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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 earthfast building 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 century. Building techniques found in Maine include post-in-ground and sill on grade, wood-lined cellars, and pit houses. A persistent earthfast tradition was once believed to have been largely a regional adaptation in the Chesapeake; however, the growing evidence from Maine and elsewhere suggests that the earthfast tradition endured over a longer period and wider geographical range. Builders in Maine chose earthfast methods for similar reasons as in the Chesapeake. High labor costs and limited availability of building materials combined with economic, demographic, and political instability led people to favor earthfast homes.      


    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 been excavated which are completely or partially earthfast. These sites are found throughout the territory occupied by the English in the seventeenth century, and represent occupations as early as 1628 to as late as 1690. Further, overlooked archaeological work that took place at Pemaquid in the 1960s indicates that Maine settlers were building earthfast dwellings as late as the second quarter of the eighteenth century (Figure 1). This evidence calls into question the nature and significance of houses not only in Maine, but in the other colonies as well, particularly in the Chesapeake region.  

 Map of Maine in the Seventeenth Century     

FIGURE 1.      Coastal Maine in the seventeenth century.

    Earthfast, or "post-in-ground" construction has been defined as buildings with framing members "standing or lying directly on the 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 Stone and Dell Upton indicated that in contrast to New England,  Virginia and Maryland witnessed a much later start and "extreme prolongation" of the rebuilding from an earthfast to a more permanent housing during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While rebuilding in New England started around 1650 and was virtually complete within fifty years, in the south the process had really just begun when the eighteenth century started (Carson et al 1981:160-161). Yet, it appears that Maine's pattern of earthfast construction may have been more widespread and longer-lasting than in southern New England. In fact, preliminary findings indicate that Maine residents' use of earthfast construction may have been much closer to the Chesapeake pattern than to 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 century were directly descended from English peasant homes of the High Middle Ages.  In the early seventeenth century an earthfast tradition still lingered in some parts of England; however, it was clearly considered an inferior form of construction that had largely given way to framed structures that sat on stone pads or foundations (Dyer 1986). Carson and his colleagues theorize that the practice flourished in Virginia and Maryland for several reasons.  In the tobacco economy hired help was expensive, and economic stagnation was often the rule. Even if one could afford what was considered a more permanent home, short life expectancy and high mortality rates discouraged people from making a long-term investment in housing.  Readily available land meant that all freemen could be landowners. As a result, labor was quite expensive and most settlers had only modest incomes to pay for carpenters and other tradesmen. Carson et al have labelled these building techniques as "impermanent," although they admit that "impermanence may have been a largely irrelevant consideration." A Chesapeake builder who used decay- resistant materials could maintain a house with minimum repairs for "thirty, forty, fifty years or more" Carson et al 1981: 156-158). Indeed, Frasier Neiman has pointed out that the concept of impermanence is a modern one, imposed on the early residents of the Cheseapeake, who probably were not concerned about a house's ability to last hundreds of years. (Neiman 1978). Therefore, "impermanent" 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 1993). Some Maine structures may have stood a considerable time, with few or no repairs. Presumably the climate of Maine (cooler and drier with fewer pests such as termites) meant that earthfast posts would not be as apt to rot in the Chesapeake, and that such structures would have reasonably long lives. The earthfast Cushnoc trading post was occupied for over forty years, without a single repair of a post, and Richard Hitchcock's homestead on Biddeford Pool stood for approximately fifty years. Both structures succumbed to flames, 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.

Previous Research

    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 surviving 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 house 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 solid documentary evidence for earthfast housing in Maine is the 1705 plan of Fort New Casco (constructed in 1700, enlarged in 1705), drawn by Colonel John Redknap (Figure 2). The plan shows a section through the fort structures, including barracks and storehouses. All of these buildings were framed with posts set directly into the ground, supported by buried rock footings (Bradley 1987). Redknap's profile clearly indicates that an earthfast tradition was still in use in Maine when it was supposedly rapidly dying out in southern New England.

 Fig. 2 Fort New Casco

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 for  structures.  Few building  contracts  survive  for  Maine and fewer still discuss stone cellars. The 1686 specifications for the minister's house 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 floor on joists leveled below grade, with wooden sills sitting on clay, and several apparent earthfast posts for support (Camp 1975). 

 Figure 3

FIGURE 3.     Plan of Structure 13-A at Pemaquid. From Helen Camp, Archaeological Investigations at Pemaquid, Maine, 1965-1974 (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 consisting 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. Pemaquid Structure 6

FIGURE 4.     Plan of Structure 6 at Pemaquid. From Helen Camp, Archaeological Investigations at Pemaquid, Maine, 1965-1974 (Augusta, Maine, 1975), 17.  Features labelled C and D appear to be an earthfast sill with posts.

 Figure 5. Arrowsic Structure 6

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 housing.  In 1972  Edward Lenik directed excavations on the so-called Spirit Pond Sod Houses. These two side-by-side buildings were semi-subterranean structures, built into a bank, the type often resorted to by colonial settlers for their first year or two in a new land. Edward Johnson described such structures in 1654 in his Wonder-Working Providence. He observed that new settlers "burrow themselves in the earth for their first shelter under some hill-side, casting the earth aloft upon timber" (Jameson 1910).   Lenik focused his efforts on one of the two Spirit Pond structures. It had walls constructed 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 the roof was covered by sod, but it may well have been thatch. The exterior dimensions measured 32' x 21', but because of the massive, sloping walls, the interior was a much smaller 21' x 7'.  This primitive home clearly dates to the colonial period; however, it is difficult to say exactly when. The diagnostic artifacts suggest the site may have been occupied in the mid-seventeenth century, but other artifacts indicate a mid-eighteenth century occupation 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 of construction,  largely extinct in seventeenth-century England, were 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 early 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 inventory. 

    Perhaps the most typical of the earthfast tradition is Cushnoc,  the Plymouth Colony's palisaded trading compound occupied 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 anchored to them. The two end bays measured 14' and the center bay was 16' long. This 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 (Cranmer 1990).

 Figure 6  Cushnoc

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 eighty feet long and twenty feet wide. The western half is of post-in-ground timber frame construction ((Figure 7). In this portion, posts were laid directly into a trench on two-foot  centers, indicating construction without sills.  The wattle and daub walls were built directly up from the ground surface.  No sill impressions have been found. The eastern half, presumably a later addition, was also of post-in-ground construction but probably of plank walls. This portion of the building also contained an unusual 6' by 30' wood-lined cellar (Cranmer 1993).     

 (Figure 7)

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 father of Sir William Phips. Robert Bradley  has been investigating the site since 1986. The house, built sometime between 1639 and 1646, was a substantial post-in-ground structure. The core consists of a 15' by 72' longhouse, apparently divided into four rooms, with the southernmost 12' by 15' section probably serving as a byre . While the building had a stone hearth, the archaeological 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 the core, for its 14' x 5' hearth was constructed on a carefully laid fieldstone footing, as opposed to the hearth of the first structure which amounted to thin flagstones laid on grade. This second structure may have measured approximately 20' x 60.' In 1993 archaeologists exposed another earthfast building situated approximately twenty feet south of the longhouse, an outbuilding measuring 29.5' by 13.5'.  A drainage ditch was located outside the two uphill sides of the building todivert water from it.   This building may have served as a small barn or another type of storage building.  Like Cushnoc, Nehumkeag, and other homes in the region, the entire Phip's 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).

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 typical single-sided West Country fashion. Indeed,  the central hearths at Arrowsic and the Phips homestead structure are of identical dimension and method of construction. They may be the work of the same stone mason.      
    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 on one seventeenth-century building that probably housed living quarters, a truckhouse, and a smithy (Figure 9). The structure was built in at least two phases. A series of post holes and post molds suggest the original building was post-in-ground construction, with builders making substantial improvements in the third quarter of the seventeenth century. The wooden-framed and clad structure that emerged  was dominated by and east-west core thast measured a  minimum of 50' x 13.5' and could have had a maximum length of 60 ' or 65.' The core was a blend of two sections - the eastern was clearly more substantial, with a massive stone foundation and stone-floored and walled cellar. A later building episode was represented by a second massive stone footing, and a series of trench set and driven posts continuing to the east. The posts may be a variant of a "palisado" wall Cary Carson et als note when describing puncheon buildings (Carson et als 1981:160-61).   The foundation's eastern walls may have supported a heavy wooden defensive superstructure. It is also possible that the stoned cellar, or at least the  stone 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 have had a dirt floor. A smaller post-in-ground section (measured 17' x 13.5')extended off the cellar's northern wall. This segment could be a remnant of the original earthfast structure. The western section (measured 31.6' x 13.5')sat on a fieldstone footing. This portion of the structure may have housed a smithy and a kitchen (De Paoli 1993).  An ell extended at least 21' west from the core's western  facade, and had a minimum width of 23.5'. The ell had a stone footing and was erected in the third quarter of the seventeenth century, possibly to replace an earlier earthfast addition. The ell housed 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.

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 and rule in his stead. Excavations on part of this structure by Emerson Baker in 1985 and 1986 provided some clues to its construction and ground plan. A major feature of the house is a 15' x 20' wood-lined cellar, presumably the one Deputy Governor Thomas Gorges ordered built soon after his arrival in 1640, to store his beer. This feature, considerably larger than the wood-lined cellars found in other Maine sites, lies inside the exterior walls of Point Christian Manor. Just outside one corner of the cellar is a large post hole, presumably a structural post of the building. Another wall had a stone footing, which in part served as the back for the large cobblestone hearth, which apparently had a stone chimney. Thus both stone footings and earthfast construction supported Point Christian Manor (Baker 1994; Moody 1978:1).  Baker, Shogren, and Wheeler have directed test excavations  on other early colonial dwelling sites in York, not far from the site of Point Christian. Three of these sites appear to have earthfast components, and two of them represent episodes of construction taking place in the 1690s or early 1700s. The exact nature and dimensions of these buildings is yet to be determined (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 Saco River at Biddeford Pool. The site, the home of Richard Hitchcock and his family, may have been occupied as early as 1636. Diagnostic artifacts suggest the structure was built no later than about 1650. Minimally, the building measured 14' x 32' and was occupied until 1690, when it was abandoned during King William's War. Limited excavations uncovered a 6' x 7' wood-lined cellar, two other small cellars, and several interior posts. The impression of floor 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 from seventeenth-century Maine, which relied on stone hearths and stone or wattle and daub chimneys (Baker 1992).

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 (the beginning of King Philip's War in Maine) the Hitchcock structure survived, and was still in use as a home until 1690. This site, along with Fort New Casco, Structure 13-A at Pemaquid, and the emerging sites in York demonstrate that earthfast architecture  survived in existing homes, and as a method of construction at a time when it was becoming extinct in southern New England. Why was this? One logical reason is the lack of stability in the colony.    

    Although residents of Maine had much longer natural life spans than their Chesapeake counterparts, Mainers still lived in an unsettled society. From the 1620s through the 1640s Maine was granted to a series of proprietors. Much of the territory became the Province of Maine, the private domain of Sir Ferdinando Gorges. However, Gorges never moved to Maine, and his neglect of the region, as well as squabbles between other proprietors, created a serious degree of political instability, exacerbated from 1642 to 1649 by the English Civil Wars. In the 1650s Massachusetts would step into this power vacuum and extend its jurisdiction to the Kennebec River. In 1674 the Bay Colony would push its authority across the Kennebec, to include 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 quarter of the seventeenth century Maine began to lose its marginal nature, as a large influx of settlers arrived in the region, and Boston merchants made many capital investments. These settlers came from a variety of areas. Some colonists emigrated directly from England. They came from all corners of the realm, although certainly the West Country provided a significant proportion of the total. Many of the settlers of the 1650s, 1660s, and 1670s were members of the second generation of Massachusetts colonists, who moved north to take advantage of the thousands of acres of inexpensive land (Baker 1986; Churchill 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. Father Thury, when describing the 1689 attack on Pemaquid, noted that "ten or twelve houses of stone very well built" clustered along a "street." (Thury 1883: 477). These stone dwellings may have had Netherlandish origins. The Dutch regularly used stone in house construction during the seventeenth century (Morrison 1952: 102-3). Several families of likely Dutch background settled in Pemaquid between 1677 and 1686 when settlement was controlled by New York.     

    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 meant that much of the region was still subject to Indian raids until the fall 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 eighteenth-century settlers reluctant, or indeed, unable to invest much time and money into their homes. Political instability in the 1630s through 1650s gave way to frontier conflict after 1676. Between 1676 and 1713 open warfare or uneasy peace was the order of the day. Settlers who had been burned out once by the Indians usually had few resources left to invest in rebuilding. Newcomers to such a dangerous frontier may not have wanted to make a major investment in their homes. 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 the entire annual budget for the government of Massachusetts, to build Fort William Henry at Pemaquid. This massive stone fortress was quickly destroyed by a combined force of French and Indians only four years later (Bradley and Camp 1994). In 1700, when Massachusetts reestablished a new fort to protect its northern frontier, it invested much less time and money in Fort New Casco, which was constructed with a wooden palisade and post-in-ground buildings. Thus, while southern New England was rebuilding and replacing earthfast housing in the second half of the seventeenth century, people building on the uncertain 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 important initial concern was the completion of a structure. Refinements and improvements could be made later, when time and money permitted. This was almost certainly the case at Point Christian Manor, where the new governor demanded a cellar 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 home. With so much land and opportunity, few men wanted to work for another, so the costs of labor in Maine were high. In 1674 John Josselyn wrote that laborers would not work for "under half a crown a day, although it be for to make hay" (Lindholt 1988:143-144). Court records suggest that Josselyn did not exaggerate the situation in suggesting a half a crown  (2.5 shillings) was the minimum wage. To be sure, colonists always complained that labor was much more expensive than in England, but it seems to have been even higher in Maine than elsewhere. For example, in nearby Essex County, Massachusetts, a day laborer might make between one and one and one half shillings per day. His contemporary in England would be fortunate to earn a shilling (Vickers 1994:53). Not only was labor expensive, but skilled artisans were in particularly short supply. Josselyn observed that there were few craftsmen in Maine, and that coopers, "smiths and carpenters are best welcome" (Lindholt 1988:142). Few housewrights or carpenters show up in surviving court records. Overall, one is left with the impression that even if a settler desired to invest in a substantial homestead, it may have been beyond his means to hire enough help (skilled or unskilled) to build one. As in the Chesapeake, earthfast construction may have been partially a response to the scarcity and high 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 handy. It is somewhat ironic that in Maine, an area renowned for its rocky shores and unworkable "rock farms," rocks could be absent from sites, but this is exactly the case. Cushnoc, the Hitchcock site, and Point Christian are all built on sandy terraces that are rock free. Point Christian's hearth is made of beach cobbles, clearly transported to the site from elsewhere on the York River. Likewise, the Phips homestead is built on marine clay, with very little rock for building. The Phips house's first stone hearth is made from small stones which would not have served as good foundation stones. The second, later hearth, is much more substantial and reflects the extra time and money that Phips and White could spend on a house once they had established their plantation. Only at the MC Lot are rocks available, and even here the limited quantities of usable materials taken from the exposed shore-line ledge were supplemented limestone and  possibly coquina from ships' ballast.  Bricks are not common in seventeenth-century Maine sites and presumably had to be imported from England or southern New England. Nor did Maine settlers enjoy a good source of limestone for mortar. As a result, at those home sites in Maine which were rock-free, earthfast construction and wattle-and-daub chimneys would have meant saving the time to round up stones from other locations, or saving money otherwise needed to pay for imported bricks and mortar. Comparable geological and economic factors may 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 across regional English building traditions. The recent findings from Maine appear to be only the tip of the iceberg of a wide-ranging and long-lasting tradition. As scholars turn their attention to this topic, they are finding increasing evidence of its persistence. In England earthfast dwellings were utilized at least until the end of the seventeenth century (Smith 1985), and earthfast outbuildings were constructed into the late nineteenth century (Meeson and Welch 1993).   In New England, recent excavations by the University of Vermont suggest that this house building practice was still in use in 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. Most Maine settlements were burned down once, if not twice. Certainly this warfare reduced the possible number of early buildings that might have survived. However, the presence of earthfast housing in the region may also help to explain why Maine has so few surviving structures of the early colonial period.

    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 longer than once suspected. So far the evidence is very limited. Henry Hornblower's 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, Massachusetts was excavated in 1972 by James Deetz, revealing a 20' x 22' post-in-ground house (Deetz 1977 and 1979). Excavations directed by Steven Pendery on the 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 neither post holes nor a foundation were found in the limited excavations.  Wooden cellars have been associated with post-in-ground buildings in Maine; however, this is not always the case. Similar cellars have been found on colonial Dutch sites in the Hudson River Valley, but none of these sites are earthfast (Huey 1987).  Regardless,  it is clear that post-in-ground buildings and wood-lined cellars similar to those in Maine were utilized in southern New England in the early decades of settlement. Relatively few early colonial sites have been explored in southern New England, so more fieldwork is needed to accurately  judge the extent and duration of the practice there. One can safely predict that as more archaeological work is carried out on English colonial sites in New England and elsewhere, the spatial and chronological bounds of the earthfast tradition will grow. Indeed, this prediction can safely be made for colonial sites throughout North America, for recent excavations are proving this method of construction was not just utilized by the English in the New World. Work at Zufreidenheit Plantation on the Danish island of Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands has revealed one earthfast structure (Righter 1994). At least one of Samuel de Champlain's 1626 buildings at Petite Ferme, Cap Tournmente, Quebec, was of earthfast post and clay,  constructed in the architectural tradition of medieval 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 effectiveness. Nathaniel Hawthorne observed a similar phenomenon among immigrant millworkers in Augusta, Maine in 1837 some two hundred years after the community saw the construction of the Cushnoc trading post.  He derided "the board built and turf-buttressed hovels of these wild Irish, scattered about as if they had sprung up like mushrooms in the dells and gorges, and along the banks of the river" (Hawthorne 1932: 10). Indeed,  earthfast architecture survives today. In 1985 an earthfast  three-car garage was built in 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 answered 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 happened to it. If you asked a seventeenth-century resident of Maine or the Chesapeake 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 research.


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