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Giving a Fig about History

Fresh exhibits at Jamestown Settlement feature several new colorful graphics drawn by modern artists to help bring the 17th century back to life for the visiting public. Production of these graphics involved much more than meets the eye. Museum curators had to work very closely with the illustrators to ensure that all the details were correct to the period. These included such things as the clothing and activities of any people depicted, the objects they were using, and the settings in which they were placed. Not all aspects of everyday life in the colony have been documented, so in many cases we made “educated guesses” based on research from a range of scholars including archaeologists, architectural historians, material culture specialists, folklorists, costume specialists and historians.

William Peirce house

This graphic in Jamestown Settlement gallery exhibits depicts the household of Captain William Peirce on Jamestown Island as it may have appeared in 1625. Rob Wood, WRH Illustration.

One of the new graphics in the gallery illustrates an interpretation of Angelo’s life at Jamestown. Angelo is the first African documented by name to arrive in Virginia. We know little personal information about her such as her age, what she looked like, or what her life had been like in West Central Africa. We do know that she stepped ashore in the area of today’s Hampton from the English privateering vessel the Treasurer in late August or early September 1619. By 1625, she was living on Jamestown Island and, along with three English servants, was part of the household of Captain William Peirce and his wife, Joane.

Peirce’s house, the “fairest in Virginia,” reflects the type of architecture seen in 17th-century East Anglia, the English region from which he is believed to have emigrated. Detail, Rob Wood, WRH Illustration.

Using research by historian Martha McCartney on the locations of property holdings at Historic Jamestowne, archaeologists with the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation have been searching for any physical remains of the Peirce home. Even if traces are found by archaeologists, these won’t tell us for certain about the appearance of the structure as it stood on the landscape. For that kind of information, we contacted Dr. Cary Carson, renowned architectural historian, editor of The Chesapeake House (2013), and retired vice president for research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. We asked Dr. Carson what a house described in 1623 as being “the fairest in Virginia” should look like.

Dr. Carson selected a style of house typically built in the East Anglia region of England based on Ms. McCartney’s historical research that suggested Captain William Peirce may have come from that area. The Peirce house, therefore, is depicted in our graphic with a reed-thatched roof, heavily framed walls and an open porch lobby entrance. A front-facing gable includes a window to light the hall chamber. Dr. Carson conjectured that the interior of the house had three principal rooms: a parlor, which would be the best room and sleeping chamber; the hall with kitchen and dining area; and an unheated storage room known as the buttery. Upstairs rooms in the attic probably accommodated bedchambers and space for storage. The internal chimney stack is shown as brick rather than clay because this is supposed to be the “fairest house” in the colony and, by the time Peirces’ house was built, there were several colonists associated with brickmaking and bricklaying. The structure visible behind the house is a tobacco barn reflecting the fact that Peirce was appointed to collect tobacco from the colony’s taxpayers in support of building a new fortification.

cows on Peirce farm

Large numbers of cattle, such as these multi-colored longhorns, were imported from England and Ireland to establish Virginia’s herd. Peirce owned 20 head of cattle in 1625. Detail, Rob Wood, WRH Illustration.

The inventory of Captain William Peirces’ household in the 1625 muster of the colony indicates that he owned livestock including goats, pigs and 20 head of cattle. The various colors of the longhorns chosen to represent Peirce’s herd are typical of cattle in England and Ireland at the time and are described in the colonial records. Before 1625, colonists depended on imported cattle to increase their herds, and it was an expensive proposition. In 1620, for instance, one “cattleman” who later settled in Virginia, Daniel Gookin, contracted with the Virginia Company to transport “fayre and Lardge Cattle of our English breed” from Ireland. His price was 11 pounds sterling or 130 pounds of tobacco for each female cow. To put this in perspective, just two years later the amount charged an eligible planter for one of the brides recruited by the Virginia Company was 150 pounds of tobacco!

Primarily used for meat, cheese, butter, milk and leather goods, cattle thrived in early Virginia. This can be seen, not only from census records [500 head of cattle were present in 1620], but also in the size of cow bones found archaeologically. According to zooarchaeologist Joanne Bowen, the stature of cows declined by the 18th century as a result of stresses caused by the growth in population of both people and domesticated animals as well as the depletion of nutrients in the soil from corn and tobacco cultivation.

You might notice that the wattle fencing consisting of woven saplings is surrounding the crops of corn and tobacco rather than confining the cattle. Planters chose to let their animals forage for themselves in the fields, woods and marshes while they enclosed their gardens. Free-ranging livestock became such a problem in the colony by 1642 that laws were passed requiring planters to “make a sufficient fence” around their crops so that any who failed to do so were responsible for their losses.

figs on Peirce farm

Mrs. Joane Peirce’s prolific fig orchard is represented by Brunswick (Silver Leaf) fig trees, a type that still grows in Virginia today. Detail, Rob Wood, WRH Illustration.

In the upper left of the graphic, you will see a stand of small trees backing up to the Pitch and Tar Swamp. This is the historically documented fig-tree orchard of Joane Peirce, wife of Captain William Peirce. We don’t know how large the orchard was or even what type of fig was being grown. We do know that Mistress Peirce was described as “an honest, industrious woman,” and that she appeared to have had a green thumb, especially with figs. Captain John Smith recorded that Peirce had a three or four acre garden from which she “gathered neere a hundred bushels of excellent figges” in 1629. A bushel in the 17th century weighed about 64 pounds!

With this bit of historical information to guide us in our depiction of the Peirce garden, we still needed to know the variety of figs and how many trees would be needed to yield 100 bushels. For this, we turned to Dr. Bernard L. Herman, professor of American Studies and Folklore at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who knows a lot about historic figs. He suggested we depict the Brunswick (Silver Leaf), which has been identified as one of the three oldest fig varietals in English North America. Some of these sturdy trees still grow in remote areas of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. As Dr. Herman explained in his book A South You Never Ate, these figs “are essentially clones of much earlier root stock.” This is because they do not reproduce by seeds in the Americas as this process relies on an exotic wasp that is not present. Propagation through the years relied on cuttings from a tree or bending branches down and burying them. As a result, explained Dr. Hermann, “the fig is one of the few flavors to survive from the early modern world.”

Native to Asia, the fig was first introduced to England five years after its 1520 arrival in the New World by a shipment from Spain to Hispaniola in the West Indies. Decades later, fig plants are documented as growing in Spanish settlements in Florida and South Carolina. The first figs in Virginia may have arrived in December 1621 when the Concord sailed in from Bermuda. The Bermuda governor, Nathaniel Butler, had sent “two large cedar chests wherein were fitted all such kindes and sortes of the country plants and fruits as their Iland had as figgs, pomegranates, oranges, lemons, plantanes, sugar canes, potatoes, and cassada rootes, papawes, red-pepper, the pritle peare, and the like.” One chest was intended for Governor Francis Wyatt and one for ex-governor George Yeardley. Could they have shared their fig plants with the Peirces? Maybe so, as we know from historical documentation that Governor Wyatt and William Peirce were close friends, and Peirce had not only served as Lieutenant Governor under Yeardley but had been shipwrecked with him in Bermuda for several months in 1609-10. However, Mistress Peirce would require more trees than two large chests could contain.  According to Dr. Herman, a mature Brunswick fig could yield about three bushels, so to gather 100 bushels in 1629, there would have to be about 36 trees.

It appears from the historical record that Governor Wyatt’s appetite had been whetted by the Bermuda shipment because after setting out “the various West India fruits and plants received by the Concord,” he sent a ship to Bermuda “laden with aqua vitae, sack, oil, and bricks” to exchange for goods including “plants and herbs of all sorts.” Presumably figs were part of the continuing trade as Captain John Smith mentioned in 1629 that the previously planted figs that had “prospered exceedingly” were beginning to revive after a period of time when planters were diverted by tobacco and the plants had been “spoiled by cattel.” Even though figs appeared to thrive in the Virginia climate, Robert Beverley noted in 1705 that “there are not ten People in the Country that have any of them in their Gardens.” Vulnerable to spoilage from bruising and insect infestation, figs—unlike plums or grapes—are difficult to preserve by drying. California has been the only area in the United States where they have been commercially grown.

This leads to the big question: what was Mistress Peirce planning to do with all her figs? The most likely answer is that she or someone in the colony was fermenting and distilling the fruit for wine. One court case reveals that in 1635 a churchwarden of the parish in Elizabeth City brought “figg drink and coarse bread” to church as elements of Holy Communion. Fig wine may have substituted for wine made from grapes when the latter was in short supply, but the outcome of the court case suggests that it was not preferred. The churchwarden in question was found to have wine at home and was fined and jailed for his actions!

A final note about figs brings us back to Angelo who, while living with the Peirces, may have worked in Mistress Peirce’s garden and helped harvest the prolific fig crop. One hundred and fifty years later, fig aficionado Thomas Jefferson is documented as successfully growing them at his Monticello Plantation. In a 1787 letter, he advocated using enslaved women and children to gather the crop as they “are often employed in labours disproportioned to their sex and age.” Jefferson felt this would be a lighter and easier task for “the tender part of our species” and remove “all temptation to misemploy them.” Dr. Hermann points out that, contrary to Jefferson’s opinion, the reality of picking and processing figs on Southern plantations was a heavy seasonal effort. Angelo, enslaved by the Portuguese and then sold into bound servitude to Captain William Peirce may have been the first woman of African descent to labor in Virginia’s fig culture, but she was not the last.

Bly Straube, Ph.D., FSA
Senior Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Selected Sources

Virginia DeJohn Anderson (2002) “Animals into the Wilderness: the Development of Livestock Husbandry in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake,” William and Mary Quarterly 59:2, pp. 377-408.

Louise A. Breen (2012) Converging Worlds: Communities and Culture in Colonial America. New York: Routledge.

Alexander Brown (1898) The First Republic in America. Boston. pp. 461 and 464.

Cary Carson and Carl L. Lounsbury (eds) (2013) The Chesapeake House. Williamsburg: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Cary Carson et al. “New World, Real World: Improvising English Culture in Seventeenth-Century Virginia,” The Journal of Southern History 74:1, pp. 31-88.

Ira J. Condit (1957) “Fig History in the New World,” Agricultural History 31:2, 19-24.

Bernard L. Herman (2019) A South You Never Ate: Savoring Flavors and Stories from the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Wesley N. Laing (1959) “Cattle in Seventeenth-Century Virginia,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 67:2, pp. 143-163.

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