A woman’s foot, clad in a beautiful leather shoe appropriate for walking the paved streets of London, steps into a muddy Jamestown puddle. This image from the opening sequence of the “Jamestown” TV Series captures in an instant the realities so at odds with the expectations probably held by the early 17th-century women who had been recruited as brides for the Jamestown colonists. We say “probably” because so little is known about these women. They didn’t pen their own stories and are only peripherally written about by men in the Virginia colony—usually because they had “misbehaved” in some way! But English women were present at Jamestown since 1608 and played an active role not only in stabilizing the colony but in influencing change.
The “Jamestown” series is historical fiction. Not all the material culture or costuming is right and the facts are conflated to make a good story. But it is a good story because, as fiction, it can venture into unwritten emotional experiences. What must it have been like for the women who ventured to Virginia with hopes of a better life?
The series focuses on three women from different backgrounds. Jocelyn is upper class, Alice is a farmer’s daughter, and Verity is a thief newly-released from prison. But their situations at Jamestown – where they are a minority, where they are physically and emotionally isolated from friends and family, and where they are living in a society in flux – draws them together as women. At one point in the first episode Joselyn, who we have seen pounding her dusty bedsheets in frustration after being told they were clean, tells Alice, who has been abused by her intended husband, that “we are sisters of a sort.” This emotional commonality is at the heart of what is so good about “Jamestown” and also will underlie a special exhibition opening in November at the Jamestown Settlement. “Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia“ will highlight true stories of early Virginia women and their impacts on the colonial society. The exhibition will tie the history of these women to contemporary issues, illuminating how women are active agents that have made and continue to make a difference in the world today.
By Bly Straube, Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation