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The Broaddus Flats Site and Virginia Frontier Fortifications in the Seventeenth Century

by Elizabeth J. Barnett

Note: Click on images to view them larger and to read a description.

Fortifications on the frontier in Seventeenth Century Virginia were of two types. The first type of fortification consisted of military structures built under orders of the colonial government, first the London Company, then after 1624, the General Assembly. These were for the protection of early settlements or to provide regional protection for scattered homesteads along the frontier. The second type of fortification was built by private landowners to protect their personal property. Many of these private fortifications were also built under order of the Assembly.

The fortifications at Jamestown, Martin’s Hundred, Flowerdew Hundred, and Henricus, all built before 1620, are examples of fortified settlements sanctioned by colonial government under the London Company. They were military in nature. After Virginia became a crown colony in 1624, the Assembly (House of Burgesses) was responsible for ordering the construction of a number of other forts. Some were near the coast to protect the colony from sea raiders who would have been Spanish or Dutch. An example of a coastal fort was Fort Algernoun, built in 1609. Other forts were on the western frontier, which was along the fall line. These fall line forts were intended to protect colonists from Indians.

After the Indian uprising of 1644, the Assembly provided for the establishment of forts at the falls of the James, the Pamunkey, the Appomattox, and York rivers. More forts were added along the fall line in 1675-76, after Governor Berkeley pushed an act through the Assembly providing for their construction. At first, the governor had directed that one out of every ten plantations must be fortified so that settlers on all ten holdings could retreat to the fortified plantation when danger presented itself. There is evidence that these household fortifications on the frontier were being used at least as late as 1707, when Robert Beverly of what was then King and Queen County, wrote to the Governor’s Council,”We are strongly alarmed in upper King and Queen for fear of an Indian war. I shall take my neighbors for shelter in my fort. I pray ye send me arms for their protection.” The settlers did not like this arrangement because none of them wanted to leave their own property unoccupied and vulnerable to plundering and destruction. Altogether, there were nine fall line forts, extending from the Potomac to the Appomattox rivers. These were not fortified settlements but military forts. Each fort was supposed to be garrisoned with men drawn from the citizens of surrounding counties, who would have been militia members. The garrisons varied from 25 to 100 men, and the later fall line forts also had troops of mounted men. The forts were supposed to be provisioned with powder, shot, food, and other necessities, including a doctor or “chirurgeon”. Each fort was also required to have grazing land for horses, since the garrisons consisted of both horse and foot soldiers. The horse troops were supposed to patrol between the forts, scouting for troublesome Indians.

Apparently, maintaining the forts was a problem for the colonial government. Local militia companies, drawn from the landowners who were supposed to benefit from the fort’s protection, and whose members provided the garrisons, complained to the Assembly that they were not being supplied with ammunition and were forced to provide powder and shot at their own expense. They also resented spending time away from their plantations while on duty repairing and manning the forts. Finally, the Assembly chose local landowners, who would have been militia officers, to command the forts. They took command with the provision that the fort and it’s land would become their property after three years if they fulfilled their duties. This step would have provided an incentive for the commander to see that the fort was maintained and operated properly.

By the 1680s, some of these forts began to fall into disuse. They were supplanted by companies of rangers who patrolled the area until 1696. Although the area was still not completely free of danger from the Indians, it had become much more settled and populated by the beginning of the Eighteenth Century. Presumably, any forts that reverted to private ownership could have been torn down by their owners, or had their sites converted to other uses. Existing wells, structures, or palisades could have been incorporated into someone’s home site.

The second type of fortification on the frontier was the fortified or palisaded private house. In 1624, the Assembly passed a law requiring every settler on the frontier to palisade his dwelling. The order was repeated in the spring of 1627, indicating that people had not complied with the first statute and that the threat of Indian attack was still very real. This was brought home to the minds of all the colonists in 1644, when over three hundred settlers were killed in an Indian uprising. As the Virginia frontier was pushed ever westward by expanding settlement, the need for fortification moved westward also. By the 1680s, people in the eastern Tidewater were relatively safe from Indians but for the settlers along the fall line, there was still danger of attack. Several examples of fortified dwellings have been found in Tidewater Virginia. Examples of these are the Boys House at Martin’s Hundred, built before 1622, and Clifts Plantation, at what later became Stratford Hall, built c.1675. Both of these dwellings were palisaded. In Westmoreland County, the Hallowes / Steel House had bastions attached to the house, itself. Thus, it appears that in Seventeenth Century Virginia, settlers were depending upon a combination of garrisoned forts and fortified private dwellings to protect themselves. Not only were colonists concerned about attacks from Indians, but they may have also been concerned about civil unrest such as the events that occurred during Bacon’s Rebellion, and the criminal activities of other settlers, some of whom had been culled from English prisons and jails and sent to Virginia as indentured servants.

The Broaddus Flats site, located on the Pamunkey River in what is now eastern Hanover County, would have been on the frontier c.1690. Traces of Indian longhouses, indicated by post molds, show that an Indian community existed on the site prior to European settlement. At present, remains of two longhouses have been found, but it is not known how extensive this Indian settlement may have been. The colonial house was built over the longhouse remains, but the longhouses were probably gone long before the house was built. The site would have had attractions for both cultures as a good place to live. The rich river bottom land around the site is ideal for growing crops. Artifacts associated with the house indicate that it was occupied from c. 1690 until about 1740-50, when it burned. Surrounding the house is a trench line with large post molds eight feet apart. It appears that the house was palisaded.

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Date posted: 4.19.04