Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

A New Look at an Old Wall

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

A New Look at an Old Wall

Article excerpt

Indians, Englishmen, Landscape, and the 1634 Palisade at Middle Plantation

Any seventeenth-century mariner would have needed a restorative break after braving the Atlantic and poking along the North American coast. For Capt. Thomas Yong, during his 1634 search for unclaimed American acres, a pleasant chance to "recreate" himself and repair his ships presented itself when Virginia's governor, Sir John Harvey, invited the captain to his Jamestown residence.1 While there, Yong saw the sights, praised the quality and fertility of the land (no surprise from a man commissioned to seek out new territory), and sampled the local fare. He also had a good glimpse of the contentious world of Virginia politics. The governor was then involved in a bitter dispute with members of his council and was eager to persuade the British visitor that his tenure had benefited the king's new colony. Harvey's friendly hobnobbing seems to have paid at least one small dividend: in words almost identical to Harvey's own communications, Yong's travel memoir sang the governor's praises and noted how much his administration had improved Virginia's size, safety, and prosperity.2

"When the governor came first hither," Yong informed his readers, "he found only James River inhabited, and one plantation on the eastern side of the bay." But by 1634 Virginia was growing rapidly, and Harvey "hath settled divers good plantations" on both the James and York rivers. Amidst Yong's litany of the governor's triumphs was a brief mention of a six-mile-long "strong palisade" that Sir John had ordered erected "upon a streight" of land running between the southerly James and the northerly York. This wall, along with the settled rivers, enclosed a peninsular tract of land "neere fortie miles in length, and in most places twelve miles broad," making a pale of settlement in which colonists and cattle alike could wander free from fear of Indian attack. The mariner reported that well-situated houses fortified the length of Harvey's wall and that a "sufficient force of men" stood ready for "the defence of same." Yong did not state whether he saw the wall for himself, or if he merely learned of it at the governor's table. He did, however, relate that the wall and the newly enclosed lands were "conceaved to be of extraordinary benefitt to the country," a conclusion reflecting no small amount of his host's editorializing.3

The wall that Yong noted in passing had a brief life-by all indications it lasted barely a decade. Archaeology along portions of the wall's length has revealed it to have been a thing of boards, ground-set poles, and flanking ditches, all of which would have decayed rapidly.4 Despite Yong's praise, the wall was probably also not the most impressive defensive structure, as any determined foe could easily scamper over its boards or bypass it entirely. So it is no surprise that most of the Old Dominion's chroniclers and historians have generally seen the palisade as little more than a footnote to the bloody years of the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622-34) and the troubled tenure of Governor Harvey. Those scholars who have given the wall a passing line or two have disagreed about whether it was an effective defense or merely a large cattle guard. But whether portrayed as symbol or shelter, boundary or blunder, historians have largely overlooked a simple truth visible to Yong and his contemporaries: the palisade was indeed, in its way, a vital step toward English domination of the lower Peninsula. In fact, it was a far more successful facilitator of English regional domination than scholars have realized.

That success did not come in the form its planners had envisioned. Nor was it tied narrowly to the actual wall's viability as a military barrier. Scholars have let concerns over the palisade's military capabilities overly shape the wall's admittedly brief presence in historical discourse and consequently have missed its real contribution. The wall was first conceptualized as an important physical manifestation of an expansionist and exclusionary agenda fed by the violence of the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. …

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