Virginia Iron in the Colonial Era

Through the 1600's, England relied upon its domestic iron industry and imports from Sweden to supply the iron needed to build ships for the British Navy. At the start of the 18th Century, Sweden's neighbors joined forces in the Great Northern War and destroyed Sweden's control over the Baltic, simultaneously ending Sweden's capacity to meet demand for iron throughout Europe. England, which had relied upon Sweden for over 80% of its import, needed a new source.1

The Chesapeake colonies became the replacement for Sweden, even though Virginia had depended upon European imports for a century (after the iron furnace on Falling Creek was destroyed in the 1622 uprising). The iron production infrastructure in North America had to be built almost from scratch. The small scale bloomeries smelted ore and could simultaneously produce low-quality iron products, but the region lacked full scale iron furnaces that could create pig iron that forges could then convert into high-quality wrought iron products:2

Blast furnaces cannot exist without extensive capital, industrial organization, trade networks, and technical expertise, all of which were all but unknown in America when George I ascended the British throne in 1714.

According to mercantile theory, the English colonists in North America were supposed to supply raw products to the mother country - not to compete with industries in England or take jobs away from workers in the British Isles.

Thomas Jefferson described Virginia's iron resources as follows:3

Iron The mines of iron worked at present are Callaway's, Ross's, and Ballendine's, on the South side of James river; Old's on the North side, in Albemarle; Miller's in Augusta, and Zane's in Frederic. These two last are in the valley between the Blue ridge and North mountain. Callaway's, Ross's, Millar's, and Zane's, make about 150 tons of bar iron each, in the year. Ross's makes also about 1600 tons of pig iron annually; Ballendine's 1000; Callaway's, Millar's, and Zane's, about 600 each. Besides these, a forge of Mr. Hunter's, at Fredericksburgh, makes about 300 tons a year of bar iron, from pigs imported from Maryland; and Taylor's forge on Neapsco of Patowmac, works in the same way, but to what extent I am not informed. The indications of iron in other places are numerous, and dispersed through all the middle country. The toughness of the cast iron of Ross's and Zane's furnaces is very remarkable. Pots and other utensils, cast thinner than usual, of this iron, may be safely thrown into, or out of the waggons in which they are transported. Salt-pans made of the same, and no longer wanted for that purpose, cannot be broken up, in order to be melted again, unless previously drilled in many parts.

In the western country, we are told of iron mines between the Muskingum and Ohio; of others on Kentucky, between the Cumberland and Barren rivers, between Cumberland and Tannissee, on Reedy creek, near the Long island, and on Chesnut creek, a branch of the Great Kanhaway, near where it crosses the Carolina line. What are called the iron banks, on the Missisipi, are believed, by a good judge, to have no iron in them. In general, from what is hitherto known of that country, it seems to want iron.

John Tayloe II ran the Neabsco ironworks and, after 1755, the Occoquan ironworks in partnership with Presley Thornton. In 1755, they bought 1,800 acres in Prince William County to supply fuel (charcoal) for the Occoquan furnace, and hired John Ballendine to build it. The furnace was in blast in 1756, but the partnership with John Ballendine ended in 1763.4

by 1756, the one-year old partnership at Occoquan between John Ballendine and John Tayloe II/Presley Thornton had broken down...
by 1756, the one-year old partnership at Occoquan between John Ballendine and John Tayloe II/Presley Thornton had broken down...
Source: Maryland State Archives, Maryland Gazette (November 25, 1756)

The Neabsco and Occoquan ironworks were supplied with iron from Maryland mines. They relied upon the waterpower from the Occoquan River and Neabsco Creek, charcoal from 20,000 acres of Prince William County forests owned by John Tayloe II, and oyster shells from Freestone Point used as the "flux" to lower the temperature in the furnace at which iron would separate out from the ore.5

in 1766, John Tayloe II and Presley Thornton advertised that John Ballendine had no legal right to sell any claim to the Occoquan complex to John Semple or James Douglass
in 1766, John Tayloe II and Presley Thornton advertised that John Ballendine had no legal right to sell any claim to the Occoquan complex to John Semple or James Douglass
Source: Colonial Williamsburg, The Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon, June 13, 1766)

indentured servants, convict servants, and slaves fled from the Occoquan and Neabsco ironworks
indentured servants, convict servants, and slaves fled from the Occoquan and Neabsco ironworks
Source: Maryland State Archives, Maryland Gazette (September 16, 1762)

Billy, a ship carpenter, ran away from Occoquan in 1765 with fellow slaves and a convict servant
Billy, a ship carpenter, ran away from Occoquan in 1765 with fellow slaves and a convict servant
Source: Maryland State Archives, Maryland Gazette (April 4, 1765)

Billie ran away again in 1768
Billie ran away again in 1768
Source: Colonial Williamsburg, The Virginia Gazette (Rind, February 09, 1769)

slaves, convict servants, and indentured servants fled from the Neabsco ironworks by crossing the Potomac River to Maryland, hoping to get a job on a ship leading away from Virginia
slaves, convict servants, and indentured servants fled from the Neabsco ironworks by crossing the Potomac River to Maryland, hoping to get a job on a ship leading away from Virginia
Source: Colonial Williamsburg, The Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon, August 29, 1766)

one runaway from Neabsco Ironworks may have sought employment at Zane's Ironworks in Frederick County
one runaway from Neabsco Ironworks may have sought employment at Zane's Ironworks in Frederick County
Source: Colonial Williamsburg, The Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon, July 8, 1773)

one runaway from Neabsco Ironworks may have fled to Gwynn's Island
one runaway from Neabsco Ironworks may have fled to Gwynn's Island
Source: Colonial Williamsburg, The Virginia Gazette (Purdie, July 12, 1776)

Links

in 1856, the Tredegar Foundry produced locomotives for Virginia railroads
in 1856, the Tredegar Foundry produced locomotives for Virginia railroads
Source: The Richmond Directory, and Business Advertiser, for 1856 (p.124)

References

1. James R. Moulton, Peter the Great and the Russian Military Campaigns During the Final Years of the Great Northern War, 1719-1721, University Press of America, 2005, p.15, www.jwu.edu/uploadedFiles/Documents/Academics/DenHon_Fac_Moulton_Article1.pdf (last checked April 17, 2013)
2. Edward F. Heite, "The Pioneer Phase Of The Chesapeake Iron Industry: Naturalization Of A Technology," Quarterly Bulletin, Volume 38 Number 3 (September 1983), Archeological Society Of Virginia, p.133
3. Thomas Jefferson, "QUERY VI A notice of the mines and other subterraneous riches; its trees, plants, fruits, &c.", Notes on the State of Virginia, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/JEFFERSON/ch06.html (last checked April 18, 2013)
4. Laura Croghan Kamoie, Neabsco and Occoquan: The Tayloe Family Iron Plantations, 1730-1830, Prince William Historical Commission, 2003, pp.21-22
5. Laura Croghan Kamoie, Neabsco and Occoquan: The Tayloe Family Iron Plantations, 1730-1830, p.29, p.35


Minerals of Viginia
Rocks and Ridges - The Geology of Virginia
Virginia Places