Tenacity exhibition focuses on experience of women during early Virginia history

Staff writer

Jamestown Settlement’s special exhibition “Tenacity,” a cornerstone of the 2019 Commemoration, opens to the public Saturday.

The exhibition seeks to shine a stronger light on the role of women in the colony’s early years with digital exhibits and artifacts never before shown at the museum.

2019 Commemoration, American Evolution is a national commemoration of the 400th anniversary of important historical events that happened in Virginia in 1619.

That was the year the first English representative legislature convened in North America, and the year the first recorded Africans were brought to English North America.

It’s also the year English women were first recruited in significant numbers to join the fledgling English colony.

Pushed by economic hardship, young English women journeyed to the Jamestown colony to find husbands. The arrival of women fostered stability with the creation of families and children. Women brought specialized skills such as beer brewing, a key to survival in a world were water wasn’t always safe to drink. The presence of English women also communicated to Native Americans the English were here to stay, said Misha Ewen, a University of Manchester research fellow who was a guest speaker at a first-look event for the exhibition Thursday.

The exhibition runs Saturday until Jan. 5, 2020, at Jamestown Settlement.

With some finishing touches still to be done Thursday, the exhibition made itself clear as a testament to the trials and triumphs of women in the early years of colonial Virginia.

With more than 5,000 square feet of exhibition space, “Tenacity” brings more than 60 artifacts, some of which are in the United States for the first time, related to the female experience in early America to the forefront.

Those artifacts, along with digital and interactive exhibits focus on the lives of eight key women of the English, African and Native American cultures who came into contact at Jamestown, though there are a total of 30 women featured in all. Those women include Anne Burras Laydon, an Englishwoman who arrived as a 14-year-old in the New World in time to survive the starving time in the winter of 1609-1610 and Mary Johnson, who arrived as a slave but later became a free landowner and Cockacoeske, the leader of the Pamunkey who helped broker the Treaty of Middle Plantation, which put several tribes under her rule.

Artifacts range from the mundane — clothing and jewelry — to instruments of punishment.

Among the artifacts is a white linen sheet. Seemingly innocuous, women were forced to wear the sheet as a public punishment for sexual crimes, such as adultery. There’s also a dunking chair, which was used to punish women who gossiped by dunking them into water.

“It really speaks to the challenges a woman faced navigating a man’s world,” curator Bly Straube said.

Alongside is a Legacy Wall, which is a digital interactive exhibit where visitors can learn the stories of women from 1607 to the present as they related to themes of citizenship, marriage, health care, education and occupation.

A centerpiece of the exhibition, the Ferrar Papers, is a Virginia Company document detailing names, qualifications and references of many of the 56 English women recruited to go to Virginia in 1621. Visitors can explore the papers with two interactive screens in the center of the exhibition.

The interactive exhibition allows visitors to learn about the women and their lives as they stood on the cusp of making history. The exhibition’s renderings of the document are so detailed, a user can see the ink stains on the paper. It also features modern-day translations of the text.

“It provides access and delves deeper in a way the actual papers do not,” curator Katherine Egner Gruber said. “The artifacts tell the stories of real women making real history.”

‘Tenacity’

When: The exhibition runs Saturday until Jan. 5, 2020. Jamestown Settlement is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day (until 6 p.m. June 15 to Aug. 15).

Where: Jamestown Settlement, 2110 Jamestown Road

Cost: Entry is included with regular museum admission. Admission is $17 for adults, $8 for children ages 6-12 and free for children younger than 6 in 2018. Admission increases in 2019 to $17.50 for adults and $8.25 for children ages 6-12.

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, jojacobs@vagazette.com, @jajacobs_

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