Monday, November 23, 2015

British American colonial Women in the 17C Chesapeake

In the 17C, most women came to the Chesapeake as indentured servants. To pay for their passage, women usually worked 7 years as bound laborers.  In the early 1600s, most Chesapeake southern colonists were poor, & men outnumbered women three to one. Mortality rates were higher in the south because of greater disease risks.  Mosquitoes, a far more constant threat in the south, carried many diseases which could be fatal. On average, men lived to be 40, & women did not live past their late 30s. One quarter of all children born died in infancy & half died, before they reached adulthood.

During the early colonial period, when manpower was scarce, most women worked in the fields during planting & harvest seasons, especially in Virginia & Maryland, where tobacco was money. As slave importation increased, fewer indentured women toiled in the earth.  Although their chores were more home-based, they still worked from sunrise to sundown.  Initially many Chesapeake women died of malaria, dysentery, & epidemics during their first 6 months of "seasoning."  By mid-century, more servant girls were surviving their initial 7-year indenture agreements.

Once indenture contracts had been worked off, women usually married & worked on small plantations. In addition to their home-based chores, they now began to bear children.  Wives were in great demand in the Chesapeake, where the ratio of men to women during most of the 17C was at least three to one.  Because women usually could not marry during their indentures, generally Chesapeake brides were older than those in New England. More than one third of women were pregnant, before they married.

Often, a new bride would move into the house of her spouse which was usually about 25 by 18 feet with one open living space including some extra storage & sleeping space up under the eaves above. Child-bearing by Chesapeake wives did not begin to replace the population by natural increase until the 18C. Few portraits of women from the 17C Chesapeake exist.  Most Southern colonials lived in remote areas in relative isolation on farms or plantations with their immediate families, extended relatives, friends, & slaves, & indentured servants.