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Then Comes Marriage?: A Cultural History of the American Family

Then Comes Marriage?: A Cultural History of the American Family

by Rebecca Price Janney

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Fifty years ago, the average young couple married and had children before age thirty. Dad worked outside the home; Mom dedicated herself to child-rearing and housekeeping. If the couple could afford it, they lived in one of the new suburbs springing up like installed shrubbery around cities from coast to coast. Father Knows Best, here we come.

But the 1950s


Fifty years ago, the average young couple married and had children before age thirty. Dad worked outside the home; Mom dedicated herself to child-rearing and housekeeping. If the couple could afford it, they lived in one of the new suburbs springing up like installed shrubbery around cities from coast to coast. Father Knows Best, here we come.

But the 1950s vision of an ideal family is neither the first nor the last word in American marriage. In this fascinating new survey, historian Rebecca Price Janney traces changing mores and practices surrounding marriage and family life from colonial times until today. Along the way, she examines oft-overlooked communities-Native Americans, slaves, nineteenth-century immigrants, and others-all of whom have contributed to our nation's ongoing family drama.

The resulting history is both messier-and more inspiring-than readers may expect.

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Moody Publishers
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Then Comes Marriage?

A Cultural History of the American Family

By Rebecca Price Janney, Elizabeth Newenhuyse

Moody Publishers

Copyright © 2010 Rebecca Price Janney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57567-933-4


The English Colonies

THE LIFE OF A LATE sixteenth-century English laborer and his wife followed a predictable path. Once a oman married in Elizabethan England, she passed from the protection of her father's home to that of her new husband. She mainly looked after the domestic affairs of her household while her husband became the main provider of an income. Each of them had a clearly defined role to fulfill, something that provided a measure of stability in an age when disease could suddenly claim a life, or economic or political conditions change one's fortunes with no prior warning. When Eleanor White married Ananias Dare as a young woman, she agreed to be an obedient spouse who faithfully served her husband's interests, but she never could have imagined the course that their lives would take or that she would have an impact on history as she lived out her pledge.

If her life had followed the usual blueprint, Eleanor White Dare would have lived and died in obscurity. As it turned out, however, she and her family played a starring role in America's founding.

She was part of a restless culture at a time when middle-class people were trying to break free from antique social rules and make decent livings for themselves in a more modern and adventurous milieu. Britain under Queen Elizabeth I was eager to establish supremacy in the New World as its chief rivals Spain and France also vied to establish colonies there. There was a feeling that Britain's birthright was glory, although her debtors' prisons bulged, and second sons strove to make a mark denied them by their birth order. Unemployment was high, and many families, burdened by religious convention, yearned to break free. In that place and time the dominant attitude was that religion should be observed, that it kept society well oiled, but that it had a specific place. Zeal and nonconformity were discouraged, even punished.

In 1585, Eleanor Dare's father, John White, sailed with Richard Grenville's expedition to the North Carolina coast as an artist who would capture images of the New World. He served along with 107 other men as they tried to establish a military outpost to claim that territory for Queen Elizabeth ahead of the Spanish, who were active farther to the southeast. Upon his return to England, White shared his enthusiasm for the Roanoke colony with his daughter and her husband; it is unclear who his wife was, but it would seem that she had died by this time. Some believe that White was part of a separatist movement, a dissident from the organized form of religion that ruled the day, thus vulnerable to restrictive rules and regulations.

Perhaps that is why he was able to persuade his pregnant daughter and her husband to sail back with him in 1587. Whatever the primary reason, it took extraordinary courage and commitment to leave everything familiar to pursue a completely unknown and unpredictable future.

It is hard to imagine making a trip across the Atlantic Ocean in a rustic sailing vessel at all, let alone pregnant. Eleanor shared hermisery with another mother-to-be, Margery Harvey, and fifteen other women, eleven children, and eight-seven men whose purpose was to recreate the best of English culture in the wilderness. Some men went without their wives and daughters, going either by themselves or with sons to prepare the way for the others to come when conditions were in a more advanced state.

John White served as the governor of the new colony, but Simon Fernandez was in charge of the expedition itself, a privateer who engaged in several skirmishes with rivals, thus delaying the convoy's arrival by several weeks. Once they finally landed on Roanoke Island, the weary colonists faced sickness, food shortages, and unstable relations with the Native Americans. If they worked hard, however, the money and labor they invested would pay off in the sum of five hundred acres per family to begin a new life in a new world.

Although the colonists had little time for play, they did celebrate the birth of the first English child to be born on American soil when Eleanor Dare presented her husband with a baby girl, Virginia—after the Virgin Queen—on August 18. Shortly afterward, Margery Harvey delivered a child whose sex and name were not recorded. Because of a dire need for more supplies, Governor White returned to England days after the birth of his granddaughter, but only after great duress and pleading from other leaders of the colony who believed that only he had enough clout to make their case before the Queen and her court. Because the colonists planned to move further inland during his time away, they arranged for a signal to inform White of their whereabouts. Although he intended to return as quickly as possible, he ended up being delayed by three years because of England's military campaign against the Spanish Armada.

When he arrived back in America on Virginia Dare's third birthday, White discovered that the colonists had neatly buried his armor, books, and pictures, but they themselves were gone. He found the word CROATOAN carved on a post, indicating the place where their native guide Manteo came from, along with the inscription CRO on a tree. He did not find a Maltese cross, which would have been a sign that they had been in danger. Because of problems with the ships and severe weather conditions, White's party was unable to find his countrymen, who vanished into history as "the lost colony." He lived the rest of his days in England and Ireland, no doubt grieved over the loss of his family, much more than for his vision to colonize the New World.


The Reverend Richard Hakluyt spent fifty years of his life preaching throughout England about the necessity to establish an English colony in America. An advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, then to her successor James after 1603, the Anglican vicar steadfastly urged the British to send emissaries to the New World to introduce the Native Americans to Jesus Christ. For a time after the Roanoke debacle, his pleas fell upon mostly deaf ears. As the memory of that disaster faded, however, some began to listen, among them investors who thought an American colony would increase personal and national revenue, fend off Spanish control of America, provide opportunities for many restless young Britons, be a market for English goods, and provide much-needed lumber for the royal navy. There were others, however, men and women with a passion for Christ, who wanted to bring hope to those living in spiritual darkness.

English pastors exhorted their congregations to pray that God would send laborers into that ripe field to bring about "the salvation of countless thousands of miserable Indians." The new king shared this impulse; in his royal charter for the establishment of a permanent English colony in America, James I proclaimed in language that seems offensive today because of its assessment of the Native Americans, that the settlers would bring about "the propagating of Christian religion to such people as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God, and may in time bring the infidels and savages, living in these parts, to human civility and to a settled and quiet government."

A pastor whom Richard Hakluyt greatly influenced in this direction began to dream of going to America himself to spread the news of salvation in Christ. The vicar for Reculver, Kent, the Reverend Robert Hunt lived a settled life with his wife, Elizabeth Edwards Hunt, and their son and daughter. Some speculate that his marriage may not have been a happy one because he so strongly desired to go to America, but it seems more likely that his fervor to evangelize the first Americans was sincere. He would not be taking his family with him, as some men had done on the Roanoke venture. Rather, this expedition, which left just before Christmas 1606, would bring only men, 104 of them, to "Jamestown," most of whom were not even heads of families who would later join them.

Hunt suffered badly on the interminable voyage from England, one that took five months to complete because severe weather kept the boats from venturing out into the open sea for many weeks. When the travelers at last journeyed across the Atlantic, constant bickering and depleted supplies plagued their relationships, with Hunt serving as an intermediary and peacemaker. At last they arrived on the Virginia coast in late April, but Hunt advised that they not disembark until each man had had an opportunity to reflect upon his spiritual condition and repent of his sins. At that point, he led a small band onto the shore where they planted a seven foot oak cross and claimed the land for God and the spread of the gospel.

By that fall, only fifty men had survived the brutally hot summer weather and the strange diseases that claimed many lives. When cooler temperatures prevailed and the harvest came in, hope revived. A frequent visitor to their fort was a young Indian princess named Pocahontas, the beloved daughter of the powerful chief Powhatan. Given her innocent age, she was able to serve as an intermediary between the English and her people, as well as to supply them with food and, in December, help save the life of brash Captain John Smith, who'd been slated for execution. It is possible that the impressionable young lady had a crush on the suave Englishman, but as far as romance goes, she reserved her greatest love for another, and in that was one of America's first love stories.

In spite of a devastating fire in January of 1608 in which the church, palisades, storehouse, and many cabins were lost—including most of the Reverend Hunt's valuables—the colony persisted. Shortly after the conflagration, however, the clergyman died of illness, a loss that the men mourned deeply. Back in England, his wife quickly remarried, which was entirely respectable for that era because people tended to die young; she went on to have six more children.

In October, seventy more colonists arrived, among them two women, a Mistress Forrest and her maid, Ann Burras. According to Gail Collins,

The Jamestown that greeted them was a fort, about an acre in size, with a shopping district composed of one storehouse and a church that looked "like a barne," according to Captain John Smith. The homes were tumbledown shacks that one visitor said were inferior to the lowest cottage he had ever seen back in England. There is no record of Mrs. Forrest's first name, or what she thought when she discovered that she was marooned in what must have seemed like a long, rowdy fraternity party, minus food.

It isn't clear why Forrest's husband financed this journey, but Ann quickly entered matrimony with carpenter John Laydon, who was eager for female companionship. Theirs was "the first recorded English marriage on the soil of the United States." Jamestown remained a poor place to raise a family for several years; in the summer of 1609, four hundred more colonists arrived, but they were infected with diseases and bad reputations. Conditions became so poor that plans were put in place to abandon the settlement, which had gone from five hundred people all the way down to just sixty due to malnutrition, illness, and hostilities with Indians that had "destroyed morale and reduced the men to scavengers." Not exactly a family-friendly place.

The leadership of Sirs Thomas Dale and Thomas Gates helped to restore order, largely through martial law. From six to ten in the morning, then again from two to four in the afternoons, everyone had to work. Another improvement came about through the marriage of colonist John Rolfe and the now marriageable Pocahontas. Rolfe fell in love with the young maiden, and he yearned to bring about her salvation; she was baptized and took the name Rebecca. Both Governor Dale and Powhatan gave their consent, each believing that the union would help to enhance the relationship between the English and the Native Americans, which it did. The two were married in April 1614. There has been speculation that had more intermarriage occurred, hostilities between the two groups might have largely been averted. The English, however, felt squeamish about interracial relationships.

In 1616, Rebecca Rolfe gave birth to a son, Thomas, and the family returned to England the following year to drum up greater support for colonization. While they were there, Rebecca became a favorite of royal society; in fact, King James was initially incensed that her husband had presumed to marry such a royal woman, who was clearly outside of his class. When he heard the entire love story, however, he relented. In 1617, while preparing to return to America, Rebecca became ill with smallpox and died in England at twenty-one. Her husband and son would go without her. John was killed in an Indian massacre in 1622, shortly after Powhatan died and the old alliances began to unravel. Thomas, it is said, became one of the founding families of Virginia.

By the time of the Pocahontas-Rolfe romance, Jamestown was in urgent need of a woman's touch if a permanent settlement was going to happen. If the men who had gone to America had family ties there, it was reasoned, they simply wouldn't make their money and return to England. Instead, they would make their homes—English homes—in America, thus strengthening the entire venture with permanence and stability. In 1619, the first "bride ships" arrived in Jamestown with single women of good character who would be available to marry the men who had been so long without (chaste) female companionship. No other arrangement would have been acceptable in that place and time, such as living together outside of wedlock.

Back in England, many more men than women had died during a plague epidemic, which meant that the prospects for marriage had tightened considerably for the females. One way to get more colonists to go to America was to advertise back in England that if they would come to Jamestown, women could easily find mates. One ad read, "If any Maid or single Woman have a desire to go over, they will think themselves in the Golden Age, when Men paid a Dowry for their Wives; for if they be but civil, and under 50 years of Age, some honest Man or other will purchase them for their Wives."

Two types of females emigrated, those ready for immediate matrimony and those who signed on for seven years of indentured servitude, women of about twenty years of age who would receive their freedom in addition to some land at the end of that tenure. These women found themselves in a four-to-one ratio with the men, giving them far better prospects than they had known in England. A Jamestown colonist who ordered a bride from England through the Virginia Company could expect to pay between 120-150 pounds in tobacco for her expenses.

Women in Jamestown may have found it easy to find a mate, but a hard life awaited them overall. Their duties, whether they were married or single, involved laundry (in an age with no packaged cleansing agents or machines), cooking, cleaning, raising and harvesting food, and sewing, usually when the tools to make those jobs doable were in short supply. A single woman was also expected to be involved in tobacco farming since virtually everyone lived on farms, and labor was hard to come by. Says Gail Collins,

"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."

When in 1999 the remains of Mistress Forrest were exhumed, the condition of her skeleton at death bore witness to the harshness of life in Jamestown Colony. She had been only thirty-five when she died, yet she had only five teeth left. Although divorce was practically unheard of, if a couple ended up in an unhappy union, it probably didn't last all that long anyway, the average marriage being about seven years. At that point, either the husband or wife died, leaving the spouse free to remarry, which usually happened. In the early seventeenth century in the Chesapeake region, the mortality rate was around 80 percent. Collins says this 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."


As Jamestown stabilized, Christians back in England who disagreed with the official Anglican Church's resemblance to Roman Catholicism faced economic displacement and prejudice, harassment by the authorities, arrest, and sometimes imprisonment. Some highly educated believers known as Puritans believed that the Church could be reformed, and they set about to do this from within the existing framework of Anglicanism. They emphasized that faith alone, not good works, resulted in salvation of sin and the attainment of heaven, in addition to personal Bible study and a simplicity of worship. Out of their numbers a different group arose known as Pilgrims, men and women who maintained that the Anglican Church was too far gone to be renewed. Initially those "separatists" fled to Holland to pursue their faith, but after a dozen years of never being able to rise above menial employment and subsistent living, they decided to pursue a better life in America. There they could live out their simple faith as a shining city on a hill for all the world to see, even as they took the message of Christ to the Native Americans.


Excerpted from Then Comes Marriage? by Rebecca Price Janney, Elizabeth Newenhuyse. Copyright © 2010 Rebecca Price Janney. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

DR. REBECCA PRICE JANNEY is a theologically trained historian and the author of 18 books including Who Goes There: A Cultural History of Heaven and Hell, Great Women in American History, Great Stories in American History, Harriet Tubman, and two young adult series as well as hundreds of articles in magazines and newspapers. She began writing professionally as a teenager when she covered the Philadelphia Phillies for a New Jersey newspaper. A graduate of Lafayette College, and Princeton Seminary, Rebecca received her D. Min. from Biblical Seminary. She resides with her husband and son in suburban Philadelphia.

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