A Woman’s Place is in the House:
The Affect of Colonization on
Native American and Colonial Women’s
Place in Society
The first permanent European colony in the New World was established in 1607. Those seeking a new life in the virgin land brought with them old beliefs and laws, including the idea that “all of them (European women) are understood either married or to bee married,” anonymous lawyer T.E. wrote in his 1632 treatise on the legal status of women.1
All of the New England colonies recognized that in a marriage, a wife’s “personality (identity) come absolutely to her husband when they wed.”2 All property became his, she could not make her own will or contract and she very seldom filed her own lawsuits.3 Any income a wife earned was her husband’s as well. And in difference to the Native American culture, the children were not hers, but his.
Divorce was mostly unheard of in the colonies. Absolute divorce, which allowed the parties to remarry, was only available in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Other colonies allowed for separation, which did not allow for remarriage. Even with divorce on the law books, it was uncommon and usually granted only on the grounds of desertion for more than six years. In a fifty-two year period, (1639-1692) Massachusetts granted only twenty-seven divorces.4
Even more so than with Native American women, British colonial women had a place in society and they were expected to stay in it. It should not be surprising to learn that not all women conformed to expectation. Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan and daughter of an Anglican minister was outspoken in her belief that women had as much right to testify on the Gospel as men. She held very popular prayer meetings in her home, which were acceptable in the eyes of the church, until she started interpreting the bible herself and claiming people could communicate directly to God without ministers interceding. In doing that, she crossed the line. When she was brought before the council, she out spoke the men with her knowledge of the bible, turning their words back on them. Their decision made before the trial even started, they found her guilty of sedition and banished her from the colony for life.5
As a result of her heresy, a college was established to educate theologians with common knowledge so they could protect the church and government against future seditious citizens such as Anne Hutchinson. Peter G. Gomes, in an article for Harvard Magazine, proclaims Mrs. Hutchinson the “midwife to what would become Harvard College.”6 He goes on to say that it is ironic that in the present day, Mrs. Hutchinson would find herself and her thoughts more acceptable at Harvard than the men who had started the college.7
Anne Hutchinson is not the only colonial woman who stepped out of place. Mary Dyer, a follower of Anne, walked out of the church with her when Anne was excommunicated. When Mary returned to Boston many years later, she wore Quaker clothing and was immediately arrested and banished again. The Boston General Court determined that Quaker doctrine ran counter to Puritan dogma and was an assault on the fundamental truths of religion. Undeterred and wishing to “look the bloody laws in the face,”8 she returned several more times, escaping the hangman’s noose by mere seconds with an entreaty made by her son. Ever the zealot, she returned yet again and was sentenced to death a second time. Mary Dyer was hanged by the neck until dead in 1660 for, as she stated at the time of her final trial, coming “to keep bloodguiltiness from you, desireing you to repeal the unrighteous and unjust law made against the innocent servants of the Lord.”9
Following Mary Dyer’s execution, Mary, Hannah and Lydia Wright, three Quaker sisters, stood against the status quo and questioned the authority of ministers and magistrates in defense of their religion. They protested the treatment of Quakers, including the hanging of Mary Dyer. The Wright sisters were all three admonished, jailed, and banished from Boston for their affronts to authority. Lydia was stripped to the waist and whipped as she was driven out of town. 10 In all these cases, the first punishment for crossing the line was banishment, which women usually followed through with, Dyer being an exception. Her punishment exceeded that of many women because she pushed the status quo with her outspoken refusal to stay in her place.
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The relationship between Indians and Europeans was rocky from the start. The Europeans had come to conquer a people they thought were uncivilized. The natives, however, liked their lives as they were and thought the white man’s ways strange. By looking at how they treated one another, it is easy to see which group was civilized and which group was not.
With free interaction between Native Americans and Europeans and the shortage of women in the white settlements, it should come as no surprise that European men took up with Native American women. As fur traders moved through the new land, they came to realize the value of the Native women, “who provided the knowledge, skills and labor that made it possible to survive in the unfamiliar environment.”11 The comment made by the Jesuit priest about women being pack-mules is a more accurate description for the way native women were treated by European men than in the context in which it was made.
Though some relationships between traders and native women led to long and happy marriages, more often, Native American women were exploited. They were frequently subjected to racial prejudices and European laws, which gave husbands the right to their property and children. Often times, the women and their mixed-blood children would be abandoned when the men returned to Europe.
Realizing they were being unjustly treated within the European society, several Native American women sought to establish power in the white man’s world such as they had in their tribes. Coosaponakesa, raised as a Creek and known by the English as Mary Musgrove, was the daughter of an English father and Creek mother and the niece of a powerful Creek chief named Brims. She married three Englishmen during her life. The first marriage was arranged between her uncle and John Musgrove to end the Yamassee War, a conflict between Carolina traders and the Creek Indians due to trade abuses. John Musgrove, a member of the Carolina Commission of Indian Trade, offered his son, also named John and thought to be a mixed-blood Creek, as groom to Coosaponakesa. Her second marriage seems to be based on circumstances more than love. After John’s death, she married an indentured servant in order to maintain control of her property. Though it appears her husbands treated her well, the same cannot be said about the English government. She spent from 1732 until 1759 acting as interpreter between the Creeks and the English government, often preventing war and simultaneously fighting the English in their courts to gain title for land the Creeks had given her. William Stephens, president of the Savannah court, disliked Mary, calling her “dangerous, overbearing, unstable, disloyal and unruly.”12 He refused to allow Indian testimony in the courts, testimony which would support Mary’s claim that the Creeks had given her use of the land.
She went so far as to travel to England and petition the courts there, but to no avail. The government finally settled with Mary to prevent an impending Creek uprising and to open up disputed land for English settlement. Five years before her death, Mary finally had title to the land that was hers not only by birthright, but as a loyal citizen of the English crown. 13
The European government did not seem to understand the behind-the-scenes influence of Native American women concerning policies. Nor did they know how to handle a female chief, as they were unfamiliar in dealing with women who held power. When Cockacoeske, weronsqua of the Pamunkey was summoned before the General Assembly of Virginia, the chairman spoke to her with little respect and turned aside her grievances with coldness and little thought. Only after her village was attacked during Bacon’s Rebellion and she demanded a return of her lands and compensation for her lost goods, did officials realize they could not afford to have such a powerful chief as an enemy and insisted the assembly appease her.14
1 Mary Beth Norton, “‘Either Married or to Bee Married:’ Women’s Legal Inequality in Early America.,” Inequality in Early America 25
2 Mary Beth Norton, “‘Either Married or to Bee Married:’ Women’s Legal Inequality in Early America.,” 26.
3 Mary Beth Norton, “‘Either Married or to Bee Married:’ Women’s Legal Inequality in Early America,” 26.
4 Nancy Woloch, Early American Women, 92
5 “The Trail of Anne Hutchinson”
6 Peter G. Gomes, “Anne Hutchinson: Brief life of Harvard’s ‘midwife:’ 1595-1643” ¶ 2.
7 Peter G. Gomes, “Anne Hutchinson: Brief life of Harvard’s ‘midwife:’ 1595-1643” ¶ 11.
8 “Mary Dyer: A Quaker Martyr,” Mayflower Families ¶ 6.
9 “Mary Dyer: A Quaker Martyr” Mayflower Families ¶ 19.
10 “The Sisterhood of Friends.” Newsday.com
11 Sara Evans, “The First American Women,” Women’s America: Refocusing the Past 33
12 Michael D. Green. “Mary Musgrove: Creating a New World.” Sifters: Native American Women’s Lives 38
13 Michael D. Green. “Mary Musgrove: Creating a New World.” Sifters: Native American Women’s Lives 45.
14 Liz Sonneborn, “Cockacoseke, Queen of the Pamunkey,” A to Z of Native American Women, 32.
Anna Kathryn Lanier