Native American Structures in Virginia

the English who reached Virginia in 1607 discovered that Native Americans built yi-hakans (houses) from saplings and reeds, and towns were often surrounded with wooden palisades
the English who reached Virginia in 1607 discovered that Native Americans built yi-hakans (houses) from saplings and reeds, and towns were often surrounded with wooden palisades
Source: National Park Service, Jamestown - Sidney King Paintings, Trading With the Indians

Starting in 1607, the first English colonists built their structures inside the fort at Jamestown with wooden frames, then applied local clay to the exterior to create "mud and stud" structures. Where the English bult roofs with an overhang to block rain, the walls could survive for years. Without a stone or brick foundation,however, the wooden frames rotted soon in the moist soil.

The Native Americans also used local saplings to form the frame of their houses, which were called yi-hakans. The exterior roofs and walls were made from mats of reeds or from bark peeled from nearby trees, rather than from clay.

this yi-hakin at Henricus Historical Park, made from reeds and bark, had lasted four years by 2017
this yi-hakin at Henricus Historical Park, made from reeds and bark, had lasted four years by 2017

Vines and plant fibers, woven into twine, were used to bind together the mats of reeds. The sapling poles were also tied together, so the structures withstood the winds of summer thunderstorms and the snow loads in the winter.

Reeds were plentiful on the Coastal Plan near swamps, and trees were everywhere. The materials lasted only a few years before rotting, but after soils were exhausted it made sense to move the house several hundred yards anyway.

organic stains in the soil (
organic stains in the soil ("postmolds") allow archeologists to identify where small poles formed the framework for Native American houses
Source: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Late Woodland

In Powhatan's territory, the women gathered materials and constructed the houses. The labor involved in house construction was substantial. When the women could not find saplings of the desired length and width, they had to get the men to use stone axes to cut wood.

Men may also have been recruited to cut the bark from trees and haul the heavy slabs back to the town. Making the reed mats and attaching them to the house required manufacturing up to a mile of rope, per house, from local plant fibers.1

the interior framework was exposed in yi-hakins during the summer, but covered by mats, skins, and furs during the winter for extra warmth
the interior framework was exposed in yi-hakins during the summer, but covered by mats, skins, and furs during the winter for extra warmth

Reconstructions of such housing for exhibits for interpretive exhibits at such places as Jamestown require new thatching of the roofs and walls after one-two years, in part because the structures are unoccupied at night and in winter when exhibits are not staffed. The branches and saplings used for framing survive many years, but fungi and bacteria grow quickly in moist reeds.

Henricus Historical Park constructed four yi-hakins, and three were covered with store-bought mats in 2017
Henricus Historical Park constructed four yi-hakins, and three were covered with store-bought mats in 2017

Before the English arrived in 1607, Native Americans kept a small fire burning every day in their houses. The heat and smoke deterred decay of the building materials, and the need to replace reeds was lower. A structure might last with minimal repair until the nearby soil was exhausted after 3-7 years, and it was time to move the houses a few hundred yards away and plant new fields. The framing would be moved, but new reeds would be installed at the new location.

Native American houses in Virginia had a hole in the roof for smoke to escape, with a sheet of bark to keep out rain
Native American houses in Virginia had a hole in the roof for smoke to escape, with a sheet of bark to keep out rain

Thatch is still a common building material in some areas. In Guatamala's Peten region, local residents build two structures. The metal-roofed house is used at night, but a thatched roof structure is used for cooking and activities during the day. Residents prefer to sleep in the metal-roofed structure that does not smell of smoke from cooking fires, while that smoke helps to extend the life of the thatch roof in the separate structure.

home of a farmer neat Topoxte in Guatamala, showing thatched-roof structure used for cooking next to metal-roofed house
home of a farmer neat Topoxte in Guatamala, showing thatched-roof structure used for cooking next to metal-roofed house

Native Americans could relocate houses easily. When soil fertility declined after years of growing corn, whole towns could be moved a short distance to be closer to new fields.

Mats of reeds and bark coverings could be taken off the sapling framework of a house, the saplings could be take apart, and the structure moved in pieces to the new location. Vines twisted around the pieces as they were reassembled provided greater stability, allowing houses to withstand the wind and rain of summer thunderstorms. If a hurricane blew down a structure, the material needed to rebuild it quickly was readily available in the local area.

Palisades around towns could be rebuilt, providing some security from surprise attack by enemies and excluding wild animals attracted by the food within the town. Like houses, palisades were were made of locally-available materials.

Small trees and branches were cut to create a frame for a wall. Vines and more branches were woven into the wooden framework, creating a barrier that would deter animals and delay an enemy. To strengthen the wall and prevent an enemy from setting it on fire, mud could be smeared between the branches.

Colonists used a similar process to create "wattle and daub" structures at Jamestown. However, the iron axes and other carpentry tools allowed the English to cut trees and saw large timbers for the franework and for a palisade, and to use iron nails rather than vibes to attach pieces.

the wooden frame of a palisade could be covered with mud to create a more-effective and fireproof wall
the wooden frame of a palisade could be covered with mud to create a more-effective and fireproof wall

teepees with buffalo hides (later canvas) were used on the Great Plains west of the Mississippi River - no Native Americans in Virginia built teepees
teepees with buffalo hides (later canvas) were used on the Great Plains west of the Mississippi River - no Native Americans in Virginia built teepees
Source: Library of Congress, Skin tepees, Shoshone Indians

References

1. William Hancock, "Houses in Early Virginia Indian Society," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, May 30, 2014, http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Houses_in_Early_Virginia_Indian_Society (last checked April 26, 2017)

residents at Werowocomoco made frameworks from local branches and covered then with reeds from the Purtan Bay swamps
residents at Werowocomoco made frameworks from local branches and covered then with reeds from the Purtan Bay swamps
Source: National Park Service, Werowocomoco Planning


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