Frontier Forts in Virginia

Native Americans built palisades to protect some of their towns in Tidewater Virginia
Native Americans built palisades to protect some of their towns in Tidewater Virginia

Native Americans built wooden walls ("palisades") around their towns. Tree trunks were aligned to encircle the houses in a town, providing a defensive barrier. The palisades were designed for tribal conflicts that used bows-and-arrow technology.

Starting in 1607 at Jamestown, the English colonists initiated the construction of similar fortifications. The English desired protection against both the Native Americans and a potential attack by European ships armed with cannon. The colonists expected that if a Spanish ship ever sailed upstream past Hog Island, it would be coming to eliminate the English colony rather than to trade and exchange pleasantries.

The first fort built after landing all the men on May 14, 1607 was not substantial. The focus was on exploration and discovery, not defense.

Soon after unloading the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, Captain Newport led an expedition upstream with over 20 men. On May 26, while they was gone, the Paspahegh attacked the new settlement. The English struggled to defend themselves, since their guns were still in storage. The attack was ended by cannon fire from the ships.

John Smith reported that one boy was killed on Discovery and 13-14 were wounded. After the assault:1

With all speede we pallisadoed our Fort

The incentive to work fast was obvious. Six or seven times during the construction, the Paspahegh lay in ambush. They managed to wound several colonists, one of whom died.2

George Percy reported that construction of Virginia's first military fortification, based on a European design, was completed within three weeks:3

The fifteenth of June we had built and finished our Fort, which was triangle wise, having three Bulwarkes, at every corner, like a halfe Moone, and foure or five pieces of Artillerie mounted in them. We had made our selves sufficiently strong for these Savages.

the English brought cannon to Virginia because they feared an attack by a Spanish ship, and the weapons did provide necessary protection against Native Americans
the English brought cannon to Virginia because they feared an attack by a Spanish ship, and the weapons did provide necessary protection against Native Americans

Powhatan sent representatives to the triangle-shaped enclosure, including Pocahontas, to trade and to spy on the uninvited newcomers. Gates in the wooden wall of "James Fort" allowed the colonists to control which Native Americans could circulate within the area occupied by the colonists, and when they could be there.

front gate of reconstructed fort at Jamestown Settlement, a tourism-based site operated by the state of Virginia since the 350th anniversary in 1957
front gate of reconstructed fort at Jamestown Settlement, a tourism-based site operated by the state of Virginia since the 350th anniversary in 1957

The colonists did not isolate themselves inside their new fort; they too had a need for interaction. Engaging with the "naturals" gave the colonists some intelligence about the indigenous residents and about the area they planned to occupy. The English also needed food, and hoped to discover gold.

Discussions and bargaining occurred both outside and within the walls of the fort. William Strachey's secondhand account of a naked Pocahontas doing cartwheels inside the fort may not be accurate, but it does reflect the willingness of the colonists to allow Native Americans inside the fort.4

The second fort built in Virginia by the English colonists was at Point Comfort, in 1609. The first fort there was called Fort Algernon, and it sheltered 30 colonists during the Starving Time of 1609-10. Fort Algernon soon rotted away, as did a later Fort George built at the site. Fort Monroe was constructed of stone in the 1800's, and it still remains at the tip of the Peninsula.

John Smith's map showing Point Comfort, site of Fort Algernon, Fort George, and finally Fort Monroe
John Smith's map showing Point Comfort, site of Fort Algernon, Fort George, and finally Fort Monroe
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606

The fort at Jamestown provided protection against the expected threat, while the weak fortifications at Point Comfort provided litle more than an early warning system in case a European enemy arrived. The colonists' cannon at Jamestown were an effective defense against a ground attack by Native Americans, but the English never had weapons with sufficient range at Point Comfort to block Spanish ships from sailing up the James River.

James Fort might have been inadequate against a Spanish attack, but it was never tested. The walls did allow the English to control how many Native Americans were in the fort at one time, reducing the threat of a surprise assault. As revealed in the 1622 uprising, the colony's intelligence gathering capabilities - and analytical skills to anticipate an attack - were inadequate.

The next colonial settlements, including Bermuda Hundred and Henricus, were built on peninsulas. These settlements were protected by wooden walls, built between riverbanks to protect from land attack by the hostile neighbors. Though the Native Americans in Virginia could attack the river side of colonial settlements via canoes, the English had already placed cannons there for protection against European or pirate assault. The firepower facing the river was considered sufficient protection against potential amphibious attack by Algonquian warriors.

palisade at Henricus reconstruction (note gaps between trees forming wall)
palisade at Henricus reconstruction (note gaps between trees forming wall, in contrast to reconstruction at Jamestown where more labor was available)

The power of the Powhatans was broken in less than 50 years of English occupation. As the English established farms on the Peninsula, Middle Peninsula, and then finally the Northern Neck, the Powhatan lifestyle of living in winter hunting camps and summer agricultural towns was disrupted.

In 1633, a wooden palisade was constructed between the James and York rivers, passing through Middle Plantation (later the site of Williamsburg), in order to exclude Native Americans from the Peninsula.5

approximate route of 1634 pallisade across the Peninsula, cutting through modern-day Williamsburg
approximate route of 1634 palisade across the Peninsula, cutting through modern-day Williamsburg
Source: location of palisade from Phillip Levy, A New Look at an Old Wall. Indians, Englishmen, Landscape, and the 1634 Palisade at Middle Plantation
(overlaid on USGS 7.5 minute topo, 2010)

After the 1644 uprising, Opechancanough was captured and murdered while in English custody, and the English systematically destroyed Algonquian towns and cornfields. The remnants of Powhatan's political organization were fragmented, never to be reassembled.

After 1644, the main Indian threat to the English colonists in Virginia came from bands of northern Indians raiding into Virginia from Pennsylvania and New York. The 1646 treaty signed by Opechancanough's successor, Necotowance, required the Virginia tribes to be allies with the English against such raids. In 1656 the leader of the Pamunkey Tribe (Totopotomoy) was killed while fighting "Rickohockans" (perhaps offshoots of the Seneca tribe in western New York, or Cherokees from the Tennessee River watershed) at Bloody Run, in what is now the Church Hill area of Richmond.

Once the paramount chiefdom structure of Powhatan was destroyed, the primary interactions between the English and the remaining tribes in Virginia were based on the fur trade. When the English first arrived in 1607, Powhatan established his tribal organization as the "middleman" who would take a cut of the profits. Powhatan blocked the Siouan-speaking tribes west of the Fall Line from direct trade with the English at Jamestown.

Powhatan was not unique in this approach. In New England, the Iroquois tribes blocked the English from trading with the Hurons and others who lived further inland, and extracted high prices from the English for furs and skins until the American Revolution disrupted relationships.

The fur trade depended upon Native Americans harvesting a surplus of furs and food from their lands far from English settlements, and bringing the furs/skins to Tidewater settlements to trade with the English. In 1645, the General Assembly restricted trade between Native Americans and colonists to three forts.

Fort Charles was at the falls of the James River (modern-day Richmond). Fort Royall was located on the Pamunkey River on an island at the mouth of Totopotomoy Creek, near Opechancanough's capital. Those two forts helped define a perimeter west of the 1633 palisade. Fort James was located deep inside that perimeter at the confluence of Diascund Creek and the Chickahominy River.

In early 1646, the General Assembly authorized construction of Fort Henry (and 45 soldiers to staff it) at the mouth of the Appomattox River. In late 1646, after Opechancanough was captured and murdered, his successor Necotowance signed a peace treaty. The General Assembly then gave Fort Henry to its commander, Captain Abraham Wood, along with a land grant.6

Petersburg, Virginia developed from that fur-trading Fort Henry, managed after 1646 by Captain Abraham Wood. In 1650, Wood, Edward Bland, and seven others traveled southwest of the fort for nine days. Their mission was to establish trading relationships with the Native Americans on the Piedmont.

In 1673, Abraham Wood sent explorers James Needham and Gabriel Arthur further west. That expedetion was intended to establish direct trade with the Cherokee in the Tennessee River watershed. Wood was trying to bypass the Ocaneechee tribe. They acted as middlemen at the traditional trading post on the Roanoke River near modern-day Clarksville, until their town was destroyed in Bacon's Rebellion in 1676.

forts established in 1645-46
forts established in 1645 (in red) and 1646 (in yellow)
Map Source: US Geological Survey, National Atlas

Both sides benefited from the fur trading transactions. The English stayed east of the Fall Line, and the tribes west of the Fall Line got access to English metal products, textiles, and guns. The French found the fur trade to be sufficiently lucrative that they never sent large numbers of colonists to North America, The French chose to build relatinships that increased trading, rather than occupying Native American land and creating an agricultural colony, in Canada, Louisiana, and the Ohio River Valley.

The colonial fur trade in Virginia was a rough business, as William Claiborne discovered in the 1630's. In addition to conflicts between tribes for control of the hunting territory, the English fought among themselves. Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 was triggered in part by rivalries between Governor Berkeley and his friends (who had been given special rights for engaging in the fur trade) and the out-of-power planters who lived at the edges of colonial settlement. The risks of living at the interface of English/Indian territory (the "frontier") were high, but the rewards were limited by Governor Berkeley.

Bel Air, perhaps the oldest building in Prince William County
Bel Air, perhaps the oldest building in Prince William County

Colonial policy on protecting the frontier from raiding northern tribes was not consistent. Frontier forts were built and then abandoned because of the cost of staffing them. Prince William County, now urbanizing as population growth in Northern Virginia continues to expand, was once on the frontier. The stone walls in the basement of the Bel Air house may be the remnants a 1670's fort that housed rangers assigned to the headwaters of various coastal streams. The rangers were looking primarily for hunting parties of Susquehannocks and Iroquois from New York. Such groups were considered more likely to raid English farms, since they had no local towns or farm fields to protect.

The alternative to fixed fortifications on the frontier was to hire rangers to patrol the territory. The rangers were less-than-perfect sensors, and northern raiders could slip into Virginia undetected. When Nathaniel Bacon's overseer was killed by Indians, he launched a rebellion against the establishment based in Jamestown, attacked the peaceful Indians who were allied with Governor Berkeley - and even burned Jamestown itself, before Bacon died and the rebellion fizzled.

site of Fort Christanna, 1714-1717
site of Fort Christanna, 1714-1717
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Geographic Names Information System

In 1714, Governor Spotswood stimulated development of a fort at Fort Christanna, south of modern-day Lawrenceville in Brunswick County. At the time, it was the edge of British colonial power. The modern historical marker at the site calls it "The Farthest Western Outpost of the British Empire."

Spotswood intended to concentrate the fur trade with southern tribes at one location that could be controlled. A surprise attack in 1717 by Iroquois rivals, on the Native American groups he had gathered peacefully at Fort Christanna, damaged his strategy. However, his main opposition was rival Virginia traders who traded weapons and other products for furs and skins, independent from Spotswood's licensed trading program.

For 130 years after the destruction of the Powhatan tribes, from the 1644 uprising to the intrusion into Kentucky in the 1770's, colonist/Native American conflicts on the Virginia frontier were predominantly triggered by fur trade rivalries, not by Native American resistance to colonial settlement. That's due in large part to the apparent retreat or die-off of the tribes west of the Fall Line. When English settlement crossed beyond the Fall Line and started to occupy the Piedmont in the early 1700's, there were few Native Americans remaining east of the Blue Ridge.

By the 1730's, colonial occupation of the Shenandoah Valley disrupted Native American hunting patterns, but did not result in large-scale displacement of Native American villages. Perhaps disease, or perhaps attacks from raiding Catawbas from the south and Iroquois from the north had emptied out the Piedmont before the colonists arrived in large numbers. That's a key reason Virginia built so few forts on the "frontier."

Prior to the conflicts with Shawnee and other Ohio tribes during the French and Indian War in the 1750's, frontier farmers built sturdy wooden houses that also served as defensive structures rather than facilities dedicated to just military protection. Such houses are called "forts" in many reports written in colonial days, especially after settlement reached the Shenandoah Valley. Families would retreat to the fort only when there was a specific alarm that a war party was nearby.

First Forts At Point Comfort

Exploring Land, Settling Frontiers

French and Indian War forts west of the Blue Ridge, between the New and Shenandoah rivers
French and Indian War forts west of the Blue Ridge, between the New and Shenandoah rivers
Source: Library of Congress, Map of part of Augusta County, Colony of Virginia, 1755-1760



1. John Smith, A True Relation of Virginia, 1608, published by Charles Deane (editor), Boston, Wiggin and Lunt, 1866, p.10, (last checked June 20, 2017)
2. John Smith, A True Relation of Virginia, 1608, published by Charles Deane (editor), Boston, Wiggin and Lunt, 1866, p.11, (last checked June 20, 2017)
3. George Percy, "Observations gathered out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie in Virginia by the English, 1606," 1607, posted at Virtual Jamestown, (last checked June 20, 2017)
4. Frances Mossiker, Pocahontas: The Life And The Legend, Da Capo Press, 1996, pp.96-98, (last checked June 20, 2017)
5. Philip Levy, "A New Look at an Old Wall: Indians, Englishmen, Landscape, and the 1634 Palisade at Middle Plantation," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 112, no. 3 (2004)
6. Martha W. McCartney, "The Draft of York River in Virginia: An Artifact of the Seventeenth Century," Southeastern Archaeology , 3(2) Winter 1984, (last checked October 5, 2010)

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