced children. Potter has been in touch with and even met some of these brides’ direct descendants.
“Ordinary women like these can truly claim their place among the founding mothers of America,” Potter said.