Excerpt from America's Women by Gail Collins, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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America's Women

Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines

By Gail Collins

America's Women
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2003,
    556 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2004,
    592 pages.

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Jamestown was founded in 1607 by English investors hoping to make a profit on the fur and timber and precious ore they thought they were going to find. Its first residents were an ill-equipped crew of young men, many of them the youngest sons of good families, with no money but a vast sense of entitlement. The early colonists included a large number of gentlemen's valets, but almost no farmers. They regarded food as something that arrived in the supply ship, and nobody 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 usuall workes, bowling in the streetes.") The first women to arrive were the wife of one Thomas Forrest and her maid, Anne Burras. They came in 1608, the only women in a colony of around 200 misfits and mercenaries. The Jamestown that greeted them was a fort, about an acre in size, with a shopping district composed of one storehouse and a church that looked "like a barne," according to Captain John Smith. The homes were tumbledown shacks that one visitor said were inferior to the lowest cottage he had ever seen back in England.

There is no record of Mrs. Forrest's first name, or what she thought when she discovered that she was marooned in what must have seemed like a long, rowdy fraternity party, minus food. All we hear is a report that she had a baby during the "Starving Time" of 1609-10, which killed all but about 60 of the settlers out of a population of 20 women and 470 men. People gnawed on "Dogges & horses . . . together with Rates, mice, snakes," and one unnamed colonist killed his wife and turned her into dinner. He "fedd upon her till he had clean devoured all her partes," wrote another colonist, who added that the man was "burned for his horrible villany."

We don't know if Mrs. Forrest and her baby survived the winter, but her former maid, Anne Burras, did. Anne, who was only fourteen when she arrived, soon married a twenty-eight-year-old laborer in Virginia's first wedding ceremony and gave birth to a daughter-- another Virginia--who also lived through the famine. So did Temperance Flowerdew, a young woman who had arrived in Virginia in 1609, after surviving a hurricane at sea. The storm hit a small fleet of boats destined for the colony. One, the Sea Venture, was destroyed, her passengers shipwrecked in an uninhabited part of Bermuda for nearly a year, while the crew turned the wreckage into two smaller boats. The marooned men and women weathered their ordeal on a warm island filled with food, while Temperance and the other émigrés who made it to Virginia were foraging for scraps and cooking rats. But after that unpromising beginning, a number of the women did very well. Temperance was the wife of two of the colony's governors. The first, Captain George Yeardley, was knighted in 1618 and became one of the richest men in Virginia, with several plantations. He named one of them Flowerdew in honor of Lady Yeardley. After his death, Temperance, then about forty-two, married Captain Francis West, one of his successors. Joan Pierce and her young daughter, Jane, endured the long, hungry winter in Jamestown on their own while her husband, William, was stranded with the passengers on the Sea Venture. But after William finally made his way to the colony, he quickly became a wealthy planter. When Joan returned to England for a visit in 1629, she spent much of her time bragging about her garden in Jamestown and how she could "keep a better house in Virginia for 3 or 4 hundred pounds than in London." Her daughter Jane grew up to marry John Rolfe after the death of his wife, Pocahontas.

Pocahontas was the one Native American woman who had a starring role in the colonists' version of seventeenth-century history, although she suffers from having had her story told only from the point of view of Englishmen. Captain John Smith and the other early Virginia settlers tended to look upon her as a sort of colonial groupie, eager to befriend the Europeans and to become as much like them as possible. But they may have misread her entirely. Pocahontas was a member of her people's nobility, and while she obviously enjoyed the company of the new white-skinned arrivals, her actions may have been dictated more by diplomacy than affection. Her father, Powhatan, was a powerful chief of a confederacy of Algonquin tribes, an aggressive warrior who was one of the suspects in the destruction of Roanoke. Pocahontas was his favorite daughter. She first visited Jamestown when she was ten, and she became a familiar figure in the tiny, struggling colony. She was certainly a good and useful friend. Her help in getting the Indians to provide food to the starving and feckless colonists was, Smith wrote, the salvation of the settlement. When Powhatan ordered Smith beheaded for venturing too far into his territory, Pocahontas raced in and put her head next to his on the chopping block and successfully begged for mercy.

From America's Women by Gail Collins. Copyright © 2003 by Gail Collins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher, HarperCollins Publishers.

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