Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia: Part 2


Exhibit souvenir t-shirt

I will now discuss some of the specific women profiled in the exhibit.

Temperance Flowerdew Barrow, a gentrywoman, is considered the first First Lady of Virginia. Her story was quite exciting and dramatic. She left England for Virginia on board the Falcoun, one of a convoy of nine ships, in 1609 with her husband Richard BarrowA terrible hurricane in the Atlantic had devastating consequences and inspired Shakespeare to write The Tempest. The passengers must have thought death was imminent. Somehow, Temperance survived to arrive on the shores of Jamestown in August of 1609, just in time for the starving period. The extraordinarily harsh winter devastated the colony. Food supplies were scarce, men raiding Pohowtan supplies were killed, spawning Indian raids. Again, Temperance survived against the odds.  Her husband died and in 1618 she married George Yeardley, who became the colony’s governor in 1619. In 1625 her household included three children and 20 servants. When George died in 1627, he left land to Temperance in his will. Temperance made the decision to marry governor Francis West, but died soon after. She is represented in the exhibit by a beautifully embroidered jacket.


On loan from The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, this bodice features an ornate embroidered design with trailing stems and leaves done in colored silk and metal threads. It is also decorated with metal spangles or sequins. I can’t imagine how long it must have taken someone to make this bodice by hand! While it is similar in style to the waistcoats worn by interpreters at Plimoth Plantation, it is far more ornate and luxurious, something Puritans would have frowned upon. The Tenacity exhibit also showcases a fancy coif (head covering) as well. As wife of the most important man in Virginia, Temperance would have been expected to dress in the finest style money could buy.

Another upper class woman’s story that needed telling is that of Mistress Sarah Rolfe, first wife of John Rolfe, the planter who later married Pocahontas. Pregnant when she and her husband boarded the Sea Venture bound for Virginia, the journey across the Atlantic must have been far more uncomfortable than normal. In July a massive hurricane ran the ship aground just off Bermuda. 150 people were able to make it to shore and salvage as many of the ship’s supplies as they could to survive. During their  10-month stay, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, Bermuda. Sadly baby Bermuda did not live to see Virginia and Sarah died in 1610 shortly after their arrival.

Colonial women were able to have some degree of control over their lives, particularly their marital decisions. A bride named Sarah Harrison is recorded as refusing to promise to obey her new husband, not once but three times. After she refused the third time, the clergyman went forward with the ceremony omitting the word obey. Go Sarah! Her insistence at not agreeing to obey may have contributed to her refusing her original fiancé. In spite of signing a marriage contract with her original fiancé, Sarah was never punished for breaking the contract, a serious crime under English law.

Fourteen-year-old Anne Buras arrived in Jamestown in 1608 as maidservant to Mistress Forrest. Mistress Forrest presumably died shortly after arrival, leaving Anne the ONLY English woman in Virginia! Anne didn’t have a whole lot of choices available so she chose a husband who would hopefully look after her. Two months after arrival, Anne Buras married John Laydon, a man twice her age. Anne is believed to be the first English woman to marry in Jamestown. The winter of 1609-10 was a period of great hardship in Virginia. Nearly 75% of the colonists died. Anne Buras and Jane Wright were ordered to sew shirts for the Virginia Company in 1610. They ran out of thread and with none available, they had to get creative. The women unraveled threads from the shirts they had already sewn in order to make more. Under the Virginia Company’s new Martial Law, this was considered a crime. A pregnant Anne and Jane Wright were whipped. Anne miscarried her child but showed remarkable resiliency. Anne, her husband and four daughters established a new home in Elizabeth City. She died some time in the 1630s.

Souvenir postcard depicting two women sitting and sewing

Souvenir postcard depicting two women sitting and sewing just as Anne and Jane did in 1610.

Anne’s whipping was no exception. It was common to publicly humiliate women who did wrong. In 1627 the General Court declared Jane Hill guilty of fornication. She was made to wear a white sheet and stand in front of the congregation. 1634 woman named Betsey Tucker found herself strapped to a chair connected to a long, wooden beam and dunked into water. Her crime? “Brabbling” or gossiping. An example of a dunking chair was on display in the exhibit.


Another Ann was not so fortunate in her experience at Jamestown. Ann Jackson arrived on the Marmaduke in 1621, joining her brother, who was already living in Virginia. The following year Powhatan Indians captured Ann and 18 other women during an attack on the settlement. While she survived capture and living with the Indians, she likely suffered from what we would recognize as post-traumatic stress syndrome. By 1628 she returned to the English under the protection of her brother until she could resume her life in England. It is unknown what happened to Ann after that. I’m sure life was never normal after that. The passage back to England, if she even made it that far, was stressful and then going back among people who had no idea of what she had been through and didn’t understand must have been painful. It’s easy to say now “I would have stayed with the Indians and had a better life,” but it had to have been pretty traumatic to be captured and worry about being killed.

The exhibit also tells the story of Sarah Woodson who defended her family against an Indian attack in 1644. After surviving the Second Anglo-Powhatan War, the Woodsons moved farther inland near present-day Richmond. Chief Opechancanough feared the influx of settlers would overwhelm his people and so went to war. When the Indians attacked her home, Sarah sent one son with a hunting rifle to the sleeping loft and hid her other son in the hole in the floor where they stored potatoes. Upon arriving home to try to save his family, Dr. John Woodson was killed in the attack. While a houseguest shot at the Indians, Sarah tipped her stewpot onto one of the Indian attackers and swing her heavy iron roasting spit at the other Indian attacker’s head, killing him. A gruesome story in which I feel sorry for the Indians yet also admire Sarah for thinking clearly and saving her family.

An ornately carved cupboard is associated with Mary Peirsey Hill Bushrod, who arrived in Jamestown in 1623 at the age of 10.



This exhibit also did an excellent job showing the tenacity of women of color as well. The “founding mother” of African-Americans in Virginia was Angela or Angelo, an enslaved woman who arrived in Virginia 400 years ago in 1619. In 1613 tobacco was introduced by John Rolfe who later married Pocahontas. The men needed more people to work the tobacco fields leading to slavery. The first Africans came from the kingdom of Ndongo in Angola, West Central Africa. They were captured during war with the Portuguese and sold into slavery, bound for Mexico. English privateers then waylaid the ship as it crossed the Caribbean, confiscating all captives on board and sailed for Virginia. In Virginia, English officials traded supplies for Angelo. Period documents show that by 1625 Angelo worked for planter William Peirce and his wife Joane on their property at Jamestown. The 1625 “Muster of the Inhabitants of Virginia” shows “Angelo, A Negro woman in the Treasuror,” living in the household of William Peirce at Jamestown. This document is significant because it identifies the ship on which Angelo arrived in Virginia, Treasurer.


You can learn more about Angelo and the enslaved experience in the museum’s new gallery. The amount of information is staggering and I didn’t have time to stay and read everything but I enjoyed the video.


The first enslaved people were treated like indentured servants. They could become free and members of a community. Mary Johnson arrived in 1623 and worked on a Southside Virginia plantation owned by Richard Bennett. She married Antonio (Anthony) Johnson. They won their freedom and by 1650, they owned 250 acres of land, eventually owning a family plantation of 900 acres. Interestingly, they had two African servants working for them. The couple later moved to Somerset County, Maryland as slave laws became more strict.

Elizabeth Key, the daughter of an Englishman and an African woman, was put into service by her father until the age of 15. After her father’s death, Elizabeth was passed from one planter to another. Finally, at the age of 25, Elizabeth had had enough. She and her English common-law husband went to court to gain her freedom. Eventually, the courts found in her favor because she had served the time of her contract, was the daughter of an Englishman, and was a baptized Christian. Her son was also freed. Unfortunately for African-Americans, the laws of servitude were codified over the next decade and slavery soon became a permanent, lifelong thing. As we know, the children of enslaved women were inherently enslaved and baptized Christians were no longer exempt from slavery.


Indian women were represented as well. Cockacoske, “Queen of the Pamunkey” understood the importance of preserving good relations with the English colonists. After Englishmen attacked several Virginia tribes in 1677, including the Pamunky, Cockacoske met with other Indian leaders and colonial officials to sign the Treaty of Middle Plantation. The treaty reinforced the relationship between the two English and native governments. Cockacoeske tried to unite the remaining Powhatan tribes but was unsuccessful. However, she was able to negotiate peace for her people for many years. The treaty reinforced the boundaries of their remaining Indian lands. The exhibit profiles Cockacoeske as a reminder of women’s power and influence in traditional Powhatan culture. She is represented by a the silver ornament presented to Cockacoeske (circa 1640- circa 1686), weroansqua or “queene of Pamunkey,” on behalf of Charles II marking the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation, on loan from the Pamunkey Indian Tribe of King William, Virginia. Read more about it on Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation blog


Cockacoeske’s efforts succeeded in legally protecting her people. They were allowed to retain title to their lands, continue fishing in Virginia’s waterways, and were protected from enslavement. Today, the protected land is the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in King William County. In 2016 the Pamunkey became the first Virginia Indian tribe to be formally recognized by the United States government.



The exhibit continues on to showcase the legacy of the tenacious women to present day. The Legacy Wall touch-screen display showcases stories of women from 1607 to the present day in five different categories: occupation, citizenship, marriage, education and healthcare. Visitors could also share stories of influential women across history, including their own or family members to add to the Legacy Wall.

I thought the “tenacious” theme was stretching a bit for the 17th-century women. They did what they had to do to survive. I don’t think all of the stories told exhibit tenacity but some of them do. The exhibit was also a lot smaller than I expected. It was difficult to see and learn everything with hoards of school children running around undisciplined.

See more photos from Tenacity in the exhibit’s media image galleryin the online gallery of the Daily Press.

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Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia


2019 marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of English brides arriving in Virginia. The museum at Jamestown hosted a really nice exhibit on women in early Virginia. I was able to view the exhibit on my trip last October, but unfortunately, no photography was allowed. I am including some of Jamestown’s own photos from their social media sites.

The first women arrived in 1608 and more came after that. In July 1609 a fleet of nine ships left England to bring more people and supplies. 146 women decided to come for the chance to find a husband.

In 1619, the  Virginia Company ordered that “…a fit hundredth might be sent of women, maids young and uncorrupt, to make wives to the inhabitants and by that means to make the men there more settled and less movable….” Ninety arrived in 1620 and the company records reported in May of 1622 that, “57 young maids have been sent to make wives for the planters, divers of which were well married before the coming away of the ships.” They were provided a dowry of clothing, linens, and other furnishings, free transportation to the colony, and even a plot of land. They were also promised their pick of wealthy husbands and provided with food and shelter while they made their decision.

The women had documented skills such as baking, brewing, spinning and sewing. Their names are listed in the 1621 so-called Ferrar Papers, shown on an interactive touch screen. This rare document was from the papers of John and Nicholas Ferrar, backers of the Virginia Company, at Magdalene College. The document lists the names of 56 women and was on loan from Magdalene College. As an archivist, I was excited to see these papers in real life and read through them on the touch screen. Sadly, it is unknown what happened to most of these women. I’m sure there are some wonderful stories to be told there. Any historical fiction writers want to stake a stab at bringing the names of these women to light?


Another interactive touch screen profiles the types of women who chose to leave England. One of the profiled women was a young mother with a baby and wanted to find her husband. Another was a servant who didn’t have a choice. At least one older woman lied about her age and came for the chance to have her own home and husband. Some women were fancy, rich ladies and others were used to hard work.

Some women saw the opportunity to emigrate as a godsend. In a society where all women were expected to marry, having little money and/or social position was a barrier against marriage for most women. Propaganda from Jamestown encouraged women to come to this beautiful, virgin land populated by wealthy bachelors. A fun and interactive touch screen provided visitors to the museum with social media style reviews of Jamestown. Visitors could touch the emoji that closely matched their feelings about the post and then at the end, choose whether they’d stay or go based on the information provided. I get seasick so I’m staying put in England, thank you. However, the propaganda was tempting! Ladies left expecting to be immediately transplanted to a new England with cities and easy living for the wealthy. The reality was far different. The exhibit seeks to show how tenacious women had to be to risk the journey and brave the harsh realities of the new world.

After a husband was chosen, he would reimburse the Virginia Company for the travel expenses, furnishings, and land with 120 pounds (later raised to 150) of “good leaf” tobacco.

The colonial government offered female colonists freedoms and opportunities unavailable to most 17th-century Englishwomen. When settlers were first granted acres of land in July 1619, the men asked for land to be allotted to their wives as well “…because that in a newe plantation it is not knowen whether man or woman be the most necessary.” Widowed women especially had an advantage in the New World. In England, widows were only required by law to receive one-third of their deceased husband’s estate but in Virginia, widows almost always inherited more than that. Because of their inheritance, colonial widows didn’t feel as much economic pressure to remarry after their husband’s death. Many chose to remain single.

There’s too much information for just one post, so please check out my second post to read about specific women.

Colonial Williamsburg: Historic Trades Part 2

We wandered over to the blacksmith shop to learn how it operated during the time of the Revolutionary War. The blacksmith shop doesn’t really interest me specifically. I have seen two other pre-Industrial blacksmith shops before this one and the process is basically the same.

A blacksmith’s forge consisted of a raised brick hearth outfitted with bellows to feed its soft-coal fire and a hood to carry away the smoke. The forge heated bars of iron yellow-hot. With his journeymen and apprentices, the blacksmith used sledges weighing as much as 12 pounds to hammer the heated bars into various shapes.

For more on the blacksmith, visit The Colonial Williamsburg Almanack

Next was a quick visit to the public leather works. The leather works cut, mold, and stitch leather and heavy textiles into a variety of necessary products for Virginia’s fighting men. They sometimes made leather stays, known as jumps, for working women.


Saddle making was a skilled craft and produced high-quality leather goods for the wealthy.

My favorite trade, as if you couldn’t tell already, is the Milliner and Mantua Maker. English fashion dominated in Colonial Virginia. Fashion originated in Paris, spread to London and then across the ocean to wealthy women like Lady Dunmore, the governor’s wife. All the other women wanted to copy Lady Dumore’s gowns. Ordering a new gown wasn’t as simple as it sounds, as all clothes were custom made. While George Washington preferred to send his measurements and preferences to his tailor in England, Williamsburg has a Milliner and Mantua Maker’s shop where fashionable women can purchase or have made all they need to look their best.


What d’ye buy? A new custom-made gown? A new fashionable hat?

Millinery shops were almost always owned by women. From fabric sold in the shop, milliners would make items such as: shirts, shifts, aprons, neckerchiefs, caps, cloaks, hoods, hats, muffs, ruffles, trim for gowns.

In addition to being a trades woman who made fashion accessories, the milliner was also a businesswoman who sold a wide range of fashionable imported goods such as the very latest wares in haberdashery, jewelry, hosiery, shoes “and other items too tedious to mention.” [1]


A milliner could trim a hat and ladies could see the latest styles on a pandora or fashion doll sent over from France. Fashions changed every season!

“In a word, they furnish everything to the Ladies that can contribute to set off their Beauty, increase their Vanity, or render them ridiculous.” [2]

The mantua maker was skilled in cutting, fitting, and sewing cloaks, mantles, hats, hoods, caps, gloves, petticoats, hoops, riding costumes, and dresses for masquerades – all in the latest fashion.

The mantua maker explained how to put on stays if you don’t have a ladies’ maid. You can either put them on loosely laced and pull on a knot tied at the top of the cord to tighten or put them on, lace them backwards and shimmy around.


Mantua Maker explains how women got dressed without a maid

We continued the discussion from earlier in the day on what women did when they had their monthlies. Conclusion? It’s fun to visit places like the museum version of Colonial Williamsburg but I would certainly not want to live then.

The shop is much smaller than I remembered. I also remember the tailor sharing this space and now he has his own shop elsewhere in town. Visitors can peer into the back workroom and see what fashions the seamstresses are working on. It’s amazing to look at the exquisite garments they still make by hand here in the shop. While I wouldn’t want to live in the 18th-century, they did have some incredibly beautiful clothes.

Trade shops to be continued ….

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Maria Mitchell Association


Maria Mitchell Birthplace

While in Nantucket I visited the Maria Mitchell Association, a complex of four museums. There’s the natural science museum in the main building. This features animals (mostly dead) found on or near the local beaches. They have dolphin skeletons, butterflies, moths, taxidermy animals, live snakes and turtles and a discovery center.

The main focus of my visit was the Maria Mitchell birthplace. A typical Quaker house built in 1790, this house is the birthplace of America’s first female astronomer.


Maria Mitchell Birthplace sign

The Mitchells acquired the home shortly before Maria’s birth in 1818. It is typical Nantucket architecture. It has an off-center front door and a small window above to let light in the hall when the door was closed. On the roof is a roof walk, which was actually for putting out chimney fires and fires on the roof. Could they have used it for other purposes? Yes, but that isn’t what it was built for.

William Mitchell had to add a new kitchen to the old house to make the house bigger. The new kitchen has a back staircase, a warming alcove and plaster walls painted to look like wood. The front room features the most exciting and unique artifact in the house-Maria’s telescope through which she discovered a comet. The front entryway has an amazing mural of “The Great Moon Hoax of 1835.” (Fake news is obviously not an Internet age problem).

Maria Mitchell was educated at a young ladies seminary and also taught by her father, an astronomer who rated chronometers for use by the Nantucket whaling fleet in celestial navigation. His Quaker belief in equality led him to educate his daughter in subjects normally taught to boys. At the age of 12, Maria assisted her father in calculating the position of their home by observing a solar eclipse. By 14 she trusted to calculate navigational computations for sailors leaving on whaling journeys.

Maria’s interest in science extended to teaching as well. After she finished her own formal education, she opened a school for girls to train them in science and mathematics- like an early STEM school.

At the age of 18 she became the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, reading everything she could after hours. She worked there from 1836-1858.


Nantucket Atheneum

Her greatest accomplishment was yet to come. Avoiding a party at her family’s apartment above the bank one night in 1847, Maria went up to the roof to observe the sky through her father’s two-inch telescope. She lucked out that night, October 1, and discovered a comet! She was not only the first woman to discover a comet, she was the first in America to record her sighting.


Pacific National Bank

Unfortunately, the next day there was a storm and ships couldn’t leave the island so the observations she sent off to Europe were delayed, allowing an Italian man to gain credit for the discovery. However, Maria prevailed and her careful notes revealed she sighted the comet earlier than the Italian. The King of Denmark awarded Maria Mitchell of Nantucket an International gold medal.

Maria then skyrocketed (pun intended) to fame.  “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” as it became known, was featured in Elias Loomis’ The Recent Progress of Astronomy.


Recent Progress in Astronomy

Maria became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848, the only woman recognized for almost 100 years thereafter. She was also elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Philosophical Society and earned an annual salary from The U.S. Coastal Survey ($300/year) as a celestial observer. [1] She was also able to meet other women involved in the sciences on a Grand Tour of Europe in the 1850s.

Though Maria ultimately broke with the Quaker meeting, she retained some Quaker philosophies, such as equality and abolitionist principles. She always dressed in black silk, refusing to wear cotton as it was grown by slaves.

After her mother’s death, Maria was invited by Matthew Vassar to be the first female professor at his new women’s college, where she rebelled against the strict rule prohibiting women from going out at night. Her students adored her and even persuaded her to pose for a portrait. (Maria believed her plain looks would not appear to advantage on canvas or in photos). She did insist on appearing as she normally did, in her Quakerish black silk dress and plain hairstyle.

Maria Mitchell became involved in the emerging women’s rights movement, with fellow Nantucket Quaker Lucretia Mott, meeting the luminaries of the day and holding meetings in her observatory. Her famous friends later donated money to save her Vassar observatory. [2]

Though Maria Mitchell died in 1889, a year after her retirement from teaching, her legacy lives on. The Maria Mitchell Association also operates an observatory. Their website states “since 1908, the Observatory has been the site of research, lectures, and other programs . . .” [3]  That is smaller than the house!


Normally they start outside but since it was rainy and overcast, we couldn’t see anything in the sky. We did look at a scale model to see how far the planets are in the solar system. That was very helpful. I don’t really understand or care for astronomy so much of it was lost on me. Inside there is a little museum where visitors can see Maria Mitchell’s influence on culture and science. She has asteroid and a crater named after her, among other things. I really liked it when they mentioned there is an archive. That would be fun to look at.

More on the history of Nantucket in my next post.

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