The Jamestown Settlement tells long-lost tales of diverse women — and much more — in colonial America

The role of women in early American history is being re-examined in a new exhibition at the Jamestown Settlement museum in Williamsburg, Virginia. Through documents, artifacts and interpretative text, Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia (through Jan. 5, 2020) is part of a movement by many cultural institutions to take a broader and more inclusive look at history, one that tries to encompass the participation of women, American Indians and African Americans.

Take the case of Pocahontas, the only woman from that period whose name most of us know — a museum display tells us how important she was, yet we also realize how little we know about her. That account by colonist John Smith about her saving his head from the chopping block? Probably just yarn-spinning on his part. And no, she did not marry Smith, as the Disney cartoon tells us; she married a tobacco planter named John Rolfe. Unfortunately, she left no firsthand accounts of her life and times.

For history buffs — or those who like to combine education with their vacay — this part of Tidewater Virginia offers a bounty: Three major sites of early American history are contained on one peninsula, bounded by the York River on one side and the James River on the other. Together they make up the Historic Triangle — Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg, named one of the top 15 U.S. cities in Travel +Leisure’s 2017 World’s Best Awards. First came Jamestown, named after King James I, who in 1606 granted a charter to the Virginia Company to found a colony on North American land claimed by the crown. After its three ships landed at Cape Henry in 1607, Jamestown became the first permanent English colony in North America. After Jamestown, the capital of the Virginia Colony moved a few miles inland to Williamsburg from 1699 to 1780; the 18th-century capital was resurrected into a full-scale historical restoration in the early-to-mid 20th century, thanks to the Reverend Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin of Bruton Parish Church and his benefactors John D. and Abby Aldrich Rockeller. Not far away, Yorktown was the site of the final great battle of the American Revolutionary War, when the Continental Army forced the surrender of General Charles Cornwallis and his Redcoats in 1781.

The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation runs two of the important museums here — Jamestown Settlement and American Revolution Museum at Yorktown — and both have family-friendly galleries filled with fascinating documents, maps, artifacts and videos. The new show, Tenacity, is at Jamestown Settlement, and it highlights the roles of English, Native American and African women with illustrations, text and 60 artifacts, many borrowed from other institutions.

The native population initially had fairly harmonious relations with the new English settlers. Pocahontas was the favorite daughter of Powhatan, the chief who oversaw about 30 tribes in the area. Her story has a prominent place in the permanent galleries, which are being revamped, as well as at the museum at Historic Jamestowne, which is on the original site run by the National Park Service. (More about that later.) Much of what we know is probably myth — John Smith, one of Jamestown’s first colonists, didn’t write about Pocahantas “saving” him until after he left the colonies. However, historians agree that she served as an important emissary between the colonists and her people — a display at the Historic Jamestowne museum calls her “Mother of Two Nations.”   

Her participation didn’t come about willingly. In 1613 she was kidnapped by the English during the first Anglo-Powhatan War, and during that time she learned English and was converted to Christianity.  She later married tobacco planter John Rolfe,  an alliance that contributed to many years of peace between Indians and colonists. A Jamestown Settlement museum display features various depictions of Pocahontas, mostly done after her death and highly imaginative. One painting is based on the only portrait made during her lifetime — Simon van de Passe’s 1616 engraving of Pocahontas, whose English name was Rebecca, splendidly dressed in a tall hat and Jacobean court attire with a semi-circular lace collar. The portrait was commissioned by the Virginia Company as propaganda for the colony, after having brought her and her husband to England in 1616. Pocahontas was reportedly treated like royalty, especially since she must have been quite a surprise to the English, who thought all Indians were uneducated savages.

Tenacity covers some other, lesser-known stories, including three that are highlighted. One concerns Anne Burras Laydon, who arrived in 1608 at age 14 as a maidservant, only one of two women on that second voyage (there were none in the first).  Another tells the story of Cockacoeske, an Indian woman called “Queen of the Pamunkey,” who ruled the tribe until her death in 1686. There’s also Mary Johnson, an African woman who arrived in 1623, working on a Southside Virginia plantation until she was able to gain her freedom and her own plot of land. Artifacts include the clothing they might have worn, household items they might have used and a page from the records of the Virginia Company (known as the Ferrar Papers), borrowed from Magdelene College, Cambridge, which lists the brave women who came over
in 1621.

Like the 90 women who’d arrived the previous year, these 56 women were purposely recruited to become wives and helpmates for the Jamestown men. While the page is faded, one can read the full list on a nearby interactive screen, which includes each woman’s age, parentage and references.  For example, on the ship the Marmaduke came Allice Burges, “Age 28 borne at Linton in Cambridgeshire her father and Mother are dead, hee was a husbandman.”

One outstanding feature of both Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum (ARM) are the outdoor “living history experiences.”  The former includes a full-scale reproduction of the original Jamestown fort, which was actually rather small, and the primary buildings within. Actors play the parts of soldiers, blacksmith, etc., and relay the story of the buildings and their work roles. ARM has recreated part of a Continental Army encampment, and one can witness an actual cannon being loaded and fired (into the woods, fortunately) — a multi-step procedure that involves three soldiers and an officer to bark out the commands. The encampment is worth as much time as the museum, as costumed actors demonstrate and explain how an army on the march would function.

The cook, for example, stands in a circular trench where stoves have been built into the earth. During my visit, the “cook” tells us, “Soldiers were given daily rations, including a portion of meat, hardtack, dried beans.” She shows us a sample of hardtack: a thick, unappetizing-looking biscuit that was easy to carry and long-lasting. “You can imagine how difficult this was to eat — soldiers might soak the hardtack in water or stew to soften it.” The medical tent displays a sample doctor’s kit with metal tools, and the “doctor” tells us about medical treatment on the battlefield — fast and crude. Further along is a Revolution-era farm based on the farm of Edward Moss
(c. 1757–1786), where interpreters describe agricultural and domestic life in those times.  Although not a landowner, Moss leased 200 acres and owned six slaves to help him work them — a grim reminder that slavery quickly became an institution in early America.

While in the area, be sure to visit Historic Jamestowne, the actual site of the first settlement, excavated and run by the National Park Service. The perimeters of the triangular fort are marked by posts, and you can see how it was situated right by the James River. You will also walk through some swampy areas that illustrate why many early settlers fell sick and died soon after they arrived — the location chosen was far from ideal for human habitation.

Buildings were eventually erected outside the fort, and they can still be seen as ruins and outlines as you walk around the park; only the small Memorial Church next to the fort has been rebuilt. Don’t miss the Voorhees Archaearium Archeology Museum where the excavated objects have been collected and displayed with excellent explanations.

Life in early Jamestown was hard, very hard — especially during one period when the English were at war with Powhatan and settlers were so starved and desperate they succumbed to cannibalism, evidence suggests. The museum is frank about the troubled relationship between the English and the Native Americans. While at first Powhatan seemed welcoming and traded goods, he must have eventually realized these foreigners were not going away. A tour through the actual landscape brings all this history alive in a most compelling way.

Jamestown Settlement is located at 2110 Jamestown Rd., Williamsburg, VA. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily until June 15 through Aug. 15, when it closes at 6 p.m. (Closed Christmas and New Year’s.) Admission costs $17.50, $8.25 for visitors 6 to 12; children under 6 are admitted free. A combination ticket that also includes the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown costs $26, $12.50 for 6 to 12. Visit visitwilliamsburg.com.