After decades of studying the early colonization of the Chesapeake region, I still stand in awe of those men who stepped off their ships with axes, shovels and a few saws to face an immense forest from which they had to fashion structures that allowed some of them to survive the hard winter.
By the 17th century, wood was a precious resource in England. In the previous hundred years, a great deal of construction on the British Isles had been done half timbered: a skeletal framework of wood was erected to define the building's shape, and the interstices filled with England's abundant stones — often broken chunks of flint — which were then plastered over to give a smooth surface.
Stones were very rare in tidewater Virginia and Maryland. The coastal plain forests grew upon ancient sea beds overlain with wind-blown periglacial dust and alluvium from millennia of river outwash, and were mostly devoid of rocks.
Most of the stones used by the region's native peoples were carried from somewhere far inland at the Piedmont boundary, or obtained during trade with tribes outside the region. Pieces of valuable and non-local rhyolite were often transported as "preforms," partly shaped stones with waste material removed, which eliminated some of the weight and provided a shape ready for knapping into tools or projectile points.
There were the rare outcrops of sandstone near tidewater Chesapeake Bay: the Aquia freestones (See "Past is Prologue," July/August 2012) and the atypical White Rocks near and at the mouth of the Patapsco River (See "Past is Prologue," July/August 2000). Quart was abundant but is notoriously hard to knap cleanly. There were also a variety of potentially useful, granular cobbles near the mouth of the Susquehanna River at Worton and Turkey points, and on a short stretch of Bay shore south of the Patuxent. With as much as one hundred miles of travel between such deposits, these were neither convenient nor very useful for colonists, who had known virtually unlimited building stone deposits in much of Europe and the British Isles.
Still, they needed some kind of building material that could not only resist fire but also the ubiquitous rot and the hungry termites that probably destroyed more early dwellings than fire.
Native Indians had discovered that the natural clays — layered in many Chesapeake soils and exposed along Bayside cliffs — when hardened, became relatively water-impervious if exposed to very hot glowing coal fires for several hours. From this observation they learned to fabricate pottery, tobacco pipes and decorative items. But they never made the connection to structural fired-clay bricks.
The English knew this technology from long experience, and quickly sought out clay deposits to make bricks. Thomas Jefferson's writings suggest that by the 18th century, three unskilled men supporting a skilled brickmaker could mold about 2,000 bricks a day.
Clay was mined and allowed to weather for a winter, then mixed with water, often by treading with the feet. Molds were made, imported — and sometimes inherited — to assure each brick would be like another. In 1571, Queen Elizabeth I
set a standard size for bricks of 4.5 by 2.25 by 9 inches. This was intended to stop people from shorting the sizes to make more money and stretch their clay supply. (Today's U.S.-made brick measures 3.625 by 2.125 by 8 inches.)
Once the bricks were molded, and the exposed side struck off true with a piece of wood, they were left in the hot sun for about a week, then put in a drying shed or enclosure with good air circulation for six weeks.
Brick firing was done by early settlers in a brick "clamp," an elaborate stacking arrangement of unfired bricks. Arched tunnels and air passages led to the interior of the clamp, which allowed flame, coals and drafts of heat to reach the most remote bricks, and wood fuel to be pushed inward to carry heat deeper in the clamp.
At modern-day Colonial Williamsburg, VA, the brick kiln firings are done in autumn. In colonial times, that choice of season meant good summer drying, and firing when the immense, prolonged heat did the workers some good. Because of the time involved, serious building projects had to be planned long in advance.
Anywhere from a few thousand to 20,000 bricks could be fired in a clamp. At Williamsburg in 2011, 21,000 bricks were fired by the heat generated by burning eight cords (about 1,024 cubic feet) of wood.
Fires were tended and fueled 24 hours a day for about a week. The tunnel openings were sealed with clay, except when new wood was being added. The heat reached or exceeded 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and was sufficient to make the hottest bricks fuse. The objective was to produce as many well-fired bricks as possible.
The clamp was allowed to cool a full week, then disassembled so all of the contents could be used. When remains of a clamp are found at sites, such as those at St. Inigoes Manor in St. Mary's County, MD, it often alerts archaeologists to the construction of a house nearby.
Bricks in the clamp layers near the most intense heat were glazed blackish or bluish from deposited potash that had been vaporized from the hardwood fuel.
In the early years, according to archaeologist Tim Riordan, these were considered defects, but later it was recognized they could serve a decorative purpose and were worked into the bond, or pattern, in which bricks were laid, or used to insert the date of construction on a prominent wall.
Layers of brick farthest from the most intense heat were often under-fired. This seriously affected their durability and resistance to weather. These were called "samel" bricks and had a softer consistency inside, a lighter almost pinkish color and were used for protected interior walls that were never designed to be exposed to moisture. Over the centuries, when these samel bricks were exposed by rotting roofs or fires in the remaining wood portions of a building, they rapidly deteriorated, crumbling in some cases to salmon-colored brick dust.
In the mid 1970s, my wife and I considered buying an 18th century house near Chaptico in Southern Maryland. It was a bargain fix-me-up with two barns and 11 acres for just $22,000, but the entire double chimney end wall had been laid with samel brick and was literally washing away in the rain. I had no idea how it could be salvaged and made to stand another 200 years. I've gone back twice to see the little place prosper, but big dogs have kept me from getting a look at how the owner handled that samel brick.
Builders still wanted real stone, notably for pavers — large flat panels of stone to lay patios and wide floors in their most important buildings. This was a status symbol as Virginia and Maryland colonists began to accumulate real wealth.
When Maryland was settled, one of its principle tenets was freedom of worship for all. The Calvert family was Roman Catholic and the Jesuits accompanying the Maryland settlers were quick to build a wooden church, which was used for worship until the Protestant Reformation, which ended these freedoms.
The wooden church, was burned down after 1645 and rebuilt after the restoration of Charles II in 1660. It was a substantial brick church with deep foundations erected on the same land as the original, and was consecrated about 1667. The interior was paved with large flooring stones. It served the congregation until 1704, when new religious hard-liners ordered it locked by the county sheriff, never to be opened again. (A replica church was erected at Historic St. Mary's City with private donations and unlocked by the modern St. Mary's county sheriff in 2009).
Subsequently, the entire structure was dismantled and its materials, including the labor-intensive bricks and hard-to-come-by pavers, were carried off and used elsewhere. The remaining field, while retaining its name for more than 200 years, was farmed.
Around the time that preparations were being made for Maryland's 300th anniversary in 1934, relic seekers found one remaining damaged, stone flooring paver. What is unknown is the source of what was once a large quantity of this unusual stone. Archaeologists sliced a thin fragment and geologists determined it is a material called metagraywacke, geologically "immature" sandstone, with inclusions of crystals quartz and feldspar. It was probably formed off the edges of an ancient continent, but the origins of the St. Mary's specimen remain obscure, save that it probably didn't come from here.
Like the church, the 1676 Maryland State House's floor was of stone pavers, as specified in its building instructions.
Historian Ralph Eshelman notes that Maryland's Sotterley Plantation has an outside veranda of stone pavers. They do not appear to be Aquia sandstone and legend has it they came from abroad. Similar stones floor the interior of the old 1730 courthouse in Easton, MD. No one has looked at them closely.
Marcus Keys holds the Joseph Priestly Professorship of Natural Philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. In his research with colleagues, he has developed a particular fascination with some of this orphaned stone from Chesapeake tidewater. His detective work is, for my money, exactly what historical research is all about: finding connections with the past that are relevant to our experiences today.
He looked at the stone floor in Christ Church, in Lancaster County, VA, which had been built at the behest of Robert "King" Carter, then Colonial Virginia's wealthiest man, with ambitions to match. The stone floor is made up of 325 stone rectangles, different in dimensions but all beautifully laid. Most are exactly as set by stoneworkers more than 280 years ago. They are peppered with shellfish fossils not known from deposits on this continent.
When Keys, and co-authors Robert Teagle and Treleven Haysom sent images to paleontologists Paul Taylor and Paul Ensom, both of whom worked at the British Natural History Museum in London, they identified two molluscan fossil species: Praeexogyra distorta, an extinct oyster, and the clam Neomiodon sp. which lived during the Early Cretaceous, or about 140 million to 145 million years ago. These fossils occur along a portion of the Dorset and East Devon coasts of Southwest England and are preserved in 6-inch bedded formations called Purbeck limestone. Purbeck stone has been quarried since the Roman conquest of Britain and was very popular in the 12th–14th centuries.
In Virginia, Carter began planning a mansion for himself and had no local source for such paving stone. In a letter from the spring of 1720, he ordered "1,000 feet of Bd. Paviour" from merchant Edward Tucker and in July changed this to 2,000 square feet. Key has found that this stone was probably shipped in Tucker's vessel, "Robert and John," under Captain Wilson, outward bound from Weymouth, Feb. 1, 1721.
They did not have an easy passage. It took 15 weeks to reach Virginia, and en route, Carter later lamented, "by Stress of weather, he (Wilson) was forc'd to heave over board three or four hundred (square) foot of my Stones."
Carter still had enough to pave drainage ways and the basement of his new home, Carotoman, which was almost completed by December 1725. For grandeur, it rivaled any building then standing in Virginia.
Carter, then in his mid 60s, with gout, poor vision and other maladies of aging, did not enjoy his treasure very long. Carotoman burnt in midwinter 1729, and the aging man was forced back into his old house, built 1690, having suffered a great loss of property.
In his will, drafted 1726, Carter had already committed to building a new Christ Church, replacing the one his father had constructed. He set aside 200 pounds currency and commissioned James Bryan to burn around 400,000 bricks at the site of the proposed church. Construction began about 1730. Carter died two years into the project; his sons finished the work.
Keys and colleagues demonstrate convincingly that the stones still laid in the floor of this structure were pavers salvaged from the ruins of burnt Carotoman. Some show dark carbon stains, others have reddened from the heat of oxidizing fire and a few have spatters of melted lead as the glazing of blazing Carotoman collapsed inward.
Who knows what other fascinating stories are awaiting among the many other stones and bricks yet to be investigated around tidewater Chesapeake Bay?