The Blacksmith in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg An Account of His Life & Times and of His Craft
An Account of his Life & Times and of his Craft
Williamsburg Craft Series
Published by Colonial Williamsburg
in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg
“Iron seemeth a simple metal, but in its nature aremany mysteries,” wrote Joseph Glanvill, a seventeenth-centuryEnglish churchman. To the contrary,Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, two centurieslater, found nothing mysterious about theworker in iron. His brawny blacksmith (long hair and all) embodiedevery simple virtue: he owed money to no man, prayedin church on Sundays, and earned an honest living by the sweatof his honest brow.
Longfellow may have realized that he was penning a swansong for the village blacksmith, whose forge and anvil could notlast far into the factory age. Most probably, however, the poetdid not think of himself as reducing to the level of small-townbanality the lusty craftsman whose precursors forged thunderboltsfor the gods.
To primitive peoples, it seems, there has always been somethingsupernatural about the smith. He tamed fire to his will.He turned the ores of earth into magic and invincible weapons,or into prosaically peaceful tools. He himself became a god:Osiris of Egypt, Hephaestus to the ancient Greeks, Vulcan ofRoman theology, Odin in Norse myth. Or he turned into a wholerace of demigods—giant Cyclops or dwarf Nibelungs—havingmystical skills in metalwork.
SEEKERS FOR GOLD AND IRON
Down through all recorded civilizations man has valued goldas the most precious of metals. Yet in every civilization since2man learned to smelt and forge it, iron has in fact been the metalmost valuable to him.
The paradox is more apparent than real. Iron is a commonmetal, and (with steel) can be put to an almost unlimited varietyof uses—including the working of other metals. Its real valueto man is utilitarian, although it may be employed for decorativeand even monetary purposes. Gold, on the other hand, althoughof somewhat limited usefulness, is comparatively rare and is valuedmore for that than for its durable beauty.
It was, in part, the hope of finding gold—as the Spanish hadfound it in Mexico and Peru—that moved Sir Walter Raleighto send colonizing ventures to North America. But any resourcethat might bring wealth to the gentlemen adventurers in Londonand to England itself was not to be overlooked. ThomasHariot, one of those who reached Roanoke Island with Raleigh’sinitial colonists in 1585, reported that:
In two places of the countrey specially, one about fourescore,& the other six score miles from the fort or place where we dwelt,we found nere the water side the ground to be rocky, which bythe triall of a Minerall man was found to hold iron richly. It isfound in many places of the country els.
Around the edges of a brass clock face made in England about 1750 and now inthe possession of Colonial Williamsburg, some unknown engraver depicted ironworkingoperations. Here, above the numbers 11 and 12 on the clock face, open-pitminers are shown digging and hauling ore.
Nothing further is known of these discoveries, including theirexact location, for the Roanoke colony did not survive. But thesettlement made in 1607 at Jamestown did endure. Sending careful3instructions, the sponsoring Virginia Company of Londondirected the adventurers to Virginia to look not only for goldbut for iron ore. Among the first group of settlers was GeorgeRead, a blacksmith, to be joined the following year by RichardDole of the same craft, and Peter Keffer, gunsmith.
No doubt some of these workers in iron—perhaps all three ofthem—had a hand in the experimental smelting and forging oflocal bog iron during Jamestown’s first year or two. CaptainJohn Smith reported that the colony’s “best commoditie wasIron which we made into little chissels.” Archaeological excavationsat Jamestown and at nearby Denbigh Plantation in recentyears have disclosed the sites of what appear to have been smallfurnaces for smelting iron ore.
At the same time, the colonists were shipping ore back toEngland, seven tons of iron being smelted at Bristol from Virginiaore as early as 1608. Four years later, William Stracheywrote:
Sir Tho: Dale hath mencioned in his Letters to the [Worthies?]of the Councell of a goodly Iron myne, and Capt Newport hathbrought home of that mettell so sufficient a tryall, as there hathbene made 16. or 17. tonne of Iron, so good as the East IndianMarchants bought that of the Virginian Company, preferring thatbefore any other Iron of what Country soever.
A conjectural sketch,after Sidney King, of anearthen furnace for smeltingiron. Furnaces suchas this were used in Englandearly in the seventeenthcentury, and similarones may have beenused at Jamestown.
In further pursuit of its determination to set up an iron industryin Virginia, the London Company advertised for blacksmiths,bellows makers, edgetool makers, cutlers, armorers, gunsmiths,iron miners, iron refiners, iron founders, hammermen,millwrights for iron mills, and colliers for charcoal making.4Before the Mayflower left old Plymouth with its cargo of religiousrefugees, more than one hundred workmen having the requiredskills had sailed to Virginia, some of them to set up afull-scale ironworks at Falling Creek, about sixty miles up theJames River from Jamestown.
How much iron was actually produced at the Falling Creekfurnace and forge, whether largely pig iron, sow iron, or wroughtiron, and whether consumed in the colony, shipped to England,or some of both, must remain matters of conjecture. A seriesof troubles plagued the project, but by 1619 the blast furnace,finery, forge, and chafery were reported to be “in some goodforwardnesse, and a proofe is sent of Iron made there.” Twoyears later a new manager was sent over, and he promised “tofinish the Works & have plentiful provision of Iron ... by nextEaster.”
The forecast was fateful. Easter in 1622 fell on March 24.But on the morning of Good Friday, March 22, the Indians ofVirginia fell on every English settlement along the James River,massacring more than 350 colonists, including 27 at FallingCreek. The redskins not only slaughtered the entire adult complementof ironworkers, but destroyed the buildings and supposedlyheaved some of the machinery into the river nearby.The exact details are understandably a little vague, but the resultwas conclusive: the iron industry in Virginia was ended fornearly one hundred years.
Except for bloomeries, which could have existed in everycolony, the first successful ironworks in British America beganproduction about 1645 at Saugus, Massachusetts. (In a bloomeryoperation a lump of iron ore—usually bog iron—is heated untilit is semimolten, and then is hammered on the anvil until most impuritieshave been forced out; with much labor in this manner,small quantities of excellent wrought iron can be produced.) The5Saugus works have been reconstructed after careful archaeologicaland historical research; a sort of family resemblance is tobe presumed between them and the ironworks built in Virginiaearly in the eighteenth century.
The Hammersmith ironworks on the Saugus River in Massachusetts as they arebelieved to have looked in 1650. Along with documentary records, extensive remainsfound below ground at the site—and some above—have permitted a carefulrebuilding of the entire complex. Redrawn after an architectural rendering in theSaugus Museum.
Governor Alexander Spotswood re-launched the iron industryin Virginia with the financial backing of several gentlemen in thecolony and in England, and with the skilled labor of immigrantironworkers from Germany. By 1718 it appears that his Tubalworks, near the confluence of the Rapidan and Rappahannockrivers, were in production, although he had not yet receivedthe London government’s permission even to start the project.
Fourteen years later Spotswood (by then out of office) toldWilliam Byrd II of Westover that iron mines and blast furnaceswere operating at four locations in Virginia. Byrd visited anddescribed those at Tubal, not far from Germanna, at Fredericksville,and at Massaponax (now called New Post) below Fredericksburg.Spotswood had an interest in the second, and wassole proprietor of the first and third, having bought out hisoriginal backers.
The fourth was at Accokeek, near the Potomac, on land belongingto Augustine Washington, whose son George had just beenborn. Byrd, who did not get that far on his 1732 “Progress tothe Mines,” nevertheless confidently reported that “Matters arevery well managed there, and no expense is spared to make them6profitable, which is not the case in the works I have alreadymentioned.” This judgment may have been accurate for all weknow, but it seems unkind of Byrd to throw the only bouquet tothe one place he had not seen while dropping brickbats on themen who had been so hospitable and helpful to him.
His criticism was certainly well founded in one case. Thefurnace at Fredericksville (a place no longer on the map) hadbeen idle the entire summer. Somewhat like the rider who waslost for want of a horseshoe nail, here the blast furnace couldnot operate even though ore, limestone, charcoal, waterpower,and skilled labor were all available. The missing “nail” in thiscase was corn. There was not enough to feed the oxen thathauled the carts that carried the ore from mine to furnace andthe sows from furnace to dockside on the Rappahannock sometwenty-four miles away.
Byrd, who had a notion to become an ironmaster himself, wasadvised that a proper works required, besides an iron depositnearby, a constant supply of waterpower to operate the bellows,easy access to deep water for shipping the output to England, atleast two miles square of woodland to supply charcoal for a“moderate” furnace, and 120 slaves to do the work, includingsome to grow food for both men and beasts. Two bits of advice,which he recorded as follows, may have dissuaded him fromtaking the plunge:
If all these circumstances happily concur, and you could procurehonest colliers and firemen, which will be difficult to do....
The founders find it very hot work to tend the furnace, especiallyin summer, and are obliged to spend no small part of their earningsin strong drink to recruit their spirits.
Spotswood’s Tubal works were producing, in 1723, castiron“backs and frames for Chymmes [chimneys], Potts, doggs, frying,stewing and baking pans.” But even at the time of Byrd’strip, the output of the four Virginia furnaces consisted almostentirely of cast iron sows and pigs that were shipped to England.7There was not a single forge operating in the whole of Virginia,Spotswood told Byrd.
Just three years later, however, Governor William Goochreported to the Board of Trade in London that one forge wasproducing bar iron. He seemed to think this was enough tosatisfy the colony’s needs for iron “for agriculture and Planting,for mending as well as making tools.” How badly Gooch misjudgedthe local demand for wrought iron is evident in the rapidincrease of forges in the following years. A number sprang upnear the lower Potomac and in the Shenandoah Valley; one,called Holt’s Forge, was erected sometime before 1755 betweenWilliamsburg and Richmond at what is now Providence Forge.Its output just before the Revolution included bar iron and suchplantation supplies as plow hoes, broad hoes, hilling hoes, grubbinghoes with steel edges, nails, and axes.
Legally, no colonial forge with trip hammer, rolling mill tofashion wrought iron plate, or slitting mill to turn the plate intobars could be built after Parliament passed the Iron Act of 1750.But the law seems to have had little effect, and Virginia smithscalled for more and more bar iron to make farm tools and ironworkfor wagons, mills, and ships.
The demand was so great that most bar iron produced in thecolonies was consumed by local blacksmiths. In 1764, for example,Colonel John Tayloe, who owned ironworks in King GeorgeCounty, found he could sell his whole output locally. RobertCarter, the planter-entrepreneur of Nomini Hall and partner inthe Baltimore iron Works, sold large quantities of bar iron inWilliamsburg and to blacksmiths elsewhere in Virginia.
By 1770 William Hunter’s works at Falmouth, said to be thelargest in America at that time, were turning one and one-halftons of pig iron into bars every day. In 1781 Thomas Jefferson,who had a small interest in three blast furnaces in his home countyof Albermarle and who later owned a nail making machine andsold its output, counted eight ironworks in Virginia. He reportedthat they produced about 4,400 tons of pig iron and more than900 tons of bar iron annually.