I know, you’re all really shocked
“Willow Spring Farm,” ca. 1798, Blacksburg, VA
Before I begin discussing my source’s purpose and value to my research, allow me to transport you back to a time and space that only after you conceptualize will you be able to understand the significance of this structure seen before you.
The hills of Ireland are damp, below the dam, rocky and thus hostile to the hoe or plow. A farmer cannot survive in such an environment. As such, the Irish terrain yields a particular type of settlement. Indeed, the land dealt to you by the cosmos tell you to not grow turnips, but to instead raise cattle. As such cattle is and remains to this day, the backbone of the Irish economy.
As the wet hilly valleys reap luscious and green pastures for the consumption of those stubborn beasts, a farmstead is required in order to properly raise your cattle. A house and barns are required that facilitate this economy. When building a house, the Irish house plan is constructed around the highland plan; whole lot of rain leaves you a lot of grass for cattle. Therefore, you build your home far away from your neighbors to allow cattle roaming. Nothing too extraordinary about it; simply a rational adjustment to the physical environment you have been dealt with by history.
It here, where we must begin our historical analysis. A look into the Irish homestead, a venue that truly must be read as a cultural-historical document. Traditionally, the east and west of Ireland have dichotomous house plans that adapted the their landscape overtime. To the east the Irish house is typically low, thatched and has an entrance blocked by a chimney. This plan is typically seen as influenced by English cultural traits. Yet toward the west, a different typology emerges. One that relies more so on the hilly and rocky valleys for survival and sustenance. The western house is low, thatched and whitewashed. Unlike its eastern counterpart, the opening is not blocked but completely open. Upon entering this house, you will immediately notice you are in the smallest room of the house and that a doorway is directly parallel and across the room. The biggest room is to your left and usually can fit up to five persons in an entire family. It provides the hearth; the only heat and light source in the entire house. The smaller room provides the utilitarian purposes: stubborn cattle to go in and out of, to thresh upon the threshold, among other undesirable activities wished to be kept away from the main room.
Fast forward to 1720. In the span of fifty years, over 100,000 Irish immigrants will travel to North America, seeking new beginnings and independence. The most common port to arrive through: Philadelphia. There, you venture west as you do not find land suitable to farming. Heading west, you build stone houses , staking everything you have on a new landscape, culture and polity.Once settled, you fell trees and begin digging up the natural stones underneath the ground to create a stone cabin almost identical to the one traditionally built in western Ireland: low and with two room (one big one little).
But then you decide to move once more. Moving further west, you run into the Blue Ridge Mountains: a vast terrain of magnificent and overwhelming natural obstacle that stretches all the way down south to Georgia. Down the ridgeline, you encounter the first settlements across the Shenandoah Valley established in 1737 by a group of Dutch protestants. Truly, this place must be considered America’s first frontier. An amazing place of exchange where America was invented.These two groups settled down, exchanged with one another, and developed the most clear American house, an Irish cabin with German logs.
Known as the “continental house,” the german cabin had long permeated the American cultural landscape. With similar origins from Pennsylvania arrivals, the Dutch plan had a central chimney that split the house into 3-4 rooms for social and utilitarian purposes. While one room may be dedicated to personal space (beds), the others have may serve a gregarious setting. You can parlay in the parlor or withdraw in the drawing room without sacrificing a source of heat or light as the chimney provides both for at least two rooms.
Yet the Irish house from before amalgamated and procured building techniques from their Dutch neighbors. What emerges is the same house we are all familiar with. A low, gabled house, one big room, one little room…..yet the exterior is a matter of technical
- Prototypical American Log Cabin, ca. 1800
Wythe County, VA
convenience. Horizontal log hewing and notching originated from Scandinavian settlers from the 17th-century that the earliest Dutch settlers embraced as a pragmatic response to the environment they had been dealt with by history. Yet it is still the house plan that must be analyzzed in order to determine cultural traits. Thus, what can we call a log cabin? An Irish house, with German logs!
As the years go by however, two major developments occur. 1) you decide more privacy was needed in order to truly distinguish yourself from your other cattle herder in the Appalachian, 2) you are influenced by a sub-altern cultural trait that allows external protection from heat. For privacy of bed spaces, you had two option 1) extend the house laterally or vertically. When extended laterally, the Irish two room plan is now stretched into a three room plan. In vertical extensions, Irish plan remains the same but two additional rooms are added above that align perfectly with the two on the first floor.
Yet as a farmstead, you are suggested by one of your neighbors to construct some coverage that would hide the sun away from you and yet provide platform for more technical purposes: a porch. Whenever you see a porch on early/ colonial American homes, transport your mind to not Europe, but to West Africa. More specifically, the American porch originated from Yoruban slaves taken captive in the Caribbean, sold to New Orleans and the Carolinas, and then into the backcountry of Virginia. The “shotgun” house of New Orleans typified such a construct. Thus, the porch was quickly added onto the log cabins of the Appalachian region as an efficient and practical adjustment to the environment.
Thus, the log cabin of the old was not simply a makeshift structure constructed and developed under universal conditions and vernacular patterns. Rather, these structures were practical adjustments to the environment dealt to them by history, based on their cultural baggage that provided them with a set of blueprints on how to adapt and react. In the end, you have this structure that introduced earlier. Now we have a basic contextual understanding of this structure’s origins, we can read it as a historical text. Allow me to read it for you.
Attend to the plan. You notice first from looking at this facade the porch. An African element, signifying that this was likely a later addition to the house. Yet the two floors were originally constructed as one structure, as the logs are universal in age and variegation. The line on the right side of the facade stretching from the roof down, lets the outside observer know that four rooms exist in this house: on one floor with one big room and little room and the same directly above. There is our Irish house. Several millenniums of cultural persistence, yet amalgamated with Dutch and African features that best adapt to one’s surroundings.
What does this all tell the historian? It is folk architecture like this structure that permits the historian to examine aspect(s) of settlement patterns and particular view(s) of one’s social world. As Fred Kniffen and Henry Glassie once stated: “Folkways are comparatively the simplest and most direct expression of fundamental needs and urges. They conform to type with a minimum of individual deviation, and thus attest o the innate conservatism of their practitioners. They are often areally (unoccupied landscape), even when not numerically, dominant.”
Thus, folk architecture provides an immense value as material culture. Objects and houses do not merely reflect culture but also are reflect the means by which it is created. They symbolize and communicate intangible ideas, build relationships and proffer pleasure. They are “complex bundles of individual, social and cultural meanings grafted onto something that can bee seen, touched, and owned.” When looked within the broader landscape (the New River Valley region) one is able to concretize and conceptualize early settler’s “sense of place.”
Nevertheless, there are limitations to this source typology. As seen in my overview, this is a very specialized and specific study of material folk culture. It requires, thus, a previously acquired knowledge established within years of published secondary literature. Interdisciplinary methodology is a must. Appreciation and implementation of archaeological, anthropological, and geographical principles achieve such ends. Yet, one must be careful when doing so. The dangers of swaying too much into one of these disciplines conceptual conclusions is undeniably present. The historian’s narrative means is not anthropological but historical. Interdisciplinary understanding can provide the conceptual foundations, yet the means must generate historical ends: the history of people, not things. Material items facilitate historical understanding of changing patterns of human behaviors and/ or ideals.
This is not to say that log structures are my only sources, THEY ARE NOIT! Like any good historian, my sources must be supplemented with other typologies in order to properly contextualize the historical significance of my research findings. A vast collection of blanket chests from Wythe County offer an additional type of material culture for further insight into the social world within these log structures. As these chests specialize overtime, one can see how socio-economic condition changes along with broader consumer interest in such items.
Ledger accounts from Kent Jacobs, Jr. and Ingles Ferry Hill Tavern also offer a supplemental look into the socio-cultural mindset of a past people within these frontier zones. The particular items purchased, clients listed (and information on their positions in society) reveal much about town development, early American consumerism, and broader connections to markets stretched across surrounding colonies/ states. Lastly, travel accounts provide the words to conceptualize the cognitive map, or sense of place in the 18th and 19th century. Take for instance this excerpt from Bishop Augutus Gottlieb Spanenberg, 1752:
“Here we have at length arrived [at the New River] after a very toilsome journey, over fearful mountains & dangerous cliffs…Part of the way we had to crawl on hands and feet; sometimes we had to take the baggage & saddles & the horses, & drag them up the mountains…Arrived on the top at last, we saw hundreds mountain peaks all around us, presenting a spectacle like ocean waves in a storm.”
Alot of this material will be emphasized during my presentation, but I hope this at least provides some background on where my historical mind has been in the past several months.