EARTHFAST ARCHITECTURE IN EARLY MAINE
a paper presented at the Vernacular Architecture Forum annual meeting,
Portsmouth New Hampshire, 1992.
by Emerson W. Baker, Robert L. Bradley, Leon Cranmer and Neill DePaoli
Recent excavations in Maine, combined with re-analysis of earlier
archaeological data has produced significant evidence for widespread
in this region. These sites are found throughout the territory
occupied by the English in the seventeenth century, and represent
occupations from the late 1620s to the second quarter of the eighteenth
techniques found in Maine include post-in-ground and sill on grade,
cellars, and pit houses. A persistent earthfast tradition was once
to have been largely a regional adaptation in the Chesapeake; however,
growing evidence from Maine and elsewhere suggests that the earthfast
endured over a longer period and wider geographical range. Builders in
chose earthfast methods for similar reasons as in the Chesapeake. High
costs and limited availability of building materials combined with
demographic, and political instability led people to favor earthfast
In the past decade excavations on
seventeenth-century archaeological sites in Maine have produced
evidence of a widespread and
long-lasting earthfast building tradition. Recently six structures have
excavated which are completely or partially earthfast. These sites are
throughout the territory occupied by the English in the seventeenth
and represent occupations as early as 1628 to as late as 1690. Further,
archaeological work that took place at Pemaquid in the 1960s indicates
Maine settlers were building earthfast dwellings as late as the second
of the eighteenth century (Figure 1). This evidence calls into question
nature and significance of houses not only in Maine, but in the other
as well, particularly in the Chesapeake region.
FIGURE 1. Coastal Maine in the seventeenth
Earthfast, or "post-in-ground" construction has been
defined as buildings with framing members "standing or lying directly
ground or erected in post holes" (Carson et al 1981:136). Although
earthfast housing has previously been observed in a scattering of
documents and a small number of archaeological sites in southern New
England, it was thought to represent a fairly brief period in New
England's architecture (Deetz 1979). In their landmark 1981 article
"Impermanent Architecture in the Southern American
Colonies," Cary Carson, Norman Barka, William Kelso, Garry Wheeler
and Dell Upton indicated that in contrast to New England,
Virginia and Maryland witnessed a much later start and "extreme
the rebuilding from an earthfast to a more permanent housing during the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While rebuilding in New England
around 1650 and was virtually complete within fifty years, in the south
process had really just begun when the eighteenth century started
et al 1981:160-161). Yet, it appears that Maine's pattern of earthfast
may have been more widespread and longer-lasting than in southern New
In fact, preliminary findings indicate that Maine residents' use of
construction may have been much closer to the Chesapeake pattern than
southern New England's building practices.
In the Chesapeake, Carson et al suggest that the
long tradition of earthfast housing might be indicative of the
unsettled nature of society. Having its origins in prehistoric
times, the earthfast
architectural practices employed in the Americas in the seventeenth
were directly descended from English peasant homes of the High Middle
In the early seventeenth century an earthfast tradition still lingered
some parts of England; however, it was clearly considered an inferior
of construction that had largely given way to framed structures that
on stone pads or foundations (Dyer 1986). Carson and his colleagues
that the practice flourished in Virginia and Maryland for several
In the tobacco economy hired help was expensive, and economic
was often the rule. Even if one could afford what was considered a more
home, short life expectancy and high mortality rates discouraged people
making a long-term investment in housing. Readily available land
that all freemen could be landowners. As a result, labor was quite
and most settlers had only modest incomes to pay for carpenters and
tradesmen. Carson et al have labelled these building techniques as
although they admit that "impermanence may have been a largely
consideration." A Chesapeake builder who used decay- resistant
could maintain a house with minimum repairs for "thirty, forty, fifty
or more" Carson et al 1981: 156-158). Indeed, Frasier Neiman has
out that the concept of impermanence is a modern one, imposed on the
residents of the Cheseapeake, who probably were not concerned about a
ability to last hundreds of years. (Neiman 1978). Therefore,
is not really an appropriate term for this method of building.
Current data suggest that earthfast structures could
be fairly long-lived. In the 1980s R. A. Meeson and C. M. Welch
discovered three extant earthfast farm outbuildings in England and one
in Normandy. At the time, one of these was roughly one hundred
years old, and another
my have stood closer to two hundred years (Meeson and Welch
Some Maine structures may have stood a considerable time, with few or
repairs. Presumably the climate of Maine (cooler and drier with fewer
such as termites) meant that earthfast posts would not be as apt to rot
the Chesapeake, and that such structures would have reasonably long
The earthfast Cushnoc trading post was occupied for over forty years,
a single repair of a post, and Richard Hitchcock's homestead on
Pool stood for approximately fifty years. Both structures succumbed to
not rot (Cranmer 1990; Baker 1992). While Maine's settlers may not have
considered their homes to be impermanent, clearly an earthfast
tradition developed in this northern colony because it felt economic,
political, and demographic factors similar to those in the Chesapeake.
Despite the important work of Richard Candee to
document and understand early Maine buildings, our knowledge remains
limited as it is based on a slim body of evidence. The earliest
standing building in Maine appears to be the post-1707 MacIntire
Garrison in York (Candee
1976). This house, along with a handful of others, are the only
pre-1720 buildings in the state. Written and pictorial evidence is also
limited, and of little use in helping to determine whether or not a
was earthfast (Bradley 1978).
Christopher Levett's 1623 description of his "wigwam
or house" on Casco Bay is the only extant account of an earthfast
structure in Maine. This crude shelter "had no frame but was without
form or fashion, only a few poles set together, and covered with our
boats sails, which kept forth but a little wind and less rain and snow"
(Levett 1988:40). This temporary structure many have been typical of
those built by the English fishermen
who seasonally visited Maine in the 1610s and 1620s. The only other
documentary evidence for earthfast housing in Maine is the 1705 plan of
New Casco (constructed in 1700, enlarged in 1705), drawn by Colonel
Redknap (Figure 2). The plan shows a section through the fort
including barracks and storehouses. All of these buildings were framed
posts set directly into the ground, supported by buried rock footings
1987). Redknap's profile clearly indicates that an earthfast tradition
still in use in Maine when it was supposedly rapidly dying out in
FIGURE 2. Detail from John Redknap's 1705 plan of
Casco Bay Fort, better known as Fort New Casco. Maine State Archives.
Although there is little positive evidence of
earthfast buildings, aside from Levett and Redknap, there is equally
meager documentary evidence for more substantial footings
Few building contracts survive for Maine and
still discuss stone cellars. The 1686 specifications for the minister's
in Saco, which requires that "ye cellar (be) dug and stoned" is a rare
reference indeed (Biddeford Town Records 1686:135).
The best evidence for the cellars, footings, and
earthfast posts of early Maine buildings comes from archaeological
data. Excavations in the 1960s and 1970s at Pemaquid and Arrowsic
uncovered a series of seventeenth-century structures, principally
having stone cellars and footings. However, Structure 13-A at Pemaquid
is a 13.5' x 14' earthfast section of a building which
was constructed no earlier than 1729 (Figure 3). Structure 13-A had a
on joists leveled below grade, with wooden sills sitting on clay, and
several apparent earthfast posts for support (Camp 1975).
FIGURE 3. Plan of Structure 13-A at Pemaquid. From
Helen Camp, Archaeological Investigations at Pemaquid, Maine,
(Augusta, Maine, 1975), 21.
A re-analysis of data strongly suggests that
earthfast practices were used in other structures at Pemaquid and
Arrowsic. The best example is found in Structure 6 at Pemaquid, a
seventeenth-century building that almost certainly was destroyed in the
1689 Wabanaki Indian raid on
Pemaquid (Figure 4). Excavation of Structure 6 revealed a wall
of a wooden plank (a sill?) with a series of poles or posts six inches
apart set into what may be auger holes. A set of poles runs
perpendicular to the first wall. This construction sounds similar to a
house which survived on Cape Cod until 1840, which was built "by taking
large sticks of timber for sills and plates, boring two paralleled
(sic) rows of holes in each, about six inches apart, excepting where
doors or windows were to be placed" (Otis 1882:202-203).
Structure 6 at Arrowsic poses a similar possibility. This "longhouse"
form of building, measuring 20' x 65' was constructed by Thomas Clarke
& Thomas Lake, two wealthy Boston merchants, about 1654 (Baker
1985). A re-examination of the archaeological data suggests
that the apparent missing stone footing for the southern wall may have
actually been the northern end of an earthfast addition which continued
further south (Figure 5). This conjectural addition could have served
as an earthfast
byre for livestock, a necessary part of a true longhouse as detailed by
architectural historians (Brown 1982).
FIGURE 4. Plan of Structure 6 at Pemaquid. From
Helen Camp, Archaeological Investigations at Pemaquid, Maine,
(Augusta, Maine, 1975), 17. Features labelled C and D appear to
an earthfast sill with posts.
FIGURE 5. Plan of Structure 6 at Arrowsic. From
Emerson W. Baker, The Clarke & Lake Company: The Historical
Archaeology of A Seventeenth-Century Maine Settlement (Augusta,
Maine: Maine Historic Preservation Commission, 1985), 52.
Just across the Kennebec from Arrowsic Island lies
Phippsburg, the site of an interesting variant of earthfast
1972 Edward Lenik directed excavations on the so-called Spirit
Sod Houses. These two side-by-side buildings were semi-subterranean
built into a bank, the type often resorted to by colonial settlers for
first year or two in a new land. Edward Johnson described such
in 1654 in his Wonder-Working Providence. He observed that new settlers
"burrow themselves in the earth for their first shelter under some
casting the earth aloft upon timber" (Jameson 1910). Lenik
his efforts on one of the two Spirit Pond structures. It had walls
of earth, dug from the center of the structure. Stones were laid at the
entrance for support, and a single course was also laid along the sides
to level the logs which served as plates for the roof. Lenik suggests
roof was covered by sod, but it may well have been thatch. The exterior
measured 32' x 21', but because of the massive, sloping walls, the
was a much smaller 21' x 7'. This primitive home clearly dates to
colonial period; however, it is difficult to say exactly when. The
artifacts suggest the site may have been occupied in the
century, but other artifacts indicate a mid-eighteenth century
of the area, if not of the structure itself (Lenik 1973).
The Spirit Pond structures, and several similar
buildings that have been excavated in Virginia, are an interesting part
of an earthfast tradition, but settlers clearly built them as temporary
structures. In 1650 when Cornelius Van Tienhoven described these
dwellings in New England and New Amsterdam he said they were designed
for planters to "live dry and warm in these houses with their entire
families for two, three, and four years" (O'Callaghan 1856:368).
Despite their brief life span, semi-subterranean
homes are important artifacts for they indicate that primitive methods
construction, largely extinct in seventeenth-century England,
drawn upon throughout the English colonies when dictated by necessity.
Recent Excavations in Maine
If semi-subterranean houses can be found in the
architectural record of both the Chesapeake and Maine, perhaps it is
not surprising to
find other forms of earthfast buildings in both regions. Since the
1980s Maine archaeologists have become much more aware of earthfast
architecture, thanks in part to the discoveries in the Chesapeake. They
have taken pains to look for the phenomenon, and usually have found it.
Almost every seventeenth-century English site that has been extensively
excavated in Maine during the past decade is at least partially
earthfast, adding six new earthfast buildings to Maine's
Perhaps the most typical of the earthfast tradition
is Cushnoc, the Plymouth Colony's palisaded trading compound
from 1628 to roughly 1670, in present-day Augusta, Maine. Excavations
directed by James Leamon and Leon Cranmer from 1984 to 1987
revealed a post-in-ground building measuring 20' x 44'. Cushnoc appears
to have been an "interrupted sill" type of structure, made of three
bays (Figure 6). Sills would have
been placed between posts (thus interrupted), with floor boards
to them. The two end bays measured 14' and the center bay was 16' long.
type of construction may indicate that the structure was prefabricated
elsewhere and brought to the Cushnoc site. Indeed, Plymouth used
prefabricated parts to construct its trading post on the Connecticut
River. Cushnoc's wood-lined cellar measured 7' x 7'. This type of
cellar has been found at three other earthfast sites in Maine as well
FIGURE 6. Excavated and proposed plans of the
Cushnoc structure. From Leon E. Cranmer, Cushnoc: The History
and Archaeology of Plymouth Colony Traders on the Kennebec
(Augusta, Maine: Maine Historic Preservation Commission 1990), 61.
Ten miles down the Kennebec from Cushnoc, at
present-day Agry Point in Pittston, lay the Nehumkeag trading post.
First occupied in 1649, the post was one of several (including
above-mentioned Arrowsic) operated by the Clarke & Lake Company
until they were abandoned in 1676 at the outbreak of war with the
Wabanaki Indians. Excavations by Theodore Bradstreet in the 1980s and
Leon Cranmer from 1990 to 1994 have provided some
details of the main structure, enough to indicate it was a longhouse
feet long and twenty feet wide. The western half is of post-in-ground
frame construction ((Figure 7). In this portion, posts were laid
into a trench on two-foot centers, indicating construction
sills. The wattle and daub walls were built directly up from the
surface. No sill impressions have been found. The eastern half,
a later addition, was also of post-in-ground construction but probably
plank walls. This portion of the building also contained an unusual 6'
30' wood-lined cellar (Cranmer 1993).
FIGURE 7. Conjectural plan of the main structure of
the Nehumkeag trading post.
Near the mouth of the Kennebec River, just over a
mile east of Arrowsic, lay the home of James Phips - best known as the
of Sir William Phips. Robert Bradley has been investigating the
since 1986. The house, built sometime between 1639 and 1646, was a
post-in-ground structure. The core consists of a 15' by 72' longhouse,
divided into four rooms, with the southernmost 12' by 15' section
serving as a byre . While the building had a stone hearth, the
data indicates it had a wattle-and-daub smoke hood. A second episode of
post-in-ground construction produced an ell, or perhaps more properly,
an attached second home, possibly the home of Phip's partner and
co-land-owner, John White
(Figure 8). This addition appears to be more substantially built than
core, for its 14' x 5' hearth was constructed on a carefully laid
footing, as opposed to the hearth of the first structure which amounted
to thin flagstones laid on grade. This second structure may have
approximately 20' x 60.' In 1993 archaeologists exposed another
building situated approximately twenty feet south of the longhouse, an
measuring 29.5' by 13.5'. A drainage ditch was located outside
two uphill sides of the building todivert water from it.
building may have served as a small barn or another type of storage
Like Cushnoc, Nehumkeag, and other homes in the region, the entire
complex was destroyed in 1676 (Bradley 1990).
FIGURE 8. Plan of excavation of the James Phips
Site, with longhouse core (Structure 1), addition (Structure 2) and
outbuilding (Structure 3).
There are many similarities between the Phips
homestead and the Clarke & Lake Company posts at Nehumkeag,
and Arrowsic. All three are longhouse forms, located only a few miles
apart, and built
within a few years of each other. All three have massive hearths in the
single-sided West Country fashion. Indeed, the central hearths at
and the Phips homestead structure are of identical dimension and method
construction. They may be the work of the same stone
When James Phips first migrated to Maine, he resided
at Pemaquid, a fishing and trading village which may have been settled
as early as 1625. Nearly a mile from the mouth of the Pemaquid River
are the ruins of a fortified hamlet, possibly owned in succession by
prominent inhabitants Abraham Shurt and Thomas Gardner between ca. 1640
and 1676 (known as the
MC lot). Since 1985 Neill DePaoli has led excavations that have focused
one seventeenth-century building that probably housed living quarters,
truckhouse, and a smithy (Figure 9). The structure was built in at
two phases. A series of post holes and post molds suggest the original
was post-in-ground construction, with builders making substantial
in the third quarter of the seventeenth century. The wooden-framed and
structure that emerged was dominated by and east-west core thast
a minimum of 50' x 13.5' and could have had a maximum length of
' or 65.' The core was a blend of two sections - the eastern was
more substantial, with a massive stone foundation and stone-floored and
cellar. A later building episode was represented by a second massive
footing, and a series of trench set and driven posts continuing to the
The posts may be a variant of a "palisado" wall Cary Carson et als note
describing puncheon buildings (Carson et als 1981:160-61).
foundation's eastern walls may have supported a heavy wooden defensive
superstructure. It is also possible that the stoned cellar, or at least
flooring, is a later addition as well. A fragment of a cast iron kettle
was found under the flooring stones, implying that the cellar may once
had a dirt floor. A smaller post-in-ground section (measured 17' x
off the cellar's northern wall. This segment could be a remnant of the
earthfast structure. The western section (measured 31.6' x 13.5')sat on
fieldstone footing. This portion of the structure may have housed a
and a kitchen (De Paoli 1993). An ell extended at least 21' west
the core's western facade, and had a minimum width of 23.5'. The
had a stone footing and was erected in the third quarter of the
century, possibly to replace an earlier earthfast addition. The ell
a smithy and a possible kitchen (DePaoli 1993).
FIGURE 9. Plan of excavations and proposed building
outline for Structure 1 at the MC Lot Site.
Even the first Governor's Mansion in Maine was
partially earthfast. Sir Ferdinando Gorges' "Manor House at Point
Christian" (in York, Maine) was constructed between 1634 and 1636, as
the official residence
for the Governor. While Sir Ferdinando never visited Maine,
several of his agents did come over to live in the house
rule in his stead. Excavations on part of this structure by Emerson
in 1985 and 1986 provided some clues to its construction and ground
A major feature of the house is a 15' x 20' wood-lined cellar,
the one Deputy Governor Thomas Gorges ordered built soon after his
in 1640, to store his beer. This feature, considerably larger than the
cellars found in other Maine sites, lies inside the exterior walls of
Christian Manor. Just outside one corner of the cellar is a large post
presumably a structural post of the building. Another wall had a stone
which in part served as the back for the large cobblestone hearth,
apparently had a stone chimney. Thus both stone footings and earthfast
supported Point Christian Manor (Baker 1994; Moody 1978:1).
Shogren, and Wheeler have directed test excavations on other
colonial dwelling sites in York, not far from the site of Point
Three of these sites appear to have earthfast components, and two of
represent episodes of construction taking place in the 1690s or early
The exact nature and dimensions of these buildings is yet to be
(Baker and Shogren 1991; Wheeler and Baker 1994).
A sixth earthfast structure was confirmed in the
summer of 1991, by excavations directed by Baker at the mouth of the
at Biddeford Pool. The site, the home of Richard Hitchcock and his
may have been occupied as early as 1636. Diagnostic artifacts suggest
structure was built no later than about 1650. Minimally, the building
14' x 32' and was occupied until 1690, when it was abandoned during
William's War. Limited excavations uncovered a 6' x 7' wood-lined
two other small cellars, and several interior posts. The impression of
boards suggests an interrupted sill building. No stone footings, or
stonework of any kind has been found at the site. The hearth and
chimney were brick, a contrast with most other archaeological sites
Maine, which relied on stone hearths and stone or wattle and daub
Reasons for an Earthfast Tradition in Maine
The Hitchcock site is different in one other way as
well. While the other excavated structures were all destroyed by 1676
beginning of King Philip's War in Maine) the Hitchcock structure
and was still in use as a home until 1690. This site, along with Fort
Casco, Structure 13-A at Pemaquid, and the emerging sites in York
that earthfast architecture survived in existing homes, and as a
of construction at a time when it was becoming extinct in southern New
Why was this? One logical reason is the lack of stability in the
Although residents of Maine had much longer natural
life spans than their Chesapeake counterparts, Mainers still lived in
unsettled society. From the 1620s through the 1640s Maine was granted
a series of proprietors. Much of the territory became the Province of
the private domain of Sir Ferdinando Gorges. However, Gorges never
to Maine, and his neglect of the region, as well as squabbles between
proprietors, created a serious degree of political instability,
from 1642 to 1649 by the English Civil Wars. In the 1650s Massachusetts
step into this power vacuum and extend its jurisdiction to the Kennebec
In 1674 the Bay Colony would push its authority across the Kennebec, to
all of Anglo-American Maine (Reid 1981:103-155).
Until mid-century, when Massachusetts brought some
stability to the region, settlements were somewhat sparse. In the third
the seventeenth century Maine began to lose its marginal nature, as a
influx of settlers arrived in the region, and Boston merchants made
capital investments. These settlers came from a variety of areas. Some
emigrated directly from England. They came from all corners of the
although certainly the West Country provided a significant proportion
the total. Many of the settlers of the 1650s, 1660s, and 1670s were
of the second generation of Massachusetts colonists, who moved north to
advantage of the thousands of acres of inexpensive land (Baker 1986;
1979). Thus, the settlers in Maine would have brought with them diverse
regional building practices from throughout England, as well as any
adaptations in place in mid-seventeenth-century Massachusetts. To date
the most recognizable regional trait is the West Country longhouse form
used in the Phips home, at Arrowsic, Agry Point and probably at the MC
Lot site as well. This form is not surprising in the case of the
Phips site, in that James Phips immigrated to Maine from Mangotsfield,
several miles from Bristol, the principal port of the West Country
(Noyes et als 1979:550). It is interesting that
his longhouse was built by earthfast construction, a form more commonly
associated with England's eastern counties and Midlands; therefore, it
appears to represent a blending of two building traditions (Dyer
1986:31-32; Beresford and Hurst 1971). A late
seventeenth-century French document even
suggests the possibility of non-English building traditions in Maine.
Thury, when describing the 1689 attack on Pemaquid, noted that "ten or
houses of stone very well built" clustered along a "street." (Thury
477). These stone dwellings may have had Netherlandish origins. The
regularly used stone in house construction during the seventeenth
(Morrison 1952: 102-3). Several families of likely Dutch background
in Pemaquid between 1677 and 1686 when settlement was controlled by New
Although officials and merchants from Massachusetts
may have brought several decades of stability, the situation changed
drastically in 1675 when King Philip's War broke out in southern New
England. The next year a related conflict developed in Maine, and
bitter fighting continued until 1678. Unfortunately, Maine was an
ill-defended frontier; about half the settlements were destroyed by the
Indians during the struggle.
In rapidly abandoning their homes, settlers lost virtually all their
possessions and wealth. Nevertheless, many returned after the war to
start again. Unfortunately, ten years later another conflict once again
made Maine uninhabitable. King William's War was succeeded by Queen
Anne's War, so there was little peace on the Maine frontier from 1688
until 1713. During this time most settlements in the region were
abandoned and destroyed with the exception of Kittery
and parts of York and Wells. More wars in the 1720s, 1740s, and 1750s
that much of the region was still subject to Indian raids until the
of Quebec in 1759.
Thus, while Maine was a land of bountiful natural
resources which could mean a comfortable living for hardworking
colonists, the political reality may have made seventeenth- and early
reluctant, or indeed, unable to invest much time and money into their
Political instability in the 1630s through 1650s gave way to frontier
after 1676. Between 1676 and 1713 open warfare or uneasy peace was the
of the day. Settlers who had been burned out once by the Indians
had few resources left to invest in rebuilding. Newcomers to such a
dangerous frontier may not have wanted to make a major investment in
Indeed, this was a lesson learned the hard way by Massachusetts Bay. In
1692 the colony spent £20,000, the equivalent of two-thirds of
entire annual budget for the government of Massachusetts, to build Fort
Henry at Pemaquid. This massive stone fortress was quickly destroyed by
combined force of French and Indians only four years later (Bradley and
1994). In 1700, when Massachusetts reestablished a new fort to protect
northern frontier, it invested much less time and money in Fort New
which was constructed with a wooden palisade and post-in-ground
Thus, while southern New England was rebuilding and replacing earthfast
in the second half of the seventeenth century, people building on the
Maine frontier seem to have postponed such a move.
As in the Chesapeake, earthfast construction in
Maine may often represent just a first episode of building. The most
initial concern was the completion of a structure. Refinements and
could be made later, when time and money permitted. This was almost
the case at Point Christian Manor, where the new governor demanded a
for his beer which was quickly souring during a hot Maine summer (Moody
1978:1). Plans were probably underway to build a stone cellar, suitable
for a governor, but the property was abandoned only three years later.
A similar plan may have been used at the MC Lot site where the
stonework may represent a later improvement to an existing building.
These sites raise the possibility that a number of the surviving early
colonial homes in New England once had earthfast features that were
replaced by subsequent episodes of construction.
A settler financially ruined in an Indian raid may
not have been the only Mainer who could not afford a more substantial
With so much land and opportunity, few men wanted to work for another,
the costs of labor in Maine were high. In 1674 John Josselyn wrote that
would not work for "under half a crown a day, although it be for to
hay" (Lindholt 1988:143-144). Court records suggest that Josselyn did
exaggerate the situation in suggesting a half a crown (2.5
was the minimum wage. To be sure, colonists always complained that
was much more expensive than in England, but it seems to have been even
in Maine than elsewhere. For example, in nearby Essex County,
a day laborer might make between one and one and one half shillings per
His contemporary in England would be fortunate to earn a shilling
1994:53). Not only was labor expensive, but skilled artisans were in
short supply. Josselyn observed that there were few craftsmen in Maine,
that coopers, "smiths and carpenters are best welcome" (Lindholt
Few housewrights or carpenters show up in surviving court records.
one is left with the impression that even if a settler desired to
in a substantial homestead, it may have been beyond his means to hire
help (skilled or unskilled) to build one. As in the Chesapeake,
construction may have been partially a response to the scarcity and
cost of labor.
While labor was scarce and expensive, lumber, the
prime construction material, was abundant and cheap. Maine's rich
stands of timberland were readily accessible and easily cut to lumber
by the numerous tidal and gravity fed mills in the colony. The first
two sawmills were built in Maine in 1634, and by the 1660s most
settlements had at least one mill. Although wood was always in good
supply in early Maine, the archaeological sites
under study indicate that stones for foundations may not have been so
It is somewhat ironic that in Maine, an area renowned for its rocky
and unworkable "rock farms," rocks could be absent from sites, but this
is exactly the case. Cushnoc, the Hitchcock site, and Point Christian
all built on sandy terraces that are rock free. Point Christian's
is made of beach cobbles, clearly transported to the site from
on the York River. Likewise, the Phips homestead is built on marine
with very little rock for building. The Phips house's first stone
is made from small stones which would not have served as good
stones. The second, later hearth, is much more substantial and reflects
extra time and money that Phips and White could spend on a house once
had established their plantation. Only at the MC Lot are rocks
and even here the limited quantities of usable materials taken from the
shore-line ledge were supplemented limestone and possibly coquina
ships' ballast. Bricks are not common in seventeenth-century
sites and presumably had to be imported from England or southern New
Nor did Maine settlers enjoy a good source of limestone for mortar. As
result, at those home sites in Maine which were rock-free, earthfast
and wattle-and-daub chimneys would have meant saving the time to round
stones from other locations, or saving money otherwise needed to pay
imported bricks and mortar. Comparable geological and economic factors
well have been at work in the rock-free soils of the Chesapeake.
Questions remain about the extent and nature of
Maine's earthfast housing. Its presence in different forms of building
and styles of construction indicates that the practice may have cut
English building traditions. The recent findings from Maine appear to
only the tip of the iceberg of a wide-ranging and long-lasting
As scholars turn their attention to this topic, they are finding
evidence of its persistence. In England earthfast dwellings were
at least until the end of the seventeenth century (Smith 1985), and
outbuildings were constructed into the late nineteenth century (Meeson
Welch 1993). In New England, recent excavations by the
of Vermont suggest that this house building practice was still in use
Essex, Vermont as late as 1802 (Sloma 1992).
Traditionally, the lack of surviving early Maine
buildings has been attributed to the devastation of the colonial wars.
settlements were burned down once, if not twice. Certainly this warfare
reduced the possible number of early buildings that might have
However, the presence of earthfast housing in the region may also help
explain why Maine has so few surviving structures of the early colonial
If an earthfast tradition persisted in England,
northern New England and the Chesapeake, it also existed in other
colonies. Although the limited documentary evidence suggests a rapid
demise of earthfast construction in eastern Massachusetts, in frontier
sections of southern New England,
and among lower class families, the practice may have lasted
than once suspected. So far the evidence is very limited. Henry
1941-42 excavations in Plymouth at the "R.M." site revealed a
mid-seventeenth-century dwelling that may have been constructed with
sills laid directly on the
ground. Isaac Allerton's circa 1629 house in Kingston,
was excavated in 1972 by James Deetz, revealing a 20' x 22'
house (Deetz 1977 and 1979). Excavations directed by Steven Pendery on
James Garrett site in Charlestown, Massachusetts uncovered a wood-lined
cellar to a house occupied roughly from 1640 to 1660 (Pendery 1987). It
is unknown whether or not the house itself was earthfast, as
post holes nor a foundation were found in the limited
Wooden cellars have been associated with post-in-ground buildings in
however, this is not always the case. Similar cellars have been found
colonial Dutch sites in the Hudson River Valley, but none of these
are earthfast (Huey 1987). Regardless, it is clear that
buildings and wood-lined cellars similar to those in Maine were
in southern New England in the early decades of settlement. Relatively
early colonial sites have been explored in southern New England, so
fieldwork is needed to accurately judge the extent and duration
the practice there. One can safely predict that as more archaeological
is carried out on English colonial sites in New England and elsewhere,
spatial and chronological bounds of the earthfast tradition will grow.
this prediction can safely be made for colonial sites throughout North
for recent excavations are proving this method of construction was not
utilized by the English in the New World. Work at Zufreidenheit
on the Danish island of Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands has revealed
earthfast structure (Righter 1994). At least one of Samuel de
1626 buildings at Petite Ferme, Cap Tournmente, Quebec, was of
post and clay, constructed in the architectural tradition of
Normandy (Guimont and Beaudet 1995).
The archaeological data for Maine and the rest
of North America is still slim compared to the Chesapeake.
However, the Maine data indicate that the Chesapeake phenomenon is by
no means unique. Earthfast traditions transferred from England were
maintained in both the Chesapeake and Maine due to several common
factors: the degree of economic, political, and demographic stability
of the community and the availability of labor and materials for
construction. The survival of this tradition
is not surprising, considering its labor savings and cost
Nathaniel Hawthorne observed a similar phenomenon among immigrant
in Augusta, Maine in 1837 some two hundred years after the community
the construction of the Cushnoc trading post. He derided "the
built and turf-buttressed hovels of these wild Irish, scattered about
if they had sprung up like mushrooms in the dells and gorges, and along
the banks of the river" (Hawthorne 1932: 10). Indeed, earthfast
survives today. In 1985 an earthfast three-car garage was built
York, Maine, not far from the site of Point Christian Manor. When asked
why he was using this method of construction, the middle-aged owner
that it was quick (it had to be done by winter), inexpensive, and would
last as long as he needed it. After he died, he didn't care what
to it. If you asked a seventeenth-century resident of Maine or the
the same question, you probably would have received a similar answer.
This paper is dedicated to the late Robert L. Bradley. The authors wish
to thank Richard Candee for his advice and enthusiasm for this
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