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The men of Jamestown desperately wanted wives, but women were refusing to immigrate. Consequently, barely a decade after its founding in , Jamestown was almost entirely male, and because these men were unable to find wives, they were deserting the colony in droves. An immediate influx of women was needed to save the floundering colony; its leaders suggested putting out an advertisement targeting wives.
Luckily, the financial obstacles to marriage in 17th-century England worked in his favor. Securing a home and setting up a domestic household were expensive. And unless they were born into wealth, most men and women needed to amass a ificant nest egg before they could marry. For working-class Englishwomen, this typically meant years of domestic service.
Marital immigration offered an attractive alternative. The Virginia Company offered substantial incentives to the women who ed up to leave England for Jamestown. They were provided a dowry of clothing, linens, and other furnishings, free transportation to the colony, and even a plot of land. They were also promised their pick of wealthy husbands and provided with food and shelter while they made their decision. Like a 17th-century version of The Bachelorette , the women entertained dozens of eager suitors before eventually determining which one would receive the metaphorical rose.
Nevertheless, this characterization is false and reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the status of women in Jamestown. Although the financially strapped Virginia Company was eager to recoup the costs of sponsoring the Jamestown brides, it was not selling women. If that happened, the Company simply requested that the man pay them back if and when he was able to do so. The fact that the Jamestown brides were not sold is important and represents a conscious decision by the Company, which could have, as was easy and common at the time, kidnapped potential colonists instead.
Shortly thereafter, a similar of street urchins were rounded up and sent to Virginia. These kidnappings were government-sponsored, but after the Virginia Company instituted a new incentive for immigrants in , private individuals also began kidnapping men and women for the colonies. Under this new arrangement, called the headright system, settlers who financed their own passage to the Virginia colony received acre tracts of land. The same amount of land was offered to anyone willing to sponsor the passage of a new settler. Speculators and planters were eager to take advantage of the latter offer, but they had difficulty finding willing recruits.
Paying men and women to kidnap settlers solved this problem. By mid-century, thousands of unwilling immigrants were being shipped to the colony as indentured servants every year. One particularly prolific kidnapper was rumored to have abducted more than 6, victims. So, if the Virginia Company had wanted to kidnap women to have enough colonial wives, it could have done so. In fact, in a man named Owen Evans, a messenger for the Privy Council, a group which directly advised the king, decided to try, and he nearly succeeded.
Claiming he had government approval, Evans traveled to Somerset, England, and began forcing dozens of young women onto ships. Luckily, his deception was quickly exposed and the women were freed. Owens was then charged with treason and hanged, drawn, and quartered. The kidnapping was barely mentioned. Indeed, although private kidnappings were technically illegal, prosecutions were rare and punishments were minimal.
In , a woman named Ann Servant was fined a mere 13 shillings and sixpence for kidnapping and selling a young woman named Alice Flax. Similarly, in , a couple was fined only 12 pence for kidnapping and selling a year-old girl. In comparison, a horse thief would have been hanged. Regardless of whether they could have gotten away with kidnapping, the leaders of the Virginia Company believed the role of colonial wife was too important to leave to reluctant or unwilling women. Instead, they insisted on voluntary marital immigration, which was a wise decision: A century later, French Louisiana attempted to solve its gender imbalance through forced immigration and the were disastrous.
These women had no interest in marriage or the fate of the colony and they rapidly transformed it into a hotbed of crime and debauchery. The colonial government offered female colonists freedoms and opportunities unavailable to most 17th-century Englishwomen. But in Virginia, the need for female immigration frequently caused leaders to relax or ignore the rules of coverture. Providing female colonists with free land was a substantial immigration incentive, but it was actually the generous property and inheritance laws that offered women the greatest benefit.
Because malaria, dysentery, and influenza were widespread in colonial Virginia, early death was also common. This meant that most marriages were short, but the morbid upside was that colonial law and practice ensured widowed women were uncommonly well provided for. In Virginia, widows almost always inherited more than that. Independent wealth also allowed colonial women to exert an unusual degree of control over their lives, particularly their marital decisions.
In one well-known story, a Virginia woman named Sarah Harrison is recorded as refusing to go along with a crucial portion of the marriage ceremony. After the third refusal, the reverend acquiesced to her demand and performed the ceremony with no mention of the promise to obey. Nevertheless, Harrison received no punishment. The most famous of these women was Cicely Jordan. A few days later, she agreed to marry Reverend Greville Pooley. Jordan knew that such a quick engagement was scandalous, so she asked Pooley to keep it a secret.
Pooley then sued Jordan for breach of promise. Based on his actions, Pooley seems like a horrid marriage prospect, but under the law at that time, his suit had merit, and he would have been expected to win, as Jordan had clearly breached her promise. Nevertheless, the Virginia government refused to punish her.
Despite the law on the books, colonial women like Jordan were often exempted from the legal restrictions that controlled the lives and marital choices of their counterparts in England. For women considering marital immigration, this freedom may have been the greatest immigration incentive of all.
It may seem surprising that an institution as derided and ridiculed as mail-order marriage could serve this role, but for the Jamestown brides, and the many women who came after them, marital immigration could be both empowering and liberating. Although most modern mail-order brides no longer receive trousseaus of clothing and linens, marital immigration can still provide a path to greater equality and opportunity. This was true in the 17th century, and it remains true today. Popular Latest. The Atlantic Crossword. In Subscribe.Female order brides
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