My 9th Great Grandmother Was A “Mail-Order Bride”

My 9th Great Grandmother, Elizabeth Powell was born in 1599, in Lancaster County, England. She was the daughter of John Powell and an unknown mother. Not much is known about her life up until she emigrated to Jamestown aboard the ship “Neptune” in 1618, at the age of 19. Her father had died when she was 16 and it is also unknown if she had any family to live with.

The financial obstacles to marriage in 17th-century England hindered single people from being able to marry. Securing a home and setting up a domestic household were expensive. Unless they were born into wealth, most men and women needed to amass a significant nest egg before they could marry. For working-class Englishwomen, this typically meant years of domestic service. Many found the prospect of scrubbing other people’s floors and chamber pots less than appealing. Marital immigration offered an attractive alternative.

The Virginia Company offered substantial incentives to the women who signed up to leave England for Jamestown. They were provided a dowry of clothing, linens, and other furnishings, free transportation to the colony, and even a plot of land. They were also promised their pick of wealthy husbands and provided with food and shelter while they made their decision. The women entertained dozens of eager suitors before eventually determining which one they would marry.

After a husband was chosen, he would reimburse the Virginia Company for the travel expenses, furnishings, and land with 120 pounds of “good leaf” tobacco. This is roughly equivalent to $5,000 in today’s currency—an amount that only the relatively well-off could afford to part with. The tobacco payment was intended to cover the cost of the woman’s passage to Virginia and is why the Jamestown brides are sometimes referred to as “tobacco wives.” It is also why the women are frequently accused of having been sold. I wonder if this practice is what prompted real mail order brides in future generations.

Elizabeth found herself in this position. So she agreed to make the trip to Virginia Colony to find a husband. The arriving brides had full control over their marital choice, and the Company even accepted the possibility that with this freedom a woman might “unwarily or fondly … bestow her self” on a man who didn’t have enough wealth to put up 120 pounds of tobacco. If that happened, the Company simply requested that the man pay them back if and when he was able to do so. At first the women came over in small groups, but later there would be ships full arriving.

When Elizabeth landed, she would have been taken to a house to live with other unmarried women. There is no record of who may have courted her but what I do know is that she chose Thomas Garnett who came to America in 1609 aboard the “Swan”. He came as an “indentured servant” to one Captain William Powell. Thomas Garnett is my maternal 9th Grandfather. The interesting part is that Captain William Powell is my paternal 9th Grandfather. Thomas worked for 10 years to pay off his debt. Once he did this, he married Elizabeth Powell (no relation to William). Thomas had been given some land and tobacco at the time he was released from servant hood. They had 3 children, 2 sons, and 1 daughter. Elizabeth died in 1650, at the age of 52 years old. Thomas proceeded her in 1635, dying at the age of 50.

It must have been a strange and frightening experience for Elizabeth. First to leave all that she knew in England, then making the long trip to Virginia, and then having to choose a husband. Truly amazing!

I am a professional genealogist, writer, photographer, wife, mother, and grandma. I have two books available on Your Family History: Doing It Right the First Time and Planning Your Genealogy Research Trip. You can also connect with me via Facebook or Twitter.

9 thoughts on “My 9th Great Grandmother Was A “Mail-Order Bride”

  1. I didn’t know setting up a household was so expensive in the 17th century. I’m glad your 9th great grandmother had such a good experience being a mail order bride.

  2. I had no idea mail order brides happened so early…you did lose me, however – did Elizabeth marry both Thomas and William? Did Thomas die first? It’s early in them morning…maybe I just need more coffee 😀

    1. Sorry for the confusion. Elizabeth only married Thomas. I only mentioned William in this blog because Thomas had come to Jamestown to be his indentured servant and I found it fascinating that Thomas is my Grandfather on my maternal side and William is my Grandfather on my paternal side.

  3. This is so interesting Val. I don’t know much about US history so I’ve never heard of prospective brides being brought over in this way. Thanks for telling the story #geneabloggers

  4. This is fascinating — I absolutely love genealogy and all the things that can be found out and learned along the way. I did a bit for my husband and found a relative (if I did it correctly) that sailed to Jamestown in the early 1600s. Thanks so much for sharing!

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