William & Mary

Women at Jamestowne: Wheless '18 explores their history and legacy

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For 400 years, the history of race and gender in America has been in the making, starting with the women of Jamestowne, Falicity Wheless ‘18 suggests.

In 1619, the Virginia Company of London began soliciting women to travel to Jamestowne in order to “make wifes to the inhabitants and by that meanes to make the men there more settled and lesse moveable.” The next year, 90 “younge, handsome and honestly educated maydes” were shipped to the colony.

Their insertion into the white, male-dominated society raised political, social and legal issues that, in some cases, remain unresolved, Wheless said.

Wheless, a member of William & Mary’s National Institute of American History and Democracy (NIAHD), created a guided tour at Historic Jamestowne focusing specifically on the experiences of women — native, white and African — as part of the requirements for the course Field School in Public History (Hist. 408-01).

“I wanted to go beyond the narratives of either the victimization or the strong and courageous fighter,” Wheless explained. “I wanted to see not only how women reacted to patriarchal authority but how those patriarchs reacted to women, reacted to the threats these women posed to their plans.”

As she re-created the tour days before her graduation in December, she stopped at the community well, from which pottery shards created by Powhatan women have been excavated. She described the intricacies of the original pieces, suggesting that the very nature of the industry “challenged English notions of womanhood” because in England such trade-craft was considered “man’s work.” Before leaving the spot, she commented on the skull of a woman once deposited in the well. Archaeologists call the woman Jane. They conjecture the servant girl was butchered during the Starving Time, Wheless said.

“Her body was thrown into what essentially was a dumpster,” Wheless remarked. ”You can see how notions of a servants’ worth inform successive generations.”

As Wheless continued, she commented upon women who interacted with the local court.

Eliizabeth Key, born of an enslaved African mother and an English father, sued for her freedom and for that of her son claiming that she was a baptized member of the Anglican Church and that he was the son of a free man. In 1655 she won her freedom. In reaction, the patriarchs made a law in 1662 that a child inherits the status of the mother and in 1667 that baptism no longer changes one’s status, Wheless explained.

Julie Richter, interim director of NIAHD, recalled taking one of her daughters on Wheless’s tour.

“As a historian, I know that Falicity put in a lot of work to select the information that she included, and she did an excellent job in identifying the key aspects of 17th-century laws that shaped the lives of all women — white, native and black,” Richter said. “Falicity held everyone’s attention because she clearly explained why the tour was important to her and why it is important to learn about the lives of women.”

Now that four centuries have passed, Wheless believes that museums and other entities that engage public history need to re-evaluate their presentations and give insight into how the experiences of women in Jamestowne got intertwined with formative ideas of racism.

“It’s not my job as a public historian to tell people what to think and to tell people what the answer is,” Wheless said.  “It is to see that some of the things we grappled with 400 years ago are what we are grappling with today, and in some cases we’re not getting a clear answer to them.”