In 1619, the Jamestown colony—North America’s first permanent English settlement—consisted mostly of single men looking to get rich. For the Virginia Company, this presented a problem: how to keep it growing when few single English women wanted to venture into the struggling colony? The solution it came up with was to pay women’s passage to Jamestown so they could marry its bachelors.

The Jamestown brides program attracted 90 women who came over in 1620 and another 56 who came over in late 1621 and early 1622.

Jamestown Brides
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Wives of settlers arriving at Jamestown.

Without these women—later known as “tobacco wives”—the Virginia Company was concerned that the 12-year-old colony wouldn’t survive. Unlike the Puritans who would soon settle in New England colonies with their families, the men in Jamestown didn’t have families to keep them in the Americas permanently, says Marcia A. Yablon-Zug, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and author of Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches.

Many Jamestown settlers would “come to the colony, make their fortune, and go home to get married,” she says. A small portion abandoned “the colony to go live in the Indian villages, where obviously there were plenty of women and life was better.” This latter outcome was especially troubling to English religious leaders, who preached sermons about “the sexual availability of the Indian women,” she says.

“Obviously there are women in Virginia, they’re just not white women,” Yablon-Zug continues. “The Jamestown brides were supposed to be sort of the antidote to that.”

The Virginia Company advertised that if English women agreed to come to Jamestown in search of a husband, the company would loan them clothing, transportation and a plot of land. In Jamestown, they could have their pick of wealthy bachelors. Once they chose a husband, he would reimburse the Virginia Company for her expenses with 120 to 150 pounds of “good leaf” tobacco.

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An illustration of the arrival of the first women to the Jamestown colony.

This exchange helped earn these women the nickname “tobacco wives,” and has also led to allegations that the Virginia Company “sold” these women. However, unlike the Africans who began arriving in Jamestown in 1619, no one bought or sold these English women. In fact, for women who couldn’t afford a good dowry to attract a husband, becoming a tobacco wife was a fairly attractive option.

“Women of all classes except the vagrant poor attempted to amass a dowry to attract a husband,” writes Nancy Egloff, a historian at the Jamestown Settlement in Williamsburg, Virginia (Jamestown’s new Tenacity exhibit highlights the tobacco wives as part of a 400-year commemoration of significant events in 1619). “However, it seems that if a family sent their daughter overseas, they absolved themselves of the need to provide a dowry for [her].”

Little is know about the first group of 90 brides, but Egloff says that some of the 56 women in the second group had lost both of their parents, meaning that they didn’t have a good chance of amassing a suitable dowry to entice a husband. At least 16 women in this second group had worked “in service” to other English households in order to amass a dowry, meaning that they hadn’t had a good one in the first place.

Choosing to become a tobacco wife certainly came with risks. After all, these women were joining a settlement that was violently forcing Native people off of their own land, and those people were fighting back.

“It’s hard to say how many [tobacco wives] survived… Once they got here, the record often will just dry up,” Elgoff says. “Some of them were killed in the 1622 Indian attack, but some of them were taken prisoner in that attack too, and then were ransomed back again.” Many Jamestown settlers also died from starvation and disease.

Even so, the Virginia Company’s offer seemed like a good deal for English women who didn’t have any good marriage prospects at home. Most of the women who sailed to Jamestown through the program married a man within three months. Although many Americans today may think it odd to marry a stranger that quickly, it wasn’t unusual at the time.

“It’s something that a lot of people are fascinated with, the idea of promising to marry a stranger,” Yablon-Zug says. “It’s so antithetical to how we view marriage these days… [But] what these women were doing wasn’t that different than what they would probably have done if they stayed home.” Marriage in 17th century Britain was an economic necessity, and in “most cases, they weren’t going to be marrying for love anyway.”