We learned haunting and currently relevant facts about our nation’s history while spending an early fall week in Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown. For those who founded this nation, opportunity trumped concern for personal safety. It staggers the imagination to think of people leaving the security of their familiar, comfortable homeland to build a new life for themselves in a strange and primitive land about which they knew almost nothing. Just how harsh and forbidding the challenges of this endeavor would turn out to be is measured by the fact that by 1610, three years after the Jamestown settlement’s founding, only 60 out of 500 of them survived. Such was the stuff our pioneer ancestors were made of, and such, as we know, drives the underprivileged from around the world today to reach far beyond their circumstances to realize their dream of a better life here in America.
We made day trips to both Jamestown and Yorktown, where the history was much older than in Williamsburg.
We were fortunate in that the Park Service ranger conducting our tour of Jamestown was knowledgeable, passionate, and enthusiastic about the many details of the life and trials of the first settlers. I was particularly struck by the fact that, even in the face of all the problems, the Virginia Company succeeded in recruiting 90 women to make the voyage to the new land to join the surviving men and boys who had been in the first wave of settlers. One of the rangers we heard discussing this in some detail was adamant in refuting the proffered explanation that these women had come to Virginia because they were too ugly to find a husband in England. He offered as evidence that this was not the case the fact was that these intrepid ladies were all married within one year, despite the fact that the lucky men who succeeded in winning their hands (in the four- or five-to-one competition) still had to obtain permission to marry them from the Virginia Company (the prospective wife’s employer) and had to be prosperous enough to reimburse the company for the cost of their passage. The ranger’s explanation for why these women braved the wilds of the New World was simple: coming from a working class background, they had little to no hope of marrying a man with land in England, while there was great opportunity to do just that in the colony, thereby improving her prospects and those of her children and grandchildren as well.