In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Women in Colonial Economies

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Essay by Sara T. Damiano, Fall 2022

Sara T. Damiano, PhD, is an historian of women and gender in early America and the Atlantic World, and an associate professor at Texas State University, with research and course work focused on individuals, especially women, who possessed limited access to formal political and economic power, and who are seldom centered in eighteenth-century historical sources.

At first glance, the papers of the Kennebec and Pejepscot Proprietors position men as the primary economic actors in White New Englanders’ settlement of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Maine. Yet, when we look more closely at the period, it is clear that both Wabanaki peoples and White women were actively involved in the region’s economy. Gendered family structures and divisions of labor shaped Wabanaki and colonial New England economies, and Indigenous and White women were essential contributors to each.

Amongst the region’s original inhabitants, the Wabanaki, men and women jointly provided for their society: generally men hunted game which women in turn cleaned and preserved, and men cleared the fields where women planted and harvested corn. From a European perspective, Wabanaki men held the majority of public political power, yet, women wielded important forms of influence, including because marriage and courtship rituals emphasized the approval of a bride and her family. In addition, women spoke and traded with English colonists and could become informed, opinionated participants in issues of land rights.

In 1659, “Jane alias Uphannum,” a woman from a powerful Wabanaki family, appeared before English officials to recount a land sale. Jane, along with her mother and brother, had sold land to English colonists eight years prior, and Jane insisted that the English honor their prior agreement.(1) The following century, amidst escalating disputes between colonists and the Wabanaki in 1736, a Penobscot couple visited an English household to relay a warning. When the husband began to reveal too much information, his wife chastised him and ended the exchange.(2)