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Aerial view of reconstructed Indian village in southwestern Virginia
Photo courtesy of www.indianvillage.org

The early habitation of the Tidewater Virginia region was characterized by dispersed settlement along a vast network of navigable rivers, the area's life blood of early commerce, trade and transportation. The James River and its many tributaries flow through the southern portion of the Tidewater region. The majority of colonial era building in the region, and throughout the Southern colonies, was impermanent in nature, its longevity varying by degree and corresponding directly with cycles of building and rebuilding by a variety of earthfast (wood directly in the earth) construction methods. Few survived long. Defining the physical characteristics of these ephemeral buildings has been the subject of interdisciplinary examination through the archeological, architectural and documentary record by historians, architectural historians, archeologists and dedrochronologists. In marked contrast, the 17th and 18th centuries gave rise to the construction of a significant concentration of substantial plantations along the James River, reflecting the sophisticated social, cultural and economic context in which they were built. These preserved James River plantations recall the wealth and lifeways of the landed Virginia gentry.

The First Inhabitants: When the English arrived in Virginia at the beginning of the 17th century, they encountered one of the most politically complex Indian groups along the Atlantic coast, the Algonquian-speaking Powhatans. The Indians lived in dispersed settlements along the rivers and practiced slash-and-burn cultivation. They grew maize, beans, squash, pumpkins, gourds, sunflowers and tobacco, and harvested a variety of fish, birds and animals from the nearby rivers, marshes and woods. At this time, Indians of Virginia had begun to consolidate their dispersed groups for defense. There seems to have been an intensified era of tribal conflict just before the English settlement of Jamestown was founded in 1607. This conflict might have originated with the pressures felt by the Powhatan (and other related Algonquian speaking tribes) as Siouan-speaking Indians (the Monacan and Mannahoac) pushed towards the Fall Line (the boundary separating the Piedmont from the lower coastal, or Tidewater, plain). As depicted in prints such as those engraved by Theodor de Bry published in Thomas Harriot's A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1590), the Indian villages reflected a social hierarchy and some appear to have been surrounded by timber palisades for defense. Constructed of upright saplings set into the ground closely together, and, perhaps, woven together with densely leaved boughs, these palisaded walls were impenetrable until European cannon arrived on the scene.

John White's water color of an American Indian village
Image courtesy of the Trustees of the London Museum

The English recorded that the Indians of Virginia lived in earthfast oval dwellings with light wooden framing members bent into arbor-like frames covered with mud, bark, hides or mats. The interiors were very simple, with dirt floors, no chairs or tables and raised platforms along the outer walls for sleeping. In the period before contact, houses of chiefs were larger than others, denoting their superior social status. The size of the towns varied; during the archeological excavation of one, the Paspagheh town, located on the eastern side of the Chickahominy River, 48 complete or partial buildings dating from different building periods were uncovered in the area. The dwellings were oval in shape and ranged between 14.5 to nearly 31 feet long, similar to the houses that existed at Jordan's Point on the James River. Other buildings in the early Indian settlements included mortuary temples, sweathouses and menstrual huts.

Arrival of the English: The 108 colonists at Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in Virginia, lived in tents and thatched huts for six months, until Captain John Smith took charge of the struggling settlement. Captain Smith ordered the colony's only surviving carpenter to take 30 men into the woods and teach them to chop down trees and split wood for clapboard. By 1610 John Smith's efforts bore fruit: 50 small houses, a church and a storehouse were surrounded, like some of the local Indian villages, by a palisade wall 15-feet high. The houses built by the English settlers have been described by Darrett B. Rutman and Anita H. Rutman, in their book, A Place in Time: Middlesex County, Virginia, 1650-1750, as possessing "steep roofs, narrow casement windows, towering end chimneys, and grey, weathering look, they summon to mind the adjectives 'gothic' and 'medieval.'" They characterize other sorts of small houses built of weatherboarded walls and roofing with plank doors and window shutters, those featuring a brick chimney and fireplace, raised board floor, stairs, shingled roofs and a casement window, and some including divided rooms and two stories, with the customary brick chimney, fireplace and raised floors. They characterize the most common house design (at least in the southern colonies) as consisting of two rooms divided by a partition, with the stairway located beside the chimney accessing the garret space, a storage area for grain and household goods, which sometimes doubled as a sleeping area for children and servants. Derived from hall-and-parlor English homes, this house form was prevalent in Virginia by the end of the 17th century. However, thatched English roofs did not weather well in Virginia, and split planks and shingles were used instead. The analysis of many archeological excavations and detailed architectural survey work conducted throughout the Tidewater region by the Maryland Historical Trust and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources during the early years of the national preservation program reveal impermanent earthfast-built dwellings prevailed among the vast majority of all classes of that region's inhabitants throughout the 17th , 18th and much of the 19th centuries.

Brickmaking in Jamestown

Painting by Sidney King courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park

Although brick making in the English colonies began just after landing in North America, in Virginia wood remained the prime building material for domestic construction even among the wealthy throughout the 17th century. Virginian houses differed from many English house antecedents because of the lack of good building stone. Brick was made from local clay fired to dark red and bright orange colors. The size of brick was regulated by English law: nine by four and a quarter by two and three/eights inches in Elizabeth's reign and nine by fourth and three/eights by two and a quarter inches under Charles I. Thus, the size of bricks in 17th-century Virginia houses tended to be the same as in England. Brick was mostly used for chimneys, cellar walls and building piers. Brick gradually replaced wood as the preferred building material for the refined residences of the rising gentry class during the 18th and 19th centuries. Virginia brickwork is renowned for its high quality, refined craftsmanship.

The Plantation Era: The customs of the English settlers of Virginia emphasized personal honor, hospitality and the accumulation of land, slaves and wealth to denote social status. Following the initial settlement period, the landed gentry of Virginia began building magnificent plantation houses, the most visible sign of their social standing and monetary wealth, and furnishing them with the most fashionable imported appurtenances and material goods. In his book, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Hackett Fischer describes the similarities between Virginia's early plantation dwellings and England's manor houses. These were transplanted building traditions executed by skilled artisans and desired by sophisticated, wealthy patrons. In Virginia and England smaller dwellings were rarely built of brick; most Virginia houses were of wood, post-in-ground construction with steeply pitched roofs.

[photo] Belle Aire
Photo courtesy of Virginia Department of Historic Resources

With 63,000 colonists living in Virginia, a new capital city at Williamsburg with several public buildings, and the establishment of the College of William and Mary (founded in 1693 at Middle Plantation for the training of Anglican ministers), Virginian and Southern architecture came of age by 1700. As aesthetics evolved, neo-classical proportions and details became the preferred taste and brick the choice building material for those who could afford it. This shifting taste was influenced by a variety of factors such as the increasing wealth of the elite, the rising middle class, the growth in population and an increasing influx of skilled artisans competent to build substantial buildings. The rich planters, growing tobacco along the James, Potomac, York and Rappahannock rivers, where the crop was carried from their own wharves, became the heads of small self-sufficient villages with servants' quarters, barns, shops, other agrarian outbuildings and work and storage areas.

Green Spring, the house built by Sir William Berkeley, governor of the colony, was built of brick, displaying the wealth and power of its owner. Constructed in stages from 1645 to c. 1660 outside Jamestown, it was used for a meeting of council in 1691. The house was demolished in 1806, but a watercolor drawing made by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe in 1797 illustrates its Jacobean character. Another early plantation house, Belle Aire, in Charles City County, details the transition from 17th-century to 18th-century building methods. The exposed interior framing with summer beam and the heavy closed-string stair railing are characteristic of the 17th century, while its symmetrical facade and center-passage floor plan are harbingers of standard 18th-century forms.

The most well known of Virginia's few surviving 17th-century buildings is Bacon's Castle, built in 1665 for Arthur Allen, a planter-merchant who was one of the wealthiest planters in Surry County. Often described as one of the earliest brick houses in America, Bacon's Castle is a brick Jacobean manor house fully developed with cruciform plan, baroque curvilinear gables and diagonal chimney stacks. It is one of the nation's outstanding example of sophisticated 17th-century domestic architecture.

[photo] The chimneys of Bacon's Castle
Photo courtesy of Shannon Davis

By the end of the 17th century, Virginia had become the most populous and wealthiest colony in North America. Virginia's wealthy planters began emulating current architecture trends in England, adapting late-baroque elements that came to be called Georgian after the Hanoverian monarchs of England. The Georgian style grew from the Italian Renaissance, which emphasized classical details, horizontal and symmetrical facades, and dominated the English colonies for most of the 18th century. The Georgian style was brought to America and disseminated by skilled English craftsmen who immigrated to the colonies, knowledgeable and wealthy patrons and through architectural books. These ranged from expensive treatises on Italian models to inexpensive carpenter's handbooks.

Berkeley, a historically famous plantation near Charles City, Virginia, is the setting of one of the earliest of the great Georgian plantation houses that came to dominate the colony's economic, political and social life. Berkeley was built in 1726 by Benjamin Harrison IV, who wed Anne Carter, daughter of Robert "King" Carter. Berkeley is a double-pile, two-story, five-bay rectangular house with two tall ridge chimneys with molded caps projecting out of its gable roof. The brickwork displayed at Berkeley is typical of what was developing in the Tidewater in the first quarter of the 18th century.

Westover, in Charles City County, next to Berkeley, is perhaps the nation's premier example of Georgian James River plantation architecture and displays the great wealth and social prominence of the planter-gentry in colonial Virginia. Located on the land first occupied by English colonizers in 1619, recent dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, indicates that the mansion was built by the Byrd family c. 1750. Constructed of brick, it consists of a two-story central section on a high basement with two flanking attached dependencies, the one to the east replacing the original library destroyed during the Civil War. Although the original building remains fairly intact, the house reflects changes made c. 1767 and substantial alterations in 1898. Georgian details are exemplified in Westover's elegant proportions, finely executed wood paneling, distinctive brickwork with segmental window heads and ogee water table and stone pedimented entrances imported from England.

[photo] Aerial view of Shirley Plantation
Photo courtesy of Virginia Department of Historic Resources

During the 1730s, John Carter, the eldest son of Robert "King" Carter, began building Shirley plantation, located upriver from Westover and Berkeley. Recent dendrochronology combined with documentary evidence confirms the house was constructed in 1738. Shirley's formally arranged complex of mansion, two now vanished three-story near dependencies, four later forecourt dependencies, barns and other ancillary buildings illustrates the village air of a major colonial plantation. Shirley evolved over time; in the 1770s John's son Charles Carter altered the interior and added the present two-story Palladian porticos. In 1830, reflecting changes in architectural taste, Hill Carter, grandson of the first owner, added the Doric columns to the porticos.

Following the American Revolution, a distinct national American architecture emerged different from its European precedents, designed by architects who wanted to highlight our republican democracy. Thomas Jefferson rejected the older forms and chose a more Roman neoclassicism in the buildings of the new nation. Among Jefferson's architectural works are his own house Monticello, outside Charlottesville, the Capitol building in Richmond (with the assistance of Charles-Louis Clérisseau), Poplar Forest, his octagonal retreat in Bedford County, near Lynchburg and the University of Virginia's "academical village." In addition, Jefferson contributed through design or the provision of workmen to the construction of or improvements to houses for friends such as Farmington, near Charlottesville, Barboursville, in Orange County, and Montpelier, residence of James Madison, Jr., near Orange. He also encouraged younger designers, which helped shape the foundations of professional architecture in America. During his lifetime, Jefferson's avid interest in architecture fueled his acquisition of the greatest collection of architecture books in the young republic.

Possessing an ample stock of plantation houses by the 1830s and 1840s, Virginia did not see a great wave of plantation house construction in the later antebellum period. A depletion of usable Tidewater soil for agriculture, a process begun during the previous two centuries, combined with a general depression in the agricultural economy suppressed the demand for grand new plantation dwellings. Thus, Virginia had few great columned Greek Revival mansions, much less any rendered in exotic Gothic and Italianate styles. However, as David King Gleason writes in Virginia Plantation Houses, "it was Virginia that provided the prototype of the southern antebellum plantation house." George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington's adopted son, built Arlington House on his 1,000-acre plantation on the Potomac River across from Washington, DC, in 1817. With its monumental Doric portico, it is one of the country's earliest examples of a prominent mansion based on Greek design precedents. As such it is a masterpiece of Greek Revival residential design. Originally conceived as a memorial to George Washington, through marriage it later became Robert E. Lee's residence until the Civil War, when the house and lands were occupied by Union troops. In 1874, a national cemetery was established on its grounds. In 1933 the War Department transferred the mansion to the National Park Service, and in 1955 it was designated the Robert E. Lee National Memorial by the United States Congress.

The African American Presence: Almost from the arrival of English settlers, Africans were brought to Virginia; the first arrived in 1619 and were probably slaves. Until the mid-17th century, the majority of the labor force in Virginia consisted of white "indentured" servants who worked for a prescribed period of time to pay off the cost of their passage to the New World. African slaves began arriving in large numbers in Virginia in the 1680s. Roughly 45,000 slaves arrived in Virginia between 1700 and 1750. Based upon this influx and natural population increase, the number of African Americans in Virginia grew from perhaps 8,000 or 10,000 to more than 100,000 during this period, constituting approximately 40 percent of the colony's population. Slave labor was the backbone of not only the plantations' agricultural economy, but also the building of the region's period architecture.

Plantation "street," from left to right—storehouse, two slave quarters and kitchen

Photo courtesy of Virginia Department of Historic Resources

In the 17th century, Africans were quartered in the house with the English colonists. In the 18th century, as the rural estates grew, the practice began of subdividing plantation land in Virginia and setting up an area designated as the "quarters." The majority of field slaves were housed in simple wooden quarters or cabins. According to John W. Blassingame in The Slave Community, Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, most autobiographies of escaped or freed slaves "reported that they lived in crudely built one-room cabins with dirt floors and too many cracks in them to permit much comfort during the winter months." These often rudimentary cabins were commonly overcrowded with little ventilation.

Although a small percentage of slaves worked in the interior domestic quarters of the plantation house, most were field hands. Some house slaves were rewarded with better living quarters. John Michael Vlach writes in Back of the Big House, The Architecture of Plantation Slavery, "Big House slave quarters were generally set behind or to the side of the planter's residence, where they would not contend with it visibly." Vlach speculates that on some estates, slave quarters might flank the roadway to the mansion, impressing visitors with the number of slaves owned. Quarters for house servants, such as those at Tuckahoe, were often located with or near the plantation street of outbuildings and referred to as the "home quarter." The presence of the enslaved African population in the plantation context is seen not only in the construction of slave and home quarters on plantations and the development of small slave communities, but also is manifested in changes to room usage and configuration in house plans accommodating shifting modes of social behavior and interaction (or not) between the gentry and their servants.

Additional Plantation Outbuildings: Plantations included outbuildings serving specialized functions. These include barns to house animals or store tobacco and other agricultural products. Freestanding kitchens and smokehouses were essential to the function of the plantation. Meat was smoked and salted to be preserved in the smokehouses, such as those at Shirley or Four Square. Dairies or milkhouses, like that at North Bend, were quite common. These were small buildings, measuring roughly 14-feet square that were topped with a pyramidal or gable roof, and were designed to be ventilated and kept cool while milk would sit in pans for up to 10 hours as the cream rose to the surface. Storehouses like the one remaining at Tuckahoe contained surplus goods and items to be shipped to market, craft shops were created so that skilled blacksmiths, carpenters and artisans could practice their trade. Other plantations included large workshops, icehouses to preserve food (underground vaults provided the greatest degree of insulation), chicken houses and other various ancillary buildings.

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