Today at The Junto, Philippe Halbert interviews Katherine Egner Gruber, who is Special Exhibition Curator at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, a state agency that operates two living history museums in Virginia. This Q&A focuses on her most recent exhibition, Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia, which opened at Jamestown Settlement in November of 2018 and runs through January of 2020. She was also responsible for content oversight of the Yorktown American Revolution Museum‘s award-winning introductory film, Liberty Fever, and contributed to the development of new galleries that opened there in 2015. Kate earned a bachelor’s degree in historic preservation and classical humanities from the University of Mary Washington and a master’s degree in American history from the College of William and Mary.
JUNTO: Congratulations, Kate, on Tenacity, and thank you for agreeing to talk to us about this exciting and important exhibition! 2019 marks several landmark historic anniversaries in Virginia. Can you tell us about the exhibit’s role in commemorating these events? What were your goals for this particular project?
KATE: The Commonwealth of Virginia is acknowledging four historic events that took place in 1619: the first legislative assembly meeting at Jamestown; the first official English Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation; the arrival of the first documented Africans; and the recruitment of Englishwomen to join the colonists in Virginia. While Tenacity touches, perhaps indirectly, on all four of these significant events, we took this opportunity to more fully explore the theme of women in early Virginia. Our overarching goal was simply to speak the names of the women who have been, for so long, written out of traditional narratives. To give them a voice, to tell their stories. To reinsert women— Virginia Indian, African, and English— into their rightful place in history. But even further, we wanted our visitors to feel connected to these women, to see themselves in this history, and to feel that the bond that we share in our common humanity is stronger than the 400 years that separate us.
JUNTO: The story of Jamestown might be well known, but you approached the wider history of seventeenth-century Virginia in some really innovative and compelling ways using traditional sources, objects, and interactive components. What was your method? Was there anything in Tenacity that took things somewhere new or unexpected, or sources that stood out for you in your research?
KATE: At the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, we excel at telling personal stories, and that skill really shines in Tenacity. We wanted to tell as many of these women’s stories as we could, to introduce as many women as possible, and to constantly encourage our visitors to confront this untold or forgotten part of Virginia’s founding era. People ask all the time, “what new stories did you uncover for this exhibition?” The unfortunate truth is that none of these stories are really new, per say. They are just tragically underutilized and untold. We’re changing that, but interrupting the traditional Anglo- or male-centric narrative is itself seen by some as unexpected. You can tell a comprehensive (a much more comprehensive) history of early Virginia through the lives of women who were here. The story of James Fort, for example, can be told from the perspective of Powhatan women who witnessed the Englishmen’s arrival in 1607. That same history can be recovered through the artifacts they left behind and which speak to their presence within the fort itself, their daily lives, and their contributions. The very survival of the Englishmen in those earliest days is, in part, due to Powhatan women! That’s unexpected for many people, and also a great way for me to answer the second part of your question.
The sources that stood out and have been the most illuminating are the artifacts. Of course we have important documents on display in the exhibit, with some being shown in the United States for the very first time. But for the most part, as you know, the stories of women and their everyday lives just don’t make it into the history books let alone primary documents. For the majority of women in this period, we may only have their names on a census, in a ship’s log, or maybe a record of their marriage or death.
Unless they got into trouble, challenged societal norms, or were outliers in some other way, we have many silences when it comes to women in traditional documentation. We have to read between those lines and read into those silences. And thankfully, we have a wealth of material in the archaeological record and in the surviving objects of the 17th century, both of which speak to women’s lives, experiences, and contributions. We’ve curated the exhibit with some surprising artifacts you might not immediately connect to stories of women, but if we’ve done our job, those connections become obvious, and hopefully you’ll see women’s lives—and their tenacious spirits—everywhere you look in your studies of early America.
JUNTO: You showcase the lives and legacies of several fascinating women from across the social spectrum of the early Chesapeake. Among these, Cockacoeske might not be a household name today, but what is her story?
KATE: Oh but she should be. Cockacoeske was really tenacious, and her legacies are present in Virginia today. The English called her “Queen” of the Pamunkey. In 1677, after Bacon’s Rebellion, Cockacoeske met with the English and negotiated what became the Treaty of Middle Plantation. The articles of that treaty are actually still enforced to this day, and in 2016 the Pamunkey became the first Virginia tribe to receive federal recognition. This is in many ways a legacy of Cockacoeske’s tenacious leadership, diplomacy, and political acumen.
JUNTO: Related to that last question, I found the figure of Jane Hill fascinating, especially in how you staged her story in the exhibit. Can you describe that installation?
KATE: When we first started planning the exhibit people asked us, “oh but what artifacts will you have to tell women’s stories?” You’ve hit on such a great example of how we’ve used ordinary, everyday objects to tell powerful stories of women in early Virginia. In 1627, the General Court found Jane Hill guilty of fornication, and her punishment was to stand before her congregation in church wearing a white sheet. The goal was to publicly shame Jane, and it must have been truly humiliating to stand in front of her community in such a manner. There was no better way to illustrate this powerful moment in Jane’s life than with an actual 17th-century white linen sheet, which is on loan from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Casting an interpretive spotlight on Jane Hill in the exhibition was the brainchild of my colleague, Bly Straube. She’s written more about the subject on our blog here
JUNTO: The exhibit presents a range of material and visual culture that speaks to a variety of themes. The chance to see a period ducking chair was, for me, a pretty sobering moment. Do you have a favorite piece or grouping of objects on display?
KATE: The ducking chair is very special and will be on view in our permanent exhibition galleries after Tenacity. The white sheet is also a favorite of mine because it’s such an unexpected way to tell a powerful story. But we have over 60 objects from 20 domestic and international lenders and they all have powerful stories to tell. We’re honored to have on display the 1623/24 Census of Virginia and the 1624/25 Muster of Virginia, both on loan from the National Archives of the United Kingdom. These two documents are the precious little we have regarding Angelo, the first documented African woman in Virginia. To see her name on these two documents is a very powerful experience, especially now as we acknowledge her arrival 400 years ago.
It’s really the whole assemblage of these materials together, under one roof and in one exhibition, that’s the most powerful thing for me. Some of these artifacts were created or used right here in James City County. Some of them have lived their whole lives in the United Kingdom and are here for the very first time. Regardless, all of these objects and documents are somehow reunited, finally together telling the very stories they were meant to tell all along. Giving voice to the voiceless, standing witness to the lives that played out right here in the 17th century, breaking the silence that has for too long been allowed to persist in the historical record.
JUNTO: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be interested in seventeenth-century Virginia?
KATE: I’ve always been interested in history and early America specifically, even from a really young age. Archaeology was always fascinating to me; as a little kid I even dug tiny holes in our backyard (sorry, Mom). As I got older I took field schools and classes in archaeology and quickly learned that I delighted in the stories that the stuff of our lives can tell. I’m thankful to be a NIAHD Pre-Collegiate alum, and I hold a B.A. in historic preservation and an M.A. in early American history. For most of my career I’ve worked more on the 18th century, particularly the American Revolution. In my role as Special Exhibition Curator for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, I get to have one foot in each century at Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. It’s been rewarding to connect the dots between the two in a public history setting.
JUNTO: If you could offer one takeaway from Tenacity for early Americanists writ large, what would it be?
KATE: To tell the stories of early America is to tell the stories of women. Find them between the lines, see their lives in what survives, and break the silence!
Wonderful work and description of a passionate life!