From Chelmsford to Jamestown: the story of a bartered Essex bride

Can you help trace the family of a young Essex woman sent to Virginia 400 years ago and traded for tobacco as a planter’s bride? Historian Jennifer Potter, author of The Jamestown Brides, would like to hear from you.

In 1621, 27-year-old Ann Tanner from Chelmsford in Essex sailed to Virginia on the Marmaduke to find a husband in the New World. She joined a shipment of 56 brides dispatched to the colony by the near-bankrupt Virginia Company of London. This trade in ‘maids for wives’ was among several new ventures designed to attract investors. Husbands would be charged 150lbs of best-leaf tobacco, then valued at £25 – more than double the estimated cost of clothing and transporting each bride. But three months after the women arrived at Jamestown, an orchestrated attack by Virginian tribes wiped out between a quarter and a third of the entire English colony.

Ann Tanner may have been one of the lucky ones to survive. From papers held at Magdalene College Cambridge, we know that her father Clement Tanner was a husbandman living in Chelmsford; she also had a saddler cousin, Thomas Tanner, dwelling in Aldgate, London. As Jennifer explained in her lively talk to the Essex History Group, Ann Tanner may have married one of two recent arrivals to the colony: either Thomas Doughtie or Nicholas Baly; both men married women called Ann who had arrived on the Marmaduke in 1621. The two couples survived the Indian attack and by early 1625 were living at a settlement now called Flowerdew Hundred. Out of three eligible Anns, Tanner would have made the best planter’s wife: ‘She can spin and sew in blackwork, She can brew, and bake, make butter and cheese, and do housewifery.’

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Extract from John Walker’s 1591 map of Chelmsford (D/DM P1)

If you have any information about the Tanner family in Chelmsford, or Ann’s life in Virginia, please contact Jennifer through her website, www.jenniferpotter.co.uk, where you can find out more about the women’s story. The Jamestown Brides is published by Atlantic Books in the UK.