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Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Tobacco Brides

A couple years ago, I wrote an article for USA Today and later for RWR Magazine on how 45 authors got together and wrote 50 novellas about mail order brides. The trope of mail order brides has been a staple in western romance for years, but the way these ladies packaged their product and featured one bride in each state was what made it new and different.  

Of course the concept of mail-order brides isn’t unique to America. It’s been a method of matrimony in all parts of the world and is still is use today. But I was surprised to find the concept in America didn’t start with the gold rush in the western United States, as originally thought. It really began with the first colony established in the country by the British. Jamestown. 

Jamestown in 1607 was established with the hope this new country would be capable of growing tobacco. At the time, England had a fierce addiction to the product, and men, women and children all had clay pipes and a need for tobacco. Most of the product was purchased from Spain, who owned the Caribbean islands along with Central and South America, so perfect for growing tobacco. Most of the incoming tobacco was smuggled into the country, in order to circumvent the hefty import tax Britain imposed on the product. So Britain wasn’t collecting the tax, and a lot of coin was being spent on the smuggled goods. They had to do something. 

Their first step was to offer the men of Jamestown a tract of land each to work. But what the men really wished for was the companionship of a woman. So England rounded up twelve women–one widow and eleven maidens–as the first shipment in 1619. They arrived on America’s shores and were put up for auction, the price being 120 pounds of tobacco for each woman. The ladies could reject any offers being put forth, and would be housed in appropriate quarters until a man captured their fancy. However, there were no reports that these first twelve were not wed by the eve of their arrival. The reason for the fee for the ladies helped to prove the men were industrious and hard-working and would be capable of supporting a wife and their future children. Only free men who owned land were eligible bachelors for these women. Indentured servants, who were working off the cost of their passage, were not eligible to marry until their servitude ended, typically lasting seven years. 

But who were these ladies? Where did they come from? The logical assumption is that early America was a disposal for those in England’s jails, as was the case in Australia in its early days. But that seems not to be the case for these Jamestown brides. The widow, Anne Rickard, had tired of her life in a London parish and wished for a fresh start in a new country. The reason why these ladies chose to make a treacherous overseas voyage was no different from the reasons American women chose to head west on wagon trains as mail order brides–a lack of available men in the parts of the world where they were located. An economic depression in England made men hesitate to marry and have a family to support. England also worried about a dwindling supply of people in the colony, since there was loss from disease, accidents and hunger. 

Bringing women to the colony and beginning to settle it by building churches and then schools for the forthcoming children seemed to be a good idea. A call went out from the Virginia Company for “young, handsome and honestly educated maids.” All those willing had to submit letters of recommendation and to have someone vouch for them in person at the Virginia Company in London. These ladies came from a multitude of social backgrounds. Some were the daughters of working class families, some came from the homes of titled gentlemen. The Virginia Company was very interested in the homemaking skills each woman possessed. If they could cook, bake, spin yarn, sew, make butter and cheese, so much the better. The Virginia Company outfitted these ladies for the voyage with clothing,  bedding, gloves and white caps, called coifs, which they could wear once they married. 

The fee rose from 120 pounds to 150 pounds of tobacco. The next shipment of ladies were 90 in number. In total 144 Tobacco Brides were brought to the shores of America by the Virginia Company, between 1619 and 1622. Only six of them survived longer than six years in Jamestown. 



  1. Fascinating piece! I can imagine women wanting an adventure as much as the men. I'm willing to bet that the women from titled families were poorer, youngest daughters. They often had less choice than poorer women as they couldn't be seen to be marrying beneath them, but didn't have the dowry to make a wealthy marriage.

    1. Thanks, C.A.! I found the topic interesting, especially when you consider how harsh the living conditions must have been in America in the 1600s.

  2. I do love this kind of research and information. Thank you for sharing. So many stories we have yet to find. Doris

    1. Makes you wonder what these poor women were getting away from, to volunteer to come to a hostile country where their chances of survival were so poor.

  3. Courageous or desperate women, or both. An intriguing blog. YOu ended with an interesting comment....only six women survived longer than six years in Jamestown.....did so many women die or did most of them leave for other destinations. I can imagine life was hard and sickness and childbirth took its toll.