The Invisible Walls

It had taken two days for the young man to find help. He and his father had been building a house across a river when their camp was attached by a band of Indians raiding the frontier. Shot, but not killed, he feigned death as they scalped him, waiting until it was safe before he made it to the river, swam across, the sting of the water helping him stay conscious.  There he made a poultice from moss to sooth the pain, and set out for help. Two days later, when he reached the home of a settler, he was so weak he couldn’t cry out. He crawled up the steps and passed out in the breezeway, where he was discovered by a slave.

A breezeway, also known as a dog trot, was a common feature of Southern homes in those days. This was a large passageway through the middle of the house, separating two rooms, to help cool things in the summer. This particular house was a two-story log home, the stairs accessed by a door on the back porch. It was standard construction for that time, though this home was set apart with shaped boards covering the chinking, and wainscoting and a sealed ceiling on the bottom floor. There was nothing to stop the young man from crawling up into the breezeway.

There would have been nothing to stop Indians, either.

That’s something I never really thought about until I read a post by Sarah Hoyt on walled yards and Portugal homes. Here was a home on the frontier, with Indians three miles away, with thefts from Indian raiders common, and scalping and worse weren’t unknown. Yet no one walled their immediate property. Nor were the settlers oblivious to the danger. This particular house was the third build by the same man, with the first between the Indians and a local fort, with his other two about a mile away,  with the fort in between. It was in those other two that he raised his family, apparently staying in his other house when operating his grist mill and boat yard. The settlers lived on the sharp edge of things, and knew it.

Yet though they had material and know-how, they didn’t wall in the yards around their homes. You’d think the risk of death would be enough for settlers to make a walled compound on the order of Portugal, but they didn’t, and I’m not sure why. I have some vague ideas, but vague ideas do not a hypothesis make, nor a theory.

I have too many unanswered questions to do more than guess. Why where Portugal homes different from English? Were Spanish homes similar to Portuguese? What of French homes, and homes across Europe? Was the Portuguese style home a descendant from Roman style homes, and if so, why didn’t this continue in southern England? All I know is that homes on the US frontier did not have walled yards, and few, if any, seem to have considered such a thing.

What I do know is that the family carried the young man to a room, cleaned and bandaged his wound, and sent word to the commanding officer of the local militia. The officer called up men to the fort, and from there they set out in search of the raiders. What followed is a tale and a half, but this part of the story was not unusual. It would happen again, and more than once would the settlers flock to the fort for protection.

It’s worth noting, as events played out and another militia weeks later marched on an Indian town in a reprisal raid, that the Indians didn’t have walled yards, either. This is significant because the first European explorers described walled towns. Between then and the early 1800s, Indians abandoned the practice. Something changed, but what?

At this time there were surface similarities between Indian and settler cultures, and some Indians became Christians, but in large part Indian and settler society remained separate and distinct. Whatever happened, it was enough that the Indians no longer saw value in walled towns or yards. There was something in common, but what?

Honestly, I don’t know. I suspect – but could be wrong – that one factor was the threat of deadly force. My grandparents might not have locked their doors at night, but my grandfather kept a shotgun and an open box of shells within easy reach of his bed. In the 17th and 18th Century, both cultures adopted a policy very similar to that in Rudyard Kipling’s The Grave of the Hundred Head. One settler, who horsewhipped an Indian he caught stealing a hog, came home to find his family brutally slaughtered. And when a settler was scalped, as with the young man who made his way to safety, it brought out the militia. Weeks later, when a different militia burned an Indian town, the issue wasn’t that they had went on a reprisal raid, but whether they struck the guilty town.

Such a hard policy could, and did, escalate into open war. It may also have acted as a deterrent. If an Indian raid was subject to militia action, so were incursions by settlers subject to action from Indian towns. What applied to Indian also applied to settler. Both watched the other and kept their powder dry.

I don’t know how this compared to countries like Portugal, or England, or Europe. Until relatively recently, responding to theft with deadly force was common all across the US. Was this the same in Portugal and Europe? I really don’t know.

Since both the US and Portugal was predominately Christian, that doesn’t seem to have been a factor. But England had the “tithing,” a system, introduced by King Canute, which made every group of about ten men responsible both for the behavior of each other and for keeping the peace. For this reason men were expected to be armed. And from the 11th Century at least to the 16th, this was a common part of the English criminal justice. Did this, along with deadly force, shape attitudes toward property in the US?

I don’t know. All I know for certain is that in an age when settlers lived under the threat of firebrand and scalping knife, they did not see fit to build walls about their property, and to this day most Americans do not have walls about their property. Whatever those invisible walls were, they worked.

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