Ethan Knick- A Coming Together: Telling the Story of Women in Early 17th-Century Virginia

Most of the household names associated with 17th-Century Virginia, such as John Smith and Christopher Newport, are predominantly masculine, with the obvious exception of Pocahontas. But dozens of other women, most of whose names have been lost to time, contributed as much to the birth of English America as their better-known male counterparts. However, women are seldom mentioned in historical or contemporary renditions of the Pre-Revolutionary Virginia’s past. On April 11th, Special Exhibits Curator Kate Gruber of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation explained to Dr. McMillan’s 1619 class how she pieced together the narratives of women from around the globe who shaped early Jamestown and its environs for an exhibit called Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia. This journey involved much “reading between the lines” of the historical record and pooling together artifacts from around the world.

“If it’s illegal, it has been tried,” explained Mrs. Gruber as she gave the students background about the research methodology she used for the exhibit. By examining the “outliers” who broke the overwhelmingly restrictive laws of the Virginia Company and Virginia’s early royal government, she gleaned volumes of information. In 1610, for example, company officials severely whipped Anne Burras, who they had contracted to assemble several articles of clothing for colonists. After failing to produce these articles to company regulations, she was convicted of negligence. English and American household goods from Europe and Virginia displayed in the exhibit, including beautiful linen jackets like those Burras would have worn when she arrived in Virginia in 1608 as a teenage servant, breathed reality into her story.

Mrs. Gruber explained that the exhibit focused primarily on European women because there is even less evidence to work with regarding African or North American women of the period. However, the influence of these two cultures still found a place in the exhibit. For example, famed anthropologist Helen Roundtree (1998) has demonstrated that women in Powhatan society wielded great political influence through production of diverse commodities and social precedents. Echoing this idea, Mrs. Gruber explained that without Pamunkey women who provide the corn that sustained Virginia colonist during the notorious Starving Time (winter of 1609-1610), Jamestown would have met an early end. Near the exit of the exhibit hangs a shining medallion which embodies the significance of Algonquian women. This pendant was given to female Pamunkey chief Cockacoeske, who signed the Treaty of Middle Plantation in 1677 securing the land of the Pamunkey Reservation, which exists to this day (McCartney 2006).

A surviving 1625 muster revealed the appellation of an African woman named Angelo who was likely on of the first “20 and odd negroes,” or African slaves, to arrive in British America in 1619 on the privateer ship Treasurer (Horn 2018). This precious record had traveled from the UK to be displayed in North America for the first time in the Tenacity exhibit. In addition to this world-renowned European artifact, the museum collected common household goods that enslaved servants like Angelo would have recognized, such as earthenware from archaeological sites in Virginia.

Tenacity, therefore, stands as a testament to the fact we can indeed tell the stories of intentionally obscured or unwittingly overlooked historical figures if we are willing to bring in diverse pieces of evidence scattered across the spectrum of the historical or archeological record in what Mrs. Gruber descried as “a coming together.”


Horn, James P. P.
2018     1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy. Basic Book, New York, NY.

McCartney, Martha
2006    Cockacoeske. In Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, Sara B. Bearss, editor, pp. 321–322.

Rountree, Helen C.
1998    Powhatan Indian Women: The People Captain John Smith Barely Saw. Ethnohistory 45(1):1-29.

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