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What did Colonial Period homes really look like?

St. Augustine, FL, founded in 1565, is the oldest European city in the United States.  Orignally, the commoners lived in simple wood-plank houses, while a few farmiles lived in white-stuccoed, waddle & daub houses.
St. Augustine, FL, founded in 1565, is the oldest European city in the United States. Orignally, the commoners lived in simple wood-plank houses, while a few farmiles lived in white-stuccoed, waddle & daub houses.
VR Image by Richard Thornton, Architect

You will be surprised!

Prospective homebuyers are often told that the house they are looking at, is a “colonial.” This real estate term typically means that it is a “colonial style,” but what does that actually mean? Often, it means that the appearance of the house has very little relation to the true appearance of Colonial Period buildings! The focus of this series, however, is the “real thing” - houses that were actually built in earlier eras. We will briefly view the history of the Colonial Era in North America and then discuss the types of houses that were built during that era.

Readers are invited to submit questions on the selection and restoration of historical houses. Fill free to contact the author via email at OldHouseQuestion@aol.com. He will do his best to answer your questions during the series or at least suggest others, who can. We hope you will enjoy the humor and can utilize the advice.

The time periods

The first Spanish attempt to establish a colony in what is now the United States was on or near Sapelo Island, GA in 1526. It only lasted 6 months. In 1562 French Huguenots (Protestants) established Charlesfort on Parris Island, SC. In 1564 the French Protestants established a larger fort on the Saint Johns River of Florida, named Fort Caroline. In the next year the Spanish established a fort about 40 miles south of Fort Caroline, and called it, Santo Agostino (St. Augustine.) The Spanish soon massacred most of the garrison at Fort Caroline. In 1566, the Spanish established the town of Santa Elena near the site of Charlesfort. It was planned to be the capital of the great new province of La Florida. The primary functions of Santa Elena and St, Augustine were associated with the protection and supply of Spanish treasure fleets that hauled the vast quantities of gold and silver being mined in Mexico and Peru.

The cornerstone of the Spanish colonizing strategy in the Southeast was the establishment of a network of mission compounds, initially concentrated on the coast of what is now Georgia. Very few Spaniards actually settled the region, outside of the towns of St. Augustine and Santa Elena. Spain was never able to subdue the Muskogean (ancestors of the Creek Indians) provinces beyond the coast. All Spanish colonizing attempts, north of the St. Johns River in Florida were destroyed or abandoned by 1700.

Spanish colonization of the Southwestern United States began in 1598. After much bloodshed, the Spanish were able to dominate the indigenous peoples, who lived in towns, but never were able to conquer such fierce tribes as the Apache and Navajo. Spanish garrisons did enable Mexicans to establish some communities and ranches in certain regions.

The first North American colony to be claimed by England was Newfoundland in 1583. Formal colonization efforts did not begin, however, until 1610, under the leadership of Captain John Smith. The first English attempt to establish a colony in North America was in 1585 at Roanoke Island, NC. It failed very quickly. A second attempt was made to colonize Roanoke Island in 1587. Almost immediately war broke out with Spain. All colonists had vanished by 1590, when an English fleet was able to return to the island with supplies.

Jamestown, VA was established in 1607 by the London Company. Although several times, famine, diseases or Indian attacks almost destroyed the settlement, it managed to survive permanently. The Virginia Colony was limited to the Tidewater Region until the mid-1600s when the Powhatan Indian Confederacy was finally crushed. From then on, new settlers spread inland.

The Plymouth Company established a little-known settlement known as the Popham Colony in Maine, also in 1607. The colony was abandoned after a year, because of leadership problems, but did manage to build a highly seaworthy ship, which crossed the Atlantic several times afterward. During the 1620s, New England was permanently settled. By the end of the century, English colonies had been established from Newfoundland, southward to Charleston, SC.

The French made several unsuccessful attempts to colonize Maine and the Saint Lawrence River Basin between 1598 and 1604. In the next few years a small colony were established in Nova Scotia and at the City of Quebec. These grew very slowly. In 1630 Quebec only had a population of 103. Canada never really had a substantial European population, while under the control of France.

Beginning around 1685, France began establishing trading posts in the basins of the Mississippi River and the rivers that flowed into the Mississippi. In 1690 France began colonization efforts along the Gulf Coast, which culminated in the early 1700s in the establishment of Mobile, Biloxi, New Orleans and Fort Toulouse in what is now Alabama. However, France lost all of its possessions in the continent of North America in 1763, which was the end of the Seven Years War. The date 1763 ends the French Colonial Period.

Spain also lost Florida in 1763, but was given the part of Louisiana, west of the Mississippi. Spain continued to occupy the Province of Louisiana until 1799. It was secretly held by France from 1799 until 1803, when it was then sold to the United States. Florida was given back to Spain in 1783 at the close of the American Revolution. The United State “took” West Florida in 1810 and 1812. Spain gave East Florida to the United States in 1819. The United States took possession in 1821. Spain lost all of its possessions in the Southwest in 1821, when Mexico won its independence. This date ends the Spanish Colonial Period. Of course, the English Colonial Period in the United States essentially ended in 1776, while its end in Canada really does not have a fixed date, but rather involves a gradual change toward a separate cultural identity.

Spanish colonial architecture

In stark contrast to what was being built in Mexico, Spanish colonial houses in both the Southeast and the Southwest evolved directly from Native American architectural traditions. In the Atlantic Coastal Plain of Georgia, the Muskogeans built houses with light, prefabricated wood frameworks and thick clay walls. These were finished with a crude plaster made from burned shells, crushed shells, white sand and kaolin (white) clay. A Spanish officer described these white houses in 1585 as “glimmering like pearls.” Indigenous ethnic groups in the Gulf Coastal Plain, such as the Natchez and Apalachicola (Lower Creeks) built wood-framed houses, sheaved with wood planks.

Until the early 1700’s or even the mid-1700’s, the majority of houses in Saint Augustine reflected one of these indigenous traditions. The common folk and mixed-bloods lived in simple plank-sided houses with thatched roofs. (See the virtual reality image above.) Middle class families build waddle & daub houses, stuccoed with the same crude lime-crushed shell plaster that was used by the Georgia Creeks. This eventually evolved into “tabby” construction, in which the entire wall was composed of a shells, crude hydrated lime, and sand.

Throughout the late 1500s and 1600s, St. Augustine was repeatedly attacked by English, French and pirate invaders. The town was burned or partially burned several times. No houses from before 1701 exist. Our knowledge of the earliest architecture is primarily based on eyewitness accounts, and some evidence from archaeological studies.

Construction was begun on the massive Castillo de San Marcos in 1672. It was constructed out of a soft limestone known as coquina. Civilians wanted to also build major public buildings and the houses of the elite out of coquina, but were not allowed to do so by the King of Spain until around 1690.

An army led by Governor James Moore of Carolina completed destroyed St. Augustine in 1702, but was unable to capture Castillo de San Marcos. Presumably, the reconstruction of St. Augustine included more European style architecture, but this is not known for certain. The lightly framed, wood plank houses of the commoners did not last long in St, Augustine's humid climate.

Spanish colonists in the southwest immediately emulated the pueblo adobe construction upon arrival in the region. They continued to build variations of pueblo adobe architecture into the early 20th century. In the earliest houses, the Spanish settlers copied the indigenous construction method of stacking stones with clay mortar; then plastering the walls with clay. Later, as sawn timbers became available, more wood was used in the framing of the adobe structures.

English Colonial Architecture

The settlers at Jamestown built the exact type of houses that had been common in England since the Middle Ages. They were framed with heavy, dressed timbers, constructed by experienced carpenters, who were brought along specifically for that purpose. The interstices were filled with waddle and daub – a mixture of clay and straw. The earliest houses had no foundations other than a heavy “mud sill” beam. The half timbers houses were inadequate for the cold, windy winters of the Chesapeake Bay region. As soon as the waddle & daub dried, cracks formed at the joints with the timbers and allowed the wind to blow through. The earliest fireplaces were evidently built out of clay and logs, because there were few fieldstones on Jamestown Island. The original houses at Jamestown had dirt floors and thatched roofs.

As Virginia’s colonists moved farther inland they are able to obtain fieldstones for constructing crude foundations and chimneys, mortared with clay. There were very, very few brick houses in Virginia until the 1700s. Bacon’s Castle, included in the attached slide show, was one of those few brick houses. The builders found it less expensive to import the brick makers and kilns than to import the bricks! Lime plaster and mortar were only used by the wealthiest of homeowners. For much of the 17th century, all hydrated lime for building construction was imported from England. The reason was that there is very little exposed limestone in Virginia’s narrow coastal plain and the Piedmont contains only igneous and metamorphic rocks.

Once explorers reached beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains, domestic lime did become available for construction. The Shenandoah Valley was underlain by dolomite limestone that was an excellent building material and source for lime. The crushed limestone rocks were stacked along with dried timbers into large cones. These cones were set on fire and the fires were allowed to burn red hot for several days, until most of the limestone was a grayish-white powder – a mixture of hydrated lime and ash. Masons dug pits near a planned construction site and filled them with slurry containing the crude lime, sand, a yellow-colored clay and water. The pits were covered. The masons would return in about 3-4 months to use the “slaked lime” for mortar. The word slime comes from “slaked lime.”

In 1621, the settlers of Plymouth Plantation forgot to bring along experienced carpenters! Each family was expected to build its own house. During the first winter, most of them were forced to live in the Mayflower. They also constructed half timber houses, in-filled with waddle & daub, but added crude clapboards (wood siding) to partially block the winds. Most of the original houses were poorly constructed, one room hovels, which frequently burned to the ground.

About a decade after the founding of Plymouth, large numbers of Puritan refugees began arriving in Massachusetts. The tradition of houses framed with heavy timbers continued, but waddle & daub walls faded away. They were replaced with tightly nailed clapboards on the exterior and vertical boards on the interior. New England continued the tradition of primarily building wood houses into the late 1800s.

Throughout the Colonial Period, brick houses were rare in the American colonies, except near seaports. Cargo ships used bricks and paving stones for ballast. The cost of transporting bricks and stones away from port cities, (and later, domestic brick manufacturers) made them too expensive for most home builders. Stone masonry houses became more common in the early 1700s, when domestic construction lime was more plentiful. The stones were usually either gathered or quarried very close to the house site.

Log construction was introduced by Swedish and Finnish colonists in the mid-17th century, but really did not become commonplace until the 1700s; and then, only in the western frontier. They were primarily built by settlers of modest means in regions distant from saw mills. Many of the log houses of the late 1700s were two story structures that mimicked the proportions of Georgian Style houses. (See the attached slide show.)

The only location, where stuccoed English Colonial houses can be found in number is along the coast of South Carolina. Charleston’s stucco tradition probably developed from the immigration of Caribbean planters and French Huguenots into the colony. Charleston also had the most cultural contacts with Spanish colonists in Florida and the Caribbean islands of any of the colonies.

French and Dutch Colonial Architecture

The Acadian, Quebecois and Dutch colonists all settled in regions with abundant sources of building stone. They immediately constructed stone masonry houses that were almost identical to their folk architecture in the mother countries. The continuance of European building traditions continued for some time after Acadia, Quebec and New York were taken over by the British.

French settlers on the Gulf Coast, however, found very little, if any, construction grade stone. Stone masonry was ill-suited for the hot, humid climate of the region anyway. Early French houses were frame versions of French stone architecture. Townhouses in New Orleans and Mobile continued the French traditions, but experience in the Gulf climate caused the rural French colonists to mimic the plank houses of the Apalachicola (Lower Creeks) who built wood-framed, plank-sided houses with wrap around porches; essentially, bungalows. What ultimately emerged in rural areas of the Gulf Coast was an architectural tradition that blended Lower Creek Indian house forms with French style floor plans and esthetic details.

Swedish, Finnish, German, Swiss, Austrian and Moravian Architecture

The Swedish colonies on the Delaware River contained over 100 Forest Finns. These non-Scandinavian colonists had a tradition of slash & burn agriculture and the construction of log houses. Apparently, most of the ethnic Swedish colonists also built log houses, because they were the most practical means to have shelter in the American wilderness. The log house tradition then slowly spread outward from the Delaware Valley.

German immigrants are also credited with introducing log houses to the New World. However, most of the German immigrants were Protestant refugees from the Palatinate. The German log building traditions are mostly associated with Bavaria and the Black Forest regions, which were then, predominantly Roman Catholic. Thus, what the German immigrants mostly brought with them were skills in building stone houses. The Moravians were Czech Protestants, who had last lived in the Protestant section of Germany, so they also carried with them masonry building traditions. However, there were Swiss and Austrian (Salzburger) Protestant immigrants to Pennsylvania, Virginia and Georgia, who did come from regions, where log houses were commonplace.

The most probable explanation as to why log houses and cabins became as “American as apple pie,” was that new arrivals to the American colonies often had to pass through regions, where log houses had been built, in order to reach the far western frontier. Massive virgin forests grew everywhere in eastern North America. With a few simple steel tools, frontiersmen could erect solid log houses that withstood violent weather and musket balls, without spending a shilling for any imported or manufactured building materials.

In the next segment of this series, we will examine the architecture of the Federal Period in the United States and early 1800’s in Canada.

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