For many years, Virginia history enthusiasts have resorted to using transcripts, facsimiles and published versions of key documents that shed light on important events in early Virginia. In the red-letter year of 2019, marking the 400th anniversary of several Virginia firsts, British repositories have lent several original documents for public display at Jamestown Settlement, for the first time since they were written! Shortly these precious documents will head back to England, where, the lending institutions tell us, they will not be available for public exhibition for many years.
The story and legacy of the meeting of the first General Assembly would not have been complete without the loan of John Pory’s “Proceedings of the General Assembly, July 30, 1619” from The National Archives, U.K. Key pages are on display, including the list of the men who sat in the Jamestown church in July and August 1619, representing Virginia settlers. When current members of the Virginia General Assembly held a joint commemorative session at Jamestown Settlement on July 30, 2019, several of them, upon viewing the documents, were excited to see the same places that they represent today listed in Pory’s “Proceedings”! These documents are on exhibit in Jamestown Settlement’s permanent gallery exhibits through March 2020.
Jamestown Settlement also has proudly hosted two pages from The National Archives, U.K., documenting the presence of one of the first recorded Africans in Virginia, and the only one named – Angelo. Each page represents a census taken in Virginia. Officials compiled the 1624 “Lists of the Livinge and the Dead in Virginia” following a 1622 Powhatan Indian attack which started a war with the English. Here we see the entry, “Angelo a Negar.” In the 1625 “Muster of the Inhabitants of Virginia,” she appears as “Angelo, a Negro woman in the Treasurer.” The entries clearly place her in service in the household of William and Joan Peirce. The minutes of the 1619 Assembly and these census documents have not been back to Virginia since they were recorded here in 1619, 1624 and 1625.
Another British institution, Magdalene College at Cambridge University, loaned the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation pages from a collection of family and business records called the Ferrar Papers. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation staff approached Magdalene College about the loan of specific pages that record the names, ages, skills and recommendations for 56 tenacious women recruited and shipped to Virginia as wives for settlers in 1621. These documents sit in a prominent place in the center of our successful exhibition, “TENACITY: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia.” Given their exposure to light levels while here, staff has rotated the pages so only one is on exhibit at a particular time.
The documents on display are almost 400 years old. They have survived because of the careful stewardship of their home institutions, who have worked with the Foundation’s curatorial staff to limit the documents’ exposure to light while on exhibition. It’s important to remember that light exposure is cumulative – and so is the damage that it causes. To mitigate further light exposure, when these documents return to their home institutions they will rest in storage. One of the documents in “TENACITY,” the 1624 “Lists of the Livinge and the Dead,” won’t be available for public display for 27 years!
So, time is running out! “TENACITY” closes January 5, 2020. At that point these amazing, one-of-a-kind precious pieces of paper – the documents listing Angelo and the 56 English women to the colony – will leave Virginia again to go back to the storage vaults for safe-keeping. In March, the pages from John Pory’s “Proceedings” also will be removed from exhibit. We encourage you to come see them before they’re gone from the public eye and return to the archives.
By Nancy Egloff, Jamestown Settlement historian, and Katherine Egner Gruber, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation special exhibition curator.