Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series - 0134
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Williamsburg, VA 23187
|The Brush Fence||5|
|The Wattle Fence||5|
|The Palisade Fence||8|
|The Paled Fence||12|
|The Plank Fence||20|
|The Post and Board Fence||21|
|The Post and Rail Fence||24|
|The Worm or Virginia Rail Fence||32|
|Fences in the Williamsburg Historic Area||42|
|Virginia Fence Legislation|
|The Paled Fence|
|The Post and Rail Fence|
|The Worm or Virginia Rail Fence|
Good morrow, fair ones; pray you, if you know,AS YOU LIKE IT, IV, 3
Where in the purlieus of this forest stands
A sheep-cot e fenc'd about with olive trees?
John C. Calhoun was asked to comment on the list of domestic products to be inventoried in the United States Census of 1850. He sharply observed that the most significant item was not included. Upon being questioned as to what that item might be, Calhoun replied: "Fences, fences. They cost more and are of more importance to us as an agricultural people than any other department of domestic industry!"1 Calhoun's remarks reflect, in part, the fencing crisis of the mid-nineteenth century, which arose from an increasing scarcity of timber, not only on the western prairies, but in the East as well. His assessment, however, also characterizes the fences of the well-forested America of earlier years.
An attention to fencing, a feature of English agriculture since about the fifteenth century, was perpetuated by English settlers in North America.2 Though often not without overtones of possession, fences were built for mainly practical reasons. In the southern colonies, livestock of all kinds was accommodated in the woods surrounding the cultivated fields. As the animals could be branded or otherwise marked for owner identification and cleared land was often limited, crops came to be enclosed and livestock was thus fenced 2 out. Conversely, in New England and parts of the middle colonies, livestock was customarily fenced in.3 By no means restricted to agricultural use, fences also defined and protected all types of rural and urban spaces, such as churchyards, gardens, and workyards, throughout the colonies.
The following report addresses the fencing tradition of the southern colonies, specifically Tidewater Virginia, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its decidedly Anglocentric tone, however, should not be interpreted as a complete ignorance of fencing on the part of other cultural groups. Fencing is often achieved by the use of masonry walls, but native stone is a scarce resource in Tidewater, though brick was used to build some churchyard walls and enclose certain public buildings, especially in Williamsburg. The majority of Virginia fences were constructed of wood, and it is with such fences that this study will be concerned. It should be noted that all fence types discussed co-existed; the historical record offers no indication that one type completely supplanted another.
Also included in the report is a consideration of fences in the Williamsburg historic area and recommendations for improvement, as suggested by current research. Appended to the text is a catalog of fence 3 types intended as a design source for future projects. The catalog contains a summary of characteristics for each of the three most prevalent types, as well as contemporary descriptions or specifications, and illustrations. It is hoped that source materials will continue to be added to this working file.
The construction of fences was among the most essential, initial activities of the newly-arrived North American colonist. Cornelius Van Tienhoven advised prospective settlers of New Netherland to arrive in the spring and spend their first summer clearing land, planting vegetable gardens, and building the most temporary of shelters. Then they might
proceed the next winter to cut and clear the timber … suitable for building, for palisades, posts and rails, which must be prepared during the winter, so as to be set up in the spring on the new made land which is intended to be sown, in order that the cattle may not in any wise injure the crops °Fence construction thus preceded the tasks recommended for the second summer: the acquisition of livestock and the building of houses and barns.4 Directives for the enclosure of cultivated land were issued during the earliest years of the Virginia colony and translated into law by the House of Burgesses in 1631.5 The application of the law may be observed in the following 1642 entry in the court records of the Virginia Eastern Shore:
The opinion of the Court is that in respect Henry Walkers ground is not Fenc't the said Walker cannot recover any satisfaction for damage done by hoggs apperteyneing and belonging to Mr. John Neale.6As will be seen, the Virginia fence law and its revisions comprise an important source of information 5 about the fence types favored during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The quickest and most economical fence to construct had as its components the by-products of land clearing.7 The fieldstone walls which characterized much of the New England landscape represent one variety of the type. In other areas, including Virginia, stumps, brush, logs, deadwood, or combinations thereof were massed into tangled barriers. The stone wall remained a useful form for centuries. Its wooden equivalent, however, proved neither as durable nor effective and its use was most likely confined to the early stages of settlement or other temporary situations.
What might be called a systematized brush fence, that is, the wattle fence, was known in medieval Europe (Figure 1).8 Wattle construction, also called hurdle-or wickerwork, was well established in seventeenth century England as a method for infilling the walls of timber-framed buildings.9 Composed of thin, vertical staves about which were woven flexible withes, wattle was finished with mud, clay, and sometimes plaster in its architectural context. Without this earthen covering and with staves or stakes driven into the ground, the wattle fence provided an 6 effective windbreak and more or less defied the invasion or escape of small animals (Figure 2, A & B).10 Availability of materials coupled with familiarity and simplicity of construction suggest the use of wattle-and-daub infill in seventeenth century Virginia. The wattle fence also seems to have made an early appearance. Archaeological investigation of Wolstenholmetown, one of the Martin's Hundred sites in James City County, revealed a curving line of small post holes defining what was probably a domestic yard protected by a wattle fence.11
At the Clifts Plantation site in Westmoreland County, Virginia, wattle fences appear to have been constructed in conjunction with ditches about 1705.12 Archaeological findings suggest that such an arrangement enclosed the rectangular gardens, kitchen yard, and possible orchard adjacent to the main house (Figure 3). At the very end of the eighteenth century, just such a combination fence was specified by George Washington in a letter to his farm manager:
When the Angle of Wood, adjoining the present Cornfield at Mansion house is cleared let all the Poles which are of a proper size for a wattled fence, either in whole, or by being split in two, be preserved; as my intention is, when I come home, to have a neat fence of that kind, on a ditch from the White gates along the road to the turn of it, as Allisons stakes will run to the present-fence.13
… first, throw up a ridge of earth about a foot above the level, and in this drive stakes on a line two to three feet apart, three and a half to four feet high, and then wattle in the cedar limbs, beating them down with a maul as compactly as possible. 14In the same journal, it was noted that the use of banking, as well as ditching, was an important aspect of fencing in the "low lands" of Gloucester and neighboring counties and along the Rappahannock River.15 Washington's pole variety of wattle fence also endured into the nineteenth century; the placement of its stakes was observed to be eight to ten feet apart. Praised for its durability, especially when constructed with stakes of the cedar or chestnut then abundant in Tidewater, the wattle fence was said to survive for about twenty years with relatively little maintenance.
That wattle fence construction required less labor than other types is suggested by the comments of Landon Carter of Richmond County:
I fancy I must put a Watle fence round my new corn fields for I see what with idleness and sickness I can't get rails ready nor all in place.16Philip Vickers Fithian viewed the wattle fence with greater equanimity and wrote an account of fence building at Nomini Hall, Westmoreland County, in 1774: 8
I walked to see the Negroes make a fence; they drive into the Ground Chestnut stakes about two feet apart in a straight Row, & then twist in the Boughs of Savin which grows in great plenty here …17
In 1626, Governor Francis Wyatt instituted what was undoubtedly the most ambitious fencing project ever undertaken in Virginia. The small colonial population found it difficult to guard their cattle (and themselves) from Indian hostilities, a situation not very encouraging for the expansion of the settlement. The governor explained the problem to the Privy Council:
… for redress of which inconveniences we know no other course, then to secure the forrest by running a pallizade from Marttin's hundred to kiskyack, which is not above six miles over, and placeing houses at convenient distance, with sufficient gard of men to secure the Necke whereby wee shall gaine free from possibility of any annoyance by the Salvages, a rich ceramite of ground contayneing little lesse the 300,000 acres of land, which will feed such nombers of people, with plentifull range for Cattle as may bee to defend the plantation against any enimy Whatsoever.18This "strong Pallisado" still stood in 1634, defending "a safe range for cattle near as big as Kent."19
"Palisade" is a word of varied meaning. It may denote a simple fence of stakes or pales driven or set in the ground, as well as a fence of greater complexity wherein the stakes are combined with other elements.20 In colonial Virginia, as in England, the palisade fence 9 enjoyed a diverse application, from garden enclosure to military fortification.
In 1610, William Strachey saw a Jamestown surrounded "with a Pallizado of Plankes and strong Posts, foure foote deepe in the ground, of yong Oakes, Walnuts, &c."21 Archaeological evidence suggests the presence of a palisaded fort at Wolstenhometown, built about 1620.22 The construction of this particular variety of palisade began with the setting of large, tall posts in the ground at fairly wide intervals: the post holes in question at Wolstenholmetown were nine feet apart. Horizontal rails were next nailed onto or mortised into the posts and, finally, planks or pales were nailed vertically to the rails (Figure 4). Palisade fortifications also took shape as an arrangement of closely-set posts, like those requested for the Richmond public jail in 1786 as the "best security to prevent Escapes" or the logs sought for enclosing the garden at the Williamsburg jail in 1740 (Figure 5).23 Peter Nicholson's Encyclopedia of Architecture provides a description of such palisades:
… an enclosure of stakes or piles driven into the ground, each six or seven inches square, and nine or ten feet long: three of which are hid underground. They are fixed about six inches asunder, and braced together by pieces nailed across them near the tops, and secured by thick posts at the distance of every four or five yards.24The use of the earthset palisade, as opposed to the 10 more sophisticated paled, post and rail variety, for domestic purposes was expressed in the English Building Magazine in 1774:
There are some persons who make stockade fences round their gardens to keep out cattle, &c. which, when well made will answer the purposes of Fences … 25
The excavated enclosure of 1705 at the Clifts Plantation may illustrate a third variety of palisade fencing. In addition to the wattle fences, it is possible that vertical puncheons, split pales closely set in the ground, served to protect the gardens from wind and wildlife. In 1686, William Fitzhugh's Westmoreland County plantation included an orchard
of about 2500 Aple trees most grafted, well fenced in with a Locust fence, which is as durable as most brick walls, a Garden, a hundred feet square, well pailed in, a Yeard wherein is most of the foresaid necessary houses, pallizado'd in with locust Punchens, which is as good as if it were walled in & more lasting than any of our bricks …26Archaeological investigations at Martin's Hundred uncovered rectangular slots of about nine inches wide and ten inches deep.27 The slots bore evidence of vertically set split logs of about four inches thick and eighteen inches wide held in place by backfilled clay. The findings inspired a successful quest for documentary evidence, clarifying the existence of what Ivor Noël Hume calls a slot fence (Figure 6). 11 The "197 punches" used about a Maryland garden in 1796 may have been supported entirely by the restriction of a backfilled slot.28 Illustrations reveal that other slot fences were strengthened with one or two horizontal boards or rails (Figure 7, A & B).
Contemporary writings and illustrations indicate that use in Virginia of the earthset varieties of palisade may have been confined essentially to the seventeenth century. Curiously, however, a bank-set palisade fence was recommended for Tidewater in the September, 1850 issue of The American Agriculturist:
Cut the stuff four feet long, of lasting wood, and split it the size of rails, and sharpen the upper ends; set these in the line of the centre of the bank, and throw the dirt around them … they should stand about four 12 inches apart, and project above the top of the bank about two and a half feet … the fence will be better, if a strip of board is nailed along the face of the stakes, about four inches from the top as that prevents any one being removed out of place.29It is, however, doubtful that a revival of the form was so inspired. Earthset palisade construction was simple, expedient, and economical in a timber-rich country. Nevertheless, it was the post and rail version of the palisade, usually referred to as a paled fence or paling, which emerged as one of the most important Virginia fence types.
In 1705, the Virginia General Assembly enacted new legislation concerning the fencing of property. The legislation reiterated the minimum fence height of four and one half feet established in 1646 and, for the first time, specified types of fences which might satisfy the law. Directives for Williamsburg were especially particular:
…every person having any lots or half acres of land, contiguous to the great street shall in close the said lots, or half acres with a wall, pails, or post and rails, within six months after the building, which the law requires to be erected thereupon. 30Similar requirements were often included in deeds of sale, suggesting that the law was complied with to some degree. A 1763 Williamsburg deed stated: 13
…the said Benjamin Powell will as soon as conveniently may be inclose the said two Lotts of Ground with Rails or Pales and keep such part thereof as shall adjoin the Lands held by the said Benjamin Waller constantly inclosed.31A 1780 advertisement for the rental of the Powell property noted that "the lots are well enclosed…"32 The favored fence type for the enclosure of town lots seems to have been the pale (Figure 8 A & B). Virginia church vestrymen nearly always selected pales for their churchyards, as well as the gardens and domestic yards of their glebes. The grounds of other public buildings, such as the Norfolk County Courthouse, were enclosed with paled fences. Pales also served to define farm yards, pastures, and cultivated fields (Figure 9). Mention of such fences in advertisements for rental or sale of property indicates their importance to a well-managed agricultural operation.
The paled fence had appeared in England long before the establishment of the Virginia colony. Though generally smaller than the military palisade already discussed, the paled fence relied upon the same structural system. Carpenters' and builders' guides published in England during the eighteenth century usually offered suggestions for constructing fences with pales. For example, William Salmon, in his Palladia Londinensis (London: 1748), described a fence made of 14
Pallisading Post 6 Inches square, upper Rails 3 ½ by 4, the lower Rail 6 by 3, Pales 3 by 1, the Length of the Pales 4 Feet and ½, the Posts to be 6 Feet above the Ground, so as to allow one Foot and Half under the lower Rail for Brickwork, and to be all of Oak… 33
The paled fences defined in the builders' guides were intended for use about parks and gardens (Figure 10 A). Nevertheless, their characteristics, as summarized below, were shared by those palings evident in contemporary illustrations of agrarian and workaday locales (Figure 10 B).34 Paled fences typically required sawn, or more often, cleft (riven) pales one inch thick, two to five inches wide, and three to six feet long. Six inch square, sawn or cleft posts, charred or tarred at one end, were set two to three feet in the ground and nine or ten feet apart. The tops or heads of both posts and pales might be pointed or otherwise decoratively shaped. Posts sometimes extended above the pales (Figure 11). Two or three sawn or cleft rails were mortised into the posts and secured with wooden pegs. Rails were cut so as to be triangular in section; pales were nailed to the broadest side of the rail (Figure 12). Pale placement was either "close," that is, butted or slightly spaced to form a solid plane, or "open," achieved by a wider horizontal spacing. Masonry work, as in the Salmon example, or a horizontal plank might be set below the pales, but usually the pales extended nearly to ground level. Both pales and posts were capped at times with 15 flat or angled boards (Figure 13). Constructed of oak or fir, the fence assumed, when painted, a white or stone color. The running length of paled fence was reckoned in "panels," that section or compartment between two posts.16
The paled fence in Virginia is most clearly reflected in the vestry records of the colony's Anglican parishes. One of the principle responsibilities of the church vestry in the eighteenth century was the repair and physical improvement of parish property. Specifications for a paled fence to be built at the parish glebe were entered into the Elizabeth City (Hampton) vestry book on July 9, 1771:
The Garden to be Rebuilt 132 feet long by 108 feet Wide with good white oak posts Clear of sap 6 Inches square 7 ½ Feet Long 2 ½ feet of which to be in the ground, the Rales to be sawed out of good white oak 4 Inches Square Split Triangle, & not to Exceed 9 Feet long, the Pales to be sawed out of good heart of Pine ¾ Thick after sawed, to be five feet high neatly Pointed and Nailed on with 10d Nails —35
A paled fence in Virginia generally stood from four and a half to five feet tall (Figure 14).36 Pales and rails were usually sawn, while posts were sawn or hewn with about equal frequency. The shaped timbers, especially pales, might be planed or smoothed with a draw knife. Each part of a Virginia paling was shaped from a certain type of seasoned wood. For posts, durable and decay-resistant varieties like locust, cedar, oak, and, to a lesser degree, chestnut were selected. Oak, poplar and pine, woods characterized by tensile strength, were preferred for rails. Easily worked, relatively lightweight pine was much favored for pales; poplar and chestnut were used as well. There 17 appears to have been no standard combination of various woods within one fence, though an assemblage of locust posts, oak rails, and pine pales might be considered typical.
The construction of a Virginia paling began with the setting of seven to seven and a half foot long, roughly six inch square posts into a posthole of about two and a half feet in depth. The groundset end of the post might be charred or coated with tar as a preservative measure.37 Posts were placed generally eight to nine feet apart.38 Post tops were pointed or often cut on a slant to encourage water run-off. For the same reason, "cant" or triangular rails were obtained by diagonally splitting or sawing square timbers, commonly four-by-fours (Figure 15). The longest side of a rail thus measured five to six inches.39 If rectangular, rails might be two inches by four inches in dimension. Usually three rails, nine to ten feet long, were mortised into the posts; rail ends may or may not have been shaped into tenons. Pales most often approximated the height above ground of the posts, that is, four and a half to five feet, averaged four inches in width and three quarters of an inch in thickness. Two or three ten penny nails, applied in an essentially diagonal pattern, attached the pales to the rails. The rails were set so that the pales stood flush with or behind 18 the outward plane of the post. Whether the pales were close or open, posts often were shaped similarly for uniformity of both function and design. Virginia fences frequently remained unpainted or were provided with a coat of tar. When painted, Virginia palings appeared white or Spanish brown in color. The use of ground level brickwork or a baseboard, as well as grooved rails or boards capping the pales, seems to have been rare (Figure 16).40
Like its English counterpart, the Virginia paled fence usually relied upon a mortise and tenon joint for assembling posts and rails. That the Virginia fences were routinely pegged like those in England is less certain. An early nineteenth century fence fragment, found in South Carolina and now in the Colonial Williamsburg warehouse, displays distinctly-pegged mortise and tenon joints (Figure 17). A 1739 reference to "the frame and pales" in the vestry records of Truro Parish (Fairfax County, Virginia) suggests a similar construction.41 Most available specifications call for rails "mortissed" or "tennanted" into posts or, quite often, completely fail to mention how the parts were to be joined. Perhaps it was assumed that mortise and tenon joinery would be employed and that such joints would be secured with wooden pegs.
It is possible that joints were not pegged and the rails simply placed "one over another in and throughout the mortices."42 19 Charles Fraser's watercolor of "Rice Hope" on the Cooper River in South Carolina depicts the alternating levels of rails which might result from the sharing of one mortise by two untapered rail ends (Figure 18). On the other hand, the staggered rails may imply a single mortise cut through the entire width of a post, but completely occupied by each rail end or tenon. There is evidence that rails occasionally were nailed directly to posts; Whether the rail was applied to the outward face of each post or wedged in between the two is unclear (Figure 19).43 It seems likely that rails also were spliced or lapped onto the outward surfaces of posts, thus eliminating the necessity of fitting each rail and cutting its mortise prior to erecting the fence (Figure 20 A & B).44
While its precise composition is not clear, the plank fence figured as yet another type of enclosure built in Virginia. In the eighteenth century, the term "plank" referred to fairly wide cuts of lumber, that is, boards from one and a half to four inches in thickness.45 Plank appears to have been selected for fence baseboards and pales when strength was especially important (Figure 21). Though soon to be enclosed with a brick wall, the Capitol in Williamsburg was at first
paled in twenty-four foot distance from ye sides and ends wth seasoned plank good locus or ceador posts wth good Railes.46More than a century later, in 1834, "77 ft 6 in of Plank for Pailes" was purchased for a fence between two Williamsburg properties.47
Though plank was often used as a paling material, the two terms seem always to have been differentiated:
In your next letter please inform me whether you prefer the lot to be enclosed with plank or pales…48Many instructions were issued in the early nineteenth century for the enclosure of public buildings with plank fences, some to be as tall as twelve feet.49 While the application of plank to post and rail frame is distinctly indicated in such specifications, it is impossible, given the available documentation, to determine whether the planks were positioned vertically or horizontally (Figure 22).
Horizontally applied planks characterize what is undoubtedly the world's most famous fence:
Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence, nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existance but a burden. Sighing, he dipped his brush and passed it along the topmost plank; repeated the operation; did it again; compared the insignificant whitewashed streak with the far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence, and sat down on a tree-box discouraged.50 The post and board or board fence was employed during the eighteenth century, both in England and America, though its use appears to have increased during the nineteenth century (figure 23). In 1748, William Salmon included "boarded Fencing 6 or 7 Feet high, with rough Featheredge Slit-deal" or "plained and beaded" in his building guide.51 The Carpenters' Company of Philadelphia also defined "Fences of rough boards" in its 1786 Rules of Work.52
Post and board fences were generally solid plane enclosures, that is, the boards were butted or, more often, bevelled and either lapped or set into corresponding grooves (Figure 24). A front garden in Maryland was "weatherboarded with cedar boards and painted" in 1796, the same year in which George Washington gave instructions for "all the boarding of every kind that was white before, to be painted white again."53 In 1810, the wardens of 22 Christ Church, New Bern, North Carolina announced their intentions to contract for a
Fence 5 ½ feet high, of pine boards, free of sap, plained cyphered and cap'd, on the front of Pollock and Middle Streets — the back Fence rough. 54Board fences were often reinforced with battens and provided with a capping member to divert water from the entire assemblage (Figure 25). The above references suggest that by the nineteenth century there seems to have developed a certain hierarchy of placement for the board fence:
You see, aunt Polly's awful particular about this fence — right here on the street, you know — but if it was the back fence I wouldn't mind and she wouldn't.55
An open version of the board fence, composed of neatly-cut, precisely-spaced horizontals, frequently appeared along and across the turnpikes of eighteenth century England (Figure 26). At Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1743, the Swedish journalist Pehr Kalm observed "gaping fences," with four to five foot tall, mortised posts into which were set boards of nine to twelve inches in width.56 Kalm noted that such fences were "only used for keeping out large livestock such as cows, horses, and sheep." The open post and board fence seems to have made comparatively few appearances in eighteenth century Tidewater, though it was much promoted in the agricultural writings of the later nineteenth century.57
Of all the fence types discussed thus far, only the open post and board was not designed to provide a solid, impenetrable barrier. As such, it may be considered a conceptual variant of the far more prevalent post and rail fence. The assemblage of earthset posts into which horizontal rails were mortised not only served as the structural basis of the paled fence, but existed as a fence type in its own right.
The post and rail fence, yet another export from Europe, appeared in Virginia by, at least, the mid-seventeenth century.58 During the colonial period, it was employed to enclose domestic yards, cultivated fields, pastures, orchards, and, to a lesser extent, churchyards, courthouse grounds, and gardens. Posts and rails were especially favored for locations along roadways (Figure 27). Property lines, in rural areas and in towns, were defined with post and rail fences. The post and rail, like the boarded fences, grew in popularity in the early years of the nineteenth century, as less wood and labor were required for their construction than for paled or worm (see pp. 32-37) fences. The general use of the boring machine by the 1810's, by eliminating the need for cutting mortises by hand with chisel and mallet or augur and post ax, may have also contributed to the increased application of the post and rail.59 According to various agricultural journals, by the Civil War the post and rail was the most 25 common fence type in Virginia.60
In 1774, the vestry of Truro Parish in Fairfax County, Virginia decided to enclose the yard of the new church
with a Post and Rail Fence in the following Manner, to wit, with Sawed Cedar Posts to go two feet and a half in the Ground, to be first burnt, Sawed Yellow Pine Rails clear of Sap, five feet high from the Surface to the Top Rail, Post eight feet asunder, the whole to be well payed with turpentine and red paint …61The typical Virginia post and rail fence was composed of five rails per eight foot panel and stood about five feet high (Figure 28). As in paled fences, decay-resistant woods were preferred for posts: locust, chestnut, cedar and cypress. Tensile strength was a less critical concern, since the rails would not be burdened with pales, but oak, poplar, chestnut, and pine were again the best choices. Posts might be split or sawn; some were roughly shaped or drawn prior to mortising. Rails were sometimes sawn or riven from stock lumber into both triangular and rectangular forms. Most often, however, rails appear to have been split from felled or fallen timber. Unlike the Truro example above, most post and rail fences remained unpainted, though some were tarred (Figure 29).
The production of split fence rails began with the driving of an iron wedge into a recently-felled log with a maul or beetle.62 Oak or dogwood wedges, called gluts, were then placed in the resulting aperture and struck with 26 the maul to further open up the split. The process was repeated until the log had yielded the straightest possible rails, usually about four or five inches thick and basically triangular in section. Posts were prepared by the same method. Rail splitting ideally occurred near the proposed location of the fence to minimize hauling. The winter months were favored for the job principally because it was believed that rails split more readily and ultimately lasted longer if obtained when the sap was down. The gathering of fallen timber for use in fencing also was carried out during the winter months. The moving and repair of all fence types took place in the winter and 27 early spring.63
An established rationale governed the placement of split rails in post mortises. Split rails always possessed at least a slight bend or camber; when installed in a fence, a split rail might be positioned so that it appeared as an arch from post to post.64 A more crucial consideration was the positioning of the heartwood rail edges, which had resulted from the splitting process. The base of a generally triangular rail contained mostly sapwood, the apex heartwood. By placing the heartwood upwards, the most durable side of the rail confronted as well as shed rain and snow.65 Mortises were cut through the entire width of a post and each was occupied by two rail ends.
The existence of a fence predicated some means of access or passage into the area enclosed. The simplest entry was created by either omitting an expanse of fence or slightly offsetting and overlapping two lines of fence (see Figure 5). Both methods proved unsatisfactory, as intruders of all kinds readily passed through the resulting gap. An improved solution was based upon a portable section of fence. One full panel of pales or the individual rails belonging to one panel of a post and rail fence were designed to be easily removed from, as well as returned to position.66 By far the most effective entrance to enclosed areas was achieved with a gate, a framed door vertically hung from hinges secured to a post and spanning an opening in a fence (Figure 30).
Like fences, gates became a subject of legislation in Virginia during the seventeenth century:
WHEREAS the dispatch of busines in this country is much obstructed for want of bridleways to the severall houses and plantations. It is enacted by this grand assembly and the authority thereof, that every person haveing a plantation shall, at the most plaine and convenient path that leades to his house, make a gate in his ffence for the convenience of passage of man and horse to his house about their occasions at the discretion of the owners.67Comparatively little information about gates was uncovered by this study. Based upon the available, especially pictorial, documentation, it appears that a typical gate of seventeenth and eighteenth century Virginia resembled that described in the following passage, dating to 1743:
I would have a new Great Gate made out of the stuff that I have ready saw'd for that purpose; the Back & fore parts, that the bars are to be Mortois' d into to be of Locust; which must be faln, and ly to season a while, to keep it from splitting. And let it be Cross-brac'd, and pinn'd Cleaverly to keep it from swaging; and let there be a Good Latch & Catch put as Low as the old one, to keep it fast, that hogs may neither go in nor out: and give charge, that it be always kept shut: and indeed it must be so hung as the old one was, and kept Greas'd, that it may shut itself.68
Essentially an open framed rectangle, a gate usually was provided with rails let in or nailed to its vertical members: the heel or harre by which the gate was hung and 30 the head. Pales often were subsequently applied: "Two pair of gates to be made the same with the pailing."69 Evidence also exists for unframed gates composed of pales or broad vertical planks secured with horizontal battens (Figure 31). A single diagonal brace was positioned between the bottom of the heel and the top of the head, though the opposite, and structurally weaker, placement also occurred (Figure 32). Dimensions for gates are rarely supplied by the historical literature, but an average width of four to five feet, and a height, when hung, equal to that of the flanking fence lines seems plausible.70 Two or three "substantial Iron Hinges" or "Hook & Hinges," that is, pintles and strap hinges, attached the gate to a post and supplied its mobility.71 The supporting fence posts were deeply set, carefully backfilled, and sometimes oversized, either in total mass or in height, to compensate for the weight of the gate (see Figure 29):
And I would have the old Gate, hinges and all, well mended and sent up into the forest, and well hung there with ye posts Large, and a cross-piece at top; and sat, at least, three foot in ye Ground, and well pinion'd and a Large Cill laid in the Ground; the upper side not to be above two inches above Ground.72The earthset sill apparently served as a stop for the motion of the gate.
Many Virginia gates were supplied with iron latches and related hardware, such as that described by Washington in 1793:
… a thin plate of iron, kept in place by an old Iron hoop (of which I presume hundred could be got in 31 Alexandria for a mere song) and staple for it to catch in …73An indication of the ornamental variety of such latches is provided by Washington's further comments about the above:
The advantage of this latch is, that let the Gate swag as it may, it always catches. The top of the flat Iron ought to shew, that strangers may know how to open it on either side but there is not the least occasion for the round like that at the Gumspring, nor of the Curl like those at the White Gates …74Gates were often painted, sometimes in a manner which set them off from the rest of the fence. For example, the Truro Parish fence of 1774 was a post and rail type painted red, but its "Pallisadoed Gates" were painted a stone color.75 The Truro fence also illustrates the independence of design exercised for certain gates — not all visually matched the fences they served (Figure 33).76 The finer points of eighteenth century gate construction await further study.
Figure 34. The use of stiles in Virginia appears to have been minimal.
All of the fence types thus far discussed, though familiar, even commonplace features in the Virginia landscape, had originated in Europe. The profusely named zig-zag, snake, worm, or Virginia rail fence appears to be of irrefutably American invention.77 The latter name expresses its traditional birthplace. The worm fence is based upon a structural system of stacked, self-supporting split rails (Figure 35). Thus, it is tempting to seek some connection with Northern European log construction, which came to be widely employed in the North American colonies. Pehr Kalm observed the resemblance: "The rails are placed with the ends on top of each other as in a log building; they are not notched but just piled loosely…"78 Nevertheless, "the worm fence of the Englishman" in America was for Kalm a new and novel form. Indeed, Europeans in general seem to have been fascinated with the fence type; their accounts provide some of the best descriptions of the worm fence as it appeared in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Thomas Anburey's Travels Through the Interior Parts of America (London: 1789) delineates the construction of a Virginia rail fence in Virginia, beginning with the preparation of the component rails:
The fences and enclosures in this province are different from the others, for those to the northward are made either of stone or rails let into posts, about a foot asunder; here they are composed of what is termed 33fence rail which are made out of trees cut or sawed into lengths of about 12 feet, that are round or split into rails 4" to 6" diameter.79Rail length varied according to locale; in most parts of Virginia, the average seems to have been about eleven feet.80 Basically triangular in section, split rails were, as Anburey noted, approximately four to six inches in width or thickness. Cedar and chestnut were the preferred woods, though locust, oak, and heart pine also were transformed into worm fences.
Once the requisite number of rails had been produced, the assembly of the fence might proceed:
When they form an enclosure, these rails are laid so that they cross each other obliquely at each end, and are laid zig-zag to the amount of 10 or 11 rails in height. Then stakes are put against each corner, double across, with the lower ends drove a little into the ground, and about these stakes is placed a rail of double the size of the others, which is termed the rider, which, in a manner, locks up the whole and keeps the fence firm and steady. The enclosures are generally 7' to 8' high…81The strength and stability of a worm fence depended entirely upon the angle at which one section of rails met another. The sharper or more acute the angle, the stronger the fence (Figure 36). An angle of approximately one hundred and twenty degrees appears to have been commonly used, while the rails overlapped about one foot at each corner. A recollection of worm fences in late nineteenth century Missouri indicates that the straightest rails always 34 occupied the lowest position, thus discouraging small animals from squeezing beneath the fence.82 The same account notes that when the fence was moving uphill, the larger ends of the rails were pointed downhill in an effort to somewhat level the whole. Though no supporting evidence has emerged from the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, it seems possible that such fine tuning was exercised in Virginia, at an earlier date, as well. A worm fence might have contained as few as five or as many as twelve rails. An average of six to nine rails, or five to eight feet, is indicated by the historical record. Rails remained unpainted.
The buttressing described by Anburey refers to a modification of the worm fence which provides yet another appellation: the stake and rider fence. The basic zig-zag of rails, no matter how carefully angled or placed, was easily knocked down by unruly livestock or turbulent weather. By the mid-eighteenth century, if not earlier, crossed stakes of about eight feet in length, set in either the acute or obtuse angles, and the heavy rider resting on top had become recognized features of the best-built worm fence (Figure 37). One rider improved the stability of the worm fence; two riders heightened its effectiveness:
Our summer work commenced in the spring, to fix the fences. We would go over them all, supply broken rails and re-set stakes. The fences were nearly all "worm" fences, and the best ones were "nine rails and double rider," making a fence 8-9 feet high. A single rider fence left a space between the rider or top rail and the one next below it through which 35 a cow or horse could put its head and lift the rider off and then jump the fence, but the double rider closed the pening.83
The above description of worm fences in Loudon County, Virginia in the 1820's also serves to illustrate the extensive repairs required by the type. In addition to the structural instability of the unbraced worm fence, natural timber decay afflicted all varieties. The problem which beset all earthset fences did not spare the stake and rider fence:
Often when the frost quits the earth, the stakes of our worm fences are entirely lifted up. Then the riders tumble down, and the strength, the stability they gave them is gone.84Fire rapidly consumed worm fences, as the burning rails tended to fall into a conveniently combustible pile.85 Perhaps the greatest disadvantage of the worm fence was its tremendous consumption of both timber and land (Figure 38). The width of a typical worm fence was about eight feet, with stakes and riders, ten feet. Each mile of such a fence occupied one and two-tenths acres of otherwise potentially cultivated land.86 To construct one mile of a ten rail high stake and rider fence required over five thousand rails.87 In well-wooded areas, particularly during the early years of settlement, however, such considerations were of little importance:
I have seen twelve, even fourteen, of these rude beams one above another; a sure sign that wood is of no value, and that a little ground more or less is of no matter or consequence.88
An abundance of readily obtainable, easily worked timber rendered the worm fence essentially negligible in material cost. Simple in assembly, the worm fence also required relatively little labor in its preparation: no post holes needed to be dug, no posts mortised, no pales shaped and nailed. When well-built, the worm fence effectively prevented the incursions of livestock onto cultivated fields:
At first sight the worm fence appears very inefficient, but on a closer inspection and more intimate acquaintance with its qualities it improves in ones estimation, and it would certainly be difficult for the pioneer settler to substitute anything so efficient and at the same time so easily to be got … any man of ordinary physical powers can put up 200 yards of a rail fence in a day, or fence about 30 acres in a week; and, when the timber is good, such a fence, with some repairs, will last ten or twe1ve years.89In addition, worm fences might be quickly dismantled, moved to a new location, and reassembled. The fences also served as impromptu sources of excellent firewood.90 Thomas Anburey did not fail to mention the contribution of the worm fence to the English language:
… from a mode of constructing these enclosures in zig-zag form, the New Englanders have a saying, when a man is in liquor, he is making "Virginia Fences."91
The worm fence had appeared at Jamestown by 1685, when the Reverend John Clayton wrote to Robert Boyle about the fences in Virginia with 37
… eight railes of Cloven timber about 9 foot long a piece wch places thus lie upon one another a lawfull fence is 8 railes high.92Worm fences cannot be detected archaeologically. However, the presence of the fence type at the Clifts Plantation and the much earlier sites of Martin's Hundred is suggested by the relative placement of other fences on site or the sharply delineated edges of refuse pits.93 Worm fences enjoyed a wide geographical distribution throughout the southern and middle colonies, and, to a lesser degree, in New England. Expanding western settlement relied greatly upon the type; it was recommended as the ideal farm fence well into the nineteenth century.94
As little as sixty years after initial settlement, some areas in the English colonies began to experience shortages of timber, a situation which had become critical and widespread by the 1850's.95 Fencing with wood was developing into a serious economic burden for many land owners. The worm fence, requiring a significant amount of timber to build, was no longer the inexpensive choice:
We happen to know that one gentleman in Maryland has been put to the expense of $15,000 for his post and rail fence, and that he had put up many miles of worm-fence besides, of eleven heavy chestnut rails to the panels, and we believe the common price of such rails is $50 to the thousand, delivered along the tributaries of the Chesapeake!96Increasing land prices and subdivisions constituted additional deterrents to the use of expansive worm fences. In many parts of Virginia by the mid-nineteenth century, the Virginia rail fence was the least common type to be built.97
The fencing crisis of the mid-nineteenth century inspired a search for alternatives to the wooden fence types. Wire fencing commanded much attention, as did a somewhat less industrial form, the hedge or "living fence." The "hedge mania" which resulted did not introduce the idea to America.98 The hedge, a well-established type of enclosure in England and Europe, may have been used in seventeenth century Virginia and made sporadic appearances during the eighteenth century.
In August of 1641, instructions for the new governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, were drawn up. The governor was requested to encourage the planting of orchards and insure
… that every Planter be compelled for every 200 Acres Granted unto him to inclose and sufficiently Fence, either with Pales or Quick Sett, and ditch … a Quarter of an Acre of Groundfor the purpose.99 As the orders originated in London, the specification of hedges or quick set fences may reflect English as opposed to Virginian conditions. About twenty years earlier, Captain Nathaniel Butler reported that he had observed newly-arrived Virginia settlers "dyinge under hedges." The Virginia Company assembled its own eye-witnesses and replied that "as for dyinge under hedges there is noe hedge in all Virginia."100 Perhaps what Butler called a hedge was simply unbridled vegetation winding about a rail fence, rather than a deliberately 39 placed, well-tended planting. On the other hand, slow-growing, troublesome hedges may have been established at Jamestown with the same conviction as surrounded the planting of mulberry trees for the silk worms.
If the presence of hedges during the seventeenth century is uncertain, documentation for the eighteenth century is somewhat more conclusive. The explicit Virginia fence act of 1705 accepted "an hedge two foot high, upon a ditch of three foot deep, and three foot broad" as a legal fence, though use of such an arrangement does not appear to have been deemed applicable to the city of Williamsburg.101 The 1748 law reduced the depth of the attendant ditch to two feet.102 In that same year, Pehr Kalm saw a few hedges of privet in Germantown, Pennsylvania.103 Shortly before the revolution, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's experiences in the American colonies left him with the following thoughts:
When the country becomes older and the price of labour somewhat less, we shall likewise be enabled to plant good thorn fences. The American thorn is excellent for that purpose and inexpugnable. I know already many farms that are thus defended.104Hedges stood on the grounds of the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg in 1779, when Henry Bolton was paid £30 "for Hedging and Ditching in the Governor's Meadow."105 An "Address to the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture" printed in the November, 1789 issue of the American Museum emphasized that "a hedge, without a ditch, 40 is no fence." The article reports the establishment of thorn hedges in Maryland:
My ditches are 4 ½ feet at top, 1 foot at bottom, and 3 feet deep (to 3 ½) … by digging only 3 feet deep, bevelling from a width of 4 ½ feet to one foot, we have a permanent bank near 6 feet high. Three rails on this, while the hedge is growing, will make a good fence, and when the hedge has grown stout, we then have a perfect fence, without rails, which is neither liable to rot, or be pulled down.106
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, interest in hedges intensified, though actual use seems to have been attempted only by the more prosperous or progressive farmers. In 1794, Thomas Jefferson replaced decayed fence rails with rows of peach trees to divide certain fields; fields on top of Monticello were defined by thorn hedges.107 George Washington's comments on fencing are particularly illuminating:
I am not surprised that our mode of fencing should be disgusting to a European eye; happy would it have been for us, if it had appeared so in our own eyes; for no sort of fencing is more expensive or wasteful of timber. I have been endeavouring for years to substitute live fences in place of them, but my long absences from home has in this, as in everything else frustrated all my plans that required time and particular attention to effect it. I shall now (although it is too late in the day for me to see the result) begin in good earnest to Ditch and hedge, the latter I am attempting with various things but believe none will be found better than cedar; although I have several kinds of white thorn growing spontaneously on my own grounds.10841 John Beale Bordley's Essays and Notes on Husbandry and Rural Affairs, published in Philadelphia in 1799, promoted hedges and ditches in anticipation of timber shortages.
The Philadelphia Agricultural Society awarded a gold medal in 1819 to Colonel John Taylor for his cedar hedges at Hazlewood in Caroline County, Virginia. By 1850, the colonel's hedge was irreversibly overgrown, the inevitable fate of trees used for hedging.109 All hedges required regular trimming, a major disadvantage to their use. Hedges were also relatively expensive and, like any crop, subject to the forces of weather, disease, animals, and insects. Long to mature into an effective barrier, hedges in the meantime had to be protected by some other kind of fence. Even when mature, the hedge did not always turn livestock, deer, and other visitors from cultivated areas. Hedges, moreover, harbored vermin, created troublesome snowdrifts, and, like worm fences, occupied an excessive amount of land.110 The hedge never achieved true success in America, a situation summed up in the May, 1850 issue of The American Agriculturalist:
… not one man in ten will plant a hedge for fear he may want to sell his farm and "move west" before it is grown, and thus lose the cost of it; or if he does not move, that he may want to change the lines of his fields or his farm, and thus his hedge become useless … for more than a century past they have been thoroughly tried in different sections of our country, and volumes have been written upon them, and yet twenty miles of "good and sufficient" hedge can hardly be found in the United States.111
As early as 1929, fence design and construction commanded the attention of the Williamsburg restoration project.112 Arthur A. Shurcliff, Susan Higginson Nash, and, later, Singleton P. Moorehead and others ranged throughout the countryside, from the Carolinas to New England, in quest of prototypes for the historic area enclosures. Existing fences in Williamsburg were also scrutinized. Shurcliff, as landscape architect, was primarily responsible for the translation of field work into applicable designs, most of which are still in use today (Figure 39).
During the early years of the restoration, a genuine concern for historical accuracy was tempered with the tunnel vision peculiar to devotees of the Georgian Revival. Fences were sought and recorded in regions of colonial origin, but, as Walter M. Macomber advised William G. Perry: "… any fence that shows some design, should be copied carefully."113 Shurcliff's 1938 research tour through England considerably augmented the available information about fences. Based upon his observations, Shurcliff submitted a battery of recommendations, notably: the adoption of a broader, that is, older chronology of fence prototypes, the application of hand tools to fence construction, the use of triangular rails and mortised posts, and the installation of unpainted fences built of seasoned, durable wood types, such as cypress. His recommendations and additional comments reveal the origins 43 and appearance of historic area fences:
Many of the old Virginia fences we have copied for Williamsburg for our town places were made of soft short-lived wood. As you know, I have helped to copy many of the designs and have urged their use. Perhaps the oldest were a third to half a century old, that is, 1900 to 1880 or so. They are circular saw work and doubtless sufficiently true to the 18th century. Mr. Perry has found some authentic examples in old prints and we have used these too. However, all our fences have pretty much the same character and pretty much the offspring of machine tools. Many of them look a good deal like New England fences.114
Shurcliff's excellent recommendations do not appear to have been much heeded. During the 1930's and 1940's, however, greater attention was given to the historical record as a source of fence design. Graphic interpretations of written fence descriptions were developed, notably the post and rail fence (Type XXXVII) in evidence in the historic area (see Figures 19 and 28). By the 1950's, a sizable file of working designs had been created through the varied channels of research described above. The file is still consulted when a need for fencing arises.
The enclosing of the Bryan property (Block 14, Building 15A) in 1942 exemplifies the process of fence selection and placement employed for the Williamsburg historic area. A combination of documentary and archaeological research determined the location of the perimeter fences.115 According to the Frenchman's Map of ca. 1781, the property was flanked on the east by 44 Nassau Street and on the north by Duke of Gloucester Street. Archaeological investigation revealed a series of post holes, which appeared to correspond to the west and part of the south boundary lines shown on the map. In obedience to the 1705 law, a four and one half foot tall fence was chosen for the east, north, and south boundary fences. The west boundary fence, as well as those defining interior areas like the stable yard, was built to four feet one inch in height "so that a feeling of unity and common ownership with the area" might be conveyed.
The fences for the Bryan property were all selected to "appear well with this tall narrow house and outbuildings" (Figure 40). The principle boundary fence, as well as the west and south fences of the kitchen yard and garden, are open palings, though of different design. Close paled fences were intended to conceal trash bins, laundry yard, and garage area (stable yard). The west property boundary was marked by a low, close paled fence, which served "as a base line for the whole Bryan composition as one passes on Duke of Gloucester Street coming from the business center … " The perimeter fences and the kitchen yard and garden fence were derived from specific precedents recorded in Virginia, Delaware, and Massachusetts. The more utilitarian fences were composed of pales with diagonally cut tops "commonly seen throughout Virginia."
Thus, it is evident that selecting fences for a historic area property has always been both a practical 45 [and] artistic matter. The north fence line of the Bryan stable yard was located to accommodate automobile movement, but the orientation of fences was dictated by a certain aesthetic hierarchy of spaces: The poorer side of more important surrounding fenced spaces naturally face on this kitchen garden. We have faced the less important stable yard fence along the south boundary into this garden because of its finished appearance as one looks south from the Kitchen yard.116 Nevertheless, the historical function of spaces was generally honored. As on the Bryan property, fences were usually not constructed across the pathway between house and kitchen or any such essential activity route.
The research effort which has culminated in this report represents a desire to further refine and improve the fences of the Williamsburg historic area. To that end, the following observations and suggestions are offered.
While uniform eighteenth century complicity with the four and one half to five foot legal height cannot be assumed, fences in the historic area are generally too short to serve as convincing barriers. As Shurcliff recommended some forty-five years ago, greater use of triangular rails and mortised posts would improve the historical veracity of the enclosures. While rails often were nailed directly to posts, no evidence has come to light that nailing blocks figured in eighteenth century fence construction methods. Concrete posts, of course, are an anomaly as well, especially when deterioration further betrays their composition. The existing post and 46 rail and worm fences are among the most accurately designed and executed, though the number of component rails could be greater. The worm fence which now surrounds the Magazine is inappropriate, both in placement and construction. Serious consideration should be given to its removal (for a detailed account of this proposal, see the worm fence section of the catalog).
Changes in interpretive use occasionally have resulted in a proliferation of fences within a single lot, as at the Powell-Waller House. Such extraneous fencing should be removed to restore the spatial integrity of the property. The authenticity of certain fence designs is questionable. Of particular concern is the close paled fence, the top of which appears to have been shaped with a chain-saw. (Figure 41). Pale tops were cut prior to assembly; this fence thus amounts to structural nonsense. Pale width certainly varied in the eighteenth century, especially when riving or splitting was the method of production selected. The diversity of dimension evident in the square-topped, close paled fence much used in the historic area (Type IV) seems to be something of an exaggeration.
The historical record indicates that most Virginia fences, even those associated with significant public buildings and spaces, assumed fairly plain, essentially utilitarian forms. Many of the fences standing in the historic area, thus display a level of ornamentation 47 inappropriate to their location and function. As basically utilitarian structures, fences relied largely upon an integrity of construction, especially the informed choice of wood types, and not a routine coat of paint, for their longevity. In sum, height, authenticity of fabrication and assembly, restraint in maintenance, and simplicity of design are the qualities suggested for the improvement and future introduction of fences into the Williamsburg historic area.
Country Life 128 (August 11, 1960) 296; 124 (July 31, 1958) 228.
February 2-7 , 1631:
"Every man shall enclose his ground with a sufficient fence."Act LXIII, vol. 1, p. 176.
September 8, 1632:
"Every man shall enclose his ground with a sufficient fence."Act LII, vol. 1, p. 199.
"… that every man shall make a sufficient fence about his cleared ground."vol. 1, p. 244.
" … that fence shall be adjudged sufficient which is four feet and a half in height substantial close down to bottom."Act XV, vol. 1, p. 332.
March 7-9 , 1658:
"… that every planter shall make a sufficient fence about his cleared ground at least fower foot and a halfe high."Act LIV, vol. 1, p. 458.
" …that every planter shall make a sufficient fence about his cleared ground at least fower foote and an half high."vol. 2, p. 100.
September 23, 1667:
WHEREAS the dispatch of busines in this country is much obstructed for want of bridlewayes to the severall houses and plantations. It is enacted by this grand assembly and the authority thereof, that every person haveing a plantation shall, at the most plaine and convenient path that leades to his house, make a gate in his ffence for the convenience of passage of man and horse to his house about their occasions at the discretion of the owners."An act for roades to houses, Act V, vol. 2, p. 261.
1705: An Act for prevention of trespasses by unruly horses, cattle, hogs, sheep, and goats; and by taking away boats and canoes.
I. Be it enacted, by the Governor, Council, and Burgesses of this present General Assembly, and it is hereby enacted, by the authority of the same, That if any horses, mares, cattle, hogs, sheep, or goats, shall break into any grounds, being inclosed with a strong and sound fence, four foot and half high, and so close that the beasts or kine breaking into the same, could not creep through; or with an hedge two foot high, upon a ditch of three foot deep, and three foot broad, or instead of such hedge, a rail fence of two foot and half high, the hedge or fence being so close that none of the creatures aforesaid can creep through, (which shall be accounted a lawful fence,) the owner of the said horses, mares, cattle, hogs, sheep, or goats, and of any one of them, shall, for the first trespass by any of them committed, make reparation to the party injured, for the true value of the damage he shall sustain, with costs of suit; and for every trespass afterwards, double damages, and costs of suit: To be recovered in any court of record in this her majesty's colony and dominion, in such manner as the law, in the like cases, directs."vol. 3, p. 279.
October, 1705: in Williamsburg
"every person having any lots or half acres of land, contiguous to the great street shall inclose the said lots, or half acres with a wall, pails, or post and rails, within six months after the building, which the law requires to be erected thereupon."vol. 3, p. 430.
"Lawful fence — a strong sound fence 5 feet high — or a hedge 2 feet high upon a ditch 2 feet deep and three feet broad — or a rail fence 2 ½ feet high upon a ditch 3 feet deep and 3 feet broad — all so close together that horses, mares, cattle, hogs, sheep, and goats cannot creep through."vol. 6, p. 1.
1710 Act of Assembly concerning the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg.
"…and that a convenient kitchen garden be laid out on the said land and be enclosed with pailes, and that an orchard and pasture ground be made on the said land and be enclosed with a good ditch and fence …. "vol. 3, pp. 483-4.
|Component Parts:||Hewn or sawn posts, 7 feet long, 6 inches square;|
|Triangular rails split from sawn stock, 9 feet long, 5-6 inches longest side;|
|Sawn pales with pointed tops, 5 feet long, 3-4 inches wide, ¾ inch thick.|
|Woods:||posts locust, cedar, oak, chestnut; rails-oak, poplar, pine; pales-pine, poplar, chestnut.|
|Construction:||Rails mortised into posts set 8 feet apart. Pales nailed on to rails with 2-3 ten penny nails per attachment point.|
TEXT: pp. 12-19
August 7, 1725
"Then the Vestry agreed with Wm Lock Esqr to pail in the Churchyard in manner and form following Viz: Locus Posts 7 ½ foot long, 5 Inches one way and 4 the other, in biggness, 3 rails to each Pannell of White Oak, 4 inches in bredth and two inches and a half in thickness, and all the Sapp taken out of the said Rails, and to be tennanted into the Posts — to be pailed with White Oak pails nigh an inch thick, and abt 3 ½ ins Bredth, and not more with all the Sapp taken out, & ffix a Cant rail grooved in upon the Top of the Pailing, the said pails to be nailed on wth ten penny nails, and three in Each pail, & the said rails not to Exceed ten foot in length, and make a pair of handsom folding gates at the Front of the Church Yard, and make a Small gate by the End of the Vestry house where there now Stands an old one — the said work to be done workmanlike,the said Lock — finding. Everything towards the finishing & completing the said work & to be finished with in three months from the Date hereof and to have for his said Work and Charge three thousand five hundred Pounds of Tobbo; Memorandum the Pails, and rails to be well drewn."St. James Episcopal Church, Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Vestry Minutes.
August 10, 1725
"The said Vestry did agree with David Davis to pale in the church yard to Erect 580 foot of paling the height with the topping and bottom To be at least four foot four inches the pales to be of pine betw1xt three or four inches wide and three quarters of an inch at least thick. The posts to be cedar or Locust the Kaunt Rails to be the heart of Poplar. Two pair of gates to be made the same with the pailing. The said Davis to find Nailes hinges and all things necessary to compleating the said pailing … and to Tarr the Church and the said pales … "St. Paul's Parish Vestry Book, Queen Anne's County, Maryland, vol. 1.
March 29 , 1728
"Then did Mr David Weems agree with this Vestry to Enlarge the Churchyard by Pailing of it in the manner & form following Vizt for wch this Vestry agrees to give him Seven Thousand five Hundd pounds of tobacco. The agreemt as follows. 500 foot of Pailing & if it should require more, to pay in Proportion as for the other, the Posts thereof to be of Cedar or Locust to be of 7 foot Long, & not less than 4 Inches Square and each post to stand not above 8 foot distance wth 3 Rails between each post made in a triangular form of White Oak Mortiss'd & Tennanted the tennants let in to be tarr'd The Pails thereof to be of Yellow Poplar Saw'd five foot Long four Inches broad ¾ Inches thick from the Saw, each Pail to Stand one Inch Diffance and three Tenpenny Nails to each Pail wth a Groved Rail at the top of each Pannel of white oak & a decent Gate at the North end of the Vestry house."St. James Episcopal Church, Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Vestry Minutes.
March 21, 1740 (1741)
"… John Lambord Agrees w/ the Visitors to pail in a garden eighty foot square after the following manner viz: The posts to be seven feet and a half in length, two feet and an half under ground, not less than six Inches by five, And of Splitt White Oak, Chestnutt or sassafrass. The Rails to be ten feet in length, not less than five Inches by three and of Splitt White Oak. The pails to be five feet in length, not to exceed four Inches in Wedth, nor be less than three quarters of an Inch in thickness, and sharpened at the Tops. The Gate to be five feet in wedth, and hung with substantial Iron Hinges. The Hinges and Nails to be found by the said John Lambord, and the work to be finished workmanlike-"Minutes for Queen Anne's Free School, 1723-90, Maryland Historical Society.
February 1, 1742
"… the said Vestry agreed with John Ruth to pale the yard of St. Pauls Church as follows: viz. He the said John Ruth is to gett new Cant Rails of the heart of poplar, of the same dimention of the old ones, Chestnutt pails of the same Length and Three-quarters of an inch thick and not to exceed four inches in breadth, to make gates of the same dimention of the old gates — with good Iron hinges with fore locks; and to gett ten new posts and to compleat the same Workman like as the old pailing was done by the 25 of December next, for which the said vestry doth agree to pay John Ruth 30 pounds current money …"St. Paul's Parish Vestry Book, Queen Anne's County, Maryland, vol. 1.
April 2, 1745
"… Which vestry agreed with John Cole to pale the yard of St. Luke's Chapple as follows; the said John Cole doth oblige himself to Erect 580 foot of paling in the place where the old pales stands, the pales to be Chestnutt of four foot six inches long three quarters of an inch in thickness and not to exceed four inches in breadth, Cant Rails of Yellow poplar, sawed and clear of Sapp, not to exceed ten foot in length, with good cedar or locust posts of a midling size the Cant Railes to be Mortissed into the posts, one pair of folding gates at the place oposite to the Church door and one single gate at the South side where the other stood, the gates to be hung with good Iron hinges with fore locks , to be compleated by the 25th of Dec. next …" St. Paul's Parish Vestry Book, Queen Anne's County, Maryland, vol. 1.
October 6, 1746
"Ordered that a Garden be built at the Glebe with 566 feet of Pailing the Pails, Rails, and Posts to be Sawd Work. the Rails and Pails to be of Old Poplar, and the posts to be of Chesnut, if to be got; if not to be of ring Bark white Oak and all to be Tarrd, and that the Church Wardens do agree with workmen to perform the Same…"The Vestry Book of St. Paul's Parish, Hanover County, Virginia 1706-1786, ed. C. G. Chamberlayne (Richmond: 1940), p. 195.
July 26, 1749
"On Wednesday the 9th day of August, at 5 o'clock in the afternoon, at the sign of the Indian King in Annapolis, will be sold at Public Vendure … tobacco belonging to the Vestry of St. Anne's Parish … At the same Time and place, the said Vestry will agree with any good Workman, to find Materials, and pales in the Church Yard at Annapolis, with saw'd Poplar Pales, four feet and a half in Length, three Inches broad, and one Inch thick; saw'd Poplar Rails, 8 feet long, and 6 Inches broad on the flat Side, three Rails in each Length; the Posts to be of Cedar or Locust, to hew to six inches in the Ground: the Posts to be morticed, and Rails tenanted in; the Pales to be nail'd on with Double Tenpenny Nails, three to each Pale."Maryland Gazette, p. 2.
November 8, 1754
"Ordered that there be a Gardain built on the Glebe, where the Minister Orders it, one Hundred feet square to be good saw'd pails of Timber pine or poplar 5 feet high and pointed, the Rails of good poplar Saw'd to the usual size, and nailed on the Posts at 10 feet distance with 20d nails and the pailes with 10d Do. The posts to be of good Saw'd white oak 6 Inches square and Burned as usual as far as they go in the Ground, which must be 30 inches. The pails to be only one inch distance, The Gate to be hung with Good Hinges and the Gate posts to be 3 feet higher than the others, with a Cross on the top."Suffolk Parish, Nansemond County, Virginia, Vestry Book, p. 24 .
September 26, 1755
"Order'd that a Garden be Built at the Glebe in the same Place and of the same Size of the Garden formerly built, with good Poasts Hewed out of White Oak or Chesnut, the Rails to be hewed out of the Heart of Pine, with Pails Rived out of Pine & Drawn five & half feet long, and three Quarters of an Inch thick Nailed on with 10 d & 8d Nails and the Rails Nailed on the Poasts with 20 d Nails, & the said Work be let as soon as Conveniently may, by the Church Wardens —"The Book of Stratton and Major Parish, King and Queen County, Virginia 1729-1783, ed. C.G. Chamberlayne (Richmond: 1931), p. 108.
June 16, 1761
"… Also a garden to be pailed 110 feet Square on the Glebe of this Parish with heart of good White Oak Posts and Rails the Posts to be 6 Inches Square, and the Rails three to a pannel and the Pails of the heart of Pine —""The Vestry Book of Elizabeth City Parish, 1751-1784," ed. Marion Ruth von Doenhoff Masters Thesis, College of William and Mary, 1957, p. 108.
August 4, 1761
"Mr. George Walker junior this day agreed with the Vestry to Pale a Garden 110 feet square on the Glebe of this Parish and to find all Materials for the same in the following manner Viz: The Posts of fingerleaf White Pack sawed six Inches square seven feet long clear of Sap, The Rails to be sawed triangular of white Oak clear of Sap and the heart of Pine Pales drawn smooth on both sides 4 ½ feet long, with plank 6 Inches broad to be nailed to the posts under the pales and the Pales to be nailed with 10 penny Nails for the Consideration of Fourteen pounds Current money of Virginia."The Vestry Book of Elizabeth City Parish, p. 10 9.
August 15, 1766
"To be sold to the highest bidder, On Monday the 10th of Nov. next … " a 700 acre tract on the Rappahannock River, near Port Royal, with a brick house, kitchen, laundry, barn, sheds, etc., and "… a garden 200 feet square paled in with sawed pales, poplar rails, and cedar posts… " (Lawrence Taliferro's "Waverly" )Virginia Gazette (P&D), p. 3.
"Williamsburg, January 6, 1767
Mr. Anthony Hay having lately removed to the Rawleigh Tavern, the subscriber has taken his shop, where the business will be carried on in all its brances. He hopes that those Gentlemen who were Mr. Hay's customers will favour him with their orders, which shall be executed in the best and most expeditious manner. He likewise makes all sorts of Chinese and Gothick Paling for gardens and summer houses. N. B. Spinets and Harpsicords made and repaired. Benjamin Bucktrout."Virginia Gazette (P&D), p. 3.
February 8, 1770
"Any person in want of PINE or CYPRESS: PLANK, SCANTLING, PALES, OR SHINGLES, may be supplied with a large or small quantity of either, of any size that they choose, on the most reasonable terms, by applying to HUGH WHITE, on Chickahominy river, in New Kent County … " Virginia Gazette (Rind), p. 3.
March 31, 1770
"He has with McGinis been 2 days only pailing in the dairy and henhouse yard with the posts ready hewed and morticed for him""He was ranging the pales at least one pannel above another full a foot pretending the ground was uneven." "When I came home the pales were all laid slanting." The Diary of Landon Carter of Sabine Hall, vol. 1, p. 378.
1770 — Fencing the Courthouse Yard in Norfolk
"Augt. To 16 Cedar Post for Courthouse Yard @ 1/3 … 1 - -"
An Historical Review (Chesapeake, Va.: 1966, pp. 34-35.
"Septr. To Cash pd Mat. Maund for 845 feet of Rails & Pales for Do @ 8/4 … 3-10-5 To 950 20d Nails @ 11/per M -10-6 To 50 10d Do --7 To 4 30d Co -2-6" 22d "To 1 Padd Lock for Gate -2-3 To 1 pr Hinges for Do -1-6 24 To pd Mr. Harde. Waller for Work as Recd 1-6-3 To 1 Days Negro Hire about Rails, Pales & Posts & finding -2 - To 1 Do digging Post Holes & setting -2- To 25 Feet of Plank @ 6/ for Gate and Little House 1-6 -"
November 11, 1771
"Wanted on the Glebe of St. Stephens Parish a Garden 150 feet Square The Posts to be of Lightwood the Rails and Poles to be of Sawd Pine or Cypress … " "Monday November 11th 1771 This day … Agreed with Capt. John Palmer to Furnish Stuff For a Garden, 150 feet square Sawd Pales at 45s per hundred The Rails and Posts @ 3,10 pr hundred (Say) 60 Posts 8 feet long 6 by 6 120 Rails 12 ½ feet long To be Sawed 5 inches Square and split …"Anne Allston Porcher, ed. "Minutes of the Vestry of St. Stephen's Parish, South Carolina 1754-1873," South Carolina Historical and Geneological Magazine 45: 219.
July 22, 1773
"A Garden to be built a Hundred and fifty feet Square the posts of Good young Post Oak, with Saw' ed Rails and Pails of Hart of Pine or of Poplar, the Posts Seven or Eight Inches Square and well Hewe'd."The Vestry Book and Register of Bristol Parish, Virginia 1720-1789, ed., C.G. Chamberlayne (Richmond: 1898).
Brock Collection, Henry Huntington Library — "Fences in Williamsburg," Subject File, Dept. of Architectural Research, Colonial Williamsburg.
1774 — Auditor's warrant to Benjamin Waller for the garden fence at the Williamsburg jail. "Certified to Benjamin Waller in 1774: To Repairg Paling round Yard & Garden and moving Ditto 1-7-6 To making a new Gate 7-6 To 157 Garder pales 10/ -15-7 ½ To 11 Rales at 9d - 8/3 5 Posts at 18d -7/6 -15-9 To 6 Panell of new Paling at 8/6 2-11-0 To 125 feet of Plank at 1 ½ -15-7 ½ "
Auditor's Papers, Box 184, Virginia State Library, Richmond, Subject File, Dept. of Archit. Research, Colonial Williamsburg.
1776-7 Benjamin Powell acct. Auditor's Papers paid 7/6 on Sept. 9, 1776 for repairing "Pailing round the yard & Garden" paid 90, 6d on April 9, 1777 for "90 Panels 6 ft. paling 20/"
June 4, 1811
"In pursuance to an order of the Court of Hustings, we will receive proposals to the 10th inst. for the erection & completion of sundry additions and alterations to be made at the Poor & work-House in this city; to wit: An exterior brick-wall 12 feet high, 13 ½ inches thick, brick; which wall will require about 30,000 bricks; also another of like materials, height & thickness that will require about six thousand bricks; a plank enclosure, 10 feet of each post to be hewed square, at the bottom of the square, to be 9 inches, and at top, 6 inches Square, of good white oak to each pannel, the rails to be 4 by 2 ½ inches and 16 ½ feet long, to embrase 3 posts each, the whole of said plank enclosure to be surmounted with an oak railing at one inch distance from each other."Richmond Enquirer, p. 3.
"Ordered that the Gaol be one half enclosed by a good, strong and substantial fence, fifteen high the Posts of which shall be of the best Post-oak, squaring, free of sap, ten inches, with four rails, six inches square, with the best plank 1 ½ inch Thick of the best cypress, free of sap, and joined, fastened and capped with Spikes." Chowan County Archives, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh (CR 024. 910 .1 ).
"They also set up their Pales without any Nails at all, and indeed more Securely than those that are nail'd. There are 3 Rails mortised into the Posts, the lowest of which serves as a Sill with a Groove in the Middle, big enough to receive the End of the Pales: the middle Part of the Pale rests against the Inside of the Next Rail, and the Top of it is brought forward to the outside of the uppermost. Such Wreathing of the Pales in and out makes them stand firm, and much harder to unfix than when nail'd in the Ordinary way."John Spencer Bassett, ed. The Writings of Colonel William Byrd of Westover in Virginia Esqr. (New York: 1901), p. 79.
The following composition has been communicated to me as a cheap and excellent colouring and preservative of gates, pales, barns, etc.
Melt twelve ounces of resin in an iron pot, or kettle; add three gallons of train oil, and three or four rolls of brimstone. When the resin and brimstone are melted, and become thin, add as much Spanish brown, or red or yellow oker (or any other colour you want— ground fine, as usual with oil) as will give the whole as deep a shade as you like. Then lay it on with a brush as hot and thin as you can. Some days after the first coat has dried, give it a second. It is attested that this will preserve plank for ages, and prevent the weather from driving through brickwork."The American Museum 2 (1787).
The Carpenters' Company of Philadelphia,
The Rules of Work — 1786 (Princeton: 1971), pp. 33-4; 36-40; Plates 28 and 29.
Duplicated on the following pages.
Palings Used as Grave Surrounds:
The Dictionary of Architecture, vol. 6, p. 22 (Architectural Publication Society, London, 1853-92) includes the following account:
"Records show that paling, as now in country parts, was often made of staves of disused casks; thus occurs: 'For seven empty casks for making paling for the bridge of Rothelan 3s 8d.' (i.e. Rudlan Castle, temp. Edward I, 1281-2); 'For twenty-two empty casks — for the queen's court-yard'Archaeologia, 1812, xvi, 65,68; and at Carisbrook castle, 1270, 'Six empty casks bought for making the paling of the herbary, cost 5s 6d'Hellier, History, etc. of the Isle of Wight (unpub.) given in Builder, 1857, XV, 188. "
|Component Parts:||Split posts about 6 inches thick;|
|Split triangular rails, 9 feet long, and 4-6 inches thick.|
|Woods:||posts — locust, chestnut, cedar, cypress;|
|rails — oak, poplar, chestnut, pine.|
|Construction:||5 rails mortised into posts set 8 feet apart.|
TEXT: pp. 24-27
October 10, 1719
"Ordered that Mr Henry Cary Rail in the Church yard 100 foot Square, with Seven Rails in a pannel; five foot high each pannel, to be Eight foot in Length & well Tarr'd, and to be paid for doing the same 4000, Tobo, Cask & Convenien:cy the one half to be paid this year, and the other half next year."The Vestry Book of St. Paul's Parish, Hanover County, Virginia 1706-1786, ed. C.G. Chamberlayne (Richmond: 1940), p. 86.
January 5, 1721
"To Mr Matthew Godfrey for railing in the Church yard 9,000 lbs of tob: The sd worke to be made with mortises and tenoned and if the sd Godfrey be above fifty days about the sd worke then to be allowed him for the same by the county accordingly."Norfolk County Orders, Wills, etc. 1719-1723, p. 28.
November 8, 1722
"It is ordered that the Church-wardens take care & rail in the Chappell And the Church five rails in one pannell four foot & halfe high And Eight foot in length. "
November 11, 1723
"To Majr. Wm. Kennon to posts & rails for ye Church & Chappell & making good what ye fresh carry'd away from ye landing and carrying the same to both places 5,000" The Vestry Book and Register of Bristol Parish, Virginia 1720-1789, ed. C.G. Chamberlayne (Richmond: 1898). (Prince George County, Virginia)
April 24, 1750
"Ordered that the Sd Gentm do agree with workmen to make a garden one hundred & Tenn foot Square with Sawed Rails & Posts of White Oak on Lightwood Each post to be fraimed Eight foot different the Rails to be four foot & a half long Got out of the heart of Pine to be Rove & Drawn with a Gate will Hung with Hook & Hinges the same to be Done workman like."Vestry Book of Southam Parish, Powhatan County, Virginia. Virginia State Library, Richmond.
August 6, 1750
"Order'd the Sherriff employ some person to rail in a yard with good saw'd White cake Rails and Locust posts Twenty foot in Wedth from each Corner of the Courthouse five foot high The rails to be within three inches of one another, And to sett up four Benches in each of the Piazzo's and one under each of the Windows in the body of the Courthouse of a Convenient hight and Breadth for people to set on."Richmond County Court Orders 1739-1752, p. 257.
February 9, 1775
"Wanted by the commissioners or trustees, for the Poor of Anne-Arundel county, 450 posts of cedar or locust to square seven inches, and 9 ½ feet long; 2000 rails of white oak or yellow poplar, 3 by 4 inches, and to be 10 feet long. Whoever will supply the above articles are desired to apply to Mr. Nathan Hammond, one of the trustees."Maryland Gazette (Annapolis), p. 3
March 9, 1794
"I approve your repairing my house in Alexandria with my own People (preparing everything that can be, at home); and also of your doing it in the manner proposed; that is, to board between the houses in a neat and workman like manner and to enclose the other three sides of the lot with White Oak Posts and Rails well executed. Do not let the Posts be too far distant from each other; when this is the case the rails are apt to warp and the fence is weakened by it."George Washington, The Writings of George Washington From the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, D.C.: 1940), vol. 33, p. 287.
March 13, 1805
"Carpenters mortising & putting up post & railing along the lane …"Minute Book, 1805 of John Tayloe (1771-1828), p. 39. Tayloe Papers, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond. (refers to "old house" not Mount Airy) .
March 17, 1828
"Mrs Ann Garret Dr
To Richard T. Booker to puting up 38 panels of post & rails with 5 rails to the panell at 63 Cts per pannells 23.95" Southall Papers, Folder 193, Special Collection, Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg.
July 16, 1855
enclosing of the public square ordered with "good heart Cedar posts and sawed railing of good oak or chestnut timber and as many iron hooks for fastening horses to the said posts as the commissioners may deem sufficient."Essex County Order Book 1853-1863.
1685 Fencing at Jamestown, described by the Reverend John Clayton, in a letter to Robert Boyle — Boyle Papers 39, Miscellaneous — Item 3, "An Account of Virginia," Archives of the Royal Society of London. At first laying great timber trees at the bottom of the fences all round the field so that piggs may not creep into it & then by makeing holes on either side the tree & stick stakes therein wch bearing against the tree make a fork to hold a long rail of timber above it over this then they make another fork wth stakes & lay another raile of timber & so 4 one above another besides the timber tree this is the most common fence you may perhaps better apprehend by this figure bbb are the timber trees aaa the holes in the ground made on either side the trees wherein to put the Stakes to support the railes ccc, ddd stakes set whose fork — ----X------X--- hold the railes thus, thus they fence their ground the second is the Worm fence as they call it and is in this sort eight railes of Cloven timber about 9 foot long a piece wch placed thus lie upon one another a lawfull fence is 8 railes high The third sort of fence is that cald the Polony fence used first I think they say by Polands, 'tis in this manner aaa &c are thick poles standing wth one end in the ground, & leaning against one another, bbb &c are smale staves placed thus a Crosse for to Support the poles, that lie in the fork, least they fall to the one hand or the other; all these ways consume mch timber & time…
From William Oliver, Eight Months in Illinois (1843) (Ann Arbor: 1966), p. 38."After a tree has been felled, the workman gets on to it, and by cutting into the middle from opposite sides, detaches a length of ten or eleven feet (the former length is usual in the west, the latter in Canada), the curves on each side being so managed that the end of the detached piece is cut straight across to facilitate the operation of splitting. Iron wedges are introduced at this end, and when an opening has been made, wooden ones are introduced, and the log is halved, quartered, and finally reduced to rails of the desired size."
Placement — enclosing the barn yard at Doguerun, Virginia
May 10, 1795
"To the best of my recollection, it was intended to run, from each end of the sheds, a Post and rail to the railing leading into the Barn, or treading floor of it, for the stable yard; on one side of which to have a gate, through which to pass into the yard which incloses the Barn on the other sides and into No. 5 also; then back of the two sheds at sufficient distances therefrom allowing full room to receive the litter, dung, &ca. from the Stables, to run Post and Rail fences from the lane South of the Barn, to the fence of No 5, which is back of the lots. Fences run straight, in the manner here described and at sufficient distances from the back parts of the sheds or stables, would afford ample room for the grain in stacks … "George Washington, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799 (Washington, D.C.: 1940), vol. 34, p. 193.
"Tobacco and Indian corn are planted in hills as hops, and secured by worm fences, which are made of rails supporting one another very firmly in a particular manner. " Hugh Jones, The Present State of Virginia, 1724.
|Component Parts:||6-9 split rails, 11 feet long, 4-6 inches thick;|
|2, 8 foot long stakes (also split) per corner;|
|1, 11 foot long rider (also split).|
|Woods (descending preference):||cedar and chestnut, locust, oak, pine.|
|Construction:||Rails stacked with 1 foot overlap at corners in a series of 120 degree angles.|
TEXT: pp. 32-37
Reference to "moveable fences" used in creating "cow-penned" (manured) land. (p. 6)
Timber cut into eleven foot lengths, "the customary length of an American fence rail, in what is called a worm or pannel fence. " (p. 10)
"The worm or pannel fence, originally of Virginia, consists of logs or malled rails from about four to six or eight inches thick, and eleven feet in length. A good fence consists of ten rails and a rider, or perhaps nine rails and two riders; and the law requires a fence to be maintained good of a certain regulated height, before a proprietor can be justified in distraining cattle, damage feasant or support an action of trespass. It is called a worm fence from the zigzag manner of its construction, which is as follows: The lowest rail is laid upon the ground, then one end is raised up and a similar rail placed under it in an oblique direction; another rail is alternately added in succession in the same way, until the length of fence required is described; the ends of each rail being suffered to overlap each other about a foot; and these corners of the fence are generally raised upon a stone or short block, to save them from decay.
The worm (as it is called) being thus laid, the same process is repeated until the fence rises to the height of nine or ten rails; two stakes (somewhat shorter than the rails will do) are then brought to each corner or intersecting angle of the rails which compose the fence, and one end of each being let into the ground with a hoe or mattock on each side of the fence, the other ends are suffered to lean against it, forming a crotch or cross over the interlapping corner: into this cross one or more courses of heavy rails are laid (termed riders), which serve to lock and keep the whole partition secure. It is in allusion to this zigzag foundation that a drunken man is said to be laying out Virginia fences.
Mr. Weld, in his plate of an American stage waggon, has given a good representation of a Virginia plantation; but his fence (like many other parts of his work) wants to be staked and ridered. "
See the following page for the illustration referred to above, from Isaac Weld's Travels Through the States of North America, vol. 1, f. p. 27 (New York: Johnson Reprint Company, 1968, orig. London, 1799).
Moreau de St. Méry, Moureau de St. Méry's American Journey 1793-1798, ed. Kenneth and Anna M. Roberts (Garden City: 1947). "The fences add to the depressing outlook. They are always made of rails split triangularly, four or five inches thick and about eight feet long. Generally, the rails are placed in a zigzag manner, so that the fence is a series of projecting and inverted angles. The rails are placed on top of each other, sticking out a little where they cross in order to strengthen the point of support. Sometimes uprights are used to hold the crosspieces, in which case the Fence is straight. " — observed at Gosport, ½ mile from Portsmouth, Virginia (p. 69).Harry Toulmin, The Western Country in 1793 — Reports on Kentucky and Virginia, ed. Marion Tinling and Godfrey Davies (San Marino: 1948).
Description of a typical James River, Virginia farm, July 19, 1793 (p. 18):
"The fences were made by piling small poles upon one another, which are continued to any length by crossing one another at the end in this manner"(reference to drawing not included in this edition).
At Richmond (p. 43):
"The fences are generally split timber of eleven feet and about three to five inches in diameter, from six to ten rails high, fastened together at the ends (without post) merely by laying one upon another …"
Letter to Mr. James Leigh — Winchester, Virginia, November, 20, 1793 (p. 56):
"The fields are so large, the tillage of them is so negligent, and the zigzag rail fences so remote from everything of rural elegance, that the country has by no means an inviting aspect. "
William Oliver, Eight Months in Illinois (Ann Arbor: 1966), orig. Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: 1843, pp. 130-1.
"Fencing the farm is an operation requiring speedy attention, as without it no crop is secure from the depredations of cattle and horses, which roam over the prairies and through the woods at will; all land which is not enclosed being common. The almost universal fence is the zig zag or worm fence, which is constructed of split rails. A tree being selected by the chopper is cut down, logged off into lengths of ten feet, and split with wedges and the axe. In the bottoms where the timber is good, many trees will make four or five cuts without a limb; affording from 150 to 200 heavy rails. It is reckoned a good day's work for a man to cut down, log off, and split up such a tree into rails. From 100 to 150 rails among good timber, is a good day's work; among timber of inferior quality of course so many cannot be made.
At first sight the worm fence appears very inefficient, but on a closer inspection and more intimate acquaintance with its qualities it improves in ones estimation, and it would certainly be difficult for the pioneer settler to substitute anything so efficient and at the same time so easily to be got… any man of ordinary physical powers can put up 200 yards of a rail fence in a day, or fence about 30 acres in a week; and, when the timber is good, such a fence, with some repairs, will last ten or twelve years. The fences generally consist of eight or nine rails, and, if the rails be strong, may be in the one instance, about 4 ½ or 5 feet, and in the other about 6 feet high when made with stake and rider, which is done by sinking on opposite sides of the fence, at each corner where the ends of the rails are piled upon one another, two stakes of about 8 feet long, and causing their upper ends to cross over the fence. Into this cross or angle is laid one end of the rider, the other end being laid into the similar angle at the next corner; thus at once heightening the fence and binding it at each corner. This is the legal fence, which, if broken through by cattle, entitles the owner to damages, which cannot be claimed when the fence is without stake and rider."
Miscellaneous Notes (ca. 1851-1874) — Section 72 — Papers of Hugh Blair Grigsby, 1806-1881. 1806 -1881. Virginia Historical Society, Richmond. Item 4972. "Number of rails for a fence three miles long, ten rails high and a rider, and the cost thereof"Cheap Fences," The Country Gentleman 2 (1853): 38. including 19th century modifications of the worm fence:
Feet Length of a panel 18 Number of panels in 100 yards 16 Number of rails in a panel 20 add funchonal rails 192 add 2 rails for riders & 2 to hold them 64 Making the number of rails to each mile 5536 Cost at $4 for 1000 Rails of a single mile $13.84 Cost of three miles $41.32"
Throughout the literature of American fences, the snake or Virginia rail type appears consistently, one might even say exclusively, in an agricultural context.1 In addition, the type seems to have been restricted to use about fields, while varieties of post-and-rail or paled fences were favored for enclosing farm yards and domestic spaces. It is, therefore, somewhat puzzling to discover an extensive Virginia rail fence in the center of urban Williamsburg. Even more perplexing is the location of the fence: surrounding a conspicuous public building, the Magazine, and facing yet another, the Courthouse of 1770.
The origin of the snake fence at the Magazine is to be found not in the eighteenth century historical record, but in the minutes of the Restoration and Reconstruction Committee. In 1972, the committee had approved a plan to enclose the area around the Magazine and Guardhouse with chevaux de frise, based upon the 1777-8 observations of Ebenezer Hazard:
The Magazine in Williamsburgh … is a small, circular, Brick Building; it is at present surrounded with Chevaux de Frize, made by Col. Bullit.2In March of 1976, the construction cost of chevaux de frise was judged prohibitive and, by June of the same year, only one section had been produced (March 18, 1976 and June 29, 1976). In anticipation of increased activity and visitation during the summer of 1976, a "split rail fence" was proposed and accepted by the R & R Committee as a temporary means of enclosure for the Magazine yard (June 29, 1976).
Minutes for the June 29, 1976 meeting, at which the split rail fence was approved, indicate that the R & R Committee had by no means abandoned the chevaux de frise plan. The committee was also well aware that a split rail fence was:
… inappropriate for eighteenth-century urban areas, but in consideration of the Magazine Fences 2 urgency of the project and the economy of its use, split rail fencing was approved with the understanding that the matter will be considered again in the fall.3R & R Committee minutes through the end of 1977 do not reveal any further discussion of the Magazine fence. Four sections of chevaux de frise now exist on site, proving that historically substantiated enclosure remains a definite, though slowly-achieved goal. The admittedly temporary and inaccurate snake fence, however, is still in place.
Visitor direction and safety are especially crucial elements in the interpretation of the Magazine. Thus, various forms of barriers and enclosures have been introduced whenever yard activities intensified. In 1962, eight, nine foot panels of "hitching rail" or "horse picket line" were set up just north of the guardhouse (Illustration A).4 Portable barriers composed of rope-strung, shaped, cedar posts appeared in the following year (Illustration A).5 Both the rope barriers and the hitching rail have been moved about the Magazine yard and are presently integrated with the Virginia rail fence, according to the 1976 decision (May 8, 1973 and June 29, 1976) (Illustration B).
The imminent arrival of the reconstructed fire engine at the guardhouse provides an opportunity for reconsidering the fences and overall site arrangement at the Magazine. The following suggestions are offered as a basis for discussion.
If, for sundry reasons, the Virginia rail fence must remain a while longer at the Magazine …
The Magazine occupies a highly exposed site. Its use as an exhibition building compounds this visibility. Thus, the validity of physical features on the site is of especial importance. If at all possible, the Virginia rail fence now in place should be removed. A rearrangement of existing barriers and other fencing is a potential solution to the dual-problem of visitor accommodation and historical fidelity.
Manuscripts, Travel Accounts, Farming Manuals, etc.
Secondary Sources (* entries contain extensive descriptive material)
Additional Sources Consulted