Log House Architecture in the
Eighteenth-Century Virginia Piedmont

© 2003 Copyright and All Rights Reserved
by Christopher C. Fennell

dividing bar
south and east facades
South and east facades of Demory house,
Loudoun County. Click on the image above to
see additional views.

Six miles to the south of Harpers Ferry lies a relatively isolated site in a heavily wooded area halfway up the Short Hill Mountains, in the valley immediately east of the Shenandoah. The shell of a log house stands there. Evidence from the archaeological and documentary records concerning this site indicate that this house site was occupied from approximately the 1780's onward. The house is one and half stories tall, one room deep, two rooms wide, and was constructed of thick, hand-hewn timbers interwoven in a cross-notched fashion.

These timbers are hewn on all sides, and are typically 12" tall and 6" to 8" wide. The surfaces of the timbers appear to have been smoothed without the use of a saw, possibly with the skilled use of a "drawing knife" or other finishing tool. The timbers are joined at the corners of the house with a joint often referred to as a "V notch." No hardware was used to reinforce these joints. The spaces between the timbers are filled with chinking of small pieces of local stone, which was likely covered completely in the past with clay mud from the local subsoil. The sill logs on the ground rest on short foundation walls of stacked local rocks.

The house is 20 feet 1 inch long and 14 feet 2 inches wide, with an 18 inch square chimney placed off-center, 5 feet 8 inches in from the south facade, and 8 feet 1 inch in from the west facade. It is oriented on a west-facing mountain slope, roughly along the cardinal directions, with its long side running east to west. No hearth or stove remains in the house at the base of this brick chimney. The quantity and type of clay needed to make these bricks is not consistent with the type of red-yellow clay available from the subsoils of the area around this house site (U.S.G.S. 1996; 1960; see also Weldon 1990: 2-3). The bricks were likely made somewhere else in the region, and obtained by the house owner for use in the construction.

View house plan sketch

An off-center front door on the south facade is matched roughly by an off-center rear doorway on the north side of the house. Just inside that north doorway is a collapsed boxed stair, leading to the half-story loft area above. A partition wall for this stair extends out to the chimney stack on the ground floor, separating a slightly larger room on the west side of the ground floor from a smaller room on the east side, containing the box stair. Existing floor boards were cut with a straight saw, and ride on top of hand-hewn "sleeper" timbers, which run north-south with their ends resting on the stone foundation walls.

Excavations have uncovered a notable quantity of hand-wrought nails, cut nails, glass wares, and ceramics from this site which date from the period of 1780-1860 (Phillips 1994; Nelson 1968; Mercer 1968). Early forms of wire nails recovered archaeologically at this site likely date from the 1870's and later periods (Priess 1973). Other artifacts recovered to date include fairly basic mass-produced ceramics, glass wares, and iron hardware of the period. Land records show that the tract of land on which this house is located was used in the 1780's and 1790's by John Dimory (also spelled Demory and Demery), who leased 220 acres of land from the Fairfax family. His son, Peter Demory, carried on with those leases and then purchased a 22-acre parcel on which this house is located in 1811. Peter also owned a larger tract on the valley floor nearby, where he resided. The Demory surname was associated with persons of Anglo-American heritage, and two of Peter's sons married women of German-American heritage. The maiden name of Peter's wife, Mary, remains unknown.

Some limited oral history data exists on past uses of the house. Interviews with long-time residents now in their late 80's indicate that this house was occupied by John Wilkow (born 1848, died 1939), his wife Susan Wilkow (born 1951, died 1911), and their six children in the early 1900's. The six children slept in the loft, and the parents slept on the first floor. The room with the front door, back door and box stair was used as the kitchen and general activity room. The house appears to have been in use from the time of its construction up through the 1940's.

I am conducting archaeological investigations of this house site as part of a larger study of regional changes in socio-economic systems in this area of the upper Potomac River Valley and Loudoun Valley in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I have obtained data on the life ways of the occupants of this house site to examine changes in their consumption patterns over time. Moreover, I am exploring possible evidence of social and economic relationships between such a local house site and other households and merchants in the area, nearby plantations, and the nearby early industrial town of Harpers Ferry.

Evidence of the existence of past social relationships based on ethnic or religious identities provides valuable data on possible dynamics in such past regional relationships. In part, I will analyze the degree to which such ethnic, religious, or other social group identities may have either facilitated or inhibited changes in regional relationships, and the circumstances under which they did so. I have started an analysis of possible ethnic and religious affiliation of one or more past occupants of this house site (or persons with whom they had interactions) with inferences derived from the attributes of a small clay figure uncovered at this site. This artifact dates in the period betwenn 1780 to 1860, and appears to be an artifact of religiously significant behavior (Fennell 2000). Such inferences must be based upon a rigorous examination of multiple sources of data in exploring possible past ethnic identities and their dynamics in different time periods.

In this paper I explore the degree to which the architecture of the house can be associated with persons of particular past ethnic identities, to see if one could infer the ethnic affiliation of the builder and designer of this house, or of persons with whom they may have interacted in regard to the construction of the house. One way to approach this question is to try to establish if the design and construction methods used were associated with a particular ethnic group in the past in this region. This paper therefore surveys architectural history research on log house construction methods and plans in the Virginia Piedmont and surrounding regions to ascertain whether the construction of this Loudoun Valley house can be associated with a particular ethnic group.

Historical data provides evidence of the types of ethnic groups that inhabited this region in the relevant period. For example, a fairly large contingent of German settlers emigrated from the Pennsylvania area into the northern Virginia Piedmont in the mid-eighteenth century, as did many Scots-Irish settlers. Free and enslaved African-Americans were also present, as were English settlers who moved into the region from the Tidewater (Poland 1976:6, 27, 131). Small farms in this region in the eighteenth century likely focused on raising tobacco, and on raising and selling cereal crops, including wheat and corn, from the 1750s onward (Poland 1976: 27; see Wells 1993:20; Breen 1985:70).

I. Analytic Concepts of Ethnicity

An initial question in this analysis is whether it is valuable to analyze past ethnic identities. A number of archaeological studies have attempted to analyze the material expressions of ethnic identities by examining multiple lines of archaeological and documentary evidence. Studies have looked at "finding distinctive culture-specific items," such as styles of architecture, clothing, household goods, ceramics, "or foodways differences, such as contrasts in patterns of butchering, utilization of meat cuts, and proportions of wild game to domestic animals" (Stewart-Abernathy & Ruff 1989:108; see McGuire 1982: 163-64; Emberling 1997:310-16). All emphasize the dynamic character of ethnic identities as reflected in material culture, and such identity frequently appears as an "instrumental phenomenon" in which "material culture [was] actively used in the justification and manipulation of inter-group relations" (Jones 1997:110; see Hodder 1982:185-90; Shennan 1989:12-13).

The analytic concept of ethnic groups focuses on the dynamics of social relationships which cross-cut other social dimensions: "Economic status, prestige, religion, and occupation can be equally persuasive. . . . Economic status, since it results from material wealth, has great potential for adding to the materials at a site and, a priori, should be considered the dominant social dimension evident in the archaeolog-ical record of domestic dwellings in a single society or economic system" (McGuire 1982:164). However, ethnic identity may become more relevant even as to dwellings when we observe patterns of design and construction methods which correspond with particular ethnic groups. Some forms of material culture expressions may provide direct and active symbolic expression of ethnic identification. Other forms of material culture may be patterned in a way specific to some ethnic groups, but as a result of "ethnically specific behaviors," rather than as a direct, instrumental expression of ethnic identification (e.g., McGuire 1982:163).

Architectural styles and construction methods in dwellings are an overt form of information exchange, broadcasting statements of group affiliation:

If, through the messages of his clothing, home, and other artifacts, as individual says: "I am an individual who belongs to social group X," he is also saying that he is in conformity with the other behavioral norms and with the ideology behind these norms. . . . As artifacts emit their messages continuously (even in the absence of any other action on the part of their users), the compliance of individuals is continuously advertised and a continuous control on it can be maintained. . . . Where a number of different socio-economic groups competes for niche-space, stylistic messages furnish predictors for the behavior that may reasonably be expected from individuals of the different groups. Style helps to mark, maintain, and further the differences between these groups at little cost. (Wobst 1977:327-28).
Put another way, the design and construction choices exhibited in houses "embody their creators and become for the period of their existence active images of their creators' wishes" (Glassie 1987:231; see also Barrick 1986:15).

Fredrik Barth's anthropological analysis of ethnic groups emphasized that they should not be viewed as static, and one should analyze the degree of variation in the solidity, permeability or disappearance of ethnic boundaries in different settings and over time. Thus, when one finds evidence of different groups interacting, analysis should focus on the degree to which "the persistence of ethnic groups in contact implies not only criteria and signals for identification, but also a structuring of interaction which allows persistence of cultural differences" (Barth 1998:16).

Edward Spicer undertook this type of analysis, and outlined the observable characteristics of a variety of ethnic groups as "persistent cultural systems." Using historical examples, he found the following features: each group experienced and outlived repeated efforts by state organizations to assimilate them through economic, political and religious means; each developed "well-defined symbols of identity differentiating it from other peoples," including other ethnic groups and the state organization which it had opposed; and the "formation and maintenance" of each was "intimately bound up" with such "conditions of opposition" to other groups (1971:797-98). Thus, ethnic identity may often be created and reinforced in opposition to outwardly imposed pressures (Kelly & Kelly 1980:134-35).

Barth's studies of ethnic identities revealed other remarkable dynamics of group boundedness. Rather than identify themselves by a large aggregation of beliefs and practices, group members "select only certain cultural traits, and make these the unambiguous criteria for ascription to the ethnic group" (Barth 1998b: 119). When individuals cease living a lifestyle that permits them to satisfy those key attributes and "where there is an alternative identity within reach" the result "is a flow of personnel from one identity to another" (1998b:133). Thus, the features of the ethnic identity, its beliefs and practices may not change in some time periods, "because many [persons] change their ethnic label" (1998b:133-34). Where tensions exist within a group and no alternative identities are accessible, or where diverging from the key criteria is not very costly, then the "basic contents or characteristics of the identity start being modified" (1998b:134).

Ethnic identities may often dissipate when individual members of an ethnic group assimilate themselves into new identities based on socio-economic classes within a larger social and political framework in their region:

Even if some individuals from a [economically and politically] weaker ethnic group have access to societal positions of prestige and power, the ethnic group continues to provide an alternative stage. In such cases, individuals, as they assume roles of higher prestige and power, will tend to shed their ethnic symbols because these symbols do not correspond with their higher status. As more individuals in an ethnic group are able to compete for power and prestige on a societal level the less need there is for a separate stage. Therefore fewer individuals will seek to maintain ethnic symbols (McGuire 1982:171-72).
Thus, we can look for evidence of coherent and distinct expressions of ethnic group differences over time, and their dissipation as groups inter-act and assimilate with one another.

II. Ethnic Affiliations and Log Construction in the Virginia Piedmont

An extensive array of architectural history studies address the question of the sources of design and construction methods used in many forms of log house construction in the American colonial period. Fred Kniffen and Henry Glassie summarized the sources of log building techniques for houses which would be imported into the Virginia Piedmont in the early 1730's as follows:

Beginning in the late seventeenth century, and reaching a peak in the early eighteenth, great numbers of Scotch-Irish and Germans arrived in Pennsylvania and settled just west of the English. The Pennsylvania Germans used horizontal log construction of the type which they had known in Europe, and which may still be found there, primarily in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia. The previously stone- or mud-using Scotch-Irish quickly adopted Pennsylvania German log construction, primarily because of its practicality in timber-rich America. Pennsylvania German log work, and subsequent American log work, were characterized by logs notched near the end, a method that eliminated overhang and produced a box corner. Spaces between the logs were filled - "chinked" - with clay, stones, poles, or shingles. The logs were usually squared, split and faced, or planked. Logs were hewn for a variety of reasons. A large log could be handled more easily when reduced in size; and a large round log took up interior space and produced an irregular wall that was hard to utilize. Primarily, however, hewn logs were thought to produce a tighter building, more finished in appearance. (Kniffen & Glassie 1966:59, footnote omitted)(1)
In addition, they find that German Americans who settled in the Virginia Piedmont and Blue Ridge retained the "V" notch as their predominant form of corner notching technique (1966:59-60).

Clinton Weslager emphasized the difficulties of attempting to identify a particular group as rigidly employing unique and consistent criteria in their design and construction techniques:

The problem lies not only in identifying the forms of log housing in the native European hearths, but the German sects, like the Swedes and Finns, improvised when they erected their American log houses. Although their log housing was similar to certain Old World forms with which they had a familiarity, it was by no means identical. It is simply unrealistic to assume that all peoples of German origin who came to Pennsylvania in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries built the same kind of log house which can be neatly and indisputably cataloged as the "German type." (1969:212, emphasis in original; see also Wells 1998:401-02)
Identifying a house as the product of Scots-Irish or Germans based on the specific corner notching technique, or chimney placement, would remain speculation due to these close affinities:
In the middle of the nineteenth century, a visitor to the Virginia Piedmont . . . where both Germans and Scotch-Irish settled in large numbers, may have been astonished at the hundreds of log cabins, but it is unlikely that he could have identified the ethnic backgrounds of the occupants from the mode of corner notching, the placement of fireplace and chimney, or whether or not the planking was nailed vertically or horizontally at the gable ends. (Weslager 1969:239; see also Glassie 1978:398)
He suggests this resulted because intra-group homogeneity gave way to frequent inter-group borrowing as different settler groups interacted in the colonies (Weslager 1969:241). Similar borrowing could have occurred among free African Americans and the German and Scots-Irish settlers as well, and African Americans were known to build forms of log houses by the late eighteenth century (Weslager 1969:245).

Kniffen and Glassie contended that earlier studies (see Mercer 1967; Weslager 1955) erred in concluding that log house construction techniques were introduced into Pennsylvania by Swedes in the seventeenth century.(2) Kniffen and Glassie argue that Swedish house construction occurred later, and utilized Pennsylvania German techniques (Kniffen & Glassie 1966:56 n.34). "The horizontal log construction with true corner-timbering that came to characterize the American frontier was, then, not a New World adaptation to environment, nor was it a Scandinavian introduction; rather, it was introduced by the Pennsylvania Germans and carried by them and by the Scotch-Irish in all directions from southeastern Pennsylvania" (1966:65; see also Lay 1982:15; Lanier & Herman 1997:71).

Terry Jordan published his largest study, American Log Buildings: An Old World Heritage, in 1985, and sought to reinvigorate the theory of Swedish origins. He employs four concepts from the discipline of "cultural geography" in this study: first effective settlement, cultural pre-adaptation, cultural simplification, and cultural syncretism (1985:4-7). Using these concepts and mustering evidence of developments in log building designs and construction techniques in the American colonies, Jordan concluded that the Swedes and Finns indeed had the greatest impact on this type of building in America (1985:146).

Jordan argues that this resulted due to the status of Swedes and Finns as first permanent settlers in the Delaware Valley in the 1630s. Using the concept of first effective settlement, this fact indicates to Jordan that their construction and settlement methods would have a more lasting impact on later waves of settlers. He argues that they also possessed cultural pre-adaptation in the form of log building techniques well suited to the frontiers of the American colonies. Simplification resulted because only certain "Old World" architectural styles were introduced successfully to the colonies. Syncretism resulted as Germanic, Scots-Irish and British building traditions were grafted onto a base established by the Swedes and Finns (1985:147-54). Jordan does a much more thorough and rigorous job at making this argument and presenting supporting evidence. However, the counter-arguments by Kniffen, Glassie and others remain more persuasive.

What features can be said to have characterized a "German" method of log house construction that was imported into the colonies? William Weaver questions the concept of a definitive "German" style of timber house construction. He finds "considerable movement across ethnic and political boundaries" of the types of log and joinery construction techniques attributed to "German" styles in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America (Weaver 1986:247). Weaver identified a dozen "German building manuals" known to have been in wide circulation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but he finds little correspondence between the plans in these manuals and the type of "continental house" design typically attributed to German house designs in Pennsylvania (1986:250-52).

Weaver finds that the basic "hall and parlor" plan was the most common design known to have been used in the middle and southern regions of the districts of Germany from which many people emigrated in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. Obviously, this is not a highly distinctive configuration:

The most common room arrangement in middle- and southern Germany - the area from which most of the Pennsylvania Germans originate - is a two-room plan: a room called the Stube (stove room) and one called the Küche (hearth room). All the rest is variable, and if anything can be singled out as peculiar to southern German traditional architecture, it is not the two-room plan, but the Stube. (The two-room plan appears in slightly variant forms in France and England under the designation hall and parlor house). (1986:253).
This house plan typically included a central chimney, with a hearth opening into the Küche and a stove opening into the Stube. The homes of poorer families in rural areas of the German districts and in Pennsylvania typically lacked brick chimneys, and instead used simple openings in the roof to ventilate the smoke. Pennsylvania German houses that lacked chimneys would often have enclosures daubed with mud or plaster beneath the roof to channel smoke and trap sparks (1986:254).

The stove in the Stube provided both cooking and heating for that room, economizing on wood fuel (1986:255). When transplanted to Pennsylvania, this traditional design may have been modified on occasion to omit the stove and to rely more on an open hearth configuration instead, due to the lesser concern with access to wood supplies for fuel in the more heavily wooded regions of Pennsylvania and neighboring colonies (1986:256).

The Stube was typically called the "Schtuppe" by Pennsylvania Germans, and it was used as a "warm room," heated by a stove and less smoke-filled than the Küche with its open hearth and functions of a kitchen (1986:258). The Küche, also called the "Kich" by the Pennsylvania Germans, served as the kitchen and general work room of the house (1986:254). The Schtuppe both in Germany and Pennsylvania was typically located on the sunny side of the house, usually on the southwestern or southeastern corners (1986:258). This pattern broke down in Pennsylvania over time, as newer forms of stoves were obtained, moved into the kitchen area and used for food preparation (1986:258). Lastly, the "Kammer" was a smaller room, often located on an upper story in German houses, that served as the equivalent of the English sleeping "chamber" (1986:259-60). Alternatively, some houses had a Kammer partitioned off of the back of the Stube on the ground floor (1986:259-60).

Robert Bucher's analysis of the "continental log house" plan evident in surviving houses in southeastern Pennsylvania identifies a massive central fireplace as the distinguishing feature of this German American design (Bucher 1962:14). Such fireplaces were often from 7 to 16 feet in length (1962:16). The first floor typically consisted of the Strube or "great room," with a "kammer" partitioned off the rear side of it, a kitchen, and small staircase to the upper story. A large fireplace extended off a central chimney into the kitchen and a stove extended into the great room. A front door "was off center, always in the kitchen, with a door directly behind it in the rear of the house" (1962:14-15; see also Lay 1982:19; Glassie 1968:48-51).

View illustrations of the continental log house form

Warren Roberts' analysis of the spread of German horizontal log construction methods in Dubois County, Indiana illustrates a diffusion of styles across ethnic groups. German immigrants moved into the Dubois County area in the 1830s and 1840s, settling in areas already occupied by approximately 5,000 Anglo-Americans who had moved into the region after 1807 (Roberts 1986:265). Due to the distribution of fairly inexpensive farm land throughout the area, the German immigrants settled in an interspersed pattern among the Anglo-Americans (1986:265-67).

Examining a sample of 28 standing log houses from this period, Roberts found 26 shared the basic design layout of a "log, one-and-a-half-story, two-room house with a frame lean-to across the rear" (1986:267). The two rooms were side-by-side on the ground floor, with one typically two feet wider than the other. The main house footprint (omitting the lean-to and porch) typically measured 33 feet 6 inches by 18 feet 6 inches. Most houses had no hearth, and used stoves instead, and they had boxed-in staircases in one corner of a lower room leading to the sleeping loft overhead (1986:267). Interestingly, he also found these houses typically included logs projecting out from the end walls and center wall to support a porch roof on the front and the frame of a lean-to on the rear. Thus, these logs were likely incorporated in the design from the outset (1986:268).

Other typical features of the German American houses which Roberts examined included foundations of local sandstones stacked into cubical support piers. The houses had no cellars, and British American log buildings in the area similarly lacked cellars. Windows were double-hung sash, again closely resembling the style used in British American houses in the area, and much different from window styles used in Germany. Rafters were usually paired and spiked at the top. Most houses had no plates, and rafters rested on top of the topmost log on the side walls. This differed from the typical British American log houses, which had rectangular shaped plates "cantilevered out over the wall so that the roof extends several inches out over the wall" (Roberts 1986:273). In both German American and British American log houses, logs were not used above the top of the first floor walls, and the gable ends of the half-story roof were completed with vertical timbers or studs fastened to the top logs and end rafters (1986:274).

Comparing these German houses with "296 British American log houses measured in several counties in southern Indiana" revealed interesting contrasts and commonalities. The majority (65%) of these Anglo-American houses "were one-and-a-half-story houses with a single room on the ground floor," in contrast to the typical two-room layout of German houses (Roberts 1986:269; see also Glassie 1978:404-11; McAlister & McAlister 1997:83). Comparing the 15.5% of Anglo-American houses that were "one-and-a-half story houses with two rooms on the ground floor" with the German examples, Roberts found:

In two-room, one-and-a-half British American log houses, the two rooms are nearly always the same size. In the German American log houses, one room is slightly larger than the other. The British American log houses usually have two front doors symmetrically spaced, while the German American Dubois County houses usually have one front door which is not centered on the facade. Most "Yankee" log houses have a fireplace in every room. Only two of the German American log houses had a fireplace, and that only in one of the two rooms. (It seems likely that the German people who came to Dubois County in the 1840s and 1850s had become accustomed to stoves in their homeland. Although stoves were expensive and difficult to obtain in Indiana, these people were not ready to do without them.) (1986:269)
Construction techniques showed commonalities again, with both German and British houses using the half-dovetail notch for joining log timbers at the corners of the structures (1986:270). Both house types typically had exterior siding of clapboards installed at the time of construction, while some exterior walls were instead whitewashed (1986:270).

Based on these commonalities between British American and German American approaches to log house construction, Roberts concludes that the "German immigrants to Dubois County learned how to build with logs from British Americans" (Roberts 1986:272). He finds the "hewing of the sides of the logs but not the tops and bottoms, the use of chinking, the half-dovetail corner notching, and the use of siding are identical" between German American and British American houses in Indiana at this time, and these are distinct from the design and construction methods in Germany (Roberts 1986:272). I believe it is an overstatement to assert that these German immigrants "learned how to build with logs from the British Americans." The German immigrants likely possessed comparable building traditions from Germany, but modified them rapidly when constructing houses in interaction with the British Americans among whom they were settling.

Kniffen and Glassie contend that the half dovetail was derived over time from the full dovetail as an easier technique:

In half dovetailing, also known to all woodworkers, the head of the notch slopes upward but the bottom is flat. It is, in effect, half of a V notch, yet it seems to have been developed from a full dovetail. The top angle of a full-dovetail notch is more acute than the bottom angle, and the bottom angle was easily straightened to produce the half dovetail, which is no less effective than the full dovetail but much easier to make. (Kniffen & Glassie 1966:56)
While half dovetailing appears to have been used more by Anglo-Americans and Scots-Irish in the Virginia region, Kniffen and Glassie do not identify one group as the creators of this technique. Weslager finds this appropriate, since the German and Scots-Irish settlers of Pennsylvania and Virginia "were so closely associated with the diffusion of the log cabin that it is strictly an academic exercise to try to assign weights of relative importance to each [group], except on a regional basis, and this is only a small part of a complex whole" (Weslager 1969:236). I believe this would be true of the German Americans and Anglo-Americans examined by Roberts in Indiana as well.

Roberts observed a notable settlement pattern in his analysis of house styles of Indiana, with incoming German immigrants settling in an interspersed manner among British American neighbors. A rapid sharing of building techniques may be more likely in such settings. William Tishler (1986) examined the history of house building styles imported by immigrants from more northern districts of Germany into Wisconsin in the same time period. He found that these German Americans had greater experience and preference for "fachwerk" half-timber styles, rather than the log and corner notching traditions of immigrants from middle- and southern-German districts.

German immigrants from the more northern districts of Germany (including Hesse, Nassau, and Lower Saxony) popularized this different style of domestic architecture, using half-timbering and clay, brick or stone filler (Jordan 1976:10; Kniffen & Glassie 1966:42-43). This fachwerk style can be seen in German American settlements during the 1830s and 1840s around the Great Lakes region, including Wisconsin, Missouri, Ohio and Texas (Tishler 1986; Kniffen & Glassie 1966:43). Such half-timber construction methods were not unique to the northern German districts in Europe, however. Similar styles were developed and used widely in England through the seventeenth century (Lay 1982:9).

Tishler found that German immigrants in Wisconsin settled in clusters in heavily wooded areas, because more open farmland had already been purchased by earlier waves of British American settlers. As a result, the German Americans in Wisconsin in the 1840s built with a fachwerk style very similar to their homelands (Tishler 1986:277-78). Such fachwerk construction was not used by German American settlers in the Virginia area. With most German American settlers of Virginia coming from previous settlements in the Pennsylvania and Maryland regions, Virginia received a German American tradition marked by log house construction styles which had begun to mix with those of the Anglo-Americans and Scots-Irish.

Paula Stoner's analysis of house styles in eighteenth-century Cumberland Valley of Maryland found such a blending of design and construction techniques by German, Scots-Irish and Anglo-Americans settling that region:

In their homelands, each of these groups, the Germans, Scotch-Irish, and English, had traditional building types which were reflected to some extent in the houses they constructed in the New World. . . . Since some of these people did not transplant themselves directly from their homelands to the Cumberland Valley, by the time they arrived here their ethnic traditions had begun to become homogenized by the period of residence with other immigrants to the New World. And so we see in the buildings preserved a blending of culture and an adaptation of that blend to the materials at hand. (Stoner 1977:512-13)
The materials at hand included a relative abundance of limestone, and thus several houses with the "classic Germanic central chimney plan" appear, but constructed of limestone, rather than log (1977:515-16).

Some evidence of ethnic patterning in particular construction techniques appears in other studies. Terry Jordan (1976) analyzed a sample of 600 surviving log structures in Texas built between 1815 and 1940 to test for patterns in the type of corner notch techniques that were used by different builders. He found the same range of notching styles in Texas as were popular elsewhere:

In the eastern United States six methods of producing a truly corner-timbered joint are employed: saddle notching, V notching, diamond notching, full dovetailing, half dovetailing, and square notching. In all but the last each log is locked into the ones above and below it, and the necessity of nailing or pegging is eliminated. (Kniffen & Glassie 1966:54, footnote omitted)
Taylor found that German American settlers in Texas utilized "V" notches 57% of the time, and half dovetail notches only 11% of the time. In contrast, Anglo-American settlers from the upland and lowland southern states used full dovetail, half dovetail or square notches with the greatest frequencies (Jordan 1976:11).

In addition to these differences in ethnic group preferences, Jordan found that wood type also corresponded with choices of notching techniques. In general, he found that "dovetailing predominated for hardwoods, while saddle, V, and square-notching were prevalent for softwoods" (1976:13). Hardwoods consisted mainly of oak, and softwoods included pine and cedar (1976:13). This correspondence crossed ethnic lines, so that Anglo-Americans would use saddle or V notching, rather than dovetails, more frequently in areas where only softwoods were readily available (1976:13). He concluded that the use of different notching techniques correlated as highly with the type of wood or the type of structure (house versus outbuilding) as it did with ethnic affiliation (1976:14).

The tools likely used for constructing such cross-notched log houses included: a broad axe and a double bit axe for felling trees and squaring off sides of the timbers, a draw knife or adze for removing bark from a hewn log's top and bottom, a froe and froe club for splitting shingles, whipsaws for cutting boards, and a peavey, cant hook or lug hook for rolling logs and leveraging hand-hewn timbers into place (Meehan 1980; Willis 1972). Many of the tools for such log construction were likely possessed by most farmers. More specialized tools, such as molding planes, were likely possessed by a fewer craftsmen who were also local farmers and who helped their neighbors when needed (Roberts 1986:202).

A number of studies detect changes over time in such ethnic patterns of design and construction styles. James O'Malley and John Rehder (1978) analyzed developments of two-story log house forms in the mountain regions of the "Upland South," including southwestern Virginia, western portions of North Carolina, and Tennessee. They found that the German American house design with a ground floor Stube, Kammer, Küche and central chimney "began to lose favor in the valleys of Pennsylvania and Piedmont North Carolina soon after their introduction in the early 18th century" (1978:905; see also Kniffen 1965:561). The predominant form of log house in the Upland South was instead a single pen Anglo-American design. This was enlarged over time into a two-pen, two-story house with a central or gable-end chimney (1978:910). Expanding their original log house structures into varieties of so-called saddlebag and dogtrot houses, these "European settlers of the Upland South" constructed "multi-room, multi-level log structures" in stages to satisfy their "spatial needs" as they arose (1978:913).

These views are consistent with Fred Kniffen's 1965 study of the "diffusion" of different house styles. Kniffen stated that by "the time the log house reached the Valley of Virginia it had pretty well lost all its original [Pennsylvania German] form. Subject to Tidewater influences, the chimney had moved to the end and outside and the basic plan had become a single ground-floor room" (1965:561; see also Glassie 1968:74-75). Nonetheless, houses of such modest size were the norm for Virginia even in the eighteenth century, and inclusion of brick chimneys and hearths would have been a notable asset in such a house (Wells 1993:6-7; 1998:395; Carson et al. 1981:177-78).

Scots-Irish immigrants moved during the eighteenth century from initial settlements in Pennsylvania and Delaware across the Potomac and into Virginia and along the Blue Ridge into the Carolinas and Georgia (Weslager 1969:226). Edward Lay observes that the Scots-Irish tended to settle in hilly regions close to natural springs, and often settled in lands near the western frontier in each region (Lay 1982:3). He finds that German immigrants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries tended to settle more in clusters, maintaining their ethnic identities and traditions (1982:3). Lay summarizes Scots-Irish building styles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in American colonies as follows:

Their houses were small and usually log ones, better adapted to their constant moving with the expanding frontier. They preferred the single-cell of the hall-and-parlour plan, but unlike the English version, it had enclosed stairs, single board partitions, exposed joints, and a stone chimney. Sometimes they employed German builders. (1982:18; see also Glassie 1978:394-96)
Scots-Irish settlers likely found the existing modes of Pennsylvania German house designs fit their preferences for a hall-and-parlor layout, and they may have used the German log construction techniques to take advantage of ready supplies of timber, while modifying those building techniques over time (Perdue 1985:9, 13).

Edward Chappell's study of the distribution of German log house construction in the Shenandoah Valley finds a rapid dissipation of German ethnic building traditions around 1800 (1986:28). Like the rest of the Virginia Piedmont, this area was settled in the mid- and late-seventeenth century by Germans, Scots-Irish and English. The traditional German log house forms in this area included a central chimney, Stube and Küche. A front and rear door entry to the house opened into the Küche, which was located to the right of the central chimney in 80% of the traditional German houses examined by Chappell. An enclosed boxed stair led from the Küche to the second story sleeping chamber (1986:28-30). He found other varied characteristics in these houses, including storage areas in cellars and placement of the houses typically on slopes (1986:34-36).

Based on these patterns of architectural features and construction techniques, Chappell argues that a distinctively German house style was evident:

Despite variations, the surviving buildings form a coherent group that is recognizably distinct from the contemporary house forms of the other ethnic groups in the region, and that is indicative of the separate nature of Germanic culture in eighteenth-century Virginia. The shared characteristics of the buildings represent an architectural vocabulary that was one aspect of a transported cultural heritage. (1986:37)
He suggests that both German and Swiss immigrants to this region maintained a "cohesive ethnic front" and "a strong cultural identity." This assisted them in providing close, supporting social relationships within their groups which aided each family's ability to succeed in their new settlement (1986:40). In addition, this ethnic identity was reinforced by external sources, with Anglo-Americans in the region also viewing the German and Swiss immigrants as separate and distinct groups (1986:40-41).

However, this distinctness was not to last. Chappell finds the German house tradition began to evolve in the late 1700's in this region as German immigrants experienced pressures from Anglo-Americans to become more assimilated and acculturated to broader lines of social and political relationships in this region (1986:42). Some houses were built in this period with hybrid designs combining traditional German plans with the features of the largely Anglo-American "I" house design with a central passage:

When acculturation took place, it was not a rapid process that erased all levels of ethnic distinction. Families that first accepted features of eastern Virginia living patterns did so within a familiar building form, although the exterior of the house might resemble an Anglo-American house. The traditional house model, like the German language, was finally replaced because it represented a conspicuous symbol of ethnic division. (1986:43)
After 1800, the traditional German design was largely abandoned, and families of German heritage began building houses following the central passage, "I" house style (1986:42-43; see also Glassie 1968:74-75).

Chappell's analysis is intriguing in that he moves beyond the theory popularized by Deetz (1996) and Glassie (1975). Deetz and Glassie explain the evolution from hall-and-parlor house plans among Anglo-Americans to an increasing use of symmetrical, central passage house plans as expressions of changing world views in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They find changes in the patterning of material culture over time, and explain it as an expression of changing ways of perceiving and thinking about one's world. This change in world views involved a move away from group affiliation and "corporate" modes of daily living toward increased privacy and individualism. It also involved increased transformations of material culture from natural forms to highly shaped, manipulated, artificial, and compartmentalized forms.

In contrast, Chappell treats the changes in German families' choices of house styles not as a passive expression of a changing world view, but as an active, instrumental expression of their shifting social relationships and new social identities in nineteenth-century Virginia. House design was actively used as part of a strategy for creating and maintaining those new social relationships by signaling affiliations through the type of house design chosen and lived in. Rather than continuing to use the symbolic expression of house designs to mark ethnic boundaries (Wobst 1977:327-28), these German families used house designs after 1800 to signal assimilation with a broader array of socio-economic groups in their area, and they thus began to dissipate their previous focus on an ethnic group affiliation.

III. Potential Ethnic Affiliations of Demory House Builders

The Loudoun house structure exhibits many features consistent with a German Pennsylvania architectural design and construction method. It has a two-room plan on the first floor with a chimney placed roughly in the center. The overall dimensions of known German Pennsylvania two-room houses found elsewhere range from a typical length of 20 feet to 30 feet, and width of 16 feet to 18 feet. The Loudoun house dimensions of approximately 20 feet by 14 feet are not inconsistent with that range.

The cross-notch technique used at the Loudoun house is a basic V notch, which was of continuing popularity among German settlers in the eighteenth century, even as far south as Texas. The Loudoun house lacks a plate for rafters, which are fastened instead onto the top-most log of the side walls. The use of plates on top of the top log was more frequent in Anglo-American houses. The window sashes at the Loudoun house, if part of the original design, would be consistent with any of the German, Scotch-Irish and Anglo-American construction methods of the period.

The floor plan of the Loudoun house is also consistent with known Pennsylvania German designs. There are two rooms on the main floor, a central chimney, a front and rear door set off-center, and a box stair in the kitchen room leading to the upper half-story, which was likely used as sleeping chambers. However, this floor plan is also generally consistent with the basic hall-and-parlor plan popular among Anglo-Americans and Scots-Irish in this region and time period as well. The main distinguishing feature of many German house designs was the use of a central chimney and a stove in the Stube (parlor) and large hearth in the Küche (hall and or kitchen). However, Anglo-American and Scots-Irish houses occasionally used central chimneys as well. There is no clear evidence at the Loudoun house of a large hearth in the kitchen, which would be consistent with some of the known German house plans.

If I were to create a working hypothesis, based solely on observable patterning in the architectural details of the house, I could contend that this Loudoun house was built by someone knowledgeable of the building traditions and techniques used by persons of German or Scots-Irish heritage. I could interpret the currently available evidence as indicating that the Demory family (who were primarily Anglo-American) had been in some close social interaction with persons of German or Scotch-Irish heritage. The Demorys may have learned the design and building techniques utilized in constructing their house from such neighbors. Another possibility is that the Demorys sub-leased the land to such a family who built the house and then moved to another home site when the Demorys took occupancy.

In any event, the architectural history of log house construction in this region and time period indicates an area of rapid assimilation and inter-action between groups originating from different ethnic traditions. This may also be reflected archaeologically by a shift from observable ethnic patterning of artifacts in the eighteenth century in this region to a dissipation of ethnic identity patterning in the early nineteenth century.

IV. From Ethnic Log House to Nationalist Log Cabin

In researching the patterns of log house construction in the American colonial period and later, one is struck by the different associations with the terms "log house" and "log cabin." The phrase "log cabin" has been used historically in two ways, both distinct from the meaning of a "log house." Whereas log houses were architectural creations of substance and stability in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in America, the term log cabin was occasionally used pejoratively to indicate temporary shelters constructed in a haphazard fashion of unfinished logs (see, e.g., Perdue 1985:9-10; Tishler 1986:276-77). Such temporary shelters of newly-arrived settlers were typically built of "round, unhewn logs, often with the bark left on," using saddle notches for joints, dirt floor and shuttered windows (Perdue 1985:10). Such temporary structures served until a more substantial log house could be constructed with pride and care (1985:16-17).

The second use of the term "log cabin" is an artifact more of American political history. In the presidential election of 1840, William Henry Harrison served as the Whig Party's candidate. The Baltimore newspaper The Republican sought to belittle Harrison in a December 1839 column which focused on his bucolic background: "'Give him a barrel of hard cider, and settle a pension of $2000 on him, and our word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin by the side of the sea-coal fire and study moral philosophy!'" (Weslager 1969:262, quoting The Republican). The attempt backfired, perhaps because more people lived in log houses than the Republican writers had realized, and Harrison beat Van Buren by 234 to 60 electoral votes.

Weslager states that this campaign "started a movement that made the log cabin a symbol of honesty, wholesomeness and humility" (1969:266; see also Barrick 1986:2-4). This symbolism was popularized further by biographers of presidents in the nineteenth century (Barrick 1986:3; Weslager 1969: 288-89). In the period of 1850 to 1939, the proportion of new log houses and log cabins in overall new home construction remained constant (Barrick 1986:3; Kniffen & Glassie 1966:65-66). This symbolic role and popularization was likely a key influence in maintaining these proportional rates of construction, in a period when log house construction would likely have been displaced to a greater degree by newer construction materials and methods.

The celebration of the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth in 1909 included a 1911 reconstruction of his log house birthplace in Hodgenville, Kentucky. An imagined, round-logged, saddle-notched cabin became a further icon of a democratic state guided by a "common man's president" (Barrick 1986:8). In contrast, much of the log house and cabin construction consisted of square-hewn and angle-notched timbers up through 1930. The round-logged icon of an American cabin gained increasing popularity in actual construction by the 1930s, however, with a strong shift to round-log cabins built as vacation homes, recreational retreats and primary dwellings (1986:7-8). The reason for this shift was also economic, resulting from a decreased availability in wide-diameter timbers (in part due to the chestnut blight of the 1920s and 1930s) and the convenience of handling narrower timbers in round form and with saddle notching (1986:11).

This shift away from using hewn logs is interesting from the perspective of analysts such as Henry Glassie, who view greater transformations of materials as a way of moving from a natural to a cultural domain:

Wood and masonry techniques both involve a middle step - the hewn timber, the burned brick - in which nature if left behind and the human world is entered. Subsequent steps lead to the existence of new manmade entities. The natural colors are hidden and form is unified beneath a coat of paint, usually bright white, which cracks the new creation away from nature and set it forth as a purely human product, a clear emblem of superiority, of mastery over circumstances. (Glassie 1987:232)
By using non-hewn, round logs, even with the bark removed, these more recent builders of log houses and cabins implemented designs with elements closer to a natural state (Barrick 1986:12). Barrick suggests that the "appearance of the round-log cabin coincides with a final awareness that the Western frontier has disappeared" and it is "a symbolic act of creation that mythically reenacts settlement of that frontier" (1986:15).

V. Conclusions

Past designs and methods of log house construction can be associated to a fair extent with certain ethnic groups which immigrated to the American colonies. However, the colonial setting facilitated rapid sharing and borrowing of architectural traditions among different groups, so that this ethnic association rapidly weakened over the course of the eighteenth century. This was particularly true for the Virginia Piedmont, which was settled by people from multiple ethnic groups which had interacted before arriving in Virginia and which likely interacted even more shortly after settling the area.

The various forms of log house construction in colonial Virginia must not be viewed as temporary shelters for families waiting to build frame or brick houses. Log construction styles were used with great frequency, particularly in the Virginia Piedmont, resulting in houses such as the one in Loudoun Valley which still stands after so many framed houses have since vanished from the landscape.

VI. References

  • Barrick, Mac E., 1986. The Log House as Cultural Symbol. Material Culture 18(1): 1-19.

  • Barth, Fredrik, 1998a. Introduction. In Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference, edited by Fredrik Barth, pp. 9-38. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc. (originally published 1969; reissued 1998).

  • Barth, Fredrik, 1998b. Pathan Identity and Its Maintenance. In Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference, edited by Fredrik Barth, pp. 117-34. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc. (originally published 1969; reissued 1998).

  • Breen, T.H., 1985. Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of the Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

  • Bucher, Robert C., 1962. The Continental Log House. Pennsylvania Folklife 12(4): 14-19.

  • Carson, Cary and Norman F. Barka, William M. Kelso, Garry Wheeler Stone and Dell Upton, 1981. Impermanent Architecture in the Southern American Colonies. Winterthur Portfolio 16(2/3): 135-196.

  • Chappell, Edward A., 1986. Acculturation in the Shenandoah Valley: Rhenish Houses of the Massanutten Settlement. In Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture, edited by Dell Upton and John M. Vlach, pp. 27-57. Athens, Georgia: Univeristy of Georgia Press.

  • Deetz, James, 1996. In Small Things Forgotten. New York: Doubleday.

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  • Glassie, Henry, 1968. Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

  • Glassie, Henry, 1975. Folk Housing in Middle Virginia: A Structural Analysis of Historic Artifacts. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

  • Glassie, Henry, 1978. The Types of Southern Mountain Cabin. In The Study of American Folklore, edited by Jan H. Brunvand, pp. 391-420. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

  • Glassie, Henry, 1987. Vernacular Architecture and Society. In Mirror and Metaphor: Material and Social Constructions of Reality, edited by Daniel W. Ingersoll, Jr. and Gordon Bronitsky, pp. 230-45. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America.

  • Hodder, Ian, 1982. Symbols in Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Jones, Sian, 1997. The Archaeology of Ethnicity. London: Routledge.

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  • Jordan, Terry G., 1980. Alpine, Alemannic and American Log Architecture. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 70(2): 154-80.

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  • McAlister, Virginia and Lee McAlister, 1997. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Alfred Knopf.

  • McGuire, Randall, 1982. The Study of Ethnicity in Historical Archaeology. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 1: 159-78.

  • Meehan, James, 1980. Demonstrating the Use of Log House Building Tools at the New Windsor Cantonment. Bulletin of the Association of Preservation Technology 12(4): 39-44.

  • Mercer, Henry C., 1967. The Origin of Log Houses in the United States. Doylestown, Pennsylvania: The Bucks County Historical Society.

  • Mercer, Henry C., 1968. The Dating of Old Houses. Watkins Glen, New York: American Life Education & Study Institute.

  • Nelson, Lee H., 1968. Nail Chronology as an Aid to Dating Old Buildings. American Association for State and Local History Technical Leaflet No. 48. History News Vol. 24, No. 11 (Nov. 1968).

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  • Perdue, Martin C., 1985. The Log-Cabin in American Art and Architecture, 1840-1890. M.A. Thesis, School of Architecture, University of Virginia.

  • Phillips, Maureen K., 1994. "Mechanical Geniuses and Duckies," A Revision of New England's Cut Nail Chronology Before 1820. Bulletin of the Association of Preservation Technology 25: 4-16.

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  • Priess, Peter, 1973. Wire Nails in North America. Bulletin of the Association of Preservation Technology 5(4): 8792.

  • Roberts, Warren E., 1986a. The Tools Used in Building Log Houses in Indiana. In Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture, edited by Dell Upton and John M. Vlach, pp. 182-203. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.

  • Roberts, Warren E., 1986b. German American Log Buildings of Dubois County, Indiana. Winterthur Portfolio 21(4): 265-74.

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  • Shurtleff, Harold R., 1967. The Log Cabin Myth: A Study of the Early Dwellings of the English Colonists in North America. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith.

  • Spicer, Edward H., 1971. Persistent Cultural Systems. Science 174: 795-800.

  • Stewart-Abernathy, Leslie C. and Barbara L. Ruff, 1989. A Good Man in Israel: Zooarchaeology and Assimilation in Antebellum Washington, Arkansas. Historical Archaeology 23(2): 96-112.

  • Stoner, Paula, 1977. Early Folk Architecture of Washington County. Maryland Historical Magazine 72(4): 512-22.

  • Tishler, William H., 1986. Fachwerk Construction in the German Settlements of Wisconsin. Winterthur Portfolio 21(4): 275-92.

  • United States Geological Survey, 1960. Soil Survey for Loudoun County Virginia. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

  • United States Geological Survey, 1996. Geology of the Harpers Ferry Quadrangle, Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia, U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 2123. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

  • Weaver, William W., 1986. The Pennsylvania German House: European Antecedents and New World Forms. Winterthur Portfolio 21(4): 243-64.

  • Weldon, Bill, 1990. The Brickmaker's Year. Colonial Williamsburg Historic Trades Annual 2: 1-40.

  • Wells, Camille, 1998. The Mulistoried House: Twentieth-Century Encounters with the Domestic Architecture of Colonial Virginia. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 106(4): 353-418.

  • Wells, Camille, 1993. The Planter's Prospect: Houses, Outbuildings, and Rural Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia. Winterthur Portfolio 28(1): 1-32.

  • Weslager, C.A., 1955. Log Houses in Pennsylvania During the Seventeenth Century. Pennsylvania History 22(3): 256-66.

  • Weslager, C.A., 1969. The Log Cabin in America. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers Univerity Press.

  • Willis, Stanley, 1972. Log Houses in Southwest Virginia: Tools Used in Their Construction. Virginia Cavalcade 21(4): 36-47.

  • Wobst, H. Martin, 1977. Stylistic Behavior and Information Exchange. In For the Director: Research Essays in Honor of James B. Griffin, edited by Charles E. Cleland, pp. 317-42. Anthropological Papers No. 61. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.


1. For other studies reaching similar conclusions, see Kniffen 1965:558; Glassie 1965:8; Lay 1982:4; Jordan 1980:179. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, German districts also included what would become Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Alsace, Lorraine, and Saxony (Weslager 1969:206-08).

2. Mercer also asserted that "the art of log construction" generally was "introduced into North America, not in the Delaware valley, but either in New York or Virginia or New England, not in the form of dwellings but of forts or so-called 'block houses'" (1967:30-31, emphasis in original; see Shurtleff 1967:175).

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