America's Women, by Collins, Gail
- ISBN: 9780061227226 | 0061227226
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 7/6/2010
400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines
The First Colonists: Voluntary and Otherwise
The Extremely Brief Story of Virginia Dare
Eleanor Dare must have been either extraordinarily adventurous oreasily led. In 1587, when she was pregnant with her first child, she setsail across the Atlantic, headed for a continent where no woman of herkind had ever lived, let alone given birth. The only English-speakingresidents of the New World at the time were a handful of men whohad been left behind during an earlier, unsuccessful attempt at settlementon Roanoke Island, in what is now Virginia. Eleanor's father,John White, was to become governor of the new colony. Her husband,Ananias, a bricklayer, was one of his assistants.
Under the best of circumstances, a boat took about two months toget from England to the New World, and there were plenty of reasonsto avoid the trip. Passengers generally slept on the floor, on dampstraw, living off salted pork and beef, dried peas and beans. They sufferedfrom seasickness, dysentery, typhoid, and cholera. Their shipcould sink, or be taken by privateers, or run aground at the wrongplace. Even if it stayed afloat, it might be buffeted around for so longthat the provisions would run out before the travelers reached land.Later would-be colonists sometimes starved to death en route. (Theinaptly named Love took a year to make the trip, and at the end of the voyage rats and mice were being sold as food.) Some women consideredthe odds and decided to stay on dry land. The wife of John Dunton,a colonial minister, wrote to him that she would rather be "aliving wife in England than a dead one at sea."
But if Eleanor Dare had any objections, they were never recorded.She and sixteen other women settlers, along with ninety-one men andnine children, encountered no serious problems until they stopped topick up the men who had been left at Roanoke. When they wentashore to look for them, all they found were the bones of a single Englishman.The uncooperative ship's captain refused to take them farther,and they were forced to settle on the same unlucky site.
Try to imagine what Eleanor Dare must have thought when shewalked, heavy with child, through the houses of the earlier settlers,now standing empty, "overgrown with Melons of divers sortes, andDeere within them, feeding," as her father later recorded. Eleanor wasa member of the English gentry, hardly bred for tilling fields and fightingIndians. Was she confident that her husband the bricklayer and herfather the bureaucrat could keep her and her baby alive, or was shebeginning to blame them for getting her into this extremely unpromisingsituation? All we know is that on August 18, the first English childwas born in America and christened Virginia Dare -- named, like thecolony, in honor of the Virgin Queen who ruled back home. A fewdays later her grandfather boarded the boat with its cranky captain andsailed back to England for more supplies, leaving Eleanor and theother settlers to make homes out of the ghost village. It was nearlythree years before White could get passage back to Roanoke, andwhen he arrived he discovered the village once again abandoned, withno trace of any human being, living or dead. No one knows what happenedto Eleanor and the other lost colonists. They might have beenkilled by Indians or gone to live with the local Croatoan tribe whenthey ran out of food. They were swallowed up by the land, and by history.
The Dares and other English colonists who we call the first settlerswere, of course, nothing of the sort. People had lived in North Americafor perhaps twenty millennia, and the early colonists who did survive lasted only because friendly natives were willing to give themenough food to prevent starvation. In most cases, that food was producedby native women. Among the eastern tribes, men were generallyresponsible for hunting and making war while the women did thefarming. In some areas they had as many as 2,000 acres under cultivation.Former Indian captives reported that the women seemed to enjoytheir work, tilling the fields in groups that set their own pace, lookingafter one another's youngsters. Control of the food brought power,and the tribes whose women played a dominant role in growing andharvesting food were the ones in which women had the highest statusand greatest authority. Perhaps that's why the later colonists kept tryingto foist spinning wheels off on the Indians, to encourage what theyregarded as a more wholesome division of labor. At any rate, it's niceto think that Eleanor Dare might have made a new life for herself withthe Croatoans and spent the rest of her life working companionablywith other women in the fields, keeping an eye out for her daughterand gossiping about the unreliable men.
"FEDD UPON HER TILL HE HAD CLEAN DEVOURED ALL HER PARTES"
Jamestown was founded in 1607 by English investors hoping to make aprofit on the fur and timber and precious ore they thought they weregoing to find. Its first residents were an ill-equipped crew of youngmen, many of them the youngest sons of good families, with nomoney but a vast sense of entitlement. The early colonists included alarge number of gentlemen's valets, but almost no farmers. Theyregarded food as something that arrived in the supply ship, andnobody seemed to have any interest in learning how to grow his own.(Sir Thomas Dale, who arrived in 1611 after two long winters of starvation,said he found the surviving colonists at "their daily and usuallworkes, bowling in the streetes.")America's Women
400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines. Copyright © by Gail Collins. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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