Audacious Foremothers Part II: Anne Burras
The most important woman in early American history you’ve never heard of is Anne Burras.
In fact, you’ve probably never heard of most of the intrepid women who were the first European colonists in what is now the US.
We’ve heard of John Smith. We’ve heard of Captain Miles Standish of the Plymouth Colony. We’ve heard of Squanto and William Bradford and a few other men.
But where are the women?
They were in Jamestown, down in Virginia, and had been since 1608.
Thanks to those story tellers over at Disney, at least we all have heard of Pocahontas. We know that she was a beloved daughter of Chief Powhatan, and while her romance with John Smith is debatable, there is no doubt that she married John Rolfe and journeyed with him to England.
Sadly, in England she died, although her son with Rolfe, Thomas, survived.
But for some reason, we know next to nothing about the first English women to settle in the New World.
This is not surprising given that until recently, many women were illiterate as worst and semi literate at best. Nor do we do we find women in the records historians commonly rely on – contracts, journals, correspondence, deeds, manifests, supply lists and account books. For women, these records simply do not exist, either because women were not involved in commercial transactions, or had neither the time nor the capacity to record their lives on paper.
But we do know a bit about the first women and some of their stories are truly audacious.
Take little Anne Burras.
Anne Burras was one of the first two English women to settle in Jamestown. For those who learned the Plymouth Foundation Myth (you know, the one about Pilgrims seeking religious freedom who landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusettes and celebrated the first Thanksgiving with the Wampanoag Indians), Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. Located in southern Virginia on the James River near the widest part of the Chesapeake Bay, Jamestown was a commercial venture and was established in 1607 by a group of hardy – but ill prepared – men.
Anne arrived a year later in September 1608. She traveled as a maid to Mistress Thomas Forrest (nee Margaret Foxe). Mistress Forrest accompanied her husband, Thomas Forrest, a gentleman adventurer. Records indicate Anne was 14 when she arrived.
Within three months of the ladies’ arrival in Jamestown, Anne married fellow settler John Laydon. John Smith records this wedding as the first Christian marriage in Virginia.
Anne and John’s union is an interesting turn of events. It is unlikely that Mistress Forrest would have consented to this marriage so soon after their arrival. First, there would have been no one to replace Anne and a woman of standing and reputation would not have coped well without assistance. Second – and perhaps more importantly – Thomas Forrest would have paid for Anne’s passage and Anne would have been committed to her duties for a period of some years.
Mistress Forrest, however, disappears from the historical record – as does Thomas Forrest for a few years until he reappears some time later in Maryland. In 1997, however, a female skeleton was discovered at the site of the Jamestown Colony. Forensic examination indicates that this could be the body of Mistress Forrest.
If Mistress Forrest did indeed die within a few months of her arrival in Virginia, it seems likely that Anne would have faced a stark choice: marry a colonist or return to England.
Anne chose to stay.
This is a remarkable decision for a number of reasons. For starters, the Jamestown colony was hardly an attractive place to live. Unlike England, with its green and pleasant countryside, well tended gardens and relative security, Virginia was a wild and undisciplined place for the English settlers. The plant life was unfamiliar. The native peoples were often hostile. There were no shops to supply much needed items such as needles, ground flour, or candles. Food was scarce. In fact, during her first winter in Virginia, called The Starving Time, upwards of 90% of the colonists died of illness or starvation.
It was hardly a place for a teenage girl.
But Anne was made of sterner stuff and the opportunities open to her undoubtedly swayed her decision to stay. Back in England, Anne may have been able to secure another position as a lady’s maid (presuming she survived the sea voyage which was certainly no guarantee). Eventually she may have married and had a family of her own.
But despite its comfort and familiarity, England was also a prison for most women. Women could not hold property in their own name. Any property they had would have belonged first to their father or male guardian and would have passed to her husband once she married.
Nor could a woman trade, enter a profession or sue in court. She was economically dependent on male relatives for everything. Should her male relatives abandon her for whatever reason – if perhaps her father passed away and her surviving male kin decided to cut her loose – a woman had few options available to her.
In fact – though we do know this – it is possible that Anne agreed to travel to Virginia for just these reasons.
In Virigina, things were different. In an effort to encourage people to sign on with the company and immigrate to a wild and distant land, the Virginia Company offered a number of incentives, not the least of which was a grant of land for both men and women who survived a period of indenture to the company.
Despite the incredible hardships of those early years – hunger, the near constant threat of attack by native people, disease, privation, cold, loneliness and a general malaise and discomfort that hung over everything, it is possible that Anne weighed up her options and decided that the promise of land ownership – of property that could generate income and could sustain her and any children she may have with no need to remarry or rely on male relatives ever again – was enough to convince her to stay.
Anne and John survived that winter of starvation and went on to have 4 daughters. Anne was listed in the census of 1624, as was John and their daughters.
We loose Anne to the mists of time at this point. Her story still inspires me, however. As an immigrant myself, I know how difficult it is to leave the comforts and security of friends, family and all that is warm and familiar. I know what it is like to be absent from loved ones and to try to forge a life in a new and confusing place.
I cannot imagine what it is like to journey to a land where there are no other women, where there are no pharmacists when someone falls ill, and where there is no shop to supply necessities like ground flour and soap.
Where there are no homes. Or streets. Or tilled fields full of ripening corn and vegetables to feed you through the winter.
I cannot imagine a place where there is nothing but what you carry on your back and scratch from the ground.
Anne Burras was the first. She was the only woman in Jamestown until 1609 when the Third Supply ships arrived. She survived a bitter winter with no food and she and her husband went on to settle on 200 acres of land and raise a family.
If there was ever a woman who deserved the title Audacious, it is she. Anne Burras is a name that all Americans should know.
Hopefully, someday, we will.
What would it take for you to immigrate to a new place where there were no home comforts or even indoor plumbing? Could you become a colonist? Comment below:
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