Thatching in the Colonies of British North America

Sheltering early emigrants… in ‘remote, heathen and barbarous lands’; until Canadian Confederation & the first Centenary of American Independence




Ill-starred
beginnings…



Chartered by their Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth; two English brothers, Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh; are licenced to colonise the New World…



Family likeness… Above, Sir Humphrey Gilbert; with his younger half-brother Sir Walter Raleigh, on the right.

The first attempt, by the English, to settle in North America, began in 1578. When Sir Humphrey Gilbert, whose widowed mother married the father of Sir Walter Raleigh; was granted by Queen Elizabeth, a charter, to set up colonies in North America. Giving him; ‘’ free libertie and licence from time to time, and at all times for ever hereafter, to discover, finde, search out, and view such remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countreys and territories not actually possessed of any Christian prince or people’’.

Early attempts failed and cost him his fortune; but, after further military service in Ireland; where he already had a murderous reputation; he sailed again in 1583. Heading for Newfoundland; to set up a permanent base, to exploit its rich fisheries… Arriving in August, he took possession of the harbour of St. John, claiming the lands hereabouts for England. He left without setting up a colony, due to a lack of supplies and perished in a storm, on his voyage home…

Undeterred by his brother’s death,  Sir Walter Raleigh obtained his charter from Queen Elizabeth dated 25th March (Lady Day) 1584. To oncemore “discover, search, find out, and view such remote heathen and barbarous Lands, etc. etc.

Sir Walter never travelled to North America, but his associates did; founding a fortified settlement, on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now the American state of North Carolina.

With the disappearance of at least two groups, of settlers and soldiers, the project was abandoned. Becoming known as the ‘Lost Colony’. No images or records survive of this settlement, but very likely the inhabitants used the same thatching materials as the local natives…



Roanoke… One of several drawings, by the ‘lost colony’s’ governor John White, showing his Algonquian neighbours. Who made use of the local reeds, to cover their homes with woven mats; with the building at the top right seemingly thatched. His extensive drawings did not include an image of his fortified fiefdom.


John White had returned to England, before the final disappearance of the colony’s settlers. Sailing back, in August 1590, he found no trace of the 90 men, 17 women and 11 children; which included his grand-daughter…

In 1607, a more successful venture finally took root; in what became Jamestown, Virginia. This colony was founded by the Virginia Company, who had obtained a charter, from Queen Elizabeth’s successor, King James.

The first ships to arrive brought the type of men, who sought riches and not work; they soon found an early grave. A second wave of settlers seemingly consisted of more practical types; who had their basic needs sorted; food, security and a roof over their heads… A thatched one…

Jamestown reborn… The small sized houses on the left; built at the Jamestown Settlement, are based on foundations found on the original nearby site. Recent research shows that the first dwellings had much in common, with those still found around the Thimbleby area of Lincolnshire. So the Jamestown roofs would probably have been hipped. Looking more like the slightly larger cottage, in today’s Thimbleby, on the right. (left Photo; Creative Commons copyright & thanks to ‘Tasma3197’)


Thatch was easy to find. The eastern seaboard, of what is now the United States and much of Canada, has abundant beds of water reed (phragmites australis) and other suitable material, along nearly every river. Even more fortunate, was the fact that the current inhabitants were already harvesting the crop. In Virginia, the local Powhatans had been managing this valuable asset, for many centuries. Thatch, of various kinds, was also used by many other native peoples, right across the continent.



Jamestown… Over the thatch, to the Powhatan or James River, from the replicated fort; close to the original site.

Perhaps emboldened by the exploits of the Virginia Company, the London and Bristol Company was founded, by merchants from these two cities; often called the Newfoundland Company. Like Humphrey Gilbert, they wished to exploit the fish stocks off Newfoundland, from a permanent settlement. King James issued the necessary charter… In August 1610 the first immigrants arrived in Newfoundland, settling at a place they called Cupers Cove. The type of roofing used, in this first settlement is not recorded but it may well have been thatch. This material was certainly in use a decade or so later, in 1622.

Two years earlier the area had been granted to Sir George Calvert, later Lord Baltimore. He decided to take advantage of one of Newfoundland’s most productive fishing harbours; founding a colony at Ferryland. A letter from the colony’s Governor Edward Wynne, speaks of the building projects at the new site, in July 1622… ‘All hallowtide before our first range of building was fitted for an habitable being. The which being 44 foot of length, & 15 foot of breadth, containing a hall 18 foot long… The roofe over the hall, I covered with Deale boords, and the rest such thatch as I found growing here about the Harbour, as sedge, flagges and rushes, a farre better covering than boards, both for warmth & litenesse.’



Ferreyland…This map, from 1693, shows a few buildings, that may well have still been thatched. Although shingle roofs often took over, once a settlement became well established. Ferryland was originally a summer settlement, for migratory fishermen; used by the French, Spanish and Portuguese, as well as the English. In the 1590s the area was acclaimed, by Sir Walter Raleigh, as a most productive fishery. The 1622 colony prospered, becoming Newfoundland’s oldest permanent settlement…

Probably an even more abundant supply of thatching material, than that used in Ferryland, greeted the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620, when the Mayflower docked further south; in what became Massachusetts. This valuable resource was used for a long time, well into the revolutionary period at least. In Canada in 1769, Guy Carleton, Governor of Quebec banned the illegal ‘carrying away of Thatching Grass’, from several islands, near the city. And there is still a Thatch Island, in the St John River in New Brunswick.

One New Hampshire resident, with the splendid name of Dependence Bickford, left his wife Olive; ‘a salt marsh and thatch bed’; in his will of 1782. This lay at Newington, on the shores of this state’s Great Bay.

This was not the only reedbed, changing hands in the 1780’s…



‘a sartin thatch lot’… A few years after Olive Bickford inherited her husband’s reedbed; down in Essex County, Massachusetts another one was being disposed of; this time next to the Jones River. George Dennen, acting for the late James Dick; received ‘seven pounds lawful money’ for the property. The deed is dated 15th Feburary 1786; ‘in the tenth year of American Independence’… George died a few weeks later, aged 73. Long coarse grass and reeds, growing on the New England coast, were often referred to as ‘Thatch’ in the late nineteenth century.


The story of the Pilgrim Fathers is too well known, to be repeated in full here. The patent for their Plymouth Colony, was granted by the same Virginia Company, that owned Jamestown; in 1619. Many of the emigrants, on the Mayflower, came from a rural background in Nottinghamshire; thus they would have been familiar with the craft of thatching. The water reeds found in their new home, would also have been found in the river valleys, of their former English county.



Plimouth Plantation… Near to the ‘Pilgrims’ original settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Thatching, in the early years of the seventeenth century, became so popular that the local council at Plymouth, fearing a major fire, banned further use of ‘straw and reed’ for roofing houses, in 1636; only ‘board or pale’ could now be used. Other New England records note, the wages of a ‘skillful thatcher, working diligently’ at New Haven, Conn. in 1640. A new thatch was completed at Ipswich Mass. in 1657; with a record of the seemingly inevitable thatched roof fire here, in 1671.

The well visited site at ‘Plimouth’ was founded in 1947, but the lower left hand image from ‘Salem’, shows a much earlier reconstruction, perhaps built around 1920, to celebrate the 300th anniversary, of the Pilgrim’s landing? The right hand photo shows a modern replica at ‘Plimouth’… (Upper photo; GNU License & thanks to ‘Nancy’. Lower left, Creative Commons copyright & thanks to ‘Swampyank’.)

In between the two English outposts of Virginia and Massachusetts, the Dutch had founded their colony, of New Netherland…

On the extensive Rensselaerswyck estate, along the Hudson River, three arrivals from the Netherlands, are recorded as being able to thatch. One Roelof Cornelisz arrived around 1637, being paid for ‘thatching roofs of houses’, along with other tasks. A Robert Harmenenz was working at the same time; and Hendrick Fredericksz was employed ‘cutting straw, thatching roofs and threshing’, between 1638 and 1650. These are probably the earlist named thatchers, recorded in the American colonies…

New Amsterdam, the capital of the colony, grew rapidly and the problems of urban living soon appeared. The danger of fire, causing further thatching to be banned in 1657; throughout the island of Manhattan…

Manhattan..? Probably not. But the opposite seventeenth century Dutch print, shows thatchers, on the type of building that must have graced the island. Until the ban of the 1650’s; a decade before the British seized the colony, renaming it after the Duke of York.

Around the time the English were re-naming New Amsterdam, yet another royal charter set up a company, that would not exploit fish but fur; in its day it became the world’s largest landowner; controlling around 40% of what became Canada…

Impressed with the rich cargo of furs, brought home by a successful expedition to Hudson’s Bay; King Charles II, in early May 1670, granted a trading monopoly over the bay’s drainage area. Except lands ‘’possessed by any of our Subjects, or by the Subjects of any other Christian Prince or State”. Of which there were none…

And in setting up this vast fiefdom, the craft of thatching was utilised to give shelter, in more than a few trading posts, in some very remote northern locations…




Chartered…Thus was formed “the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay.” In his charter King Charles’ “dear and entirely beloved cousin” Prince Rupert, is named the company’s Governor… the territory was to called “Rupert’s Land.” Rupert had sponsored the first expedition…


Following a merger with the North West Company in 1821, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s monopoly was extended to cover the vast North-Western Territory.

In the autumn of 1670, the first official party of the Hudson’s Bay Company, arrived at Charles Fort; later called Rupert’s House. The site having been set up by the earlier expedition. This first party had landed at what is now Waskaganish in northern Quebec; where they constructed buildings to overwinter in. These were roofed with ‘local thatch’. This was repeated by the second group. One Thomas Gorst, describes the building of two log houses; ‘’Thatched with a ranke sort of grasse growing in ye marshes much like ye Saggs wch are every where in our English brookes’… The ‘Saggs’ he mentions were likely being compared with Sedge Grass…

It seems many factors, in charge of the various  Company trading posts, were required to keep detailed journals, akin to ship’s logs… Thatching is mentioned in several.

The Cumberland House post was established in 1774 and today is the oldest settler community in Saskatchewan. The journal for 1779 shows men working, on Friday 29th October. Two were employed ‘getting Grass to Thatch the House’. Others were ‘’putting grass and mud on the roof for thatching’’.

The thatching method used here and in other locations, used mud or clay to fix whole courses or small bundles of thatch onto the roof. With the upper course of thatch bedding into the clay, already spread over the top part, of the previous lower course. This method was also practiced in parts of Scotland; perhaps a link exsists? Possibly, as a goodly number of Company men and settlers hailed from Scotland…

Other records, from the Red River Valley state… ‘’ After the rains had washed most off the sod of the roof, the thatching process was resorted to, long, rank reeds being cut from nearby marshes and muddied on by the sticky clay so abundant in the Red River valley.’

The post at Fort Chimo.. now Kuujjuaq, the largest Inuit community in Nunavik, Quebec; was founded in 1830. The journals record problems obtaining suitable roofing materials. But the ‘people’ were eventually employed, in August; ‘roofing the powder magazine with torches made of clay and grass’’. Later another house was roofed in the same manner; allowing the party to overwinter. ‘Torches’ being small bundles of thatch.

Two other Company Posts , from the age of the camera…

Opposite; Manitoba… in 1884. The Hudson’s Bay Company post, at Dog Head Point; on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg. The First Nation peoples of Canada, seemingly made use of bark, to cover most of their dwellings. And the left and centre buildings, in this image, seem covered thus. But the right hand roof appears to be thatched. Perhaps with rushes or reeds from the nearby lake…



Below; Fort McPherson… in 1913.
, Today a hamlet located in the Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories; 67°25’N. In 1840, the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort McPherson, the first trading post north of the Arctic Circle… Seemingly the post was first built with imported timber; with thatch being used as roofing. This image, depicts two traditional Company roofs, both possibly thatched; with the grasses, that the long summer days allow to grow. The far right hand roof being in a better state… A summer home of the local first nation people is in the foreground, formed of hides.




As the immigrants moved inland and left the reedbeds behind; the cost of labour forced a change. The very American roofing, of wooden shingles, was faster to apply than thatch; and straw was more valuable as fodder, than roofing. Thus the craft declined somewhat… But further west, where timber for shingles was scarce, some of the first settlers lived under thatch for a while. In Kansas, 1850’s emigrants found large ‘Receiving Houses’; built to accommodate them as they settled. The ’Pioneer Boarding House’, in Lawrence, was built of turf walls and thatched with ‘prairie hay’… This thatch was almost certainly ‘Switchgrass’, (panicum virgatum). As ever it seems, the migrants were utilizing  a traditional thatching material, of the local native peoples; hereabouts often called ‘The Grass House People’

In the Red River Valley, mentioned above, thatch seems to have been a popular roofing. The Red River Colony was a set up in 1811 by Thomas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, after a land grant of 120,000 square miles by The Hudson’s Bay Company… This lay in what became Manitoba, with more land south of the 49th parallel; becoming part of The United States, in 1818.

In the 1820’s The Church Missionary Society set up in the area. One Rev. W. Cockran being credited with teaching the locals the rudiments of agriculture and house building; including ‘how to thatch the roofs with reeds’




 Fort Pembina… Just south of the 49th parallel, here Norman Kittson established a trading post, replacing the Hudson’s Bay setup, that moved north of the border in 1823. Kittson’s depot at Pembina, was described in 1850; as a ‘large long low hut’. This stood at the end of a courtyard, containing ‘stables, stores for peltry & goods to be given for peltry’, with a blacksmiths and icehouse. All being thatched ‘with grass’… The left hand print, from c1860, shows some thatch, behind the stockade. Kittson died a millionaire, in the 1880’s. The Red River hereabouts now forms the border between North Dakota and Minnesota; with Canada a few miles to the north…
Gunfight at the thatched Post Office… The Old Post Office in Pembina, stood until 1883 when it was demolished. Built in 1864 it had also served as the U.S. Customs House. The local paper noted “it has served its day and generation.. In the old front door is a bullet hole, the relic of a terrible tragedy which occurred some five years ago, when a detective and a desperado exchanged mutually fatal shots, both expiring in a few minutes.” This had been William Collins,(‘desperado’) and William Anderson,(deptuty US marshal). Schoolfriends and the best man at each other’s wedding… The righthand photo, dated to the 1870’s/1880’s, shows a thin coating to the roof. Perhaps more turf than thatch; but earlier images seem to show things the other way around…

As already mentioned, thatch was used, when heavy rains damaged turf roofs. And in 1853, it was noted that houses, with roofs of oak shingles, rarely last more than 12 to 15 years, due to the heat in summer, when the shingles ‘curl up like spoons’‘The generality of the people use straw thatched roofs, which are light, water tight and durable’

Andrew MacDermot’s store… The above image of his trading post dates from 1858 and was situated at Fort Garry; at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, in what is now Winnipeg. Both the photo of the store and that of the fort, on the right, show evidence of thatching. The forts circular towers being easy to roof with thatch. MacDermot was an ex employee of the Hudson’s bay Company and mostly kept on good terms with them. Allowing him to trade to advantage, often with Norman Kittson, over the border at Pembina. Like him he became wealthy, by the time his trading post was photographed, he was the “Richest Man in the Red River Settlement”. Only the arched gateway to the fort remains extant…

In the 1868 records, of the General Quarterly Court of Assiniboia (an area around present day Winnipeg); one Augustine Gaudris was sued, for not completing a contract… He stated part of his delay in finishing the job, was that he had spent 3 days cutting ‘long grass’ for thatch and two days getting it home. He lost his case…

Where no wages were paid, thatching also lingered. Many a slave slept under thatch, on the plantations of the Southern United States…


Forced Labour… Enslaved people very nearly always built their own homes; as these 1860’s images show. The above example stood in Goose Creek Plantation, North Carolina. The right hand, expertly thatched building, was photographed at Houma,Louisiana. Both are thatched with local palmetto leaves; used for centuries by native peoples. The wooden ridging is identical to that used by the Seminole peoples of Florida.

Thatching was also employed, in the eastern United States, well into the nineteenth century, especially on farm buildings.



A Political Thatched Barn… The Barnburners were a radical faction in the 1840’s Democratic Party… ‘Barnburner’ was derived from the idea of someone who would burn down his own property to get rid of an infestation of rats. Among other things the Barnburners opposed the extension of slavery. In 1848 they left the Democratic Party, refusing to support presidential the party’s nominee . Joining with other anti-slavery groups, to form the Free Soil Party. The cartoon opposite, seemingly produced by their rivals, depicts a thatched building which was probably a common sight at this time.

The extensive use of photography, in the American Civil War, occasionally shows such buildings…




September 1862, Smith’s Barn… At Keedysville, Maryland. A spendid image by Alexander Gardner. Here the thatched barn is being ultilised as a Union field hospital, following the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single-day battle in American history. Seemingly every spare church, house and barn for miles around, was used to house the wounded from both sides. Very likely more than this one was thatched… A careful look at the above scene, shows many roughly thatched shelters, scattered around the barn; no doubt protecting scores of wounded soldiers.




Shealer’s Barn, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania… A later image of the building, which acted as another field hospital; this time for the Confederate forces; engaged in the famous 1863 battle hereabouts. This state had a long tradition of thatching barns, extending for decades after the 1860’s; the work mainly being carried out in Dutch communities. The barn on Micheal Shealer’s farm lasted until 1933…

This page has dealt with the craft of thatching, in the mainly British colonisation, of what is now Canada and The United States. For more information, on the thatching, in these two countries; of their native peoples and others, from around 1870-1930; just follow the green link… Thatching in Canada, United States & Mexico