IX. Family Life
If a married man or woman died, the surviving spouse often remarried within months – and the death of young adults was so common that only one out of every three married couples in early Virginia reached their ten-year anniversary. Because households desperately needed the labor of both men and women, the loss of a spouse was a huge blow. Widows, however, were sought as brides, even more than never-married women. Many colonial men (including George Washington) deliberately sought out widows who brought property and even children to the union. This also encouraged rapid upward mobility for some women. With the skewed sex ratio, a woman could remarry someone more prominent than her previous husband and thus enjoy a higher social standard.
The high mortality rate and practice of rapid remarriage produced complex family structures. Families were intricate mixtures of step-parents, half-siblings, step-siblings, and step-children from previous marriages. Temperance Flowerdew Yeardley is a good example. Her husband, Governor George Yeardley, died in 1627. Within a year of his death, she married his successor, Governor Francis West, and thus continued in the role of first lady of Virginia. In this quick remarriage, Temperance West was fairly typical for a woman of her time.
Jamestown families were generally patriarchal, which meant that theoretically fathers would choose the marriage partners for their daughters. But conditions in the early years were such that young women often made their own choices -- especially if, for example, their fathers were dead or back in England. The relatively high status of Virginia women also led to situations in which many men’s wills were more generous to their wives than the law required. Because land was plentiful, daughters in Virginia had a much greater chance of inheriting land than they would have in England. Women also acquired enhanced legal power after their husbands’ deaths. It was not unusual for a woman to be named executrix of a will, giving her control of property at least until the oldest male heir was of age.