10 questions with Jennifer Potter

Sponsored by BYU Studies—In the 1600s, the Virginia Company of London shipped 56 young women across the ocean to become the brides of American settlers.

Were they adventurers, victims, or something in between?

Jennifer Potter tells their story in association with her new book, The Jamestown Brides: The Story of England’s ‘Maids for Virginia (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your new book?

Hi! I’m Jennifer Potter, a British writer of fiction and non-fiction living in London.

All my books are rooted in a sense of place. My four novels are set variously in Martinique, the Yemen in 1911, France in the late 1960s, and the marshy seascapes of southern Britain.

My non-fiction is equally varied. Inspired by a postgraduate course on conserving historic gardens and landscapes, I have written about secret and lost gardens; a biography of early English plantsmen and royal gardeners; and two cultural histories of flowers.

For five long years I worked on The Rose, A True History, which took me from the mountains of Iran to the White House Rose Garden – a journey of constant surprises as I tried to disentangle the truth about the world’s favorite flower from the many myths and invented stories.

My new book—The Jamestown Brides, The Story of England’s “Maids for Virginia”—represents my first venture into social history. I see it as an act of bearing witness to the courage of fifty-six young Englishwomen – all reputedly “young and uncorrupt” – shipped from England to Virginia by the Virginia Company of London in the earliest days of European settlement, and traded for tobacco as wives to the planters.

Ordinary women like these can truly claim their place among the founding mothers of America.

What was the genesis of the book?

I first came across the women’s story some fifteen years ago, when I was over in Virginia researching a dual biography of the John Tradescants, a father and son revered as England’s first celebrity gardeners.

I was in the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library in Colonial Williamsburg, hoping to pick up the younger Tradescant’s tracks during his visit to the colony in the 1630s, when I chanced across an article about the “Wives for Virginia, 1621” written by the English scholar, David Ransome. The bare facts of Ransome’s account come from two annotated lists that survive at Magdalene College, Cambridge; they read like a sales catalogue, informing prospective husbands about the women’s parentage, upbringing and skills.

Immediately, I wanted to know more. Who were these brave young women prepared to travel into the unknown? What sort of lives were they leading in England? What happened to them when they reached the New World?

Contemporary resonances stirred my curiosity. I was no longer married and could be said to be looking for a husband myself. How far would I travel to find one?

The women went quiet for a while as I turned to other books, then several years later they again came knocking on my door. Or rather, I heard their voices chattering to each other as they embarked on their perilous journey across the Atlantic.

My first instinct was to tell their story as fiction – a radio play, in fact. But I quickly understood that what I really wanted to do was to rescue them from the silt of history that too often obscures the lives of “ordinary” people.

I wanted, if I could, to make the women live and breathe again in their historical “truth,” without invention.

Jennifer Potter’s personal study. Credit: Jennifer Potter.

Did you visit any of the sites from your book as part of the research process? How did it help you bring the story to life?

I couldn’t have written the book without traveling extensively to all the sites connected to my fifty-six women, on both sides of the Atlantic.

In England, this meant travelling around southern Britain to places associated with the women whose lives feature prominently in the book.

I stood in the church at Marden in deepest Herefordshire, where Catherine Finch spent her early years.

Touched the thirteenth-century font in Salisbury, where Ann Jackson was baptized.

Walked the streets of London, from Jackson’s later home in Westminster to the headquarters of the Virginia Company in the City, and on to Billingsgate, where she caught the long ferry to Gravesend at the start of her epic journey.

My many visits to Gravesend in Kent coincided with celebrations commemorating 400 years since Pocahontas died there on English soil, as she was returning to Virginia with her husband, tobacco planter John Rolfe, and their baby son, Thomas.

My two research trips to Virginia were an absolute joy. I returned many times to Jamestown Island, which remains one of my favorite places on earth. Armed with a map plotted with help from historian Martha W. McCartney, I visited sites around the James River where some of the women lived and died, among them Powle-Brooke, now part of the James River National Wildlife Refuge, and on upriver to Bermuda Hundred, which welcome Audry Harris née Hoare, a shoemaker’s daughter from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. With ethnohistorian Helen C. Rountree, I crossed over the Chesapeake Bay to Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where I later stayed with a descendant of one of my women’s husbands, through his second wife.

Two other visits stand out: walking the ground of Martin’s Hundred on the James River with archaeologist Nicholas Luccketti, reliving the fateful attack by Virginia’s hard-pressed Indians (the name preferred by Virginia’s native tribespeople today), just three months after the English maids had arrived in the colony.

Carter’s Grove, near Jamestown, site of the old settlement of Martin’s Hundred, where Ann Jackson was captured by Indians in the great attack of 22 March 1622. Credit: Jennifer Potter.

And the river trip I made with Jamie Brunkow, Riverkeeper of the Lower James, warily scanning the wooded banks on either side with the eyes of a young woman fresh out of England.

A visit to the Isle of Wight unlocked the whole writing process for me. It was here, at the burgeoning port of East Cowes, that the first group of women boarded a ship called the Marmaduke.

Standing on that muddy shoreline, looking at the contours of the England they were leaving behind, I had—almost literally—stepped into their shoes.

How do you tell the stories of the “Jamestown brides” without access to their own words?

Places hold the key, as ever.

Four hundred years ago, “middling” women like these may have learned to read but very few were taught to write. So I knew I was unlikely to stumble across any surviving letters or journals written by the women themselves. And I dislike historical non-fiction that puts reported speech or thoughts into people’s mouths.

But by meticulously researching and describing what the women will have seen and experienced I believe that today’s readers can empathize with what they felt. The book requires attentive and imaginative readers, I know, but I hope the effort pays off.

I also draw on the “chatter “of the times: English ballads, thundering sermons, Virginia’s gloriously gossipy court records, and plaintive letters sent by fellow settlers, collected among the Virginia Company’s own records.

And guided by Bly Straube, one of the very best curators of Virginia’s material culture, I looked for evidence of women’s daily lives in the objects that have miraculously survived the intervening centuries.

From Jordan’s Point—home to Catherine Finch after she married—comes a quantity of sewing equipment, and a beautifully chiseled silver bodkin, almost certainly worn by the small community’s leading woman, Sisley Jordan. Milk pans turn up in several places, the best ones attributed to a potter who lived with Ann Jackson’s brother.

I remember the thrill of holding an object made by someone so closely connected to one of the Jamestown brides.

What was the demographic makeup of the women?

These women were surprisingly well born. One in six was either a gentleman’s daughter, or related to gentry. The parents of twenty-five year old Cicely Bray from Gloucestershire were “gentlefolk of good esteem,” for instance, of kin to Sir Edwin Sandys, who masterminded the scheme to ship brides to Virginia.

Those who weren’t gentry had fathers, brothers, uncles or cousins trained in respectable trades that represent a cross section of middle England: saddlers, husbandmen, soldiers, wire drawers, grocers, printers, crossbow makers, gardeners, fustian dressers, victualers and the like.

In age, the women ranged from fifteen (the youngest was Jane Dier, a London waterman’s daughter) up to a declared age of twenty-eight. I love it when my researches catch people out: the orphaned Allice Burges from Cambridgeshire lied about her age. Surviving parish records prove that she was almost thirty-two by the time she arrived in Jamestown.

A core of the maids were London-born. The rest came from counties around London and southern England, plus a few from more distant places like Lancashire and Yorkshire. A fair number were orphans who had migrated to the capital where they were living in service with relatives or respectable citizens.

Why did they agree to the entire ordeal? Were they victims, adventure-goers, or something else?

A fascinating question that has no clear answer, I’m afraid.

The women traveled of their own free will, we are told, but a woman’s subservient place in society meant that she was likely to bend to the will of her elders and betters, and of her male relatives.

Many of the guarantors who vouched for each woman’s “honest” life were connected to the Virginia Company, which had run out of funds and hoped this trade in brides would help to restore its finances, along with other trades in furs, glass beads and general supplies. The Virginia Company will undoubtedly have glossed over the risks they were taking—Virginia was then a very dangerous place, and most settlers died within their first few years.

On the plus side, the Virginia Company dangled the prospect of a husband at a time when society expected all women to marry, but finding a mate was becoming increasingly difficult. The London marriage market was especially problematic for those orphaned women who had migrated from the provinces. Young men served long apprenticeships when they weren’t allowed to marry. At the end of their term many set their sights on marrying the master’s daughter or a rich widow who could set them up in business of their own.

But might some have traveled from a sense of adventure, too? Just one testimonial survives, for the widowed Ann Richards, twenty-five years old and living in the London parish of St. James at Clerkenwell.  Dated some nine months before she sailed, Ann’s testimonial paints her as a woman of an honest life and conversation, who was “minded and purposed to dwell elsewhere.”  So even before she fell into the company’s clutches, Ann Richards had declared her wish to leave her old life behind.

What were conditions like on the voyage across the Atlantic?

I had great fun researching the chapter that transports the women across the Atlantic through ferocious winter storms, a voyage that lasted well over three months and must have seemed endless.

Conditions for ordinary passengers were truly terrible, as they were herded into the stifling “‘tween decks” space between the upper deck and the cargo hold, alongside mounted guns, lighter freight, and perishable cargo.

‘Tween decks on the recreated ‘Susan Constant’ at Jamestown Settlement. Credit: Jennifer Potter.

Here the maids slept two to a makeshift bed, lying on straw mattresses placed inside small wooden boxes that could be stacked during the daytime. The only daylight to penetrate the gloom came from the gun ports and the grated wooden hatch to the upper deck.

Seasickness was their first hazard, as it was for many of the pilgrims who had sailed to New England on the larger Mayflower, just the previous year. To the smell of vomit must be added the stink of primitive sanitary arrangements. On most ships the crew relieved themselves behind the ship’s figurehead in an area constructed of slatted timber. The women are more likely to have used buckets attached to ropes and doused in the sea.

Moldy food was another frequent source of complaint: stinking salt fish known as “Poor John,” and ship’s biscuits as hard as a knife grinder’s whetstone. To supplement their diet, the Virginia Company had thoughtfully provided casks of prunes, as well as psalters and catechisms for the soul.

Yet miraculously, all the maids survived the crossing, even the handful who sailed on the Tiger, which veered off course and fell into the clutches of Barbary pirates operating out of North Africa.

What was life like once they arrived in Virginia?

However thankful they may have been to put the Atlantic crossing behind them, I’m sure the women suffered a terrible shock when they reached their journey’s end. London, the city they had left behind, was fast transforming itself into one of the great capitals of Europe, its population swollen to some 200,000 souls.

Imagine their first sight of Jamestown, which then contained a wooden church, a few larger storehouses, no more than two dozen mud-clad cottages clustered within and around a palisaded fort, and the remnants of a timber landing stage, all in various stages of decay.

The pool of marriageable men may also have provoked initial disappointment. Despite promising the maids a free choice of husband, the Virginia Company needed to recoup the tobacco owed for each bride, so kept the poorer planters away. Seasoned settlers who were free to marry and able to pay the bride price were relatively few, and Virginia’s elite had other ways of finding a wife.

The gentry women among the newcomers must have felt especially deceived.

Those who failed to find a husband immediately dispersed to settlements around the James River, where one hopes their spirits lifted a little as they threw themselves into frontier life, helping to carve a home from the wilderness.

But they didn’t have long to enjoy this new life. A little over three months after the women first stepped onto Virginian soil, the colony suffered a coordinated attack led by Opechancanough, military chief of the Algonquian-speaking tribes, which wiped out between a quarter and a third of the English colony, men, women and children.

For those settlers who survived the attack, conditions again took a nosedive, as fear and hunger stalked their lives. The attackers had destroyed most of their crops, and they daren’t leave their palisaded enclosures to replant.

View of modern palisades marking the 1607 James Fort location. Credit: Jamestown National Historic Site.

Tell us the story of Ann Jackson and how she ended up living in captivity.

Of all the Jamestown brides, Ann Jackson suffered the most extreme reversals of fortune; her story continues to haunt me.

Born in the Wiltshire city of Salisbury, Ann Jackson came to Virginia to join her brother, John Jackson, a bricklayer who had represented Martin’s Hundred at Virginia’s first General Assembly in 1619. Just turned seventeen when she sailed for Virginia, Ann had been living in London with her gardener father, William Jackson, a man of “known honesty and conversation.”

During the long sea voyage, she must have felt luckier than most of her fellows. Having family in Virginia meant that she was taking less of a leap into the unknown, and surely her brother would help to find her a husband. Like the other brides, Ann had just three months to settle into her new life before the Indians attacked on the morning of 22 March, causing more devastation at Martin’s Hundred than at any other English settlement: over 70 settlers died here, among them a child of John Jackson’s.

Ann disappeared in the mayhem.

Presumed killed during the attack, she was in fact taken prisoner along with fifteen women and four men. The men were put to death and the women worked as slave labor until at least some of them were ransomed after more than a year. Among those released was a servant from Martin’s Hundred who was forced to redeem her debt to the colony’s doctor, Dr John Pott, by working for him in conditions she considered little different from the “slavery” of her captivity.

Nothing more is heard about Ann Jackson until January 1629—more than six years after the attack—when she suddenly reappears among the English. Court records for Jamestown tell us that Ann Jackson, “which came from the Indians,” was to be sent to England by the first available ship, her passage to be paid by her brother John Jackson, who was ordered to keep her safe until she could be safely shipped aboard.

To my ears, the records suggest that Ann’s release from captivity was relatively recent. But however long she stayed with the Indians, she doubtless endured much hardship as she slowly adapted to their foreign ways—learning to forage for food in the forest; undertaking the hard physical labour that was the woman’s lot in Indian societies; shedding her English habits of modesty as her Virginia Company clothes wore out and she had no choice but to adopt native dress.

She will also have witnessed at first hand—and perhaps discovered for herself—how relations between Indian wives and their husbands were much more autonomous and easy going than was usual with the English, and parent-child relations very warm indeed.

So why was she sent home?

Had her years in captivity broken her mind and her spirit? Had she gone native, and must be bundled out of the colony in disgrace? Or had she simply succumbed to the trauma of returning to the loud, volatile, hierarchical English society at Martin’s Hundred, experiencing a culture shock every bit as intense as her first encounter with the Indians?

What was the fate of the rest of the women?

Most marriage records haven’t survived for early Virginia, so tracing women who adopted their husband’s surname on marriage is a nightmare, especially those with common Christian names: just over half the Jamestown brides were called either Ann, Elizabeth, Alice or Mary. I can nonetheless trace what happened to around one third of them.

We are told that a few of the women were married before their ships left Jamestown, but a number perished—still unmarried—in the Indian attack of 22 March 1622. These included Sir Edwin Sandys’ relative, Mistress Cicely Bray, who died at Powle-Brooke, alongside a 17-year-old cloth worker’s daughter, Barbara Burchens.

At least two women ended up as servants in the households of company officials who lived next door to each other on Jamestown Island, company agent Edward Blaney and the infamous Dr John Pott. I feel the injustice of their plight.

Among the lucky ones who found a husband, three married ancient planters (a term used to describe anyone, male or female, who had arrived in the colony by 1616). At least two of these unions produced children, and I have been in touch with (and met) direct descendants.

Two of the several Anns who sailed to Virginia on the Marmaduke married more recent arrivals in the colony. By 1625 both couples were still childless and neither owned a house, so they may have been living communally as servants. Another whose choice fell on a recent arrival to the colony settled with him over on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where the husband became a successful planter and public official, despite being unable to read.

It seems unlikely that investors in the Virginia Company’s scheme to import maids to Virginia ever recouped their investment. The two company officials charged with collecting tobacco from husbands either inconveniently died, their affairs in disarray, or denied any responsibility.

If you could go back in time and spend a year with these women with a single research question in mind, what would you most want to learn—and who would you most want to visit with?

A great question, this. I most want to know what the women thought of their lives in Virginia. Did they feel they had made the right choice in turning their backs on all that was familiar, to start afresh in the New World?

Since their answers will naturally depend on what happened to them, I shall put my question to Catherine Fisher née Finch, born in the rural parish of Marden in Hereforshire and living in service on the busy Strand in Westminster with her brother Erasmus Finch, crossbow maker to King James I at the time of her departure.

If I were to tell this story as fiction, she would be my central character. I imagine she can’t have found life easy living with her hot-tempered brother whose name crops up in court records, involved in neighborhood disputes.  A near neighbor on the Strand may even have introduced Catherine to her future husband, a carpenter called Robert Fisher.

The Fishers survive the Indian attack and settle upriver from Jamestown at Jordan’s Journey (Jordan’s Point today), a small community of some fifteen households where they rank number four in the pecking order. They have a daughter called Sisly (doubtless named after the settlement’s chief woman) and by 1625 they are blessed with two houses, a female servant, ample provisions, and sufficient arms and armour to protect themselves.

For a woman who arrived with nothing but the clothes provided by the Virginia Company, Catherine has done well.

And then the Fishers simply disappear from the record. No land patent survives to document the hundred acres to which Robert Fisher was entitled as an ancient planter. Nor is there any record of land passed on to Catherine or the young Sisly.

Whatever happened to Catherine? That’s a supplementary question, which for the moment must remain unanswered.

This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.

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