New World, Real World: Improvising English Culture in Seventeenth- Century Virginia
By Carson, Cary Bowen, Joanne; Graham, Willie; McCartney, Martha; Walsh, Lorena
CULTURE IS INDIVISIBLE FROM PLACE. SOME BELIEFS, CUSTOMS, AND practices can be transplanted from one location to another and come through more or less intact. Others are significantly altered by the alien conditions they encounter in their new surroundings. The fourhundredth anniversary of the founding of Jamestown has renewed scholars’ interest in the transfer of cultures from the Old World and their reception and transformation in the New. Those whose starting points are Africa, the Mediterranean, northern Europe, and the British Isles tend to emphasize how geopolitical realignments and social and economic upheavals in places where migrations began set in motion events that reshaped societies and restructured economies half a world away. ‘ Those who see the transatlantic movement of peoples and cultures from the receiving end, from the colonies, are often most impressed by the circumstances that challenged the assumptions that settlers brought with them and that they began adjusting almost as soon as they unpacked their bags. The two viewpoints, taken together, produce no surprises when they inform us that successful overseas migrants were traditionalists by instinct and improvisers of necessity. Where these analytical approaches break new ground is when they show how that balance was struck. Students of material culture are place-bound more than most scholars. Because archaeological sites and vernacular buildings are rooted in the landscape, specialists who study them are best acquainted with the destinations where long-distance travelers to North America eventually settled. Archaeologists, zooarchaeologists (animal bone specialists), folklorists, and architectural historians collect physical evidence in those places that should help historians understand important cultural adjustments that otherwise are often poorly documented in written records. Nowhere is such information about the earliest settlements on the American mainland more plentiful than it is in Virginia and Maryland, where public and private research organizations have conducted archaeological excavations and architectural surveys for almost two generations (see Figure 1). Colonial Williamsburg and the National Park Service at Jamestown Island pioneered modern, systematic field research beginning in the 1930s; those institutions and others have extended the work to the rest of the Chesapeake Bay region since 1970.2 The sheer volume of material evidence assembled by fieldworking historians is nothing less than staggering. The investment of time, talent, and funds in collecting this body of new information, not to mention the intellectual capital it represents, raises a reasonable expectation that scholars from various kindred disciplines were working together in anticipation of the Jamestown quatercentenary.
In reality, collaborations have been rare.3 The quantity and complexity of archaeological and vernacular building evidence are partly to blame. So are material culture specialists themselves. Seldom have they gone out of their way to help uninitiated colleagues zero in on historical problems that the physical record might usefully inform. Archaeological collections are vast archives of raw data. Artifacts numbering in the millions can be used to tell many different stories or (too often) no story at all, at least not stories that are sufficiently original to make notable contributions to a broader understanding of the past.
One promising exception is the interest that many scholars from different disciplines now share in the learning process that colonization set in motion. As surprising as it sounds, certain groups of artifacts recovered from seventeenth-century Chesapeake sites, when skillfully interpreted, throw light on some of the make- or-break choices that spelled the difference between success and failure for colonists. This essay brings to that larger conversation pertinent archaeological evidence of three kinds-animal bones, farm buildings, and the excavated remains of Jamestown. Each raises a historical topic that written records leave mostly unaddressed. Each tells us something different and something worth knowing about the improvising skills of European immigrants to the Chesapeake colonies. All three together reveal how the experience of place on the margins of empire soon overturned customs and practices that had long been central to Britons’ homegrown way of life.
Some ideas ship well, and some do not. This essay uses selected case studies to look closely at three essential lifeways that colonists either had to accept as they found them in Virginia and Maryland or had to rebuild from scratch: first, a productive system of agriculture suited to the local Native American landscape; then the provision of housing for farm owners and their laborers and the farm buildings they needed to make a living; and finally the creation of a town where they gathered periodically to pass laws and manage commerce. Old World experience went only so far in providing newcomers with answers to basic questions-what food to grow and livestock to raise, what buildings to build first and how, and what manner of urban place to take as a model for their capital city. Trial and error replaced received wisdom when conventional problem solving proved inadequate. From the very beginning, English migrants to the Chesapeake learned to fly by the seat of their pants. Archaeologists find evidence of their improvisations within ten years of the Virginia colony’s settlement in 1607. Choices made in that first critical decade played out across the seventeenth century in ways that shaped southern agricultural systems, plantation management practices, and the planning and building of Tidewater towns for decades to come.
Historians of early America have another reason to pay attention to what archaeology has to say about the makeshift inventions that newcomers patched together to replace their unrealized and unrealistic expectations. Much scholarship today takes pains to spell out differences that distinguished region from region, group from group, town from country, men from women, and Africans from Europeans from Native Americans. Our commendable eagerness to calibrate and celebrate the diversity of every people’s experience has nevertheless cast suspicion on attempts to understand the no less powerful forces that began almost immediately to break down the many differences that Old World immigrants brought to North America and to colonies everywhere.
Our passion for pluralism has had some unintended consequences. First of all, it fails to anticipate or explain the capacity and aptitude for nation making that Americans developed in the course of the eighteenth century and demonstrated in founding the republic. As a result, much colonial history before the Revolution no longer provides a preamble to the national narrative. Second and more fundamentally, the luxuriant variety of later American cultures is hard to reconcile with the premise that British folkways transplanted to the colonies by first-generation immigrants set precedents and established patterns that were little affected by their on-the-ground experience or by later arrivals.4 The notion of a founders’ hegemony fits poorly with observations made by dirt archaeologists and social historians who study the cultures that settlers and servants from Britain and slaves from West Africa brought to the Chesapeake colonies in the seventeenth century. These field-working researchers do indeed see evidence that free and unfree migrants arrived laden with folk customs that they had learned at birth. Once on these shores, though, they encountered and coped with an unfamiliar environment, economy, social mix, and labor system among many other conspicuous differences. Success, even survival, in this school of hard knocks required choices, compromises, and, most of all, creativity. Sometimes choices had life-or-death consequences, and not just for bondmen and bondwomen. Habits patterned and ingrained by long practice in the old worlds from which they came were often quickly cast aside in a process of social learning that a school of evolutionary anthropologists believes makes better sense of the dynamics of cultural change than do the rigid models favored by archaeologists and folklorists who work in a structuralist tradition.5 Today’s field-working historians pay particular attention to those realworld experiences, which, though shared by displaced peoples in a variety of settings, nevertheless resulted in very different outcomes.
We will have more to say about social learning in our summing up. First, though, we need to see the social learning process at work in early Virginia. The first case study reveals how planters from England appropriated a landscape that Indians had managed for centuries and how they soon turned it to their own, quite different ends. A second describes how homesteaders built farmsteads on the cheap to make economical use of their limited start-up capital while getting a foothold in the fledgling colony. Finally, a third illustration shows how town planners designed and redesigned Jamestown to make the capital city a more successful urban place than history has usually acknowledged. In each case, the on-site realities of an unfamiliar physical world-a world made stranger still by the presence of Indians and, before long, Africans-soon pressured English settlers not only to jettison useless ideas while holding fast to some things tried and true but also, most of all, to extemporize solutions to problems that no one had foreseen. Food shortages are episodes in the mythology of early Virginia that Jamestown’s so-called starving time in the winter of 1609-1610 has made legendary. Less well known even to historians is another food story. Britons were not the only colonizers whose arrival on the Chesapeake scene soon altered the landscape they appropriated from the Indians. English farmers imported seeds and livestock in order to grow food crops and raise animals for milk and meat. The animals themselves were carriers of other aggressive immigrants, species of Old World grasses that over millennia had evolved symbiotically with Old World grazing animals. All four-farmers, food crops, livestock, and weed seeds-soon converted the regional ecology of the Chesapeake into a dynamic open-woodland agricultural system that was part English, part Indian, part raw nature, and part improvisation. This food story is best known to archaeologists.
Animal bones recovered and studied by archaeologists are called faunal remains. They contain information that tells zooarchaeologists how domesticated animals played a central part in transforming the Chesapeake environment from the moment of their introduction. While conventional written records address many important aspects of agriculture and animal husbandry, documents tend to reflect the agendas of their authors and thus are always subject to interpretation. Faunal remains are different. Being nothing more than leftover table scraps, they avoid a writer’s biases. They simply record the diet and tastes of individual diners at the tables that produced the discarded material. Zooarchaeologists have assembled a broad dietary record pertaining to wealthy and middling planters and, frequently, enslaved Africans as well. The data provide an invaluable (but seldom used) independent source of information to test the truth of information from historical records. Furthermore, because faunal remains supply data of an altogether different kind, they extend our knowledge of early foodways to subjects and regions that otherwise remain undocumented.6
Zooarchaeological research carried out over the last thirty years by Historic St. Mary’s City in Maryland and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia has assembled data from more than a hundred sites. They date from 1607 through the early nineteenth century and include dozens of deposits from Jamestown Island and other lower Chesapeake locations. The faunal database is now sufficiently comprehensive to provide information essential to identifying regional trends and understanding long-term change. Where individual sites have produced insufficient numbers of bones to generate statistically reliable data, sites have been combined to form broader analytical groups: 1620-1660, 1660-1700, 1700-1750, and the third and fourth quarters of the eighteenth century.7 Written records have not been ignored in this work. Documents speak to archaeologists in some ways that bones cannot. They deepen our understanding of the faunal evidence by stating or implying people’s reasons for the behavior that created the archaeological record. The analysis offered here draws on the strengths of both kinds of evidence, letting each inform the other.
Data derived from faunal collections provide primary evidence for studies of the living landscape. For this work zooarchaeologists use two analytical tools principally. One, the so-called dietary estimate, uses mathematical equations to convert bone counts to estimated meat weights for wild and domesticated species. Analysts can thereby compare colonists’ dependence on local fish and game as food sources with the domesticated animals they brought with them from home.8 Measuring excavated assemblages of meat and fish bones consumed and thrown away by early settlers is one way to gauge their initial encounter with New World wildlife. Inferential information derived from the measurement of bones-the second useful analytical tool-reveals long-term changes in the environment in which domesticated animals were raised. Long bones (i.e., leg bones) are indicators of the size attained by mature cattle, horses, sheep, and swine.9 Growth in the mammalian skeleton is affected by many factors, including breeding and to a large extent the environmental conditions in which animals grow up. Biologists agree that in circumstances where animals are turned loose to forage for food, as was the case in the Chesapeake colonies, nutrition trumps all other factors contributing to animal size. Those that eat well reproduce freely and achieve their full genetic potential. Alternatively, in situations where they are deprived of nutritious foods owing to inferior forage or competition from other animals, growth is stunted, particularly in the developmental stages of young mammals.10 Together these two analytical techniquesconsumption estimates and bone measurements-help archaeologists determine how early settlers from England tried to feed themselves on their first coming to the Chesapeake colonies and later how their successors learned to adjust English herding and horticultural practices to take better advantage of the region’s natural resources.
The founders of Jamestown were astonished by the profusion of wildlife in America. Even so, their colony nearly starved to death. The reasons are many (and often recited), but the paradox owes much to the fact that the soldiers, artisans, and merchants sent over to garrison and operate a Virginia Company trading station expected others to supply them with provisions-either the investors back home or their intended Indian trading partners in the colony.11 The colonists themselves were well qualified for the jobs they came to do, which meant that most were not experienced farmers and few had hunting skills. Little wonder that they dragged their feet when ordered to start growing their own corn. Likewise, traders and artisans were reluctant to venture into the surrounding forests to hunt game. To make matters worse, the entire midAtlantic seaboard was locked in the grip of a severe, decade-long drought when the English expedition reached Virginia.12 A string of failed crops all but wiped out surplus food supplies, which the Powhatan Indians grudgingly traded to the English during the few interludes when the two were at peace. The terrible winter famine of 1609-1610 had been a disaster waiting to happen. The wretched survivors, indeed the settlement itself, were rescued only when reinforcements arrived in the spring.13 The infamous starving time proceeded from a huge tactical miscalculation involving the supply of essential foodstuffs.
Faunal remains recovered from the Jamestown Fort site put hard numbers to the story that survivors told of their dependency on easyto-catch wildlife and dwindling food supplies imported from home (see Figure 2).14 Various fish, wild fowl, turtles, and small mammals counted for half of all meat remains in the fort assemblage and clearly were the mainstay of the colonists’ diet. In the winter of 1609, when they could not or dared not leave the fort, they literally ate anything that moved. Faunal remains from those months include creatures seldom if ever eaten by Europeans, including vipers, black rats, musk turtles, dogs, cats, and most poignantly horses. Normally horse bones are not found in garbage dumps; horse meat, usually taboo to all but very poor people, was eaten by others only in extremis. Furthermore, horses were too scarce and too valuable to put into a stew pot in ordinary times.15 The fact that heavily butchered horse bones taken from heads, feet, and carcasses account for 12.2 percent of the total biomass recovered from early deposits within the fort bears witness to the colonists’ desperate straits. Apparently horses were the only large animals they had brought from England. Although Thomas Gates reputedly imported livestock in 1608, the faunal evidence strongly implies that the animals he transported included no cows or steers. Cattle bones do number among the bone assemblages from the fort, fully 14 percent of the biomass, but significantly they include no heads or feet. So, beef must have come from barreled provisions-as long as they lasted, which was not long enough.16
Virginians overcame the food shortage crisis only when they recognized that the time and energy spent producing commodities for sale had to be balanced with food production. The trading station model was hard to scrap. After it became clear that the Powhatan Indians had no intention of keeping Jamestown’s common store replenished, Sir Thomas Dale first tried to turn his artisans and agents into farmers by martial law and, when that did not work, by assigning each man a three-acre garden allotment.17 Although some settlers claimed that they could grow as much food as they needed by 1616, the turnaround came a few years later when Governor George Yeardley finally acknowledged that agriculture was the colony’s main chance. He set Virginia on a new course by granting headlights to investors who were willing to transport farmworkers to Virginia as indentured servants. Immediately planter-entrepreneurs set up independently owned and operated farmsteads where they began growing foodstuffs for themselves and a strain of tobacco popular on the European market. Only then was the colony able to provision itself.18
But the colonists’ methods were not what immigrant English farmers had been accustomed to at home. To their eyes the landscape that greeted their arrival in Virginia in 1607 appeared to mimic nature itself despite the obvious presence of native cultivators. The resemblance was owing to the fact that Indian farmers were horticulturalists in the sense that anthropologists use that term, that is, agriculturalists who raise several crops simultaneously on a single patch of ground, using a canopy of taller plants to provide shade, conserve water, and inhibit the growth of weeds. Powhatan farmers cleared the forests by girdling trees and burning the undergrowth. They planted multiple crops on hills hoed up among the dying trees and decaying stumps-tall corn stalks shading lower- growing beans and squash. Slash-and-burn horticulture enriched the soil with ash for the first few years before its fertility began to decline. The Powhatan eventually abandoned the worn-out fields and cleared more forestland. Over time this practice created a mixed yet natural-looking landscape composed of hardwood and pine forests alternating with a patchwork of villages, fields under cultivation, and older ones abandoned.19 Colonists were unacquainted with slash- and-burn agriculture. For millennia British farmers had mixed cultivation of plants with raising stock. They used plows to till fields and pastured livestock on grasslands and harvested fields in order to manure the ground.20 Neither practice was immediately practical in the Chesapeake colonies, a region without fences or natural barriers to corral grazing animals. So, making do, the earliest English farmers simply inserted themselves and their livestock into the native landscape. Slashing and burning in Indian fashion, they converted forestland into stump-studded fields to grow tobacco for the market and corn for themselves. Also like the Indians, they abandoned exhausted fields after yields declined and repeated the cycle by clearing more uncultivated land.
Cattle were introduced into this new landscape as early as 1611. At first, planters built palisades across peninsulas from river to river to protect their herds from wolves and Indians. As the threat from predators gradually diminished, the English colonists discovered that it was more efficient to fence animals out, not in. Laws passed in 1632 and 1646 required farmers to enclose fields and orchards against livestock that otherwise was left to forage freely in abandoned fields, woodlands, and marshes.21 Immigrant settlers remembered herding methods still practiced in wood-pasture regions of the British Isles.22 Some historians have supposed that this sensible solution transferred to the Chesapeake colonies amounted to no system at all, with the only control seeming to be the exclusion of animals from cultivated fields and orchards. Biologists suspect not. They know that farmers must have controlled foraging animals some other way, for when animals are allowed to run totally free, they turn feral.23 References to “heards of wilde cattle” tell us that feral animals were recognizably different and regarded as a nuisance when they kept “Company with their tame Cattle.”24 But Chesapeake stockmen had practical ways of dealing with the problem and maintaining control over their foraging herds. They understood animal behavior from long experience.
Domesticated animals are social by nature. Because, like humans, they live in hierarchical groups, they easily accept humans as their herd leaders. Early records leave no doubt that colonists understood the instinctive social behavior of both swine and cattle and used that knowledge to develop a herding system that protected and nourished their animals. When left on their own, cattle live in herds composed of females and their young.25 Colonists knew from experience that groups of cows and calves could be found and fairly easily rounded up if they prevented the animals from wandering too far afield by palisading necks of land. A traveler through the region in 1687 observed that planters’ cattle grazed behind these barriers “in the woods or on the unfilled portions of their plantations, where they seek shelter nightly rather by instinct than from any care given them.”26
Pigs are social animals no less than cows. Turned loose, they too live in herds of sows and piglets. Only adult boars roam solo (except during rut season).27 Chesapeake planters allowed swine to run in the woods more than any other species. They could be protected fairly easily from animal predators and Native American hunters by confining them on islands or corralling them on narrow peninsulas. There they swarmed “like Vermine upon the Earth.” But they never strayed very far. Robert Beverley acknowledged this essential herd instinct when he remarked in 1705 that, if “the Proprietor can find and catch the Pigs, or any part of a Farrow,” then he could claim ownership of all that ran together, because, Beverley noted, “they are bred in Company, so they continue to the End.”28 Furthermore, because swine are sedentary as long as there are ample food supplies nearby, colonists could rest assured that their sows and yearlings were unlikely to wander long distances through the forest.29 The herding system based on these expectations closely resembled an older form of pig raising, known in England as pannage husbandry, where pigs were birthed at home, weaned, and then pastured in forests.30
During the first few years of settlement, the Virginia Company periodically augmented the small inventory of cattle in the colony with additional animals transported from England. Those shipments ceased after 1624. From then on, herds grew by natural reproduction alone. A census taken in 1619 counted five hundred head of cattle and already more pigs than anyone could reckon. Thirty years later cattle had increased forty-fold, to twenty thousand, and other livestock flourished proportionately: five thousand goats, three thousand sheep, two hundred horses, fifty asses, “innumerable” swine, and poultry “without number.”31 Faunal remains corroborate the documentary evidence that the herd system that developed in the Chesapeake lessened planters’ dependence on fish and game. Relative dietary estimates show that the consumption of meat from domesticated animals increased rapidly in the period 1620-1660 (see Figure 3). Beef consumption rose from 14 percent to as much as 58 percent by the third quarter of the century, followed by pork and mutton.32 Englishmen returned to meat eating as soon as circumstances allowed.
The landscape on which European immigrants settled in the Tidewater region provided rich feeding grounds for livestock. Woodlands were the original hog heaven, full of longleaf mast, tender roots, and carrion; pigs found roots and oysters in the salt marshes. Cattle gathered along streams and shorelines where marsh grasses flourished, especially in springtime when animals were undernourished.33 Woodlands, wetlands, and abandoned fields provided vines, broad-leaved trees, and the young shoots of hardwood trees. Cattle thrived in this environment. Unusually long leg bones recovered from archaeological sites located on the Lower Peninsula between the James and York Rivers prove that adult animals were routinely growing to larger sizes by the last quarter of the seventeenth century (see Figure 4). More abandoned fields in the longer-settled parts of the region meant more forage with high nutritive value. Whether farmers recognized the benefits or not, the horticultural cycle they followed in the region-from tobacco to corn to fallow fields-created near-perfect foraging conditions for cattle.34 And vice versa. Cattle were colonizers in their own right before their importation ceased after 1624.35 Old World grass seeds stowed away on their hooves and in their stomachs had coevolved with herbivores for thousands of years. When imported, European-born cattle dropped manure, they inadvertently spread the Old World grasses that contained certain essential proteins that New World grasses lacked.36 Little by little, herbivores and grazing- resistant plants restarted the process of coevolving in the New World.
This balance did not last. Something began to happen to the agricultural environment in the region along the James River in the first half of the eighteenth century that stunted the growth of cattle. Excavated cow bones from this later period are smaller, indicating to zooarchaeologists that adult animals attained significantly smaller sizes than they had during the first half of the seventeenth century. The explanation is complicated. Growing populations of both people and animals in the regions settled longest put pressure on land resources; tobacco and corn production diminished soil fertility; and unused fields where livestock had fed at will became scarcer as land-starved planters began cropping scrub fields and shortened fallow periods on their best soils. Other events further limited what had been the exceptionally plentiful and nutritious diet for cattle. A sustained fall in tobacco prices after 1680 first encouraged planters to expand production, but, as the resulting glut of inferior tobacco depressed prices still further, many growers diversified, adding small grains and expanding corn production. As a market crop, corn required plowing, and plowed fields could be planted over and over again with wheat after corn yields diminished.37 Faunal evidence demonstrates that cows and steers no longer waxed fat on second-growth fallow fields by the middle of the eighteenth century in the neighborhood around Williamsburg. That matches inventory evidence that farmers in York County had begun feeding corn shucks to free-ranging livestock as a fodder supplement from the 1690s onward.38
Once planters began plowing fields and growing grains, the stubble fields that reapers left behind after each harvest produced an ideal environment for a relative newcomer to the Chesapeake scene- sheep. Again, planters adjusted their stock mix accordingly. Among his observations on Virginians’ farming practices in 1687, Durand de Dauphine noted that they had recently begun running flocks of sheep on harvested wheat fields along with horses and cattle.39 Simultaneously, bounty hunters mounted an all-out attack on sheep- killing wolves.40 While mixed-species grazing can benefit pastures as well as animals in the short run, the presence of too many animals, or overgrazing by a few, reduces the hardiness of plants and can lead eventually to their disappearance. The introduction of sheep, coming on top of growing populations of other grazing animals, hastened the wear and tear on pasturage on the Lower Peninsula, thereby reducing soil fertility and, with that, the health and weight gain of cattle.41 Planters saw for themselves that overgrazing degraded their livestock even if they did not fully understand how it happened. Robert Beverley blamed careless farm management for the sickly condition of herds in Virginia as early as 1705: “by which means,” he wrote, “they starve their young Cattle, or at least stint their growth; so that they seldom or never grow so large as they would do, if they were well manag’d.” Landon Carter made the same connection between poorly managed rangeland and undernourished animals after inspecting his land and livestock in 1770: “I ha[ve] seen every patch but the meadow …. But nothing grows and creatures are yet poor. The lambs not filled, the Ewes very spindly, and the Cows with young calves [are pitifully] thin.”42 Over time, mixed-species grazing intensified the damage to woodlands and marshland no less than it did to fallow fields. Cattle in large numbers could effectively defoliate hardwood forests during the summer months, and in wintertime, it was observed, they “delight much to feed” in the luxuriant salt marshes.43 Pigs wreaked another kind of havoc. A single animal could consume thirteen hundred pounds of acorns in just six months. Feeding like rototillers, pigs destroyed tree roots, seedlings, and underground tubers. Hungry swine stripped bark from trees in search of insects.44 Little by little, a herding system that had flourished as long as planters maintained a balance between animals and resources began breaking down as that equilibrium was upset.
The faunal evidence leaves no room for doubt: the era of freewheeling innovation was nearing an end, and the transformation of the Chesapeake landscape was entering a new age. By 1700 horticultural practices that immigrant farmers had adopted to cope with the frontier environment had so altered the condition of the soil that their descendants had no choice but to make further adjustments. Pigs still roamed freely through the woodlands, as did many cattle and horses, but in ever-smaller numbers. Planters’ use of plows carved up the older, informal, tobacco landscape into well- defined fields for grain crops, which stood separate from enclosed pastures where herds of horses and cattle and flocks of sheep grazed together, no longer free to forage abroad. In the matter of food production, the learning curve had gradually spiraled back on itself over the course of a hundred years. In the next case study, it did not.
Crops, animals, and the labor to grow and care for them were more or less fixed expenses for a start-up planter in Virginia, but not so his farm buildings and his farmhouse. Back home, the necessary structures to store crops, shelter livestock, quarter servants and farmhands, and house a husbandman’s family often passed from generation to generation by inheritance. In the colonies, every new settler on every new frontier had to start from scratch. Fencing, housing, and barn raising required significant out-of-pocket expenditures, but there were shortcuts that beginners could take to hold these discretionary costs down and so save precious resources for land, labor, and other necessities. Beginning with a knowledge of various temporary and simplified carpentry methods that immigrants brought with them from whatever region had been home, newcomers replicated those, borrowed new ideas from each other, or learned to use the country’s prodigious timber supplies to invent still other half-measures, always to the same purpose-to save time and money until they got their plantations up and running. Eventually most farmhouses and work buildings were rebuilt using longer-lasting materials and more workmanlike construction techniques. By then, though, the much improvised “Virginia house” had so thoroughly altered prevailing carpentry practices in the region that vernacular buildings never again resembled their British progenitors or functioned in quite the same way. Architectural historians have pieced together this lost account of Virginia’s earliest homesteads largely from evidence supplied by archaeologists.
Excavators have recovered information about more than three hundred structures from seventeenth-century sites in Maryland and Virginia. Historians can now use this large dataset to ask how and when Britons adapted imported technologies to the unfamiliar circumstances they encountered in the Chesapeake colonies and how they eventually solved their everyday needs for serviceable, affordable dwellings and farm buildings.45
Excavations still in progress at the original 1607 fort on Jamestown Island have brought to light structures that literally open the story of building technology in British North America. Three buildings constructed on skimpy frames encased inside earthen walls were erected in the first one or two years following the initial landing; a fourth building, a rowhouse, also timber framed but standing on light masonry footings, was very likely one of the new houses built “in and about James Town” in 1610-1611 (see Figure 5).46 These four present-at-the-creation buildings establish beyond reasonable doubt that the technology used in their making represents contemporary English practice transplanted directly to the New World. Too little time had passed for experimentation to produce new forms.47 Yet, easy as it is to assume that these earliest of all structures were English born and bred, their antecedents have been hard to locate. Generally speaking, their ancestry appears to claim kinship to the lightly framed dwellings that were common to medieval peasants’ dwellings, structures frequently raised on slight frames sandwiched inside clay or earthen walls.48 No less an authority than Captain John Smith recorded that the first semipermanent church at Jamestown, built in 1608, was “a homely thing like a barne, set upon Cratchets [forked poles], covered with raft[ers], sedge [reeds], and earth; so was also the walls.”49 Smith’s description applies just as accurately to the three buildings along the outer walls, buildings whose structural posts were so haphazardly aligned that they could not have been covered with boards. Instead, as excavated lumps of clay suggest, they too were earth walled.50
The salient feature of the three earliest structures inside James Fort is the subsurface remains that archaeologists find when they excavate the sites of such buildings: soil stains left by upright posts that were set into postholes to give the frame rigidity. Post- in-the-ground or “earthfast” buildings (as they have come to be called) have been discovered throughout the Chesapeake region. Variations on this economical construction technique remained in common use into the eighteenth century. Over the course of the seventeenth century, newcomers and seasoned colonists alike relied on one or another earthfast construction method for houses, barns, and frequently even public buildings.51 The earliest buildings resembled those that immigrant carpenters remembered from home. Later a process of trial and error produced brandnew variations inspired by the abundance of American timber.
Archaeologists working in Maryland and Virginia have recorded evidence of both types-both the trials and the hybrids. Often it is difficult to tell which methods carried over from traditional practice and which were experiments. Excavators have found examples of pit houses, houses with earthfast wall posts standing on subsurface floors, clay-walled structures with no supporting framework below the eaves, raftered buildings that were literally all roof and no walls, mud-clad cottages variously infilled with wattle-and-daub applied to wickerwork panels or a mixture of clay and plaster laid up on vertical staves mud-and-stud style, and, at the other extreme, carefully carpentered, timber-frame structures with sills laid directly on the ground or even with masonry footings used in combination with earthfast posts.52 After preparing the timbers on the ground, some builders raised a post-in-the-ground house or barn frame starting at one end and working to the other, pairs of posts set up in sequence one after another; others preferred to assemble an entire side wall lying flat and then lift it into place all at once. Each of these techniques left traces in the ground that skilled excavators can recognize and differentiate three centuries later (see Figure 6). While none was to become the perfect answer to every Chesapeake builder’s needs, the sheer number and variety of techniques employed in the first fifty years testify to homesteaders’ determination to learn by trial and error which methods and materials worked better than others.53
On occasion newly arrived colonists bypassed the usual shortcuts in favor of a proper “English framed house” with full masonry foundations, continuous sills, and an expensively carpentered timber frame. Thomas Cornwaleys, a prominent leader in the Maryland colony, had such a house in mind when he explained in 1638 that “I am building of A house toe put my head in, of sawn Timber framed A story and half hygh, with A sellar and Chimnies of brick, toe Encourage others toe follow my Example, for hithertoe wee Liue in Cottages.”54 Almost no one constructed dwellings or public buildings entirely of brick until the 1660s despite its widespread use in Britain.55 Making bricks in quantity made no practical sense in a place where the forests held inexhaustible supplies of framing timbers and livable clapboards. Raw materials were cheap. It was the skilled labor-to burn bricks, saw planks, dress timbers, fashion sophisticated carpentry joints, raise chimneys-that was so dear. “[T]he building of a good house, to you there will seem insupportable,” one unhappy Virginian wrote back to England, “notwithstanding [here] we have timber for nothing, but felling & getting in place.” He reckoned that labor costs ran three times higher in Virginia.56 To most newcomers, therefore, it stood to reason to build as inexpensively as possible at first, until they could get their feet on the ground. Anything more lavish, even by those who could afford more, was deemed “sillie” and “vnnecessarie.” Those were the carefully chosen words that John Smith used to describe a “pallas in the woodes” that no less a person than John Ratcliffe, president of the Council of Virginia, set about building at Jamestown-”to fulfill his follies,” Smith added-after having squandered the colony’s precious stores.57 Smith’s reproach went to the heart of the lesson that every new arrival needed to learn: that extravagance, particularly extravagant building, put an entire enterprise at risk, be it a brand-new plantation or, as at Jamestown in 1608, the colony itself. A later pamphleteer distilled the wisdom of what was by then long experience: “ordinary beginners,” he wrote, are strongly advised that “a mean way of Building” is “sufficient and safest” at the start.58 What mean ways of building eventually proved to be sufficient for beginners? Archaeologists and architectural historians have concluded that Chesapeake carpenters ultimately selected for further development two strands from the many English building traditions they tested in the first three or four decades of settlement. They combined them to create what thereafter became known as the Virginia house, a shorthand term for a highly successful, hybrid building system that spread throughout the region (see Figure 7).
The two starting points were the close-studded box frame and a system of ephemeral timberwork that British architectural historians now call “slight framing.” The English box frame was a construction of vertical and horizontal timbers-posts, sills, plates, and beams- jointed and pegged together and often braced at the corners. This self-supporting structure, usually raised high and dry on a masonry foundation, was strong enough to hold up a framework of roof trusses that rested on top of it but that was not integral to the house frame underneath. There were many ways to assemble a box-frame building. One-close-studding-seems to have developed as the standard way of structuring buildings in those parts of Britain where the practice of timber framing remained dominant into the seventeenth century. Close-studding began as a conspicuously expensive way to embellish a half-timbered house by installing closely spaced (and structurally redundant) vertical studs between heavier wall posts. By the seventeenth century, carpenters tended to spread the studs farther apart, use smaller scantling, beef up the corner bracing, and increasingly hide the building’s skeleton underneath cladding of one kind or another.59
The box-frame model with secondary studs offered Chesapeake builders two advantages. First, it was made to order for a region rich in timber; and, second, by treating the carcass and the roof separately, one frame placed on top of the other, it was ripe for further developments that soon followed from this abundant wood supply. That said, box frames also came with two disadvantages: their many pieces required complicated joinery to put them together and were therefore time-consuming and expensive. Furthermore, heavily carpentered frames had to be raised off the ground, usually on masonry footings, to prevent rotting. Brickmason-work was never cheap. That is where the second technology-slight framing-came into play. Builders of wattle-and-daub and mud-clad cottages (such as those at James Fort) treated light scantling more as a scaffold than as a load-bearing frame. Uprights embedded inside clay walls acted as fasteners for the wattles or staves to which the wall covering itself, mud or plaster, was then applied. Additionally, the uprights in slight-frame buildings were often earthfast and, therefore, required no foundation.60
Colonists soon learned that slight framing, besides being quick and easy, saved money, especially if, by borrowing and adding elements from the box-frame tradition, they could replace clay walls with a substitute wall covering made of wooden boards. By midcentury, Chesapeake carpenters merged the two technologies into an amalgamated system that combined simplified joinery, earthfast construction, and cladding for roofs and walls made from short lengths of split oak or chestnut clapboards, sometimes weatherproofed with a coating of pine tar. The resulting Virginia house answered most colonists’ requirements for dwellings, outbuildings, tobacco barns, warehouses, courthouses, and even churches. Its design was a masterful solution to the typical homesteader’s-the “ordinary beginner’s”-need to manage his risks. It was indeed “a mean way” to fabricate and assemble the parts of a timber frame, skin the skeleton quickly and cheaply, and provide hearth and heat for a dwelling house at considerably less expense than making and burning a kiln-load of bricks for a chimney. Chimneys, too, were wooden affairs-timber framed, parged with clay for fireproofmg, and weatherized with the same riven boards used to cover walls and roofs. clay became a vestigial material relegated to chimney linings and floor surfaces and occasionally packed into walls behind clapboards and under eaves, crannies that needed protection from the weather. The framing timbers in the Virginia house were minimally prepared, either by hewing or splitting or by simply peeling the bark off logs. Box-frame joinery was reduced to basics. Simple lap joints, secured with nails, saved time and money compared with mortise-and-tenon joints, which required laying out, prefabrication, and careful fitting together. Raising frames in sidewall units became the preferred assembly method because it helped simplify joints at plate level (see Figure 6B).61 With no bricks to fire or boards to saw and less effort required to dress a timber frame and split clapboards to sheathe it, a Virginia house could be erected in a matter of weeks, leaving sodbuster-planters more time and resources to spend on other pressing needs.
More than anything else, the use of riven clapboards triggered the rapid development of building technology in the Chesapeake colonies. The clapboard was a strong, lightweight, tapered slat, which was split (rived) quickly and easily from straight-grained white oak or chestnut timbers that had been precut into standard lengths (see Figure 8). The board’s thin upper edge and feathered ends (cut with two strokes of a drawknife) made it easy to overlap with adjoining clapboards to form a tight, light, durable surface, which was nailed to the framing members underneath. The costs for imported nails and semiskilled American labor were not negligible, but clapboards-like plywood today-opened carpenters’ eyes to other economizing innovations. Clapboard work superseded mud walls, half- timbering, and other traditional walling materials used to enclose and weatherproof buildings on the exterior, and it also became the preferred alternative to thatch and tiles as an economical roof covering. The full potential of clapboards took several decades to recognize and develop. Eventually planters also used them to sheathe interior partitions, lay attic floors, encase wooden chimney frames, and nail up as fence pales. Documents mention them frequently only after midcentury, although archaeological evidence of ever more regular building frames in the 1640s and 1650s suggests a growing acceptance that appears to coincide with the emergence of the Virginia house.
Indeed, the two more than just coincide. Clapboards were the component that defined the Virginia house and made it affordable. The standard five-foot clapboard was the inspiration for a modular framing system that builders could expand or contract to suit their needs. Regardless of the intended function, buildings were generally laid out in a series of ten-foot bays, each two boards long. Ranks of overlapping clapboards were nailed to lightweight riven studs (borrowed from the slight-frame tradition), which were set out on two-and-a-half-foot centers between heavier, load-bearing posts (from box-frame work) that formed each bay. The secondary studs were, in essence, scaffold needed simply to carry the clapboard sheathing.
As a matter of fact, clapboards gave buildings more rigidity than the studs did. That function is seen most clearly in the Chesapeake roof frame, specifically the development of a distinctive truss design. Roofs in England were variously raised on a framework of principal and secondary rafters, heavy, lengthwise-running, connecting beams called purlins, and braces-all fitted together often using complex and sophisticated carpentry joints. Roof coverings of clay tiles, stone and slate shingles, and even thatch were tremendously heavy and thus required strongly built roof trusses for support. By contrast, lightweight clapboards made the problem go away. They freed Chesapeake builders to invent an inexpensive roof frame constructed entirely of common rafters, paired into trusses and joined by a collar beam that was simply lapped and nailed in place. The rafters themselves could be very small dimensioned timbers, sometimes no more than two inches square in cross section. Still they adequately spanned buildings sixteen or eighteen feet wide. Without braces or connecting purlins, such rafter pairs were not stable enough to stand upright by themselves. Only the clapboard covering provided the diaphragm action that gave a finished roof frame its structural rigidity. In other words, clapboards did double duty both as the roof covering and as the bracing system that held the roof aloft, all at a fraction of the cost of roofs in England that relied on heavy timbers, complex joints, and sawn lumber applied as underlayment on which to hang tiles or slates. Clapboard work in the southern colonies was the ingenious matchmaker that arranged a marriage between earthfast slight framing and box construction, a union so close that the terms Virginia house and clapboard work were soon used synonymously.62 Chesapeake builders borrowed one more element-the false plate-from English carpentry practice to round out their invention. Carpenters working in the box-frame tradition, the one that required sophisticated joinery, had to perfectly align the heavy, load- bearing, principal rafters with the associated tie-beams (the spanning timbers that held the front and back walls together) in order to mortise-andtenon the one to the other. Typically, then, the major wall posts underpinned these rafter pairs in an orderly transfer of loads from roof to foundation. Builders of slight frames, by contrast, employed a variety of clever methods to stand roofs on top of walls without regard to the structure underneath, thereby greatly simplifying the assembly process yet again. Every building must have cross-beams that span the distance between the front and back walls for the purpose of holding them together against the outward thrusting pressure exerted by the weight of the roof. Builders of slight frames knew that these tie-beams, or “joists” as they came to be called in common work, could be extended a few inches beyond the wall line, front and back, and could carry along the upper ends of these extensions a horizontal timber called a false plate (“false” because, suspended in midair, it was not strictly a wall plate). The false plate, not the walls, became the seat for the rafter feet (see Figure 7). Carpenters from the West of England packed a false-plate prototype in the bag of tricks they brought to the Chesapeake. There they developed it further as a complement to the common rafter roof. Throughout the second half of the seventeenth century, the plate was a thick board, typically lapped across and secured to the joist ends with wooden pegs. Its upper face was notched to receive the feet of the rafters, thereby eliminating any need for complicated tenon joinery. The labor- saving false plate became a hallmark of Chesapeake framing. It continued in use in various forms until the early twentieth century.
Many factors conspired to perpetuate building, repairing, and rebuilding inexpensive and short-lived structures in the Tidewater South-the relentless demands of a volatile tobacco market, a high male-to-female sex ratio that forestalled normal family formation, a disease environment that broke up families prematurely and frustrated the orderly transfer of wealth and property from one generation to the next, and the influx of immigrants who continually renewed English customs and practices, to name a few. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, Chesapeake society grew more stable and predictable as the trade in African slaves increased, the flow of indentured servants declined, and the economy became more diversified. Planters responded by investing in better-built, longer- lasting structures. Across the region the earliest surviving dwellings and farm buildings consistently date from the decades when farmers began growing and marketing grains as well as tobacco.63 By then, though, the incessant repair and replacement of impermanent buildings going back two or three generations had turned what once had been experiments and novelties into standard building practices everywhere from the upper Chesapeake Bay to the Albemarle Sound. No longer was slight framing always synonymous with poverty. A party of nonconformist Virginians who founded a settlement at Providence on the Severn River in Maryland built frontier houses with the homesteader’s conventional mud walls, but they were not without the means to glaze the windows, tile the roofs, cover the floors with green and yellow pavers, and decorate the best rooms with fireplace tiles of blue-and-white delftware (see Figure 9).04 Eventually even earthfast technologies passed into mainstream carpentry culture. Two very wealthy and well-established Maryland planters built substantial timber-frame dwellings as late as 1702 and 1703. Notwithstanding, Cedar Park (see Figure 10) and Sotterley originally employed post-in-the-ground construction, with both houses surviving 300 years only because later owners retrofitted them with brick foundations.65 These examples are merely the most extreme holdovers. Everywhere throughout the region the legacy of a clapboard-inspired framing system held sway for another 150 years or more. Behind the sawn and painted weatherboard siding that dressed up the appearance of merchants’ houses in prim and proper Williamsburg, and underneath the round-butt shingles that roofed pretty plantation houses in the countryside, were the descendants of the box frame, the slight frame, and the common rafter roof. Generations of experimenting carpenters had learned lessons that Chesapeake builders never forgot. Building successful towns, our next case study, depended less on individual innovators than on lessons learned mutually by a group of risk takers.
While archaeologists in modern times have mainly investigated plantation sites, they have also made important discoveries at Wolstenholme Town in Virginia; St. Mary’s City, the seventeenth- century capital of Maryland; Providence Town on the upper Chesapeake Bay; and, recently with much fanfare, the earliest fort site at Jamestown, which conventional wisdom had written off as lost to erosion.66 Less heralded, but no less informative, has been a comprehensive reassessment of all earlier archaeological work in Colonial National Historical Park at Jamestown, principally that portion of the island that came to be known as “New Towne” when settlers began leaving James Fort in the 1610s. This reanalysis of previous work was done in the 1990s by Colonial Williamsburg and the College of William and Mary on contract for the National Park Service.67 Strictly speaking, the project archaeologists undertook no new excavations, limiting themselves to testing earlier features that had been left unfinished or poorly recorded by excavators in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. The reassessment made its most original contribution to scholarship in two other ways: first, by reinterpreting the New Towne collections in light of everything that archaeologists and students of material culture had learned in the intervening fifty years and, second, by creating a tract map as complete as the island’s fragmentary land records would allow (see Figure 11). The map puts identified owners and tenants on plotted properties at known times in the seventeenth century. When the tracts are overlaid on the archaeological site plan, Jamestown jumps off the page.68 It emerges for the first time as a real place inhabited by people who were busy trying to find a winning combination of urban activities befitting their idea of a capital city.
Jamestown’s flops are famous.69 Even at the time, its failure to live up to boosters’ expectations was taken as proof that towns and urban culture had no future in a region dominated by a market crop that growers raised on remote plantations and traded directly from convenient landings. There is no denying that Jamestown developed by fits and starts. All the same, the town’s many misadventures can be better understood as a series of experiments. Each was a deliberate attempt to create an urban settlement that would accomplish something that Englishmen expected colonial towns to do. When the initial experiments did not pan out, managers of the Virginia Company first and Crown officials later persistently tried something else.
The tract map makes one thing clear: “James Cittie” was never a paper town. Despite its false starts, sickly environment, siege and destruction during Bacon’s Rebellion, and string of calamitous statehousefires, we see now that it was finally on the way to becoming a successful capital city when a handful of political wheelers and dealers from down the road at Middle Plantation hijacked the seat of government to a place they renamed Williamsburg. By a process of trial and error, residents of Jamestown had finally discovered-alas, too late!an urban formula that promised to work as well there on the island as it did later at Williamsburg and other urban places throughout the South.
Together the archaeological and historical evidence documents three Jamestown incarnations. The first two were mistakes, but instructive nevertheless, as failed experiments often are. Urban planners learned valuable lessons that eventually led to the promising redevelopment of the town after 1662.
The first trial took the form and function of a trading post. The expeditionary force that sailed up the James River in 1607 was searching for a defensible site on which to build a trade castle similar to those run by the Portuguese in West Africa and Mombasa.70 The earliest English entrepreneurs came to North America as middlemen, not settlers; they counted on meeting native peoples willing to supply them with gold, furs, and skins from the interior just as Africans supplied the Portuguese with gold, slaves, and ivory. The island fastness the English built at Jamestown enclosed warehouses, barracks, and workshops for the small staff of merchants, soldiers, and artisans who were expected to manage the Indian trade and prospect for valuable mineral resources. Archaeologists have begun finding these long, multipurpose buildings lined up inside the triangular fort and enclosed in a somewhat later extension to the palisade (see Figure 5). They have unearthed furnaces, crucibles, and imported scrap metal used to assay minerals needed for making brass. The excavations have also turned up caches of Indian trade goods-”truckinge stuffs”-such as tubular beads, coins, jettons, and other prestige goods, including scraps of the red copper that Ralph Lane said were especially prized by the Indians.71 They were prized, yes, but not enough to induce the natives to play the part scripted for them. The Powhatan Indians had their own agenda, namely, to tolerate the newcomers but subordinate them to their chiefdoms.72 The directors of the Virginia Company, once informed of their miscalculation by Captain John Smith, cast about for alternative schemes to repay their investment.73 Those led to the second experiment in urbanizing Jamestown, its redevelopment as a base of operations for extractive industries and commercial agriculture. Both capitalized on the colony’s natural resources. Henceforth, Virginia would pay back the company’s investors by exporting raw materials, by processing commodities that required large amounts of fuel, and by recruiting settlers and servants (and eventually importing Africans) to grow cash crops, notably, high- yield Orinoco tobacco after 1619. Reenvisioned as the capital of a territorial settlement, Jamestown would become a commercial, manufacturing, and transshipment center. A larger population of settlers engaged in those activities soon outgrew the confines of the fort and spilled into a “New Towne” outside the gates.
Where first? Distribution maps of datable artifacts collected over the entire site show that occupation in the late 161Os and 162Os was concentrated along the waterfront and on three industrial sites. One lay along Back River behind the fort, another at the far eastern end of the town lands, and the third at Glasshouse Point across the tidal isthmus (see Figure 1). Merchants built warehouses on the riverbank, and venture capitalists, encouraged by several governors, launched numerous speculative “projects,” as such ventures were called in England.74 At Jamestown they were aimed at setting up glassblowers, potters, pipemakers, brewers, distillers, apothecaries, vintners, sawmillers, silkworm breeders, fish driers, shipwrights, and mining prospectors (searching less for gold than for zinc for brass making)-all eager to tap Virginia’s natural resources and harness its abundant fuel supplies. The tract map reveals further that the government officials who were needed to staff the growing colony preferred to live at Jamestown even though many built country estates off the island as well.
The great London merchants who founded the Virginia Company and had followed the planners’ original playbook for the first ten years had not waxed as rich as they expected. Their failure, especially when compared with the success enjoyed by private investors in the Bermuda Company, led to the first major overhaul that drew practical lessons from real-world experience. Gentlemen, rather than merchants, became the colony’s prime investors going forward. Being “greived to see this great Action fall to nothinge,” they offered “to take the matter a new in hand and at their pryvate charges (ioyninge themselvs into Societies) to sett vpp divers pticularr Plantacons” that would be free of debts and unencumbered by restrictions that hobbled the parent company.75 More than thirty particular plantations registered land grants between 1617 and 1623. The stay-at-home gentry investors had learned by then to stake their hopes on two fairly reliable moneymakers, tobacco and rents. The exploitation of other commodities-pitch, tar, clapboards, potash, and the like-was useful to defray start-up costs, but the jointstock company investors already understood that agriculture, not mining or manufacturing, was the principal way to wealth in Virginia.76 ‘Tobacco onely was the business,” it was plain to see. “[E]very man madded [went crazy] upon that, and [gave] lyttle thought or looked for any thinge else.”77
That choice pushed Jamestown to the sidelines. The “chief seat,” as it came to be known, was left to develop as a conventional company town-a headquarters for Virginia Company agents and later Crown officials, a garrison for their soldiers, and a so-called factory for resident merchants who managed the tobacco trade. To funnel commerce through the warehouses they built along the riverfront, repeated attempts were made from 1624 until the 166Os to make Jamestown the exclusive port of entry to the colony and require freighters to break cargo there before proceeding to other landings.78 The ruling was hard to enforce; furthermore, it was countermanded more than once by officials in London who considered it a hindrance to trade and an annoyance to planters. Even so, conventional wisdom persisted among many traders who believed that anyone doing business in Virginia “must keep a house here [at Jamestown] and continue all the year [in order] that he may be prepared, when the tobacco comes from the field, to seize it.”79 Some did. On one hand, the reconstructed tract map confirms Governor John Harvey’s claim in 1638 that “[t]here was not one foote of ground for half a mile together by the Rivers syde in James Towne but was taken up and undertaken to be built” on.80 On the other hand, archaeological investigations along the same shore prove that many patented lots were never improved, at least not until later. Well into the 164Os and 165Os wharves, warehouses, stores, and merchants’ dwellings-many already neglected-shared waterfront locations with workshops, kilns, rubbish tips, and stockpiled oyster shells, lime, and charcoal.81 The marketplace-such as it was-was still located inside the dilapidated palisade as late as 1627 or later.82 The town’s economy followed the planters’ calendar. The place boomed when the tobacco fleet lay at anchor, sometimes thirty ships at once.83 Most other times, though, the reputed metropolis fulfilled its reputation as “this unhappy Town.”84
That had not been anyone’s intention. Several governors prevailed on the colony’s legislators to pass bills