USA: Virginia exhibition pays homage to the women history overlooked in early America

Anne Burras was only 14 when she arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1608. She was maidservant to another woman who died shortly after their arrival. For a time, Anne was the only English woman in a colony of about 200 men. She married two months later, faced near starvation, miscarried after receiving a severe whipping for violating martial law, survived a deadly attack by Native Americans and eventually bore four daughters.

Hers is one of dozens of narratives featured at “Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia,” an exhibition at Jamestown Settlement running through January 5, 2020. Its purpose is to tell the little-known stories of the English, African, and Native American women who created Virginia. Each riser on the stairway that leads to the exhibition galleries is inscribed with the name of a woman. At the entrance to the gallery, a wall panel challenges visitors to “Remember the names of these women and speak them.”

Tenacity is a collaborative effort funded by the Commonwealth of Virginia, James City County and American Evolution, a statewide celebration highlighting the 400th anniversary of key events in 1619 Virginia. Special artifacts have been loaned by 22 institutions in the United States and Britain – including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum of London and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Several items are being shown in North America for the first time.

It’s an impressive collection that illustrates how the material culture of several worlds collided in Virginia: Powhatan clay pots, cups made from turtle shells, bone awls, English silver bodkins, straight pins – even a goffering iron to make neck ruffs, an important part of European clothing in the 17th century. There are luxurious furnishings from the plantation period, including a Japanned cabinet from Europe and one of the oldest known pieces of Virginia-made furniture – a magnificent court cupboard. And there are items for children – a fruitwood rattle and an elaborately carved walnut high chair.

The exhibition uses the artifacts together with historical documents to piece together the stories of the women who would have used such items. Touch screens, wall panels, videos, and displays bring their stories to life.

The original English settlers at Jamestown in 1607 were all men and boys. English women started arriving the following year. One early female arrival was Joan Pierce, who landed with her daughter aboard the ship Blessing in 1609. Her husband was aboard another vessel that was wrecked in a storm, and mother and daughter found themselves alone in Jamestown to face the “starving time,” the brutal winter of 1609 and 1610. The family was reunited the next year and became successful planters. Their names appear in the “Muster of the Inhabitants of Virginia” on display.

Still more women were needed to make the colony successful. The Virginia Company of London, promoters of the Jamestown settlement, recruited English women to journey to Virginia to become wives for the settlers. In 1621, 56 “young, handsome, and honestlie educated Maides” made the voyage.

Many of these women were recruited for their skills. They could make butter and cheese, brew, bake and cook, plus raise children and tend to the sick – as evidenced by the oak medicine chest of the time (dating from between 1550 and 1625) on loan from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Some details about the 56 women are found in the Ferrar Papers, documents compiled in the early 17th century by the Ferrar family for the Virginia Company. An actual page is on display on loan from Magdalene College-University of Cambridge. The papers have been digitised on touch screens for modern readers. At random, I clicked on the name Susan Binx, 19, daughter of a wire maker. What, I wondered, would entice her to leave all that she knew behind in England to start an uncertain life in a new world? Ann Jackson, another “Maide,” was captured with 18 other women by Powhatan Indians and spent six years in captivity.

As if a hostile environment wasn’t enough, women faced harsh laws after arriving from England. I stood in front of the cabinet that contained a 17th-century ducking chair, a hideous device as torturous as it was humiliating. Women, for the most part, received this punishment for not controlling their “brabbling” tongues. They were repeatedly dunked in the water for up to 30 seconds at a time. Metal restraints bound the victim’s wrists, waist, and legs. Betsey Tucker, charged by a Virginia Court in 1634 for disorderly speech, was sentenced to this punishment in such a chair.

Standing near the display that tells the story of Angelo, the enslaved woman, visitor Paula Stensvaag, said: “I have been paying more attention to the names because we remember men, like John Rolfe, but not many of the women.” Angelo’s was one of those names that Stensvaag, of Colorado, had never heard before. “But I know it now,” she said.

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