III. More Women Arrive
Not many more names are known, but even the nameless women live on in the history of Jamestown. George Percy, one of the original Jamestown settlers, recounts the story of a young pregnant woman. He says that during the “starving time,” a man “murdered his wife Ripped the childe outt of her woambe and threw itt into the River and after chopped the Mother in pieces and salted her for his foode.” (3) The crime was taken seriously, and the man was executed, but John Smith wrote flippantly about the event saying, “now whether shee was better roasted, boyled or carbonado'd, I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard.”(4)
The “starving time” occurred in the winter of 1609-1610. John Smith wrote that “of 500 [people], within 6 monthes after there remained not many more than 60.” (5) When new settlers landed, many immediately became sick with malaria caused by James River mosquitoes or with dysentery due to poor sanitation. These diseases not only decimated their numbers but also left survivors too weak to work. Food rations from the Virginia Company were soon consumed, and the settlement was in danger of extinction. At this time, scarcely more than one hundred women had sailed to the colony. By the time the population was reduced to sixty, only a few women remained. Jamestown was in crisis.
Virginia Company managers realized that the lack of women and families threatened the long-term stability of the company’s investment. Women, they reasoned, would give men the motivation to view their trans-Atlantic move as permanent rather than as merely a gold-seeking adventure. Women also could perform the necessary tasks of cooking, laundering, sewing, and cleaning more capably than men. Many of Jamestown’s serious problems were directly related to male refusal to perform such “feminine” tasks – and their lack of knowledge of how to do this essential work well. Therefore, for Jamestown to become permanent and livable, women would have to be recruited.