Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 23
by Richard J. Young
Part I: A Comparative Study
The origins of the blockhouse are obscure. The English word "blockhouse" probably derives from the German Blochaus which means "a house which blocks a pass." Whether the Blochaus in any way resembled what, in North American terms, the blockhouse became, is uncertain. Northern Europeans were familiar with horizontal log construction from ancient times, and undoubtedly used it in defensive works. It is unclear how the knowledge of such construction came to the American continent.
Harold Shurtleff, in his book The Log Cabin Myth (originally published in 1822), dispelled forever the popular American legend that the original English settlers used horizontal log construction for their houses. The first pioneers built what they had traditionally known in England the frame house. Shurtleff declared that "all housing data for the Bay Colony that we have found points to the same sequence: temporary shelters such as dugouts, huts, wigwams, cabins, or cottages, followed by framed houses."1 Log cabins were introduced to the North American continent by the Swedes and Finns who settled in Delaware in 1638. Pennsylvania became the centre from which the log cabin technique spread after the Germans began settling there in the 18th century.
The blockhouse form, according to Shurtleff, was the one instance of horizontal log construction with which the English were familiar. The Plymouth Pilgrims apparently had a blockhouse in their fort. John Pory, a former secretary of Virginia, described the fort in a letter to the Earl of Southampton in 1622.
Issack de Rasieres, Secretary of New Netherland, described the Plymouth blockhouse in more detail.
Shurtleff cautions against attaching any constructional significance to John Pory's word "blockhouse," claiming that Pory was referring to the purpose, not the type, of the building, and that it in fact "must have been framed with oak timber and walled with planking heavy enough to stop arrows."4
Shurtleff states that blockhouses were a "traditional type in English military engineering, and part of the general European technique of fortification,"5 but he gives no evidence to support this statement. English treatises on fortification of the early 18th century, when such treatises first began to appear, make no mention of blockhouses, although by that time the blockhouse was certainly in widespread use throughout the American colonies. These treatises were intended primarily to train engineers in the principles of extensive permanent fortification based on Vauban's system, an outgrowth of the continued development of the design and use of artillery. The English either were unaware of the blockhouse as a defensive structure, or considered it so rudimentary that it needed no description on the printed page. Also, until the middle of the 18th century, Britain had committed very few troops to the struggling American settlements and consequently had no experience constructing fortified outposts in the wilderness.
James Stanten, a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin, has been engaged in research on the architecture of the very early American colonies. His general thesis, which revises Shurtleff's conclusions somewhat, is that horizontal log construction, in the form of blockhouses and garrison houses, was developed in New England, independently of the Swedes in Delaware or the Germans in Pennsylvania. Stanten contends that the blockhouse and garrison house were indigenous responses to the wilderness conditions and defensive problems faced by the New England pioneers. This thesis may shed some interesting light on the evolution of the blockhouse form in the northern New England colonies. Unfortunately it was not available from the University of Wisconsin at the time of writing.
Though blockhouses were built in most of the American colonies in the 17th century, Shurtleff is probably correct when he states that "until the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century the word blockhouse connoted defense, and not a particular type of construction."6 In the long series of French and Indian wars which were waged along the New England frontiers from 1670 to 1760, the familiar blockhouse form, as it was introduced to Canada, took shape. The frontiers were so vast and the methods of French and Indian guerrilla warfare so subtle that each exposed settlement needed one or more fortified posts or houses into which the inhabitants could retreat in case of sudden attack. In addition to blockhouses these fortified retreats often took the form of large horizontal log houses with overhanging upper storeys and loopholes. One family lived regularly in this garrison house, and in times of crisis the house was shared with other members of the community. Building a small blockhouse or a large garrison house involved no great expense of time, money or labour once the techniques of cornering had been mastered. The French and Indians usually avoided such posts and houses because they proved a formidable defence against muskets and arrows.
Their ease of construction, their use of readily available materials, their simplicity and their strength were responsible for the spread of blockhouses through the American colonies and later through Canada. Once they grasped the idea of the blockhouse, pioneers, British engineers and other military men were quick to adapt it to their purposes.
After the fall of forts Beauséjour and Louisbourg and of Quebec, the British military took over responsibility for fortifications in the newly won territories. The single-family fortified garrison house did not appear in Canada. Because blockhouses were built by the army for purely military purposes, a certain standardization of form took place in their design, despite the fact that they were used in a wide variety of situations.