My latest book is called The Jamestown Brides, The Untold Story of England’s ‘maids for Virginia’. Published by Atlantic Books in the UK (October 2018), it follows in the footsteps of fifty-six young English women shipped to Virginia nearly four hundred years ago and traded for tobacco as wives to the planters. The English colony was just fourteen years old and the Virginia Company of London hoped to root its unruly menfolk to the land with ties of family and children.
While the women travelled of their own accord, the company was in effect selling them at a profit for a bride price of 150lbs in weight of best-leaf tobacco. Rewards would flow to investors in the near-bankrupt company, who were also promised a stake in a new place called ‘Maydes Towne’.
But the women – what did they want from the enterprise? Who were they and why did they agree to make the dangerous Atlantic crossing to a wild and dangerous land from which they had little hope of return?
Every book is hard to write but The Jamestown Brides was harder than most. My starting point was a series of remarkable lists that survive at Magdalene College Cambridge among the papers of Nicholas Ferrar, a London merchant closely involved with the Virginia Company. The lists read like a sales catalogue for prospective husbands, recording the women’s personal histories: their name, age, marital status, birthplace, parentage, father’s occupation, domestic skills, guarantors and testimonials from their elders and betters. Dry as they are, lists such as these quickly come alive as you make connections, uncover surviving birth records and chase after hares. Few ordinary women of the times were taught to write so I knew I wouldn’t find any letters or journals from the women themselves.
Delving deeply into company records and accounts left by others helped in part to fill this gap. I also wanted to see for myself the places where they were born and where they settled in Virginia, peeling back the centuries to reimagine the landscape through which they travelled all those years ago. In England, tracking the women took me deep into rural Herefordshire, to Aylesbury and Salisbury and the narrow streets of Westminster and the City of London.
A visit to the Isle of Wight unlocked the writing process for me, for it was here that the first dozen or so women boarded the ship that would take them to Virginia. The others mostly left from Gravesend on the Thames estuary, which I visited many times, joining in the celebrations commemorating the burial of Pocahontas in St George’s Parish Church in 1618, after she fell suddenly sick as she returned to Virginia following a triumphant visit to the court of King James. Pocahontas had featured in an earlier biography I had written, about the royal gardeners, plantsmen and collectors of curiosities, the John Tradescants, father and son. I like stories that connect.
Best of all were the two research trips I made to Virginia, with generous support from the Society of Authors and helped by three extraordinary women whose knowledge of early Jamestown is unrivalled: historian Martha W. McCartney; anthropologist and cultural historian, Helen C. Rountree; and curator Beverly (Bly) Straube. We had lots of fun, too, plotting journeys the women will have taken, tracking their footsteps on the ground and rifling through the scraps of material culture they left behind.
Snatches from my Virginian diaries found their way into the book, like my visit to the James River National Wildlife Refuge on Powell Creek, where at least two of the Jamestown brides lost their lives in the Indian attack of 1622. On a later visit, I went hunting for the original landholding inhabited by one of the maids, accompanied by a direct descendant of her husband through his second wife. I like histories that transport you into the past and bring the past into the present.