Tenacity Exhibit Explores Women’s Roles in Jamestown and Early Virginia

Tenacious Women Virginia Indian African And English Women Reflected In Tenacity Exhibition. Jamestown Yorktown Foundation Photo.

Move over, Founding Fathers. The Founding Mothers have been offered a seat at the table at Jamestown Settlement

The Settlement is a museum devoted to 17th century Virginia history and culture, where English, Powhatan and West-Central African influences converged, through both indoor exhibits and outdoor living-history experiences. Over the next year, the institution will expand our understanding of the founding of our country by inserting little-known stories of heretofore virtually anonymous women into the narrative.

With exploration of gender identity and roles never more robust, the timing of Tenacity couldn’t be more relevant. But what drove the creation of the exhibition is 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution, a national observance of the 400th anniversary of influential historical events that occurred in Virginia in 1619.

Whether English, Native American or African, the women and teenage girls who helped colonize Virginia are a diverse lot. As diverse as the men. Through both a chronological and thematic mix of artifacts, images, interactives and primary sources from the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation’s 17th century collection and 22 prestigious national and international institutions, a fuller picture of life in Colonial Virginia will come into focus.

Learn about Ann Burras Laydon, a 14-year-old maidservant who arrived on these shores in 1608; Angelo, the first documented African woman who arrived in 1619; Mary Johnson, an African woman who labored on a Southside Virginia Plantation from her arrival in 1623 until she gained her freedom and became a Virginia landowner; and Cockacoeske, a Virginia Indian woman who ruled the Pamunkey tribe until her death in 1686.

Jamestown Yorktown Foundation Tenacity Exhibit
Jamestown Settlement historical interpreter in recreated fort sewing shirts. Photo
courtesy of Jamestown Yorktown Foundation

Jamestown Yorktown Tenacity exhibit
A long-sleeved bodice on loan from The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust features an
embroidered design of trailing stems and leaves worked in colored silk and metal
threads, with metal spangles or sequins. In the 
TENACITY special exhibition, the
object is associated with governor's wives and women aspiring to an upper class.
Photo courtesy of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Not surprisingly, women played a role in early marketing efforts by the Virginia Company of London to encourage the growth of Jamestown. They recruited single English women to settle in the fledgling colony and eventual capital of Virginia. From women’s roles to women’s rights, it’s all part of the story.

In particular, some 56 women and girls boarded a trio of ships in England, arriving on these shores in 1621 where many were purchased as brides by single or widowed planters. A “maide” cost a man 150 pounds of his best leaf tobacco. These Allices, Annes and Anns represented a wide cross-section of social status and ages, from 15 to 28.

With documented skills ranging from baking and brewing to spinning and sewing, some of these women—both gentry and “gentlefolk”—spawned descendants while others succumbed to an Indian attack that killed 300 settlers in March 1622 or to starvation the following winter. Visitors to the exhibition can learn more about these women listed in the 1621 so-called Ferrar Papers on an interactive touch screen. It is from the papers of John and Nicholas Ferrar, backers of the Virginia Company, found at Magdalene College that most of the information about these women comes.

Additionally, notes Katherine Egner Gruber, curator of special exhibitions, “The 17th century portion of the gallery ends on a high note, using the study of an artifact owned by one of these early women to speak about women’s lasting impact on the many landscapes of Virginia.”

“Something really special about this exhibition,” she continues, “is the debut of a new section of our gallery, which we are calling our ‘Legacy” area.” This portion of the gallery will feature an interactive timeline that not only explains the arc of 400 years of women’s enduring influence as agents of change in Virginia, but beyond. 

Tenacity, Jamestown Settlement exhibit

TENACITY Programs & Events

Through Jan. 5, 2020, the exhibition will be accompanied by public lectures and performances. Mother Tongue, an original play written by regional Emmy-award winning scriptwriter Abigail Schumann, tells the story of three women whose lives and cultures intersected at Jamestown. They wonder if and how they will be remembered and why it matters. Look for the production debut in May 2019 before it travels to other Virginia venues. 

Daily admission is 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 2018 admission is $17 for adults, $8 for ages 6–12 (2019: $17.50 for adults, $8.25 for ages 6–12) and free for children under 6. A value-priced combination ticket to Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is $25.50 for adults and $12.25 for ages 6–12 (2019: $26 for adults, $12.50 ages 6–12). Parking is free.

TENACITY: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia is a public-private partnership funded by the Commonwealth of Virginia, James City County and 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution, with additional support from the Robins Foundation.

Jamestown Settlement is at 2110 Jamestown Rd., Williamsburg. 757-253-4838. HistoryIsFun.org/Tenacity

Betsy DiJulio
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Betsy DiJulio is a full-time art teacher, artist and curator with side hustles as a freelance writer, including for Coastal Virginia Magazine, and a vegan recipe developer and food stylist and photographer for Tofutti Brands.

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