Early Contacts: Native American and European Women in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries


The conclusion that encounters between European settlers and Native Americans changed the lives of both groups has been central to many historical accounts of colonial history. While the arguments made are convincing, the discussions do not directly address the lives of women. It is possible that this omission is a result of a paucity of sources. Regardless of the problems with sources, the question may still be asked: Does this assumption hold up when we look at the encounter of women of both cultures? If not, why not? Before we can consider questions such as these, we need to look at the available primary sources for seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century women and gather as much useful information as we can. Because there is not a wealth of primary sources available on the Internet on these women, we need to read what we do have carefully and learn as much as we can. Hopefully, this will enable us to analyze and write this history. In this lesson, students will use primary and secondary sources to research and understand the lives of women (both Native American and European) in North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Learning Objectives

  1. Students will be able to create a model to evaluate the validity of historical evidence.
  2. Students will examine primary documents and use factual references in the documents to construct a history of the encounter of Native American women and European women.
  3. Students will be able to read firsthand accounts of life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From these primary documents they will be able to construct an accurate account of women’s lives

Activity One: Women’s Legal Rights

  1. The class should all read the following documents about European women (before and after emigration)—they are brief and can be read and discussed in a class period. At the end of each document, students should summarize the content.

    The documents (A through F) can be found by downloading: European Women's Rights and Laws

    A.  William Gouge, “Of Domesticall Duties,” London, 1622
    B. “The Law’s Resolution of Women’s Rights,” London, 1632
    C.  Samuel Chase, “Baron and Feme: A Treatise of the Common Law Concerning Husbands and Wives,” London, 1700
    D. “Feme Sole Trader Statutes,” South Carolina, 1712, 1744
    E. William Blackstone, “Commentaries on the Laws of England,” Oxford, 1765–69
    F.  “An Act Concerning Feme-Sole traders,” Pennsylvania, 1718

    After summarizing each document, have the class write a “uniform code of law” for White women in the English colonies. This will help them understand the legal rights of European women in the colonies as an important influence on these women’s lives.
  2. The class should read the following documents about Iroquois women (also attached here)—the sections referring to women are noted. At the end of each document, students should summarize the content

    A.  The Constitution of the Iroquois Nation, “Rights, Duties and Qualifications of Lords
    B.  “​​​​​​​Dating the Iroquois Confederacy

    After summarizing each document, have the class describe the rights of women in the Iroquois Confederacy. This will help them understand the legal rights of American Indian women in the Northeast as an important influence on female colonists’ lives.

    Discussion: What conclusions can the class draw from these primary documents about women’s rights in these two cultures?

Activity Two: Women’s Lives

Have students brainstorm the kinds of questions that they should keep in mind as they read this next set of documents. They should come up with questions about such things as political power, responsibilities, family, work, living arrangements, etc. These primary sources are longer, and students will need time to read them. Divide the class into two groups. Assign the documents relating to white women to one group; assign the documents relating to American Indian women to the other group. Each group should take notes on the facts that answer their questions.

European Women

Primary Sources

A.  Martha Ballard’s diary: Read until you have a sense of Martha Ballard’s life.

B.  Stories and themes from Martha Ballard’s diary: This site summarizes the themes in the diary.

C.  Network of relations for Joan Tilson

Secondary Sources

A.  The story of Deborah Moody, founder of Gravesend

B.  A short biography of Anne Bradstreet

C.  A short biography of Abigail Smith Adams

American Indian Women

Primary Sources

A.   Captivity narrative by Mary Rowlandson.

B.   Captivity narrative by Mary Jemison—Chapters 3 and 4.

Secondary Sources

A.  Short Biography of Mary Jemison

B.  Digital History’s Cultures of Prehistoric America

Have each group present their research. Using the information that the students have gathered, have the class write an entry on the first encounter of European women and Native American women for a history textbook. This may be done in groups or individually.

Activity Three: Observations of Europeans

Have the class read together the accounts of Native American women’s lives: 
European accounts of Native American women

After reading each or all of the accounts, discuss:

  1. Were the observations of these Europeans accurate? If not, what are the misrepresentations?
  2. Why did these observers write such distorted accounts of the lives of the American Indian women they encountered?


Essay: Considering what you know about colonial history to the mid-eighteenth century, to what extent were the lives of both European women and Native American women changed by the encounters between the two cultures?