Fences in Virginia

The first fences built in Virginia were designed to control the movement of domesticated animals.

The only fences built by Native Americans before European colonization were associated with palisades around towns. Those barriers were designed to slow down enemies who might attack the town, and potentially to keep out wild animals which might raid the food stores.

The Algonquian-speaking, Siouan-speaking, and Iroquoian-speaking groups had no domesticated fowl or livestock, so they had no need for fences. Native Americans in Virginia kept only domesticated dogs in their towns before Europeans arrived.1

Native Americans had domesticated dogs, as shown in a reproduction of a 1585 watercolor by John White
Native Americans had domesticated dogs, as shown in a reproduction of a 1585 watercolor by John White
Source: Smithsonian Institution, The Town of Pomeiock (by Spencer Nichols, 1985)

Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto brought horses and pigs to what is now North Carolina in 1540, but the Jesuits who came to what is now Virginia to start the first European settlement in 1570 apparently brought no animals. Spanish colonies in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina did import domesticated animals, so they constructed the first fences to manage fowl and livestock in North America.

In Virginia, the first domesticated chickens, ducks, geese, cattle, sheep, pigs, and horses arrived with the colonists who settled at Jamestown. The first horses were imported in 1609, and they did not last through the Starving Time in the winter of 1609-1610.2

Fences were needed to keep animals out of the gardens and fields planted in corn and wheat. Though none of the domesticated animals grazed on tobacco, they could get into the fields and trample the valuable plants.

Under English common law, the owner of an animal was required to keep away from the crops and gardens of others. One technique was to put animals on an island; that may be the origen of the Chincoteague ponies. Another technique was to fence in a peninsula, giving cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs plenty of grazing opportunity while minimizing the labor and materials required to build an enclosure.

The Virginia General Assembly adopted a new approach in 1643. Instead of requiring the owner of livestock to fence in their pasture, the legislature made the colony into "open range." Livestock could wander at will. Farmers growing crops and homeowners with gardens had to build adequate protective fences. The definition of an adequate fence was made clear three years later, and included being 4.5 feet high.

In 1862, Civil War soldiers had used many fence rails for firewood. The General Assembly meeting in Richmond revised the open range law, and gave local county officials the authority to require livestock owners to fence in their animals. Some counties chose to adopt a "fence in" approach, while others retained the old "fence out" requirements.3 A British officer was a prisoner to Charlottesville in 1779. He described the fences in Virginia, and how they differed from fences seen on his trip from Massachusetts:2

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 fence rails, which are made out of trees cut or sawed into lengths of about twelve feet, that are mauld or split into rails from four to six inches diameter.

When they form an inclosure, these rails are laid so, that they cross each other obliquely at each end, and are laid zig zag to the amount of ten or eleven rails in height, then stakes are put against each comer, double across, with the lower ends drove a little into the ground, and above 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.

These enclosures are generally seven or eight feet high, they are not very strong but convenient, as they can be removed to any other place, where they may be more necessary; from a mode of constructing these enclosures in a zig zag form, the New-Englanders have a saying, when a man is in liquor, he is making Virginia fences.


the amount of labor required to construct the stone fence leading up the entryway to Prestwould Plantation demonstrated wealth
the amount of labor required to construct the stone fence leading up the entryway to Prestwould Plantation demonstrated wealth


1. Maire Ni Leathlobhair et alia, "The evolutionary history of dogs in the Americas," Science, Volume 361, Issue 6397 (July 6, 2018), http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aao4776; Helen Rountree, "Uses of Domesticated Animals by Early Virginia Indians," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, May 30, 2014, https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/domesticated_animals_during_the_pre-colonial_era (last checked June 10, 2019)
2. Julie A. Campbell, The Horse in Virginia, University of Virginia Press, 2010, pp.12-13, https://books.google.com/books?id=uQZSAQAAIAAJ (last checked January 31, 2021)
3. Thomas Anburey, Travels Through the Interior Parts of America: In a Series of Letters, Volume 2, 1789, pp.323-324, https://books.google.com/books?id=ymwFAAAAQAAJ (last checked June 10, 2019)

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