Women in New England Colonies
The other well-known early seventeenth century colony in America was Plymouth, Massachusetts, which was founded in 1620 by Separatists from the Church of England. Known as “Pilgrims” because they had first exiled themselves in Holland, they wanted to separate entirely from the Anglican Church. The later and more affluent “Puritans,” who settled Boston, were intent on “purifying” the church from its Catholic tendencies. Both were subject to persecution in England, especially after the Catholic Stuart family replaced Queen Elizabeth on the throne.
The first 104 Pilgrims that landed included the crew, and they were packed onto the tiny Mayflower. Out of the 104, twenty-eight were women. They had to face their first harsh New England winter soon after they arrived. By early 1621, only four women had survived. Poor planning, lack of food, and the climate all contributed to this drastic level of mortality. A key factor in the death of so many women was their weakened physical state due to pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing. With no way to prevent pregnancy, many women endured the long sea voyage while heavily pregnant. The close confines of the Mayflower allowed germs to spread, leading to the sickness of men, women, and children.
Once past that first fatal winter, conditions in Plymouth were relatively healthful, so the Pilgrims did not experience the same level of mortality that plagued the Jamestown settlement. Another stabilizing factor was the comparative lack of animosity between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans in the area – although the newcomers initially were so fearful that they buried their dead at night, lest the natives see how weak they were. Even the affluent Boston settlement saw starvation during its first year, and the namesake of their ship the Arabella, Lady Arbella Finnes, died in the winter of 1631.
In contrast to other colonies, people migrated to New England in family units. No one, not even young men, was permitted to live outside of a family group, whereas Virginia specifically recruited unmarried young people. Like Jamestown, single or widowed women living in New England also experienced great pressure to wed and reproduce. Most married and bore children, usually five to seven, although Boston’s chief cleric, Cotton Mather, recorded cases of women who bore more than twenty. Because of lower mortality rates, many marriages reached the twenty-fifth anniversary.
As in Jamestown, children significantly increased the farming labor force. For this reason, servants and slaves were less common in New England. New England society was centered more around the self-sufficient family farm rather than the large tobacco plantations of the South. Women’s daily work, though, remained centered on production for the family. The women of Jamestown and New England had different motives for migrating, but once in the colonies their roles in society and family were much the same.