16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown

16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown

Trista - October 22, 2018

The Jamestown brides, tobacco wives, and mail-order brides are only a few names for the women who immigrated from England to Jamestown, Virginia in 1620. They were women who were offered good incentives to make the long voyage for a husband, so they could help build up the population of Jamestown, the first colony settled in America. Once the women arrived in America, their lives became a 1620 version of The Bachelorette.

16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown
Wives for the settlers at Jamestown by William Ludwell Sheppard, 1876. Historytoday.

16. A Depleting Population Causes Colonial Men to Become Desperate for English Women

A severe gender imbalance was threatening Jamestown colony. The men in the territory were desperate to find wives; however, there was one big problem, women were not immigrating to Jamestown. The European women had heard a variety of negative reports from other people who had either been to Jamestown and went back to England or had written to someone in England after arriving in Jamestown. The women had been told horrifying stories of disease, attacks from Native Americans, and famine.

Jamestown was first settled in 1607, and by the time 1618 rolled around, the colony was nearly entirely male. Because the men could not find women in the settlement, they started to leave the area and travel elsewhere. This movement was another reason Jamestown’s population was dying, and soon people began worrying that Jamestown would completely die out. With the desperate need to save Jamestown, women needed to immigrate to Jamestown quickly. Therefore, the leaders of the colony decided to put out advertising which would target women, who would be interested in becoming wives to the colonial men in Jamestown.

16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown
A painting of life in Jamestown. Erocco.

15. The Virginia Company and Their Decision to Bring Brides to Jamestown

It was Edwin Sandys, Virginia Company Treasurer, who had the idea to advertise for women to immigrate to Jamestown and becomes wives to the colonists. He had told his fellow board members that bringing women from England to Jamestown would not only help build the colony’s population but also make it so the colonists would want to stay in Jamestown. Once Edwin persuaded his fellow board members that this was the way to go, they all started discussing how they would get women from England to Jamestown.

The members of the Virginia Company, who were the leaders of the Virginia Colony, knew that the European women were fearful come coming to the American colony. Edwin and his fellow board members knew that one of their biggest challenges would be to convince the women to board a ship to America. After some discussion, the Virginia Company decided the best way to persuade English women to leave their families in England and travel to American to start a new life was to use England’s marriage economics against the country and offer the women great incentives.

16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown
Map of Jamestown Colony. HistoricJamestowne.

14. The Incentives for the Women Who Agreed to Immigrate to Jamestown

In 17th Century England, both men and women had to be wealthy to get married. Women would often have to work as domestic servants for years before they had enough finances and stability to marry. However, all the English women needed to do to marry a colonist was apply to become a Jamestown Bride and take the journey to Jamestown. Because most women did not want to work as a domestic servant for years, the women found the marriage immigration offer much more appealing. To many English women, this was a big motivation when deciding whether to apply to marry a colonist in Jamestown or stay in England.

However, this was not the only incentive the Virginia Company offered English women who would apply to go to Jamestown to help build the colony. The females who signed up were also provided with free transportation to the province, a plot of land, and a dowry of clothing, linens, and other furnishings. On top of this, the women would be able to pick their own husband and provided with shelter and food while they made their decision. The women were even allowed to meet and entertain the men of the colony before they made their decision on whom they would marry.

16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown
Actresses from the Period Piece, Jamestown. Historyextra.

13. The Virginia Company Was Reimbursed After the Women Married

After a woman had chosen her husband, her husband would then have to reimburse the Virginia Company. This reimbursement included travel expenses, the land, and any furnishings. However, the compensation for the woman’s trip was “good leaf” tobacco. At first, the Virginia Company required 120 pounds of “good leaf” tobacco for reimbursement. However, this was later raised to 150 pounds. In today’s world, this would equal about $5,000. Because of the tobacco reimbursement, the wives are often referred to as “tobacco wives.”

It is also often this reimbursement which has given the impression that the Virginia Company sold Jamestown brides. However, this impression is not correct. In a time where the Virginia Company could have forced women to marry a man or kidnapped the women and bring them to the colony, it was all the woman’s choosing. Furthermore, if a man who was chosen to be a husband could not afford to pay, the marriage was not rejected. Instead, the Virginia Company would just tell him to pay when he could.

16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown
Evelyn Burd, a colonial woman. Encyclopedia Virginia.

12. The Jamestown Brides Were Not Referred to as “Covered Women” Like Women in England

Many things changed for the women who chose to immigrate for marriage. The incentives given to them from the Virginia Company gave them more freedom than other 17th century women in England. One of these things was the women who chose to immigrate were given rights to land. Another prominent example of freedom for the women of Jamestown was that they were not considered “covered women.” To be such a woman meant that she gave up any independent identity once she married. Women in England were considered “covered women” once they married. However, women in Jamestown were not considered as such as they did not give up their independence upon marriage.

While the Virginia Company gave women who immigrated to the colony land to own, women in England could not own property or even dispose of any ground unless they had their husband’s permission. In fact, the Jamestown Colony had become so replaced with the “covered women” law that the leaders decided before they even brought any women over to set aside land for female colonists. Therefore, when the Virginia Company started requesting women for marriage immigration, Virginia’s leaders seek more land set aside for women as these women would need land too.

16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown
British ships. Oldnorth.

11. Virginia Company Changed the Treatment and Laws Towards Widows

The right to own land was not the only significant change towards the treatment of married women. The treatment of women who lost their husbands was another difference between England and Jamestown. Compared to England, Jamestown was very generous when it came to widows. The laws for widows in England only required them to one-third of their deceased husband’s estate. The Virginia Company decided to become more generous and allowed widows to keep most of their husband’s estate after he passed away.

This benefit not only game women in Jamestown more rights but also gave them more piece of mind when deciding to immigrate. Because widows in England received so little of their deceased husband’s estate, they often had to remarry quickly and not because they wanted to, it was usually due to economic pressure. In Jamestown, widows were typically left with enough of their husband’s estate that they did not have to remarry quickly much less at all if they did not desire. Actually, many widowed women were allowed to stay single.

16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown
Jamestown in 1620s painting. Keith Rocco / Pinterest.

10. The Advertisements and Sudden Influx of Applications for Marriage Immigration

There were many things the Virginia Company had to work out when they started advertising for women to resettle in Jamestown. One of these problems was convincing socially acceptable women with stable backgrounds to immigrate. Once again, to fix this problem, the Virginia Company used England’s social standards to promote their deal. In 17th century England, the majority of landowners were noble people or royals. This concept meant that, to the English woman, owning land was a high honor and a dream come true.

Therefore, when the English women began seeing advertisements offering land if they applied to go to Jamestown, many of them started to apply for the offer. In fact, so many women decided to sign up over time that the competition remained active. The documents which were discovered in England details that women showcased themselves as well as they could to be approved. The tried to show the best of not only their background but also their intentions for going and skills they possessed. These documents further show that the English women had limited opportunities compared to what the Virginia Company was offering, especially if the women did not initially want to immigrate due to the terrifying stories of life in Jamestown.

16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown
Jamestown 1624 census map with tribes. Geni.

9. The Skills of the Older Jamestown Brides Compared to the Younger Women

On the application, women had to talk about their different skills. The women knew these skills would help them become approved for the voyage to Jamestown. On top of this, the women also knew exactly what skills they needed in order to be accepted, and these approved skills would depend on the age of the woman. The ages for the Jamestown brides ranged from 15 to 28. Furthermore, these women were a mixed group on the social scale, ranging from sparse and average to rich and fancy.

Of course, the older women were more experienced in many of the skills the Jamestown brides possessed, such as cooking and cleaning. The older women tended to have more practical skills, which was more desirable for the small farmers. However, the younger Jamestown brides were often seen as more pleasing based on health and beauty. To be more specific, it is believed that the younger women, mainly aged 15 to 18, were more desirable to the wealthy colonists. Part of this belief stems from the younger brides were seen as more beautiful. Another part is because the younger women possessed the skills of making silver and gold lace, which was more sought-after for the rich in the colony.

16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown
17th century village. Oil on panel. The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo / flickr.

8. The Jamestown Brides Did Not Have to Marry

Even after immigrating to the new world, the women did not have to marry. Contrary to what many people have been led to believe through popular culture about the Jamestown Brides, they were never forced to marry. The women never signed any contract stating they had to marry once they landed in the colony of Virginia. There were also no forms of communication and no types of agreement between the women who immigrated and any colonial male. If the women chose not to marry, this did not mean there were alone in a new environment, either.

The women would usually establish themselves in a family before they would even decide whether or not they wanted to marry. Once the women stepped foot on American soil, they were brought to a family who would make them feel welcome and part of the family. This step in the process would give women a sense of security and privacy.

Furthermore, it would create an environment so the women would not feel so lonely, which would then make them think that they had to marry. This notion also meant that the women would have started their new life before spending time with a single man.

16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown
Jamestown in 1608. spuscizna.

7. The Women Before the Jamestown Brides

While the female population was at a very low point when the Jamestown brides began immigrating, they were not the first women to step foot in Jamestown Colony. In fact, the first women of the colony came in 1608. Records show the first two females who arrived in Jamestown came in October of 1608. One of the ladies was the wife of a well-to-do colonist and her servant. While we cannot be entirely sure of the numbers, historians estimate that about 30 women immigrated to Jamestown in 1609. Of course, these women did not come over as the Jamestown brides.

The voyages of 1608 and 1609 prove that women, at first, did not need to be recruited to immigrate to Jamestown. However, this is not the only characteristic that separates the early women from the Jamestown brides. The other aspect is that the earlier women had better connections when they ventured over. They were not alone when the journey came to the colonies. In fact, they usually came with their family and friends. It is also more likely that the women in the 1609 group had less of a choice than the Jamestown brides. The first group came privately with their husband or father, many of which forced the women to follow.

16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown
Niamh Walsh in Jamestown. The Guardian / Sky UK Limited.

6. Jamestown Brides Had a Variety of Backgrounds

Contrary to popular belief, the English women who applied and were approved to become a Jamestown bride were from different backgrounds. Part of this misconception is because when the Virginia Company first started advertising for women, the company requested that only decent women from good families could apply. However, the Virginia Company did not explain any further on what they meant by this. Furthermore, there was no real way the company could eliminate the decent women from the indecent women for a variety of reasons.

The first reason was the Virginia Company believed everything the women stated about themselves. For example, when the women discussed how their skills, the company did not ask the women to show or prove their skill, they just listened to how well the women talked about themselves. The second reason dealt with the women’s letters of recommendation. While the company often received letters from highly trusted individuals, such as priests and employers, the Jamestown brides asked people who would brag about them to write the letters. Finally, the company did not look into the relatives of the women. On their application, the women said they were related to anyone from nobility to successful merchants.

16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown
Drawing of a colonial woman in a dress. UShistoryimages.

5. Virginia Company Early Failures of Building Jamestown with Criminals

However, another reason the women ended up coming from a variety of backgrounds might be because of the early failures of the company. Before the advertisements went out for decent English women to become brides to Jamestown colonists, the company sent a particular group of people to Jamestown. After most of the colonists of Jamestown died from disease or a hard winter, the company had to figure out how to build the population back up again. The company decided to send England’s convicted criminals to Jamestown, specifically the women to do so. The Virginia Company decided to send convicted criminals because European people began to believe that Virginia was a dangerous place.

After a large number of deaths on the colony, many English people began to view Jamestown as a place to go if they wanted to die. Therefore, few people wanted to immigrate to Jamestown. However, the company was feeling pressure from the Jamestown colonists who survived the harsh winter and disease to build up the population, especially the female population. The way to do this was to give the European criminals a choice. They could either decide to go to prison and mostly be executed or go to Jamestown. Of course, most of the criminal chose Jamestown because, to them, it was the better choice. Over time, the colonists in Jamestown told the company to stop sending England’s criminals. They further said to them that if the company could not find better females to send to Jamestown to stop trying altogether.

16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown
Illustration of a colonial family. Josephkaminski.

4. Women Were Just Slow at Immigrating to Jamestown

While trying to get either English men or women to immigrate to Jamestown was difficult, it was notably hard to recruit the women. Even with all the research historians have done on the Jamestown settlement, they cannot pinpoint a direct explanation on why women drug their feet when it came to Jamestown. Some believe it was because, in England’s society, men were pushed to be more adventurous and take risks. Others feel it was because women thought they were too weak to make the trip, would not be protected as they had to be, and, therefore, would not be able to live a long life in Jamestown. No matter what the reasoning was, the company spent decades trying to recruit enough women.

So few women immigrated to Jamestown colony at first that the male colonists were always after the Virginia Company to recruit more women. Of course, there were plenty of women in the area, but the majority of these women were Native American. The Virginia Company leaders frowned upon the colonists taking Native American women as wives. However, we do know it happened at least once, Pocahontas and an English man, but this was an exception. The trouble was both males and females were necessary to keep the colony going. Therefore, the company came up with the Jamestown brides voyage.

16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown
Illustration of Life in the 17th Century. Dailybeast / Getty Images.

3. Even After Applying to Become a Bride, Women Might Have Jumped Ship Before Departure

With so many women applying to become a Jamestown bride and settle in Virginia, people would believe the women were eager to go. However, records suggest that this was not always the case. In fact, on one of the ships which brought the Jamestown brides over the sea, many women attempted and possibly succeeding in escaping the ship before it officially departed. Many historians speculate that this might be because the women realize what they had been promised for the voyage was not there. Accordingly, the ladies wondered if they would receive any incentives they were told.

While the records from the Virginia Company show that some women protested while on the ship, or before boarding, we do not know how many women, if any, who refused to go to Jamestown on that voyage. What we do know is that not all the supplies were on the shop with the women because, after the ship’s departure, a letter was sent to Jamestown’s Colonial Council. In the letter, the company apologized to the council for not being able to address all the supplies they told the women they would receive. What happened after the ship arrived in Jamestown we do not know. We do not know if anything was waiting for the women once they came to the settlement, if they stayed, or if they went back to England.

16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown
Indian massacre of 1622, depicted as a woodcut by Matthäus Merian, 1628. Wikipedia.

2. The Brides Were Considered “Seasoned” After Surviving a Year of Disease and Attacks

No matter what offers the Virginia Company gave the Jamestown brides, they could not eliminate the harsh realities of the colony. Not much had changed for colonists from 1607 to 1620. The certainty of disease and death were just as high for the Jamestown brides as they had been for the first group of women. Thus, so many people passed away within weeks and months once they came to Jamestown that if the brides lived for more than a year, they were considered to be “seasoned.” This phrase indicated that if they lived through a whole year of disease, a harsh winter, and possibly Native American attacks, they were believed to be “seasoned” and would live to old age.

A couple of years after the Jamestown bride ships arrived in Jamestown Colony, they suffered through one of the most significant conflicts with the Native Americans in the colony’s history. Today, the attack is known as the 1622 Powhatan Uprising or the Indian Massacre of 1622. Because of all the land needed for the Jamestown brides in 1619, Powhatan and his tribe feared the settlers would take more land as more colonists came over. This notion threatened the survival of the tribe. On top of this, the colonists started to preach the Christian way of life and tried to convert the Native Americans, whom the colonists referred to as savages. Therefore, the Native Americans felt they needed to protect themselves and way of life by attacking Jamestown. It is believed at least one bride perished in the assault. The rest of the brides were then considered “seasoned.”

16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown
Colonial woman. cliparts.

1. Jamestown Brides Established Power and Became Spoiled

While it is not often discussed in history, the Jamestown brides were making strides for women in a male-dominated society. As written before, women in England could not own land. Furthermore, widows were given very little of their deceased husband’s estate. These conditions were not the same for women in Jamestown. This fact made women in the colony rare and special, and soon the Jamestown brides realized they could indeed change powers for their descendants. Therefore, women in Jamestown began focusing on what legal changes they could make in America, whether they were single, married, or widowed.

It became apparent that women in Jamestown were valued more than women in England. Moreover, the women of Jamestown quickly began using their value as a means to gain as much power as they could, including in the courts. In England, it was rare to see a woman fight a case in court. However, in America, it became common for women to sue someone or request a court case to defend themselves or their rights. This practice became so common that women were going to court for even minor offenses. Over time, the European visitors began taking note on how spoiled the women had grown and were quick to point this out.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Mail-Order Brides of Jamestown, Virginia.” Marcia Zug, The Atlantic. August 2016.

“Pioneering Female Colonists Changed Jamestown.” Mark St. John Erickson, Daily Press. March 2016.

“The Powhatan Indian Attack of March 22, 1622.” Virtual Jamestown. 1998.

“Roles of women and children at Jamestown?”. History Fun.

“Early VA. Wives a Varied Group.” Parke Rouse, Daily Press. June 1991.

“The Bride Ships of 1620, Colonial America’s First Transatlantic Party Buses.” Cheryl Adams Richoff, Ranker. 2018.

“The Real Wives of Jamestown.” Misha Ewen, History Today. May 2017.

“The Real Housewives of Jamestown.” Hanna Rioseco, Thirteen. May 2018.

“World’s first mail order brides who inspired Downton Abbey makers’ new show Jamestown.” Emily Fairbairn, The Sun. May 2017.

“The Tobacco Brides.” Becky Lower, History Imagined. September 2017.