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This is Done by Their Women

March 30, 2011

One of the first Englishwomen in the Jamestown settlement said she came looking to marry a sturdy man "who has proved he can survive."

The Powhatan Indian women who lived nearby fit that description pretty well, too.

As Melanie Wright told a crowd about how Powhatan women used an animal's brains to soften its hide, she said, "It's a strenuous process. You need a lot of upper body strength to do it. These aren't little princesses, these are working women."

"Anne Burras" speaks to visitors in the Historic Jamestowne Visitor Center
"Anne Burras" speaks to visitors in the Historic Jamestowne Visitor Center
Wright and an interpreter portraying Englishwoman Anne Burras both appeared in the Historic Jamestowne Visitor Center on March 26 for the program "This is Done by Their Women." About 70 people attended each of two presentations of the National Women's History Month program offered by Historic Jamestowne and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Burras arrived in Virginia in 1608 with high hopes of success and even higher expectations of how her new world would be constructed. But her first sight of the Jamestown settlement was a shock.

"I thought that by now we would have all the comforts of home. But when I saw the fort, I thought -- to speak the truth -- that we had landed at an Indian village!" the Burras character told the crowd.

Burras arrived as the 14-year-old maid to Martha Forrest. She spoke to the modern audience as if she had just arrived to the settlement full of gentlemen seeking a quick fortune and quick return to England.

"The only way Virginia is going to be what they want it to be -- the only way -- is if it is to be home," she said. "They need women to make it home."

The Burras character spoke not knowing what was in store for her: that Forrest was so ill from the Atlantic Ocean crossing, she died within a month in Virginia. Burras herself married carpenter John Laydon within two months of her arrival and gave birth to a daughter named Virginia in December 1609.

Anne and John eventually had four daughters and owned hundreds of acres in the Henrico settlement. The last known record of Anne being alive was in 1630. She hinted at her goals to the modern audience.

"Virginia is like a great piece of land that you intend to till up to a garden," Burras said.

Other women were already tilling the land in 1608. The Powhatan women planted corn, beans, and squash together in a mound because that shape held moisture in the soil, and as corn took nitrogen out of the soil, beans put it back in, Wright said.

That work was done in a Powhatan society that was specific about the jobs men and women did, Wright said. "Women are the gardeners."

Wright is a veteran interpreter of the Algonquian Chesapeake tribes. She showed how animal rib bones became needles for sewing reed mats onto the Algonquian longhouses and how deer antlers became gardening rakes or awls to punch holes in deer hides.

"These women are able to turn these things into very sophisticated tools," Wright told the crowd.

Visitor Vernon Bartlett of Goldsboro, NC, was most interested in Wright's discussion of using animal brains to soften the hides. (She told the crowd, "When you mix it up, it looks a little like a strawberry milkshake. It doesn't smell too bad.")

Bartlett said after the program, "She was pretty authoritative on that. I tanned a cowhide just last week, and she was right: you could use three or four dogs to do a deer hide, but the exact recipe to tan that animal's hide is to use that exact animal's brain."

Historic Jamestowne is jointly administered by Preservation Virginia and the National Park Service and preserves the original site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Preservation Virginia and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation formed collaboration in the fall of 2010 to connect their histories through compelling stories of discovery, diversity, and democracy.

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