Why Did the English Build Forts in Virginia?

The English faced two threats when they landed at Jamestown - fellow Europeans, and Native Americans. Shortly after landing at Jamestown, the colonists built a wooden fort in a rough triangle, with a wooden wall 120 yards long facing the river and the other two walls 100 yards long. A Nansemond Tribal Member succinctly noted in 2004, during the preparations for commemorating the 400th anniversary of Jamestown:1

"Why do you think the English built a fort? It was not to keep the Indians out, but to keep the Spaniards out."

building the first fort, May-June 1607
building the first fort at Jamestown, May-June 1607
Source: National Park Service, Jamestown - Sidney King Paintings Gallery

That comment may gloss over the legitimate concerns of the first English colonists regarding the Native Americans, but the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, and even pirates were serious threats from the Atlantic. The location of Jamestown was chosen in part because anyone sailing up the river would be clearly visible before they could reach the English fort. In the time required for a European attacker to sail up the James River, the English would have time to gather everyone inside the palisaded James Fort and to defend it with their cannon and muskets.

In addition to settling inland away from the Atlantic coastline, the English established an "early warning" site at Point Comfort to spot potential attackers. In 1609, George Percy (president of the colony, after John Smith returned to England) ordered the construction of Fort Algernon at the mouth of the James River near the home of the Kecoughtan tribe.

For Algernon was never a major fortress intended to withstand assault by Spanish, French, or Dutch raiders. Instead, it was a distant early warning system. Fort Algernon provided intelligence to Jamestown regarding new ships arriving in the Chesapeake Bay - plus some logistical support such as fish for feeding the colonists, and safe access to fresh water for sailors after a long journey. As described by Percy:2

After I had bene presydentt some fowertene dayes I sentt Capt[eyn]e Rattliefe to pointe Comforte for to Buylde a foarte there. The w[hi]ch I did for towe Respects. The one for the plenty of the place for fisheinge The other for the Comodious discovery of any Shippeinge w[hi]ch sholde come uppon the Coaste.

Fort Algernon was a wooden structure. According to a report by a Spanish spy, Diego de Molina, it was "a weak structure of boards ten hands high with twenty-five soldiers and four iron pieces."3

It apparently received only intermittent maintenance, since labor was scarce in the early days of the colony. The structure burned, accidentally, in 1612. Remains of a later replacement constructed in part with brick, called Fort George, were washed away by the great hurricane of 1749 (the same storm that created Willoughby Spit). In the 1800's the Federal government built Fort Monroe at the site. That massive stone fort was intended to withstand attack by a hostile navy, in contrast to its predecessors. Cannon at Fort Monroe were fired once at an enemy - the CSS Virginia, when that ironclad dueled with the USS Monitor in 1862.4

The other threat to the early Virginia colonists besides European ships was attack by the Native Americans. The Algonquians already had palisaded towns, where tree trunks were aligned to encircle the houses and provide a wall of defense. These were designed for tribal conflicts using pre-contact technology; the palisades offered only minimal protection against the cannon of the Europeans. The English built their first palisaded fort at Jamestown. The wooden wall was designed to keep Native Americans outside the fort, though it would have offered some protection against cannon fire.

John Smith's map showing Point Comfort, site of Fort Algernon/Fort George/Fort Monroe
John Smith's map showing Point Comfort, site of Fort Algernon/Fort George/Fort Monroe
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606
palisade at Henricus reconstruction of Algonquian village
palisade at Henricus reconstruction of Algonquian village

James Fort might have been inadequate against a Spanish attack, but it was never tested. The walls did allow the English to control how many Native Americans were in the fort at one time, reducing the threat of a surprise assault. As revealed in the 1622 uprising, the colony's intelligence gathering capabilities - and analytical skills to anticipate an attack - were inadequate.

The next colonial settlements, such as Bermuda Hundred and Henricus were built on peninsulas. These too were protected by wooden walls, built between riverbanks to protect the settlements from land attack by the hostile neighbors. Though the Native Americans in Virginia could attack the river side of colonial settlements via canoes, the English had already placed cannons there for protection against European or pirate assault. The firepower facing the river was considered sufficient protection against potential amphibious attack by Algonquian warriors.

The power of the Powhatans was broken in less than 50 years of English occupation. As the English established farms on the Peninsula, Middle Peninsula, and then finally the Northern Neck, the Powhatan lifestyle of living in winter hunting camps and summer agricultural towns was disrupted. In 1633, a wooden palisade was constructed between the James and York rivers, passing through Middle Plantation (later the site of Williamsburg), in order to exclude Native Americans from the Peninsula.5

approximate route of 1634 pallisade across the Peninsula, cutting through modern-day Williamsburg
approximate route of 1634 pallisade across the Peninsula, cutting through modern-day Williamsburg
Source: location of pallisade from Phillip Levy, A New Look at an Old Wall. Indians, Englishmen, Landscape, and the 1634 Palisade at Middle Plantation
(overlayed on USGS 7.5 minute topo, 2010)

After the 1644 uprising, Opechanacanough was captured and murdered while in English custody, and the English systematically destroyed Algonquian towns and cornfields. The remnants of Powhatan's political organization were fragmented, never to be reassembled.

After 1644, the main Indian threat to the English colonists in Virginia came from bands of northern Indians raiding into Virginia from Pennsylvania and New York. The 1646 treaty signed by Opechanacanough's successor, Necotowance, required the Virginia tribes to be allies with the English against such raids. In 1656 the leader of the Pamunkey Tribe (Totopotomoy) was killed while fighting "Rickohockans" (perhaps offshoots of the Seneca tribe in western New York, or Cherokees from the Tennessee River watershed) at Bloody Run, in what is now the Church Hill area of Richmond.

By the 1650's the paramount chiefdom structure of Powhatan was destroyed, the primary interaction between the English and the remaining tribes were based on the fur trade. When the English first arrived in 1607, Powhatan established his tribal organization as the "middleman" who would take a cut of the profits. Powhatan blocked the Siouan-speaking tribes west of the Fall Line from direct trade with the English at Jamestown. (Powhatan was not unique in this approach. In New England, the Iroquois tribes blocked the English from trading with the Hurons and others who lived further inland, and extracted high prices from the English for furs and skins until the American Revolution disrupted relationships.)

The fur trade depended upon Native Americans harvesting a surplus of furs and food from their lands far from English settlements, and bringing the furs/skins to Tidewater settlements to trade with the English. In 1645, the General Assembly restricted trade between Native Americans and colonists to three forts.

Fort Charles was at the falls of the James River (modern-day Richmond), and Fort Royall was on the Pamunkey River at a site near Opechancanough's capital (an island in the river at the mouth of Totopotomoy Creek). They formed a perimeter west of the 1633 palisade, while Fort James was deeper inside that perimeter at the confluence of Diascund Creek and the Chickahominy River. In 1646, a fourth fort, Fort Henry, was authorized at the mouth of the Appomattox River. At the same time, the costs of maintaining the forts was minimized by transferring responsibility to individuals who were also given land grants around the forts.6

Petersburg, Virginia developed from that fur-trading Fort Henry, managed in the mid-1600's by Abraham Wood. In 1673, he sent explorers (James Needham and Gabriel Arthur) to trade directly with the Cherokee in the Tennesee River watershed. He was trying to bypass the Ocaneechee tribe, middlemen operating at the traditional trading post on the Roanoke River near modern-day Clarksville, Virginia until the town was destroyed in Bacon's Rebellion in 1676.

Both sides benefitted from the fur trading transactions. The English stayed east of the Fall Line, and the tribes west of the Fall Line got access to English metal products, textiles, and guns. (The French focused on building up such trade, rather than occupying Native American land and creating an agricultural colony, in their settlements in Canada, Louisiana, and the Ohio River Valley.)


forts established in 1645 (in red) and 1646 (in yellow)
Map Source: US Geological Survey National Atlas

The colonial fur trade in Virginia was a rough business, as William Claiborne discovered in the 1630's. In addition to conflicts between tribes for control of the hunting territory, the English fought among themselves. Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 was triggered in part by rivalries between Governor Berkeley and his friends (who had been given special rights for engaging in the fur trade) and the out-of-power planters who lived at the edges of colonial settlement. The risks of living at the interface of English/Indian territory (the "frontier") were high, but the rewards were limited by Governor Berkeley.

Bel Air, perhaps the oldest building in Prince William County
Bel Air, perhaps the oldest building in Prince William County

Colonial policy on protecting the frontier from raiding northern tribes was not consistent. Frontier forts were built and then abandoned because of the cost of staffing them. Prince William County, now urbanizing as population growth in Northern Virginia continues to expand, was once on the frontier. The stone walls in the basement of the Bel Air house may be the remnants a 1670's fort that housed rangers assigned to the headwaters of various coastal streams. The rangers were looking primarily for hunting parties of Susquehannocks and Iroquois from New York. Such groups were considered more likely to raid English farms, since they had no local towns or farm fields to protect.

The alternative to fixed fortifications on the frontier was to hire rangers to patrol the territory. The rangers were less-than-perfect sensors, and northern raiders could slip into Virginia undetected. When Nathaniel Bacon's overseer was killed by Indians, he launched a rebellion against the establishment based in Jamestown, attacked the peaceful Indians who were allied with Governor Berkeley - and even burned Jamestown itself, before Bacon died and the rebellion fizzled.

site of Fort Christanna, 1714-1717
site of Fort Christanna, 1714-1717
Source: USGS Geographic Names Information System

In 1714, Governor Spottswood stimulated development of a fort at Fort Christanna, south of modern-day Lawrenceville in Brunswick County. At the time, it was the edge of British colonial power. The modern historical marker at the site calls it "The Farthest Western Outpost of the British Empire."

Spottswood intended to concentrate the fur trade with southern tribes at one location that could be controlled. A surprise attack in 1717 by Iroquois rivals, on the Native American groups he had gathered peacefully at Fort Christanna, damaged his strategy. However, his main opposition was rival Virginia traders who traded weapons and other products for furs and skins, independent from Spottswood's licensed trading program.

For 130 years after the destruction of the Powhatan tribes, from the 1644 uprising to the intrusion into Kentucky in the 1770's, colonist/Native American conflicts on the Virginia frontier were predominantly triggered by fur trade rivalries, not by Native American resistance to colonial settlement. That's due in large part to the apparent retreat or die-off of the tribes west of the Fall Line. When English settlement crossed beyond the Fall Line and started to occupy the Piedmont in the early 1700's, there were few Native Americans remaining east of the Blue Ridge.

By the 1730's, colonial occupation of the Shenandoah Valley disrupted Native American hunting patterns, but did not result in large-scale displacement of Native American villages. Perhaps disease, or perhaps attacks from raiding Catawbas from the south and Iroquois from the north had emptied out the Piedmont before the colonists arrived in large numbers. That's a key reason Virginia built so few forts on the "frontier."

Prior to the conflicts with Shawnee and other Ohio tribes during the French and Indian War in the 1750's, frontier farmers built sturdy wooden houses that also served as defensive structures rather than facilities dedicated to just military protection. Such houses are called "forts" in many reports written in colonial days, especially after settlement reached the Shenandoah Valley. Families would retreat to the fort only when there was a specific alarm that a war party was nearby.

Links

References

1. Keith Smith, March 4, 2004, quoted in "A Seventeenth Century Chronology Drawn from Colonial Records with Contemporary Native Perspectives," in A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: The First Century, Colonial National Historical Park (National Park Service), December 2005 http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/jame1/moretti-langholtz/chap7.htm (last checked October 2, 2011)
2. George Percy, "A Trewe Relacyon of the Pcedeings and Ocurrentes of Momente wch have hapned in Virginia from the Tyme Sr Thomas GATES was shippwrackte upon the BERMUDES ano 1609 untill my depture outt of the Country wch was in ano Di 1612," http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/winter07/A%20Trewe%20Relation.pdf (last checked October 5, 2010)
3. Diego de Molina letter in Tyler, Lyon Gardiner, Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625, p.223 http://www.archive.org/details/narrativesofearl1946tyle (last checked October 5, 2010)
4. Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, "Fort Monroe, Hampton, VA," HABS No. VA-595, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.va1659 (last checked October 5, 2010)
5. Philip Levy, "A New Look at an Old Wall: Indians, Englishmen, Landscape, and the 1634 Palisade at Middle Plantation," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 112, no. 3 (2004)
6. Martha W. McCartney, "The Draft of York River in Virginia: An Artifact of the Seventeenth Century," Southeastern Archaeology , 3(2) Winter 1984, http://www.pampatike.org/PDFs/Draft%20of%20York%20River%20-W%20Pictures.pdf (last checked October 5, 2010)


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Virginia Frontiers
The Real First Families of Virginia
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