Life was precarious. At least 6,000 people came to Virginia between 1607 and 1624, by 1625, only 1,200 surivivors were still there. Large numbers of people died of malaria. In 1622, 347 settlers lost their lives in an Indian attack.
There was a shortage of female settlers, so marriageable women were recruited from England to go out to Virginia as 'tobacco brides. When they married, their husbands had to repay the company with 120 pounds of good leaf tobacco. The first shipment of 90 tobacco brides arrived in 1620. The youngest, Jane Dier, was fifteen or sixteen when she left England. The oldest was Allice Burges, at twenty-eight, said to be skillful in the art of brewing beer - important in a place where the water was generally undrinkable.
Some women came to Virginia as indentured servants, bound to service for a certain number of years, and then to be freed at the end of their term (though about a quarter of the indentured servants died before their time was up). Indentured servants could be very brutally treated by their masters and mistresses, and it was difficult to get legal protection. The law most often tended to side with the masters, no matter how harsh they were.
Almost everyone lived on a farm - the whole point of the colonial dream was to get your own land and grow a profitable cash crop like tobacco. The farms were almost all isolated, surrounded by endless forests, down winding waterways without any real roads to connect them. Plantation owners were forced to be away from home for long periods of time on business, and they often depended on their wives, or even daughters, to drain swamps, tend cattle, cultivate the tobacco, and otherwise manage things while they were gone.
It was virtually impossible to get a divorce, but thanks to the malarial swamps, few people wound up married for life. The average union ended with the death of one partner within about seven years. During the first half of the seventeenth century, the mortality rate in the Chesapeake was about 80 percent. It created patchwork families made up of widows, widowers, and several degrees of stepchildren. People developed new terms for their father's "now-wife" or their "new husband's children". Men who made it through their first year in the Chesapeake could claim the title of "seasoned", but their life expectancy was still only about forty-five years. The colonies were crowded with widows, many of the managing large estates. Nearly a third of the children in the Chesapeake region lost at least one parent by the age of nine, and a quarter were completely orphaned by the time they reached eighteen.
Few women stayed single long in the South: some went through five or six husbands. (One minister sued a newly married couple for his fee - for performing both the marriage service and the funeral of the bride's first husband a few days earlier). Some women built large estates through their serial marriages, moving up in the world with every widowhood.
Over a quarter of the early male settlers in the Chesakpeake never managed to find a wife, and women were very aware of the advantage the skewed gender ratio gave them. Men complained bitterly about hard-hearted and evasive women, and Virginia passed a law prohibiting women from promising themselves to more than one suitor In 1624, Eleanor Spragg was sentenced to apologise before her church congreation for the "offence of contracting herself to...several men at one time." In 1687, William Rascow was so insecure about his fiancee, Sarah Harrison, that he got her to sign an oath promising not to marry anybody else. Oath notwithstanding, Sarah dumped Rascow for James Blair, who she married in a ceremony that did not include the promise to "obey".
'America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines' by Gail Collins