Author: Julie Richter

a lecturer in the Lyon G. Tyler Department of History at the College of William and Mary

Women in Colonial Virginia

The record of women in colonial Virginia begins with Native Americans and gradually includes European and African women. The experiences of these women differed widely depending on their ethnicity, their status, and the gender roles defined by their culture. In the colony’s early years, survival, not tradition, influenced the roles of men and women, whether white or black, free or unfree. Planters’ wives, indentured servants, and slaves labored in the tobacco fields alongside one another, while an unmarried woman with land could engage in business the same way a man might. As Jamestown grew from a fortified outpost into the capital of a permanent colony, colonists began to envision a stable society based on the patriarchal system they had known in England, where men held authority over their wives, children, and other dependents. But the uneven sex ratio, the scattered nature of settlement, the high mortality rate, and frequent remarriages made the transfer of such ideas difficult, if not impossible. Historians agree that a society with less emphasis on gender roles gradually ceded to the traditional patriarchal system, but the exact timing of this change is not entirely clear. By the mid-seventeenth century, the colony’s lawmakers began to use ideas about gender and race to codify two distinct roles for Virginia women: the so-called good wife, typically free and white, who performed domestic work in her home and raised her children; and the agricultural laborer, typically enslaved and black. By the end of the seventeenth century, members of the planter elite had separated themselves from the rest of Virginia’s residents with their landed wealth, enslaved laborers, and wives who managed their homes. Although middling women (women of moderate means) continued to work alongside their husbands in the fields and operate taverns and other businesses well into the eighteenth century, all classes of women became relegated to the private sphere while their husbands increasingly dominated the public world. By the end of the colonial period, women, whether rich or poor, urban or rural, were expected to skillfully manage a household and provide an example for their children—acts that bolstered patriarchal authority in colonial Virginia.


Jane Vobe (by 1733–1786)

Jane Vobe operated taverns in Williamsburg (1751–1785) and in Manchester, in Chesterfield County (1786). Little is known of Vobe’s life beyond what historians have gleaned from extant records, but her business was one of Williamsburg’s most successful. In 1765 a French traveler recorded in his diary that Vobe’s establishment was “where all the best people” stay; six years later, Vobe closed her tavern and opened another in 1772 in a different location in the Virginia capital. Politicians and military men often gathered at her tavern to discuss events related to the American Revolution (1775–1783). George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Nelson, and the Baron von Steuben were among her customers. After the Virginia capital moved to Richmond and the Revolution ended, Vobe relocated to Manchester, where she managed a tavern until her death, which was reported in 1786.


John Cheesman (ca. 1598–by 1665)

John Cheesman served as a member of the House of Burgesses in 1643 and the governor’s Council from 1652 until an unknown date. Cheesman, a merchant, traveled to Virginia in 1621 and settled in what became Elizabeth City County. By the 1630s he had acquired more than 1,000 acres of land in what became York County, where he served as a justice of the peace and a lieutenant colonel in the county militia. York County voters elected him to the House of Burgesses for the session that met in 1643. Cheesman was elected to the governor’s Council on April 30, 1652, after Virginia surrendered to Parliament and acknowledged the authority of the Commonwealth government of England. He returned to England in 1660.


Christiana Campbell (ca. 1723–1792)

Christiana Campbell was a tavern-keeper in Williamsburg from 1755 until the late 1770s. Campbell, who was raised in Williamsburg, opened her tavern to support herself and her two daughters after her husband died in 1752. For more than twenty years she ran one of Williamsburg’s most successful businesses. On the eve of the American Revolution (1775–1783), the colony’s leaders periodically met at Campbell’s tavern to discuss their connections with England and whether they should seek independence. Campbell evidently closed her tavern in the late 1770s, and, at some point after October 8, 1787, relocated to Fredericksburg, where she died in 1792.


Christopher Calthorpe (ca. 1560–1662)

Christopher Calthorpe became a successful early settler in Virginia. He arrived in 1622 and lived with the colony’s treasurer, George Sandys. He stumbled in his first few years, but Calthorpe began purchasing land at decade’s end. He became a captain of the local militia and ended his career as a colonel. Calthorpe represented York and Elizabeth City counties in the House of Burgesses before leaving Virginia in 1660 or 1661.