Why do people care about history? What do they think knowledge about the old days will tell them? Men and women look at history a little differently. They imagine what the world might have been for each of them.
After several years as a docent at Jamestown Settlement and fielding questions from people from all age groups and parts of the country, I think I understand what we, both men and women, want to learn about history. Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum commemorating the arrival of three English ships in 1607.
Children learn the history: warfare, Pocahontas, starvation, lots of murky action. Jamestown Settlement is a park, a fort, an Indian village, and a dock on the James River holding replicas of the three ships. Children enjoy playing outside where chickens and wild turkeys roam and crafts are demonstrated in the Indian village.
But adults don’t come to Jamestown simply to entertain the children. When they enter the museum they ask questions. They want to know where they fit into the mosaic that makes up American history. Did their ancestors arrive in Virginia four hundred years ago? Unlikely, in physical terms, for most people asking. But they still feel an affinity with the first settlers; somehow they feel a connection.
History and the Need for Women
The first settlers were young men and boys who spent a lot of time fighting with everyone, including themselves. After all, they came to fight, and thought they would fight the Spanish. Sometimes they succeeded in killing each other. These people didn’t have descendants.
So when does American history begin? In my opinion, it happened when the first young settlers realized that to survive, they couldn’t rely on rescue ships from the mother country. To thrive in the new world, they needed to build more than a lonely fort. They needed a place to live and begin families. For that, they needed women.
In the beginning, the only women around Jamestown came from the native tribes who lived in the area. Archaeology tells us that native women did a lot of the cooking in Jamestown fort. Historians estimate that about a third of the original settlers who arrived on the first ships married Indian women.
After a hundred years or so, with substantial intermarriage with the Indians and the arrival of some women from Europe, Virginia developed a family structure. The wealthy landowners created plantations on which they raised and sold tobacco. There were very few towns; religion was observed in small parish churches paid for and controlled by local parishioners who lived on plantations. Though the colony received a charter to establish a university in 1622, Virginia didn’t get around to accepting that idea until 1693.
Virginia tobacco was highly prized in the mother country and all over Europe, and Virginia planters became wealthy. From 1619 they were also self-governing by an elected House of Burgesses. The mother country sent over governors who were advised by an appointed Governors Council; the more raucous elected House of Burgesses passed all legislation, including tax bills.
Women in Colonial Virginia
This is all basic stuff, but think. What and who were represented in the Virginia House of Burgesses? After about a hundred years the colony numbered about fifty thousand people. Two representatives were elected from each borough and they, all men, represented the plantations.
The plantation was Virginia’s basic unit of society. It contained everything that was necessary for life and the beginning of a family structure: the plantation raised the food, prepared it, made the furniture and the tools necessary for the crops, and sold the product. It also provided security from bandits and incursions by foreign tribes. A representative of a plantation spoke for everyone living there: rich, poor, male, female, free, indentured or slave.
Tobacco brought wealth and nice houses located on the rivers from which tobacco was shipped. Tobacco traded internationally; Virginia credit purchased many products for the use and enjoyment of the plantation residents. It also paid for tutors for the children.
Because the men went out to the fields and served in the local militia, Virginia plantations often were run day-to-day by women. Women frequently outlived their husbands and powerful, wealthy women operated in international trade. Women were important participants in deciding who their children should marry, and Virginia plantation society featured close family ties. Many members of the Governor’s Council and the House of Burgesses were closely related. It was a government of cousins who knew each other well.
History Continues: Women still Watch out for the Children
Is that so different from what we have today? Women still write a lot of the checks and run most households. They have the children and raise them. They also run a lot of small businesses, as they did in colonial Virginia. When a tourist visits Colonial Williamsburg he and his family can eat in a number of restaurants in the colonial area. Historically, almost all of them were owned and operated by women.
Women exercised their property rights early, and generally they did so to protect their children. Jamestown Settlement’s museum displays a legal document from the 1650s which describes what today would be described as a prenuptial agreement. In it, Mrs. Hannah Bennett Turner Tompkins Arnold states that she will marry her third husband, but that certain parts of her acreage will be set aside for her children. She buried three husbands and kept her farm and property together for her heirs by legal deed.
This is all detailed to a certain extent in my book, The Wealth of Jamestown. The star of that book is, of course, Sarah Harrison, daughter of a great planter, who in her marriage ceremony to the Rev. James Blair, clearly stated “No obey” when asked if she would love, honor and obey him. From that, the plot thickened.
Women didn’t often get their names and dates recorded, but they were there. We’d have no history without them.