jamestown heading

I. Native Women

II. First Women

III. More Women

Cash Crop

V. Women's Lives

VI. Indentured Servant

VII. Wives

VIII. Living Condition

IX. Family Life

X. Women's Work

Fate of Jamestown

XII. Sources

IX. Family Life

Interior of a small Jamestown house
Woman in a small Jamestown house
click on image to see the full image
Credit: Project Gutenberg

Families in seventeenth century Jamestown were patriarchal, meaning that the man served as head of the household. Every member of the family, including slaves and servants, and everything connected with family property was under the command of the man of the house. Until the first son – who was greatly favored in the English inheritance system of primogeniture – was old enough, it was the woman of the household who was in charge if the man was absent. Men who owned great plantations often were absent because of business, political, or military obligations, and when that was the case, women were considered “deputy husbands,” especially in terms of interaction with the legal system. Women always were in charge of the daily management of the family home. In some instances, they also were in charge of agricultural production.

When a woman married – and there was great pressure to do so -- society expected her to begin childbearing immediately. Having children was very important in early Jamestown because of the labor-intensive tobacco culture. Throughout the early seventeenth century, the shortage of labor remained a large problem. In the years before slavery, family members worked their own tobacco fields, and children added to the labor force. They did not have to be paid like servants or bought like slaves, and because they had an interest in family prosperity, they could be expected to work better and more willingly. Colonial children definitely were considered an economic asset, not a liability.

Women frequently gave birth to as many as ten or twelve children, and instances of twenty or more children are known. In Jamestown, however, few of these would survive to adulthood because of the high mortality rates. Childbirth was very dangerous for women. Jamestown was a de facto wilderness, and few trained doctors or midwives were available. Instead, female neighbors and relatives helped women through their labor.

Mothers had to steel themselves emotionally to the strong possibility that their babies would die. Disease spread easily, and so few sicknesses could be cured that children born in Jamestown had only a fifty percent chance of growing to adulthood. One quarter of infants born alive died before their first birthday. Worse, if a child did survive its early years, it was likely that he or she would never know at least one parent. By the age of nine, most children had lost one or even both parents. Orphans were a fact of ordinary life in Jamestown.


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