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Wife of a Planter

Most men in colonial Maryland became planters, thus most women became plantersí wives. A typical planterís wife in early Maryland probably first came to the colony as an indentured servant. Most women who came to the Chesapeake did not come as part of a family. Many hoped to make a better life for themselves in the New World by marrying a wealthier man who could acquire land and provide for a family.

A woman was probably between 18 and 25 years old when she first arrived in the colony, but she was not free to marry right away. Because most women did not have the money to pay for their passage to America, they became indentured servants who usually worked for a master for four or five years to pay off the cost of their voyage. Women who worked for wealthy families probably worked as house servants, but less well-off families often needed their female servants to help in the fields, growing tobacco or corn. This would be new and different for women coming to Maryland, because English women did not typically do field work.

Women also risked becoming very sick or even dying from a number of new illnesses that settlers encountered in the New World. But if they survived their first few years, they had a good chance of finding a husband who could help provide for and protect them, and most women married when they reached their mid-20s. Because a lot more men than women came to Maryland, there were plenty of potential husbands. This gave women a little more power than women in England, often allowing them to increase their social status.

Some men were so desperate for a wife that they paid a female servantís master for her time so she was free to marry before she had served her full term. But once free, life was not easy for most women. Either she or her husband was likely to die within seven years of their marriage. She would probably have three or four children, but only two of these would live to be adults because of the harsh conditions in the colony and poor medical knowledge.

As the wife of a planter, a woman might still have to help in the fields if her husband wasnít rich enough to hire a servant. But she would spend most of her time preparing food and running the household. Cooking required much more work back then. In order to make a loaf of bread, a woman had to shell the corn from the ears, pound the corn into flour, and then use the flour to make bread. She would also have to make her own butter and cheese using the milk from the familyís cows.

Chances were that she would die before she was 43 years old. Life was hard for those who first came to Maryland, but some women were still better off than they had been in England.

SOURCES:
  • Carr, Lois Green and Lorena S. Walsh. "A Planter's Wife: The Experience of White Women in Seventeenth Century (17th) Maryland." Williamsburg, VA, Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1977.
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