Shannon Bremer- The Invisibles: Women and the History of Jamestown

When people first think of Jamestown, they think of gold, John Smith, and Native Americans. The only female that comes to mind at all is usually Pocahontas. But the history and importance of women at Jamestown is so much more than just Pocahontas, as the 1619 class learned on our trip to Jamestown Settlement last week.

            When we first arrived at Jamestown Settlement, we headed outside into the recreated Powhatan village. When not surrounded by a ton of school kids there on field trips, we were able to speak with the interpreters about the tasks they were performing across the village. Seeing the yi-hakans, or long houses, and daily tasks of both men and women that we had learned about in the classroom come to life before our eyes was very cool. It was almost like being a little kid again; learning new things through extensive hands-on experiences. The one activity all of us thoroughly enjoyed was learning how Natives American’s would make rope using plant fibers, including from the yucca plant. Several of us took turns weaving our own strand, which followed a pattern almost similar to making friendship bracelets.

            Helen Rountree argues that, “women’s work in the Powhatan world was at least as varied as men’s work,” much of which she learned through experience by engaging in these day to day tasks (Rountree 1998:4). One of the ways she gained knowledge about the lives of Native women was by visiting Jamestown Settlement’s Native American village. I found Rountree’s experience to be similar to mine; women would complete many different tasks from making bone tools and farming to sewing and preparing the animal hides for clothing. In this section of Jamestown Settlement, there were several female interpreters, explaining the work that Native women would complete on a daily basis. This trend, however, did not continue as we moved into the fort section.

            Once in the fort section, we learned about medical practices and experienced gun and cannon demonstrations. Within the fort, I noticed that only a few of the interpreters were women. The women that were interpreters were dressed as men, as was the case with a sailor we chatted with. But there were no female interpreters portraying the important influence of women in Jamestown. This we learned from our tour of the new special exhibit, Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia, with Kate Gruber (UMW alumna and Curator of Special Exhibits at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation), is mainly due to the fact that the period portrayed (1614) in James Fort is dated to before the arrival of a large number of English women to Jamestown in 1620.

            The Tenacity exhibit was extremely eye-opening and informative. There were several interactive spaces where you could learn more about the women of Jamestown: the people that had a profound impact on the survival of Jamestown, but were seemingly invisible to modern visitors until now. One of the most important groups of women to come to Jamestown were the “Jamestown wives” who arrived to the colony in 1620 (Zug 2012:88-89). In 1619, Sir Edwin Sandys, the treasurer of the Virginia Company, proposed sending “marriageable women” to Jamestown to save the colony from going under (Zug 2012:88-89). The introduction of these women kept the men from returning to England as well as prevented them from marrying Native American women (Zug 2012:89). The exhibit went into great depth about the arrival of these women as well as the other women, including both Native and African, that were crucial to the survival of Jamestown during the first few decades of colonization. Tenacity tells the stories of these women to a broader audience, no longer keeping them invisible, but portraying them as agents of change in a 400-year story.

Works Cited

Rountree, Helen C.

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

Zug, Marcia

2012    Lonely Colonist Seeks Wife: The Forgotten History of America’s First Mail Order Brides. Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy 20(1):85-125.

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