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Tenacious Relations

William Peirce household

Captain William Peirce household on Jamestown Island, 1625. A conjectural representation informed by research of architectural historians, historians and archaeologists. Rob Wood / Wood Ronsaville Harlin, Inc.

What links the Powhatan Indian woman Pocahontas, the English women Joane and Joane Peirce, and the west central African woman Angelo? Jamestown settler William Peirce!

All these women are featured in “TENACITY: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia,” a special exhibition on display at Jamestown Settlement through January 5, 2020, revealing how a number of Virginia’s first tenacious women became interconnected through one family headed by William Peirce.

In Summer 1609, Joane Peirce, her husband William and daughter Joane began their journey to England’s new colony as part of a fleet of nine vessels carrying 500 men, women and children to re-supply Virginia’s population and necessary goods. Inexplicably, mother and daughter traveled on the ship Blessing while father William sailed on the Sea Venture. A summer hurricane developed in the Atlantic Ocean directly in the path of the fleet and scattered the vessels. While one vessel was lost, seven made it to Jamestown in the late summer, including the Blessing with mother and daughter Peirce. However, the Sea Venture wrecked on the coral reefs of Bermuda with 150 people aboard, including husband and father William Peirce.

In Bermuda, the colonists made due and prospered, going about the activities of life, creating shelter, obtaining food and marrying, with two women giving birth. One of these was Mistress Rolfe, first wife of John Rolfe, both of whom also sailed on the Sea Venture. Sadly, the Rolfe child and perhaps her mother died on the islands (or Mistress Rolfe may have died soon after arriving in Virginia), while John Rolfe and William Peirce, along with most of the other shipwrecked colonists, finished their journey to Virginia on two newly constructed ships in May 1610.

When the widower John Rolfe reached Virginia in 1610, having somehow obtained the seed of a sweet type of tobacco grown in the Spanish colonies, he began planting this type of tobacco which was favored by the English. Over the course of time, he met Pocahontas, a young Powhatan Indian woman and daughter of paramount chief Powhatan. The English had kidnapped Pocahontas during a period of conflict between the settlers and the Indians, and they continued to keep her after her father refused to return all of the English prisoners and weapons his warriors had seized. They taught her English ways and religion, baptizing her as “Rebecca.” In 1614, she married widower and tobacco entrepreneur John Rolfe, and they had a child. Unfortunately, when the Virginia Company sent the Rolfe family to England on a promotional tour in 1616-17, Pocahontas/Rebecca died and was buried in England in 1617.

John Rolfe left his son in the care of his English relatives and returned to Virginia as a widower for the second time. There, he served as secretary of the colony and may have worked with William Peirce, who had arrived from Bermuda with him in 1610.

Peirce had reunited with his wife and daughter, both of whom had tenaciously survived the awful winter of 1609-10, filled with starvation, disease and an Indian siege. The Peirce family acquired tracts of land in various locations in Virginia and Peirce would come to hold several offices in the capital at Jamestown. It was said that Joane Peirce could “keepe a better house in Virginia, than . . . in London for 3 or 400 pounds a yeare.” Sometime after John Rolfe’s 1617 return from England, the Peirce daughter Joane became Rolfe’s third wife. They had a daughter and probably lived on the Peirce property on Jamestown Island, although Rolfe did own land at Mulberry Island, down river from Jamestown.

In 1619, the governor sent William Peirce, along with John Rolfe and another colonist, to Point Comfort at the mouth of the James River, to meet the privateering ship Treasurer coming into port. This ship, along with another privateer, brought the first documented Africans to Virginia, including a woman named Angelo. These people came from west central Africa on a Portuguese slave ship enroute to Vera Cruz, in today’s Mexico. While at sea, the privateers attacked the Portuguese slave ship, confiscating around 60 Africans and taking 30-some to Virginia where they traded the people for supplies to continue their privateering exploits.

Angelo may have worked for the Peirce household in the capital at Jamestown soon after her arrival in 1619. At her Jamestown home, mother Joane Peirce cultivated a large garden and raised figs, perhaps assisted early on by her daughter Joane and then by Angelo. She was certainly there by 1624 according to a census record at that time, as Angelo appears in the Peirce household in the 1625 “Muster of the Inhabitants of Virginia,” along with three English servants. Her story after 1625 is unknown.

The Peirce family is one of many examples that illustrate how early Virginia settlers became interconnected through marriage, death and remarriage. In this particular example, the lives of women of three differing cultures connected in one extended family.

By Nancy Egloff, Historian, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

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