Remarkably, the first intensive excavations conducted at Jamestown were directed by a woman. Mary Jeffery Galt, shortly after she co-founded the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) with Cynthia Beverley Tucker Coleman in 1888, launched archaeological efforts in the vicinity of the 17th-century church tower. During a period when it was socially unacceptable for women to speak in public, Galt and her committee spearheaded Jamestown’s shoreline stabilization efforts, restoration of the tower and tombstones, and oversaw the hiring of the necessary architects, masons, and local workmen.
Galt was born in 1844 in Norfolk, Virginia, to William and Mary Galt. Her father was a renowned school teacher with family ties to Williamsburg, and her uncle Alexander Galt was a well-known sculptor. Privately trained in art, Galt ran a studio following the Civil War where she taught and exhibited her sculptures and paintings. It was Galt’s artistic sensibilities that would guide her preservation ventures at Jamestown, and influence her “to preserve and not make new.” This view often placed her at odds with other founders of the organization, who were anxious that Jamestown serve to promote traditionalism but also to provide a nod to the “Lost Cause.”
Galt’s initiation into preservation efforts began at the urging of her mother, who lamented that Virginia’s landmarks were fading away and crumbling to dust. Joined by her sister Annie and Mary Winder Garrett, Galt responded with archaeological investigations and restoration at Jamestown. She did so a full generation before pioneering women of wealth and privilege such as Harriet Boyd Hawes and Gertrude Bell began contributing to the field of archaeology.
In 1897, Galt wrote that she “dug with [her] own hands” and discovered the cobblestone and brick foundation for the 1617 church at Jamestown, where the first General Assembly met. Galt’s work at Jamestown makes her the first woman to lead an archaeological excavation in the United States. Her diaries, letters, and photographs continue to inform archaeologists today.