Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Temperance Flowerdew

By Denise Heinze

There’s no telling what advice Temperance Flowerdew, one of the founding mothers of Jamestown, may have given her teenage daughter, Elizabeth, on her deathbed.  Historical records provide only a bare bones chronology of Temperance’s life, and no written record exists in her own hand.  Yet, it’s easy to imagine this shrewd and enterprising woman instructing Elizabeth to “Marry well, or not at all.”  Born in Norfolk to landed gentry in the 1580s, Temperance no doubt understood that her fate depended heavily upon the man with whom she’d share a marriage bed. On that score, lightning for the resilient Flowerdew struck not once, but twice.

Finding a suitable mate, critical under normal circumstances, became a matter of life and death when Temperance found herself alone, possibly widowed, in a mud and stick outpost on the edge of nowhere. It was the summer of 1609 when Temperance arrived at Jamestown, along with a flotilla of nine ships called the Third Supply.  Stocked with goods and over 600 passengers, the convoy was sent by the Virginia Company of London to re-invigorate its investment, a bruised and battered colony in the throes of starvation, disease, and political in-fighting. Records show that Temperance may have been married at the time of the journey to Richard Barrow, but no mention is made of him again in relation to her life.  For all intents and purposes, once in Jamestown, Temperance was on her own.

Another ten months would pass before she met her future husband.  That Temperance survived until then is nothing short of remarkable.  The settlement, which was depending on the Third Supply for food and a regime change, got neither.  About a week out from landfall, the flotilla was hit by a hurricane.  While seven of the nine ships managed to make it to Jamestown, the most crucial one, The Sea Venture, disappeared, taking with it the bulk of the supplies, a second improved charter, and new leadership.  It also took a young captain, Sir George Yeardley, the man Temperance would eventually marry.

Foundation of a cottage at New Towne, a town
that grew quickly just east of the fort. *

Without The Sea Venture, Jamestown limped into winter and nearly perished.  Of the several hundred colonists in the settlement, only 60 made it to spring.   How Temperance managed to stay alive is a mystery.  It is only in the exploits of her husbands, and in public documents, that we know anything about her at all.


During a 2018 archeological dig at the original Jamestown site, a body was unearthed. Such findings are not unusual.  The 400-year-old settlement is a graveyard of sorts for the many early settlers who perished there.  What made this discovery so remarkable was its location, in a grave underneath the chancel of the second-oldest Jamestown church.  Only persons of high repute would be afforded such an honor.

But who?

Evidence points to a singular figure in the history of Jamestown, George Yeardley.  London-born into humble beginnings, Yeardley would become one of the most prominent figures in colonial Virginia.  It was a miracle of sorts given that he almost never made it there. The second son of a tailor, he served in the military as a young man under Sir Thomas Gates.  Later, in June 1609, he sailed with Gates to Jamestown in The Third Supply.  When the hurricane hit, The Sea Venture was thrown off course and beached in Bermuda.  Shipwrecked for nearly ten months, the crew and passengers, all of whom survived, would eventually make it back to Jamestown by crafting two smaller vessels from the ruins of The Sea Venture.   Some time after he arrived, George would marry Temperance.  It was a fortuitous match.

A view of the James River from the original site.

Yeardley was a man of firsts for reasons both noble and ignominious. The first colonial governor of Virginia, Yeardley instituted English jurisprudence and convened the inaugural General Assembly.  He negotiated with native tribes, with a vision to include them in the burgeoning democracy.  He married Temperance, who became not just a wife but his trusted business partner.  After his death, she was wealthy in her own right, and thus a 17th Century woman apart, one with actual power.  A successful planter, Yeardley put in tobacco.  The crop, he and others surmised, would ensure the economic viability and hence survival of the colony.  To harvest it, Yeardley bought human beings for labor, becoming the first slaveholder in America.  It is a startling entry in the otherwise sterling ledger of Yeardley’s life.  And yet, even here he becomes a first--embodying the glaring contradiction at the heart of the American experiment in freedom.


A traditional English-style mud and stud building
frame reconstructed at the original site.

For her part, Temperance not only enjoyed the fruits of her husband’s endeavors, but capitalized on them.  At one juncture she witnessed the will of John Rolfe, unheard of for a woman.  She accompanied George to the court of King Charles, no doubt acting as a de facto ambassador on behalf of Jamestown and her husband.  To ensure her legacy, she had George designate her as the sole executor of his estate.  After his death, she continued to manage the plantation, including most likely the slaves George had purchased.  Just months before she married again, she may have negotiated an early iteration of a pre-nuptial agreement in which she and her three children would retain rights to Yeardley’s property.  It was a bold and audacious move, as the man who became her next husband was arguably the most powerful in Virginia at the time, Sir Frances West.


Born in 1586 in Salisbury, Wiltshire, West was the second son of a baron, rising through the ranks in various military and government positions, eventually accepting an appointment as the second colonial governor of Virginia.  In marrying West, Temperance most likely had taken account of his status as governor, and his pedigree, a boon to her children’s social standing.  She may also have intuited a danger sign--West’s propensity to outlive his wives.  He survived his first wife, herself a three-time widow, and would bury Temperance in short order.
Memorial Church, built in 1907 above and
near the second Jamestown church.

Temperance’s instincts to protect her assets served her well.  Less than a year into her marriage to West, she died and West sued to wrest control of Temperance’s estate away from the surviving children. He did not succeed.  Eventually, West took a third wife but his luck had run out.  This time around, instead of marrying a widow, he would leave one behind.


For hundreds of years, Temperance Flowerdew has been a footnote in American history.  The fact that she married two prominent men is perhaps the only reason she made it into the history books at all.  And yet, true to form, she knew matrimony was, for her, the only way in.   It was how she would carve a niche for herself in life, and ensure a legacy after her death, until such a time as posterity would catch up and, for better or worse, recognize her for who she was.   

* All photographs by, and copyright of, the author.

A Land as God Made It by James Horn
Jamestown, the Buried Truth by William Kelso
The Jamestown Project by Karen Kupperman


Denise Heinze, a former literature professor and a PhD graduate of Duke University, writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She is the author of a scholarly work on Toni Morrison, and the eco-thriller Sally St. Johns. A descendant of Louisa May Alcott, she lives in North Carolina.

The Brief and True Report of Temperance Flowerdew is published by Blackstone Publishing 29th September 2020


  1. I've been to Jamestown - a very hot and humid day - I was lucky enough to see two magnificent Eagles soaring over the river. A very informative article, thank you.

    1. Thanks, Helen. How fortunate and apropos that you saw these beautiful birds!

  2. A great article - having watched the Sky series Jamestown I must confess that I thought Governor Yeardley was a fictional character. It's nice to have the real history here :)

  3. Thanks, Annie! I haven't watched the Sky series--on purpose--but I'm sure I will in the future.

  4. A fascinating article, and an interesting sketch of very determined woman. Have Tweeted.


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