Frontier Women: The “Glue” That Held the Early Families Together in Virginia
By Dr. Barry Dorsey
The roles of frontier women were, among others, to serve as wives, mothers, and housekeepers. They found it impossible to escape their surroundings even if they wanted to, because they were most often dominated by their husbands. Yet they were perhaps the strongest people on the frontier.
Scholars make a distinction between “frontier women” and “pioneer women.” The first group came to the American colony by 1608 (Jamestown, in fact), while the latter group later settled the West and Pacific regions. Therefore, this piece will be about the early colonists and settlers—the frontier women from about 1608 through the Revolutionary War.
Two women came to Virginia in late 1608 and a few more arrived in 1609, but women were always in the minority. The first two English women were Mistress Forrest (who came with her husband, Thomas Forrest) and her maid, Ann Burras. Then in 1620-1622, the Virginia Company recruited and sent about 140 “maids” to the colony. They came at the request of planters to become their wives, provided the planters reimbursed the Company for their passage at the rate of 120 pounds of tobacco. Other English women signed on to go to Virginia as indentured servants for four to seven years.
In the colony’s early years, survival influenced the roles of men and women, whether white or black. (Remember that the first slaves were brought to the colony in 1619.) This meant that planters’ wives, indentured servants, and slaves worked together in the tobacco fields. But as Jamestown became a permanent colony, the colonists began to envision a stable society based on the patriarchal society they had known in England.
As the colony of Virginia grew and a Royal Governor was sent to manage its affairs on a daily basis, the women fortunate enough to be invited to the numerous balls sponsored by the Governor (the “good wives”) needed only to learn to dance. Soon, the household duties, as well as other responsibilities, of the “good wives” were taken over by slaves who worked on the plantations. However, as the colonists moved to the interior of the new colony, frontier women took on new, demanding, and sometimes dangerous roles.
A double standard soon developed similar to the patriarchal society at that time in Britain. According to James S. Wamsley with Anne M. Cooper in a bicentennial project of the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce and the Virginia Commission on the Status of Women (1976): “Infidelity and adultery were condoned in men and absolutely forbidden in women; moreover, women were not supposed to even give a hint to their husbands that they suspected any philandering. If a husband’s infidelity seemed proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, the wife was told by writers to be ‘calm’ and avoid ‘recrimina- nations.’”
Wamsley and Cooper wrote that a newspaper of the time “expressed the idea thus: ‘Nothing is more gratifying to the mind of man than power or dominion…I look upon my family as a patriarchal sovereignty, in which I am myself both king and priest.’ Clearly, the principle remained the same no matter what one’s status.”
A man’s conjugal authority extended to his children as well. Citing an example, Wamsley and Cooper noted: “In 1708, Quaker George Walker (the grandfather of George Wythe) petitioned the court to keep his wife from raising their children as Anglicans. Ruling for father Walker, the court said he ‘only Desires to have that authority over his Child that properly Belongs to Every Christian man.’ “
Almost the only legal right a married woman had was to her dowry. Under Virginia law, two independent witnesses had to meet a married woman alone to receive assurance that “she freely and voluntarily acknowledged the conveyance” of a wife’s dower lands to her husband.
There were cracks in the system even then. Ann Ashby, a free, black woman in the Williamsburg area, laundered clothing, repaired torn garments, and knit stockings for her customers. There were other women like her who ran their own businesses. Their actions, however, either did not challenge gender roles because their businesses were seen as extensions of domestic work or were simply overlooked, presumably because of the services provided.
Widows were another group of early women to whom the patriarchal system did not apply. They bought and sold land, negotiated contracts, and managed households. Although most of the widows re-married, some did not, preferring to remain single and independent. Together with single women, they represented 15 percent of the landowners and owned nearly 20 percent of the land. (Single women, however, could not make contracts, sue anyone or be sued, at least until the late 18th century.)
In short, male authority in early Virginia was fragile, and women did not always submit to it. The General Assembly reinforced the patriarchal system whenever it could. For example, the GA passed a law stating that a “brabling” (quarrelsome or riotous) wife could be ducked (plunged underwater) as punishment for slandering her husband or neighbors. The statute trivialized female communication and freed husbands from having to pay fines for their wives’ behavior.
The same session of the GA made African women the key to the expansion of slavery in Virginia. The law said, in effect, that a child born to an enslaved woman would be a slave for his or her lifetime. This language secured colonists’ rights to own individuals as property.
A few women actually participated in the political life of the colony. Some may have even voted. However, a 1699 law in Virginia made clear that voting was a male activity only. Afterwards, some women had indirect power to influence the voting of their husbands, because they helped to enfranchise men by bringing land to marriages.
An article entitled “The Role of Women in the Colonies” summed up the role of the housewife in colonial America: “The typical woman…was expected to run a household and attend to domestic duties such as spinning, sewing, preserving food, animal husbandry, cooking, cleaning, and raising children. Families tended to be large, and childbearing could be dangerous…A responsible housewife was supposed to be resourceful with her family’s budget, which led to manufactured goods being a vital contribution to the success of a household. Home manufactured goods such as dairy products and textiles were usually created by women, while the woman’s husband was the owner of the goods and received whatever money they sold for.”
The article states that childbearing could be dangerous. Wamsley and Cooper say that “dangerous pregnancies were not avoided” and cite the example of Thomas Jefferson’s wife. They write as follows: “When the birth of their child Lucy caused his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson’s long and violent period of grief (‘he fainted, and remained so long insensible that they feared he would never revive’) may have been partly due to guilt over having in a very real sense occasioned it.”
The housewife had other duties as well: to help her husband in agriculture and to be responsible for the spiritual and civic well-being of their children. As a wife, the woman was to be “dutiful, obedient, faithful, and subservient to her husband.” All of this sometimes “led to violent circumstances. Some housewives were able to file for divorces, but these instances were not the norm.”
With the issuance of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Virginia merchants pledged not to import certain goods as a way to protest the British taxes. Some women also promised to do without these items. As a result, they had to learn to produce the items themselves. Clothing was a good example. Seamstresses turned Virginia cloth into clothing the colonists wore to protest “taxation without representation.” It became a sign of honor to wear clothes made in Virginia from cloth spun in the colony, according to an article (“Women in Colonial Virginia”) in the Virginia Encyclopedia. As a result of the Revolutionary War, women of all classes found their lives changed. Most of them learned to operate households in times of food shortages and high prices. Wives of Continental soldiers functioned as the heads of their households while their husbands were gone.”
In a 1990 book on Ridgeway, Virginia, Mary Pace and Mary Pace McGee wrote that their “grandmothers had to get water from the creek or spring, heat it over a fire, and use it as conservatively as possible, and as many times as possible, before pouring it out to refresh a thirsty plant or to scrub a floor…When one considers the constant back-breaking toil…and that this was accompanied by frequent child-bearing with little or no medical care, there is no wonder that young women soon became haggard and unkempt, lost most of their teeth, and often died at a early age. Many…men married several times as their wives succumbed to disease, neglect, or overwork.”
Yet in this era before women even had the right to vote, some were already voicing their views. One such woman was Joice Johnston, who received a pension of $180 a year because her husband had been killed as a Sergeant of Dragoons in the Continental Army. (Pensions for Revolutionary War veterans were not established until 1832 for most of those who served.) Another woman who received a pension herself was Jane Collins of King William County. She went into Revolutionary War service with her husband, John, and remained with him for three years. She did laundry for the soldiers and at the end of the war received a pension of $100 per year.
But perhaps a real heroine of the War was a woman with the unlikely name of Karenhappuck Norman Turner. A nurse, she was living in Maryland at the time she learned that her son had been wounded in the Battle of Guilford Court House. (The Militia from Henry County was ordered to this conflict.) She rode horseback to Guilford and set up a hospital in a log cabin on the battlefield. She not only nursed her son back to health, but remained until the conflict ceased to minister to other wounded and ill soldiers.
These are only some of the stories of women in Virginia from the Commonwealth’s founding at Jamestown through the Civil War. How different the world is today, but the bravery and gallantry of women remain.