What a house is made of and how it is constructed reveal both the cultural values and available technologies of a time and place. Since architecture physically embodies these things we are able to gain insight into the beliefs and behaviors of people in the past through archaeology. When coupling this understanding of the changes in the built environment with the changes of labor mechanisms, we can determine a cultural shift in how colonists viewed themselves and their environment.
In the seventeenth century the houses were considered impermanent architecture because they were post-in-ground structures; there wasn’t a raised foundation, just basic wood framing covered in wattle and daub, with the posts buried in the ground, and a chimney and thatch roof. The insides of these folk houses were usually similar, with a large common room for cooking and daily life and sometimes a room where the residents would sleep. In smaller houses they would just sleep in the big room called the hall (Seidel).
The impermanence of the construction speaks to the mindset of the colonists. They were coming from England to make a profit and return home; they didn’t expect to be here long, so they didn’t go to much trouble in building lasting structures. Additionally, the steep, thatch roofs show that the colonists brought what they knew about house design with them from England since the steepness had no real advantage in the Chesapeake and required more timber to produce. The thatch roofing was also eventually replaced with shingles because the climate wasn’t as wet as it was in England, and the roofs often caught fire. The lack of privacy in these homes suggests a collective English identity, an us-against-the-world ideal where households had to stick together to make their fortune and return back to England.
After tobacco became a staple crop and indentured servitude gave way to slavery, which was a better long-term investment for planters, it is possible that the colonists developed more of a connection to the land, even if they just planned to be there temporarily for profit. For example, switching to slavery meant they wouldn’t have to give up any land to freed servants, showing that the settlers now saw long-term value in the land and saw themselves as the ones deserving to reap those rewards instead of just raiding land that wasn’t theirs.
In the eighteenth century there was the Georgian revolution when large, square, brick houses were built. They were very symmetrical on the outside and had a hallway on the inside with lots of separate rooms branching off of it, and personal bedrooms upstairs (Seidel). This established a permanent presence and dominance of the environment, as well as a sense of individualism. It was also a symbol of high status to be up to date with English fashions and styles, so there was still a connection to England, but as these kinds of houses appeared a separate identity seemed to emerge. Settlers of the New World were cozying down for good and in doing so became a group of people distinctly different from the British money-seekers of the past who came and left, and especially different from those English men and women who had never left the United Kingdom at all.
At the same time, the shift from tobacco to corn and wheat in the northern parts of the Chesapeake tidewater resulted in another shift in labor mechanisms. Slaves were freed and milldams and waterwheels were created to grind the corn for example. This shows even more direct control of their environment than having slaves cultivate crops because of the pure manipulation of natural resources to capture energy. In conjunction with the Georgian style houses, it is obvious that the colonists viewed themselves as the primary owners and rulers of the land.
Some of the colonists’ views did not change, however. For example, they didn’t ever see the intrinsic value of the land, only its instrumental value in potentially obtaining them profit (McCabe). They also didn’t seem to have an ethical issue with exploiting and owning other humans; instead they turned a blind eye to ensure that they had cheap labor and felt none the worse of themselves. John Burroughs would say those people were victims of petrification due to their lack of love and sympathy, that they became, “hard and callous, crusted over with customs and conventions,” (Burroughs 147).
Overall though, there is an evolution of colonists’ view of themselves and their environment from English citizens raiding the resources of a new land to a distinct group of permanent settlers who own and control the land. This can be seen through the changes in their built environment and their labor mechanisms.
Burroughs, John. (1908). The Art of Seeing Things. Originally appeared in Leaf and Tendril. Pg147.
McCabe, Matthew. (2015). Introduction to Environmental Ethics [lecture].
Seidel, John. (2015). Tidewater Architecture and Town Planning [Powerpoint Slides].