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Title: The Blacksmith in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg - An Account of his Life & Times and of his Craft
Author: Anonymous
Language: English
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                         in Eighteenth-Century

            An Account of his Life & Times and of his Craft

                      _Williamsburg Craft Series_

                  Published by _Colonial Williamsburg_

                            _The Blacksmith
                  in Eighteenth-Century_ Williamsburg

    [Illustration: Decorative capital]

“Iron seemeth a simple metal, but in its nature are many mysteries,”
wrote Joseph Glanvill, a seventeenth-century English churchman. To the
contrary, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, two centuries later, found nothing
mysterious about the worker in iron. His brawny blacksmith (long hair
and all) embodied every simple virtue: he owed money to no man, prayed
in church on Sundays, and earned an honest living by the sweat of his
honest brow.

Longfellow may have realized that he was penning a swan song for the
village blacksmith, whose forge and anvil could not last far into the
factory age. Most probably, however, the poet did not think of himself
as reducing to the level of small-town banality the lusty craftsman
whose precursors forged thunderbolts for the gods.

To primitive peoples, it seems, there has always been something
supernatural 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 of Roman theology, Odin in Norse myth. Or he
turned into a whole race of demigods—giant Cyclops or dwarf
Nibelungs—having mystical skills in metalwork.

                      _SEEKERS FOR GOLD AND IRON_

Down through all recorded civilizations man has valued gold as the most
precious of metals. Yet in every civilization since man learned to smelt
and forge it, iron has in fact been the metal most valuable to him.

The paradox is more apparent than real. Iron is a common metal, and
(with steel) can be put to an almost unlimited variety of uses—including
the working of other metals. Its real value to man is utilitarian,
although it may be employed for decorative and even monetary purposes.
Gold, on the other hand, although of somewhat limited usefulness, is
comparatively rare and is valued more for that than for its durable

It was, in part, the hope of finding gold—as the Spanish had found it in
Mexico and Peru—that moved Sir Walter Raleigh to send colonizing
ventures to North America. But any resource that might bring wealth to
the gentlemen adventurers in London and to England itself was not to be
overlooked. Thomas Hariot, one of those who reached Roanoke Island with
Raleigh’s initial 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 by the triall of a
  Minerall man was found to hold iron richly. It is found in many places
  of the country els.

    [Illustration: _Around the edges of a brass clock face made in
    England about 1750 and now in the possession of Colonial
    Williamsburg, some unknown engraver depicted ironworking operations.
    Here, above the numbers 11 and 12 on the clock face, open-pit miners
    are shown digging and hauling ore._]

Nothing further is known of these discoveries, including their exact
location, for the Roanoke colony did not survive. But the settlement
made in 1607 at Jamestown did endure. Sending careful instructions, the
sponsoring Virginia Company of London directed the adventurers to
Virginia to look not only for gold but for iron ore. Among the first
group of settlers was George Read, a blacksmith, to be joined the
following year by Richard Dole of the same craft, and Peter Keffer,

No doubt some of these workers in iron—perhaps all three of them—had a
hand in the experimental smelting and forging of local bog iron during
Jamestown’s first year or two. Captain John Smith reported that the
colony’s “best commoditie was Iron which we made into little chissels.”
Archaeological excavations at Jamestown and at nearby Denbigh Plantation
in recent years have disclosed the sites of what appear to have been
small furnaces for smelting iron ore.

At the same time, the colonists were shipping ore back to England, seven
tons of iron being smelted at Bristol from Virginia ore as early as
1608. Four years later, William Strachey wrote:

  Sir Tho: Dale hath mencioned in his Letters to the [Worthies?] of the
  Councell of a goodly Iron myne, and Capt Newport hath brought home of
  that mettell so sufficient a tryall, as there hath bene made 16. or
  17. tonne of Iron, so good as the East Indian Marchants bought that of
  the Virginian Company, preferring that before any other Iron of what
  Country soever.

    [Illustration: _A conjectural sketch, after Sidney King, of an
    earthen furnace for smelting iron. Furnaces such as this were used
    in England early in the seventeenth century, and similar ones may
    have been used at Jamestown._]

In further pursuit of its determination to set up an iron industry in
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. Before the _Mayflower_ left old Plymouth
with its cargo of religious refugees, more than one hundred workmen
having the required skills had sailed to Virginia, some of them to set
up a full-scale ironworks at Falling Creek, about sixty miles up the
James River from Jamestown.

How much iron was actually produced at the Falling Creek furnace and
forge, whether largely pig iron, sow iron, or wrought iron, and whether
consumed in the colony, shipped to England, or some of both, must remain
matters of conjecture. A series of troubles plagued the project, but by
1619 the blast furnace, finery, forge, and chafery were reported to be
“in some good forwardnesse, and a proofe is sent of _Iron_ made there.”
Two years later a new manager was sent over, and he promised “to finish
the Works & have plentiful provision of Iron ... by next Easter.”

The forecast was fateful. Easter in 1622 fell on March 24. But on the
morning of Good Friday, March 22, the Indians of Virginia fell on every
English settlement along the James River, massacring more than 350
colonists, including 27 at Falling Creek. The redskins not only
slaughtered the entire adult complement of ironworkers, but destroyed
the buildings and supposedly heaved some of the machinery into the river
nearby. The exact details are understandably a little vague, but the
result was conclusive: the iron industry in Virginia was ended for
nearly one hundred years.

                          _EARLY IRONMASTERS_

Except for bloomeries, which could have existed in every colony, the
first successful ironworks in British America began production about
1645 at Saugus, Massachusetts. (In a bloomery operation a lump of iron
ore—usually bog iron—is heated until it is semimolten, and then is
hammered on the anvil until most impurities have been forced out; with
much labor in this manner, small quantities of excellent wrought iron
can be produced.) The Saugus works have been reconstructed after careful
archaeological and historical research; a sort of family resemblance is
to be presumed between them and the ironworks built in Virginia early in
the eighteenth century.

    [Illustration: _The Hammersmith ironworks on the Saugus River in
    Massachusetts as they are believed to have looked in 1650. Along
    with documentary records, extensive remains found below ground at
    the site—and some above—have permitted a careful rebuilding of the
    entire complex. Redrawn after an architectural rendering in the
    Saugus Museum._]

Governor Alexander Spotswood re-launched the iron industry in Virginia
with the financial backing of several gentlemen in the colony and in
England, and with the skilled labor of immigrant ironworkers from
Germany. By 1718 it appears that his Tubal works, near the confluence of
the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers, were in production, although he had
not yet received the London government’s permission even to start the

Fourteen years later Spotswood (by then out of office) told William Byrd
II of Westover that iron mines and blast furnaces were operating at four
locations in Virginia. Byrd visited and described 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
was sole proprietor of the first and third, having bought out his
original backers.

The fourth was at Accokeek, near the Potomac, on land belonging to
Augustine Washington, whose son George had just been born. Byrd, who did
not get that far on his 1732 “Progress to the Mines,” nevertheless
confidently reported that “Matters are very well managed there, and no
expense is spared to make them profitable, which is not the case in the
works I have already mentioned.” This judgment may have been accurate
for all we know, but it seems unkind of Byrd to throw the only bouquet
to the one place he had not seen while dropping brickbats on the men who
had been so hospitable and helpful to him.

His criticism was certainly well founded in one case. The furnace at
Fredericksville (a place no longer on the map) had been idle the entire
summer. Somewhat like the rider who was lost for want of a horseshoe
nail, here the blast furnace could not operate even though ore,
limestone, charcoal, waterpower, and skilled labor were all available.
The missing “nail” in this case was corn. There was not enough to feed
the oxen that hauled the carts that carried the ore from mine to furnace
and the sows from furnace to dockside on the Rappahannock some
twenty-four miles away.

Byrd, who had a notion to become an ironmaster himself, was advised that
a proper works required, besides an iron deposit nearby, a constant
supply of waterpower to operate the bellows, easy access to deep water
for shipping the output to England, at least two miles square of
woodland to supply charcoal for a “moderate” furnace, and 120 slaves to
do the work, including some to grow food for both men and beasts. Two
bits of advice, which he recorded as follows, may have dissuaded him
from taking the plunge:

  If all these circumstances happily concur, and you could procure
  honest colliers and firemen, which will be difficult to do....

  The founders find it very hot work to tend the furnace, especially in
  summer, and are obliged to spend no small part of their earnings in
  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’s trip, the output of the four
Virginia furnaces consisted almost entirely of cast iron sows and pigs
that were shipped to England. There was not a single forge operating in
the whole of Virginia, Spotswood told Byrd.

Just three years later, however, Governor William Gooch reported to the
Board of Trade in London that one forge was producing bar iron. He
seemed to think this was enough to satisfy the colony’s needs for iron
“for agriculture and Planting, for mending as well as making tools.” How
badly Gooch misjudged the local demand for wrought iron is evident in
the rapid increase of forges in the following years. A number sprang up
near the lower Potomac and in the Shenandoah Valley; one, called Holt’s
Forge, was erected sometime before 1755 between Williamsburg and
Richmond at what is now Providence Forge. Its output just before the
Revolution included bar iron and such plantation supplies as plow hoes,
broad hoes, hilling hoes, grubbing hoes with steel edges, nails, and

Legally, no colonial forge with trip hammer, rolling mill to fashion
wrought iron plate, or slitting mill to turn the plate into bars could
be built after Parliament passed the Iron Act of 1750. But the law seems
to have had little effect, and Virginia smiths called for more and more
bar iron to make farm tools and ironwork for wagons, mills, and ships.

The demand was so great that most bar iron produced in the colonies was
consumed by local blacksmiths. In 1764, for example, Colonel John
Tayloe, who owned ironworks in King George County, found he could sell
his whole output locally. Robert Carter, the planter-entrepreneur of
Nomini Hall and partner in the Baltimore iron Works, sold large
quantities of bar iron in Williamsburg and to blacksmiths elsewhere in

By 1770 William Hunter’s works at Falmouth, said to be the largest in
America at that time, were turning one and one-half tons of pig iron
into bars every day. In 1781 Thomas Jefferson, who had a small interest
in three blast furnaces in his home county of Albermarle and who later
owned a nail making machine and sold its output, counted eight ironworks
in Virginia. He reported that they produced about 4,400 tons of pig iron
and more than 900 tons of bar iron annually.

                        _THE COUNTRY BLACKSMITH_

Two blacksmiths and a gunsmith, as we have seen, came to Jamestown with
the earliest settlers, recruited for the obvious reason that their
crafts were vital to the survival of any settlement in the wilderness.
From the start, both the London Company and the colonial assembly tried
to persuade smiths to migrate, and, when they reached the New World, to
practice their craft.

By way of encouragement, the assembly exempted from taxes and levies
artisans who engaged in their crafts and did not plant tobacco. In 1657,
in order to assure smiths, tanners, and weavers ample raw materials to
work with, it forbade the exportation of iron, hides, and wool. This
latter law had a checkered career: it was repealed the next year,
reenacted two years later, repealed as a failure after eleven years,
reenacted once more after another eleven years, and immediately repealed
by royal order as a threat to the trade and commerce of England.

Through it all the supply of working smiths remained small in the colony
of Virginia, and their charges skyrocketed. The county courts were given
regulatory powers “by reason of the unconscionable rates, [that] smiths
do exact on the inhabitants of this countrey for their worke.” Later and
for another reason—the runaway inflation that accompanied the
Revolution—prices of many commodities were commonly fixed. For instance,
the price of bar iron (a consumer item for smiths) was set by a
Williamsburg town meeting of July 16, 1779, at 800 shillings per ton and
eightpence per pound “for the present month.”

    [Illustration: _Shown in this illustration from Joseph Moxon’s
    Mechanick Exercises, published in several eighteenth-century
    editions in London, are the basic pieces of equipment in a
    blacksmith’s shop—then and since. Actually, the bellows connection
    shown is faulty: the draft must come up through the firebed, not
    blow across the top of it._]

Actually the greatest obstacles to the growth in seventeenth-century
Virginia of any large manufactory of iron and steel articles were the
scarcities of cash money and, even more simply, of towns. Hartwell,
Blair, and Chilton, in their report to the London Board of Trade,
entitled _The Present State of Virginia, and the College_, described the
situation in 1697:

  For want of Towns, Markets, and Money, there is but little
  Encouragement for Tradesmen and Artificers, and therefore little
  Choice of them, and their Labour very dear in the Country. A Tradesman
  having no Opportunity of a Market where he can buy Meat, Milk, Corn,
  and all other things, must either make Corn, keep Cows, and raise
  Stocks himself, or must ride about the Country to buy Meat and Corn
  where he can find it; and then is puzzled to find Carriers, Drovers,
  Butchers, Salting (for he can’t buy one Joynt or two) and a great many
  other Things, which there would be no Occasion for, if there were
  Towns and Markets. Then a great deal of the Tradesman’s Time being
  necessarily spent in going and coming to and from his Work, in
  dispers’d Country Plantations, and his Pay being generally in
  straggling Parcels of Tobacco, the Collection whereof costs about 10
  per Cent. and the best of this Pay coming but once a Year, so that he
  cannot turn his Hand frequently with a small Stock, as Tradesmen do in
  England and elsewhere, all this occasions the Dearth of all
  Tradesmen’s Labour, and likewise the Discouragement, Scarcity, and
  Insufficiency of Tradesmen.

When James Blair and his co-authors wrote of the difficulties faced by
artificers, Williamsburg was about to be made the capital of the
Virginia colony. Seventy years later Williamsburg was enjoying the
height of its golden age—but the soil continued less than fertile for
the growth of large-scale and urban iron workshops. Governor Fauquier
reported to the board of Trade in 1766:

  There is but one manufactory of the least importance carried on in
  this Colony, which is, the making of Iron both in pigs and barrs,
  which receives no publick encouragement, and which when made is
  chiefly exported to Great Britain. But ... every gentleman of much
  property in land and negroes have some of their own negroes bred up in
  the trade of blacksmiths, and make axes, hoes, ploughshares, and such
  kind of coarse work for the use of their plantations. I do not know
  that there is a white-smith or maker of cutlery in the Colony.

Fauquier’s report may be discounted as a politically motivated effort to
allay the home government’s suspicions that the colonists were engaging
too heavily in iron manufacture. As a matter of fact, there was a
whitesmith (that is, tinsmith or worker in white metal) by the name of
John Bell in Williamsburg at the time Fauquier wrote. Records of the
period mention cutlers at work in Williamsburg and elsewhere in the
colony. But the point of paramount significance in his report lies in
the undeniable fact that agricultural blacksmithing—and Virginia was an
almost entirely agricultural colony—took place on the individual
plantations. In addition to Negro slaves, some indentured servants, free
journeymen, and master craftsmen—the latter occasionally itinerant—could
be found working at their craft on farms throughout the colony.

Robert Carter, member of the council and sometime owner of a large home
next to the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, had workers on his
plantations, white and black apparently, trained as coopers, carpenters,
weavers, blacksmiths, millers, sailors, bricklayers, shoemakers, and in
other skills. He sold iron articles made on his Nomini Hall plantation
to his neighbors for cash or produce—such items as hoes, axes, plows,
and nails. Although Carter was by no means typical, he being one of
Virginia’s wealthiest and most successful farm entrepreneurs, the
example of plantation blacksmithing could be repeated many times over.

An instance of the availability of indentured servants is found in the
1773 advertisement of James Mills in the _Virginia Gazette_:

  Just arrived the _Success’s Increase_, Captain _Curtis_, with about
  eighty choice healthy Servants, among whom are many Tradesmen, viz.
  Shoemakers, Weavers, Carpenters, Black and White Smiths, Tailers, a
  Sailmaker, a Tanner, a Glazier and Painter, a Bricklayer, a Brass
  Founder, a Turner, an Upholsterer, Surgeons, and Apothecaries, Hair
  Dressers, Schoolmasters and Book-Keepers, with many Farmers,
  Labourers, &c. &c. The sale will commence at _Leeds_ Town, on Monday
  the 3d of _January_ and will continue till all are sold. Reasonable
  Credit will be allowed.... Tobacco will be taken in Payment for the

John Tait, another planter, wrote to England for a blacksmith who was
“accustomed to coarse Country work,” such as hoes and axes, to be
indentured for four or five years and to receive £10 sterling per year
in wages, plus “meat, drink, washing & lodging.” Francis Jerdone, a
planter and merchant of Louisa County, had an indentured servant who did
all of the plantation’s blacksmithing and also brought in as much £7 in
one month of 1767 for work done for neighboring farmers. The following
bill of John Cock indicates the kinds of work done by rural Virginia
blacksmiths and the prices they charged in 1759:

            To making Niles and Shuing one whele                0 12  6
            To making a hoop one Staple and two Rings and       0  5  6
                Rivating the wheles by J. L.
  January 4
            To Shuing a pr of five foot and a half wheles and   3  0  0
                Rivating them Round A. L.
  9         To making 5 Staples 1 Ring and 3 goosnecks          0  9  0
  12        To making 5 Staples for the yokes & bees            0  4  0
            To making 3 hooks and 6 Rings                       0  5  0
            To making 1 large Ring                              0  1  0
            To making 8 small pins & Cuting a Chane and         0  3  6
                making a traces
  20        To making 4 hooks and 4 Rings                       0  4  0
            To making an ox chane                               0  7  6
            To Lanthing an ox Chane and making a Staple and     0  2  0
            To making a ploug Large                             0  6  0
            To making an ax                                     0  2  0
  F.1       To making three axes one of my iron                 0  6  6
  12        To Cuting a plough hoe                              0  3  9
  21        To Laying Eight hilling hoes                        0 12  0
  24        To Laying a fluck hoe of my iron                    0  4  6
            To making a plough of my iron                       0 10  0
            To making 3 hilling hoes                            0  4  6
            To making 5 hilling hoes                            0  7  6
                                                               £8 10  9

                        _THE VILLAGE BLACKSMITH_

When the Virginia Assembly first met in 1699 at Middle Plantation (soon
to be renamed Williamsburg), its members listened to speeches delivered
by several students at the brand new College of William and Mary. Urging
that the colony’s capital should be moved thence from Jamestown, one of
the students pointed out that Middle Plantation already contained “as
many substantial housekeepers ... as is to be found again in the whole
County.” He specifically listed a smith’s shop as one of several “great
helps and advances made towards the beginning of a town.”

Despite the young speaker’s effort to make it sound impressive, Middle
Plantation was far from being a town by any stretch of the word. But it
was no accident that a mere scraggle of structures in a landscape of
woods and fields included a smithy. As in the first years at Jamestown,
the presence of a blacksmith to make and mend tools was essential to the
success of the settlement. Unfortunately, nothing is known of the
identity of that first Williamsburg smith—not his name, or the exact
location of his shop, or the kind of work he did.

    [Illustration: _The Brush-Everard House is one of some eighty
    original structures now restored to their colonial appearance in

John Brush was the earliest Williamsburg smith whose name is known
today. He was primarily a gunsmith and armorer, but may have done
blacksmithing too. He bought two lots in the shadow of the Governor’s
Palace in 1717, and the modest home he built there (later enlarged by
Thomas Everard) still stands on Palace Green. So far as surviving
records have revealed, he was followed by no more than fourteen
individuals over the next three-quarters of a century who worked iron
and steel in one or more of the smithy crafts: blacksmith, gunsmith,
locksmith, cutler, nailmaker, and farrier.

Only fourteen. Even granting the possibility that some blacksmiths never
left their name or mark in a written record, this seems remarkably few
for so long a period in one of Virginia’s chief towns. The small number
can probably be taken as another indication that most of the colony’s
smiths—like eighty to ninety percent of its population—lived and worked
in the country.

Surviving advertisements, invoices, and inventories of Williamsburg
blacksmiths suggest that the work they did was of a somewhat different
nature from that of the rural smith. The following extracts from account
books of James Anderson and Thomas Pate indicate something of the urban

  1771      Mr. Henry Morse    Dr to James Anderson
  Jan 22    To Cleaning 3 guns @ 3/                             1  9  0
  March 22  To Cleaning 3 Do @ 3/                               0  9  0
  August 28 To plating Chair Shafts                             ?  ?  3
            To mendg a spring                                   0  2  6
  May 25    To a New tumbler pr lock                            0  2  6
  June 3    To Mending Bridle Bitt                              0  0  7½
     7      To Mending a Chair                                  0  2  6
  July 30   To Altering a spring                                0  3  9
            To Do 2 bolts                                       0  1  3
  May 18    To feeding 2 horses 20 days @ 4/                    4  0  0
            To laing axletree pr Chair                          0 15  0
            To 3 Tiar Nails @ 1½d                               0  0  4½
            To pr Clamps pr Wheels                              0  2  6
  July 5    To 2 gallons oats                                   0  1  3
  Decmb 7   To a key pr lock 2/6 mendg lock 1/3                 0  3  9
  Jany 18   To a Nutt for Chair                                 0  0  7½
  Augt 22   To 8 Dog Nails 8d Cleang a Gun 2/6                  0  3  2
  May 17    To a Key for a lock                                 0  2  6
  Work done for the Capitol    By James Anderson
  May 24    To Cleaning a Stove                                 1  0  0
  July 26   To 4 Bars prs Statue                                2  4  5
  Octr 3    To 3 Bars prl Doors @ 2/6                           0  7  6
            To 4 Do @ 5/ . 20 mendg a hinge 2/6                 1  2  6
     4      To Eight hooks @ 7½                                 0  5  0
     15     To 2 Keys prs locks @ 3/9                           0  7  6
            To a Box prs do                                     0  1  6
  1773      Country Dr
  Apr 25    To half a Year Salary as Armourer to the Magazine
  1760      Collo Custis Estate to Thos Pate Dr.
  Feb. 11   To lenthening a Chain and mending a Bed pin for    £0  3  0
            To altering a Sett of Clamps Do                     0  2  6
     19     To Pointing a Plough                                0  2  6
     22     To Making a Screw key for the mill                  0  2  6
     23     To Mending 2 Keys for Locks                         0  2  6
     27     To Making 2 Bed pins and 2 Linch pins for Cart      0  6  3
            To making Cleavey and Pin Do                        0  3  9
            To making Iron work for a Ox yoke                   0  5  0
  March 5   To Making a Ox Chain                                0 10  6
            To making Iron Work for a Ox Yoke                   0  3  9
     11     To Altering 3 Mill Hoops                            0  3  9
  April 4   To mending a Lock and Key                           0  2  0
     26     To Altring a Mill Spindle                           0  5  0
  May 1     To Pointing a fluke hoe                             0  2  6
     2      To Making 2 Wedges for the Mill                     0  2  6
     7      To Mending a Sane                                   0  1  3
     30     To Pointing a fluke hoe                             0  2  6
  June 3    To Dressing 3 mill Peaks and Lengthening a crane    0  5  0
     30     To Pointing a fluke hoe                             0  2  6
  July 5    To Making a Hoope for Mill 10 pounds                0  7  8
            To making 2 Wedges Do                               0  2  6
     11     To mending a Broad Ax                               0  1  3
     24     To mending a Key for a Lock                         0  0  7½
  Novm 17   To making a box for a whip saw                      0  3  9
  Feb. 3    To making 2 peed pins for Small Cart                0  2  6
     9      To Mending a Lock                                   0  1  3

It will be noticed that Pate made or repaired several items “for the
mill.” No doubt this was the windmill shown on the “Frenchman’s Map” of
1782 as standing on or near Custis’s property to the south of town. The
millwright, the wheelwright, the coachmaker, and the shipwright all
depended heavily on the blacksmith to produce essential parts of their
respective products. The builder of houses, too, could do little without
the nails and the tools that came from the local smithy.

However, when the “public hospital, for persons of insane and disordered
minds” was built in Williamsburg in 1771, the removable iron gratings
and padlocks to be installed at all the windows were imported from
England. For this large specialty job, even James Anderson, the town’s
foremost smith, was passed over. Similarly, wrought-iron gates and
balconies on the public buildings of Williamsburg appear to have been
ordered from England. The Capitol was to have “on each Side ... an Iron
Balcony upon the first Floor,” and the assembly explicitly empowered the
overseers in charge of building both the first Capitol and the
Governor’s Palace to send to England for ironwork, glass, and other
materials necessary.

Likewise, the elaborate gates at Westover plantation were made for
William Byrd II in England. A “Set of Iron Palisades and Gates curiously
wrought,” sold as part of a prize cargo in Norfolk in 1748, probably
came from France. When the House of Burgesses in 1768 commissioned a
statue of the beloved Governor Botetourt, the sculptor, Richard Hayward
of London, was also to provide the iron railing that surrounded the base
of the statue when it was set up in the portico of the Capitol. One
reason for importing ironwork for these large jobs may have been that
local smiths were not equipped to handle them; more likely, the
importation was politically wise since manufacturing in the colonies was
discouraged by the British government.

    [Illustration: _Ornamental ironwork is less characteristic of the
    colonial Virginia scene than of Charleston, South Carolina, and New
    Orleans. Nevertheless, there are some survivals, none finer than
    these two gates at Westover plantation on the James River._]

                         _TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES_

The bills and accounts quoted a few pages back, and others, give ample
evidence that most colonial smiths could read and write—although their
spelling (like George Washington’s) might have a way of its own. At
least one Williamsburg blacksmith, Hugh Orr, seems to have been quite a
reader; at his death in 1764 he left a library of about forty books. But
neither he nor any other colonial smith sat down to write out and
illustrate a description of the work he did and how he did it.

This is not intended to be a how-to-do-it manual either. A few pages of
text and pictures can hardly substitute for the apprenticeship of as
much as seven years through which a blacksmith gained mastery of his
craft. Only the close daily supervision of an expert and years of
practice will enable a smith to know when the eye of his fire is large
enough—but not too large ... when the forced draft of his bellows has
made the fire hot enough—but not too hot ... when his iron is red
enough—but not too red ... when his hammer blows fall heavily enough—but
not too heavily to accomplish the particular job at hand.

Readers unfamiliar with the processes and products of a smithy are
likely to be strangers also to many of the smith’s tools—which makes for
something of a problem in trying to describe them. For this and other
reasons it seems wise to start with what may be the most familiar items

_Nails._ In the early years of the Jamestown colony land was plentiful
and nails were scarce. They, like every other object of iron—except the
“little chissels” mentioned by Captain John Smith—had to be brought over
from England. When the soil of their tobacco fields was worn out,
planters simply took up, cleared, and planted new land farther west.
Sometimes they set fire to buildings on the abandoned land in order to
salvage the nails for re-use, a practice that was forbidden by law in

However, nails were not difficult to make if one had a supply of
wrought-iron rods and a few tools. Frontier farmers—which in
eighteenth-century Virginia meant those living one or two hundred miles
to the west of Williamsburg—sometimes spent winter days in nailmaking.
The fireplace served as forge, and even the younger members of the
family could wield tongs, hammers, and cold chisel or man the vise.

    [Illustration: _Nails and tacks of various sizes and shapes and for
    various special uses, from Diderot’s encyclopedia. Figure 14 at the
    lower right is a wheel nail, for example._]

Where there was a blacksmith, as we have already seen, he—or more likely
his apprentice—made the nails. James Anderson estimated that eight boys
could turn out twenty-five thousand nails in a week. Isaac Zane, who had
an ironworks in the neighborhood of Winchester, owned “17 nailors tools
great & small” and “2 nailors anvills.” The smith probably started with
iron several feet long, about one-quarter-inch in width and the same
thickness, produced in a slitting mill. His first procedure was to draw
them down—and here we come to the first terminological stumbling block.
Drawing down (or drawing out or beating out) is the smith’s phrase for
thinning and lengthening a piece of metal by heating and hammering it.
The contrary process of thickening—by hammering on the end of a rod—is
called upsetting and is the technique used in making the head of the
nail. Before he did that, though, the smith, having drawn down the rod
to the proper thickness for the nails to be made, cut them to the
desired length. Most likely he did this on a hardie, which is like a
chisel held with the point upward in the square hardie hole of the

_Horseshoes._ Hugh Jones in 1724 wrote that horseshoes were “seldom used
in the lower part of the country, where there are few stones.” It is
true that the soil of tidewater Virginia tends to be sandy and free of
stones, so that horses could and did go unshod much of the time. Yet
there is ample evidence—some of which we have seen in the accounts
excerpted above—that blacksmiths and farriers worked in the Williamsburg
area at making and mounting horseshoes.

    [Illustration: _The forge of Master Delafosse, royal farrier, in
    Paris in the mid-eighteenth century. From Diderot’s encyclopedia._]

A smith who made, fitted, and applied shoes to horses, mules, and oxen
was properly called a farrier. The trade demands knowledge and skill in
handling iron, and also knowledge and skill in handling the animals
being shod. Because of his close familiarity with these animals, his
“horse sense,” so to speak, the farrier often served the function of
veterinarian too. More often, however, it was the blacksmith who also
served as farrier.

Horseshoes were made from bar iron, and they were normally custom made
to fit not just a particular horse, but a particular one of his feet.
Each shoe of a set of four will differ in one or more respects—size,
shape, or weight—from its fellows, and each set may differ from others
depending on the type of horse involved—draft, riding, carriage,
etc.—and the condition of surface on which the shoes are to be used—ice,
mud, stone, etc. In addition, special shoes can correct defects in gait,
guard against lameness, and the like. To describe how a smith made all
of these possible variations is no part of this booklet. Suffice it to
say that in the making of a horseshoe all of the blacksmith’s basic
tools come into use: forge, anvil, tongs, and vise. Some attention to
each of these in turn will help to round out an understanding of the
workings of the smithy.

_Forge._ The blacksmith’s forge, which he sometimes calls his fire, is
the most important feature of his shop. It consists of a square hearth,
usually raised about two and one-half feet and made of brick, with a
bellows at the side or back to blow the fire, a hood or hovel above to
carry smoke and fumes away, and a trough or tub of water close by in
which to quench the iron or cool the tongs.

The fire itself, of coal rather than charcoal, is always small and
concentrated, a few inches across in the center of a hearth that may be
four or five feet square. Around it lies unburnt fuel that the smith can
handily bring closer when needed. With his slice—a long-handled,
light-weight shovel—his fire-hook—a similarly long-handled rake—and his
washer—a bunch of twigs to flick water around the fire—he carefully
manages the size and depth of the fire. With the bellows he regulates
its intensity.

The blacksmith must be able to judge when his stock is hot enough, and
he does it by eye, the right degree of heat for a particular operation
being revealed by the color of the iron. Blood-red heat is called for
when the iron is not to be reshaped but only the surface to be smoothed.
Flame heat or white heat is necessary when the work is to be hammered to
a different shape, drawn down, or upset. Sparkling heat or welding heat
is used only for the delicate and highly skilled process of welding.

_Anvil._ This is hardly less important to the smith than the forge, as
he does practically all of his work on it. The common smith’s anvil,
made of cast or wrought iron, may weigh up to about three hundred
pounds. It has had the same basic shape since ancient times, each of its
features being functionally tried and perfected ages ago. The anvil’s
upper surface, called the face, is flat, smooth, so hard that a file
will not cut it, and made of cast steel welded to the wrought iron body.
One end of the anvil is a cone-shaped projection called the horn (also
called beak, bick, bickern, or pike), used to work curved or rounded
pieces of iron such as rings, links, or shackles. Between the horn and
the face of the anvil is a small square area called the table. Its
surface is not as hard as that of the face, and the smith places on it
any work he wants to cut with a cold chisel. Near the other end or heel
of the anvil are two holes, one round, called the pritchel hole, and the
other square, called the hardie hole. When the smith intends to punch a
hole through a piece of metal, he positions it over the pritchel hole so
that the punch will pass into the hole rather than strike the face of
the anvil. The hardie hole (also called the swage hole) is designed to
take the square shanks of a variety of special-purpose bottom
tools—which make their impact on the underside of the work when the
smith strikes it from above.

_Tongs._ Iron being a metal that transmits heat readily, the blacksmith
often cannot hold the piece he is working on, even with a gloved hand.
He needs tongs to do the holding, and because of the differing shape of
different objects being worked, he needs a variety of tongs of different
shapes and sizes. These he ordinarily makes himself. John Brush of
Williamsburg, for instance, owned “7 pair of Smiths Tongs.”

_Hammers._ It has already been said that the smith’s forge and anvil are
among his essential tools. So is his hammer—or rather hammers, for he
needs several of different shapes and weights, as well as a sledge or

    [Illustration: _A small selection of tools such as would be found in
    almost any blacksmith’s shop: fire tools, tongs, pincer, hammers,
    chisels, stamps, and stakes or hardies. From Diderot._]

_Vises._ Smiths’ vises are of two types, the large standing vise, used
to hold iron for bending, riveting, filing, or polishing, and the small
or hand vise to hold work of similar size. In both cases the work will
have already undergone the major part of its forming on the anvil, and
the vise comes into use almost solely for finishing operations.

Other tools that have particular uses may be no less important to the
smith when he has occasion to use them. Among them may be mentioned
drills, swages, swage blocks, hardies, stakes, punches, cold chisels,
files, screw plates, flatter, fuller, header, and mandrel. It is
recommended to the reader who wants to know the nature and uses of these
and other tools in a smithy that he become an apprentice to the nearest
blacksmith; there is no better way to learn.

Certainly no one can learn to anneal, braze, case-harden, temper, lay,
and weld iron just by reading about it. But we can at least offer some

_Annealing_ is the process of softening steel so that it can be worked
by cutting tools. It is done by heating the piece in the fire to
blood-red heat, then allowing it to cool slowly.

_Brazing_ joins together two or more pieces of metal by the use of a
brass solder, called spelter. It is used when the pieces to be joined
are too thin to be welded.

_Case hardening_ is the process of hardening the outer surfaces of iron
or steel, while leaving the core soft and therefore tougher. According
to Joseph Moxon’s _Mechanick Exercises_ (third edition published in
London in 1703) it was to be accomplished as follows: Cover the iron all
over with a cement made of powdered cow horn or hoof, coarse sea salt,
stale urine or white wine vinegar, and clay, with more clay added to
enclose the whole; when the clay has dried hard, put the whole lump in
the fire and bring it to blood-red heat, no more; then take the iron out
and quench it.

_Tempering_ is the opposite of annealing, in that it slightly softens
and toughens iron or steel. It is accomplished by bringing the object to
the proper heat—which may differ according to the {...}

_Laying_ was one of the most frequent operations performed by colonial
smiths. Such implements as axes, hoes, and plows usually had wooden
handles and wrought-iron heads, with a strip of steel welded on to make
the cutting edge or face. When the last become worn, the process of
replacing it was called laying or steeling.

_Welding_ two pieces of iron is at the same time very simple in theory
and very difficult in fact. At the proper heat the two pieces placed
firmly face to face will—if the faces are clean—stick together without
further ado. But accomplishing this feat requires great skill with the
fire and great quickness with the hammer so that scale will not form on
the surfaces to be welded. Normally the weld is hammered together on the
anvil to refine the grain of the metal as it cools.

    [Illustration: _Another farrier’s shop, no doubt drawn on the spot
    with tools and equipment just as they were seen by the artist. From

                         _THE ESSENTIAL CRAFT_

James Anderson was described earlier in these pages as Williamsburg’s
foremost blacksmith during the years when his shop occupied a lot on
Francis Street. Several of his ledger books are still in existence, some
of them treasured possessions of Colonial Williamsburg. Among endless
entries covering the laying of axes, hoes, plows, and colters, appear
others that show the less routine aspects of Anderson’s daily work:
mending a poker; making a nut for a bolt of a chair (probably a riding
chair); dressing two mill picks; mending a lock; altering 40 window
hooks; making a hasp and staple for a henhouse; providing handle,
wedges, and ring for a scythe; fixing a new end to an oyster clamp;
putting a handle on a “teakittle”; forging a well chain; making a
“strike tier,” i.e., strakes for wagon wheel and nails to attach them;
spindle for a wheel; prong for a dung fork; putting a hoop on a barrel;
mending a coffee mill; 9 “fronts” and a rib for a griddle; 50 spikes; a
pair of flatirons; mending and installing locks, keys, window bars, leg
irons, and chains for the “lunatick hospital”; lengthening the bearer
and adding a new middle foot to an andiron; “a Sett of Iron for a
dressing table”; four breast plate buckles (for a harness); drilling a
gun; mending an umbrella; “triming a horse feet”; making, mending,
putting on, and taking off leg irons and hand cuffs for the jail.

Clearly everyone in town had to patronize the blacksmith sooner or
later. He was, in a very real sense, a craftsman for all seasons.


This list includes only the men who were primarily blacksmiths or who
clearly did blacksmithing along with their work in other iron crafts.
The dates designate the years when they are known to have been in

_James Anderson_, 1762-1798. Born in Gloucester County in 1740. Public
      armorer in Williamsburg from 1766, and supplier of arms to the
      Revolutionary forces of Virginia. His forge probably occupied the
      lot on Francis Street in Williamsburg next to the Barraud House.
      He employed a number of journeymen gunsmiths, blacksmiths, and
      nailers, and at one time had as many as nine apprentices. He and
      his shops were moved to Richmond along with other government
      agencies when that city became the seat of government in 1780; in
      1793 he turned his Richmond shop over to his son and moved back to

_William Ashburn_, 1774. Advertised in April of that year that he had
      opened shop near the Capitol in Williamsburg. May have been in
      town three years earlier, but little else is known of him.

_John Bell_, 1753-1776. Called himself both whitesmith and blacksmith.
      Served as public armorer from 1763 to 1766, when he moved to

_James Bird_, 1740-1758. Established his shop “in the Market Square” on
      land leased from the trustees of the city of Williamsburg. Was
      lacking both as master and as businessman: an apprentice sued in
      court and obtained release from his indenture; pleading that the
      blacksmith “misused” him, and after his creditors foreclosed the
      mortgage on his property, Bird departed town “in low

_Robert Bond_, 1761-1783. Learned blacksmithing as an apprentice in
      Yorktown. Bought large quantities of bar iron from Robert Carter.
      Worked for the state during the Revolution and got caught in a
      bureaucratic vise: when the British destroyed his bellows he could
      not, despite an order from the commissioner of war, obtain “any
      Lether With out the Money and i am in tylerly idle theay wont Let
      Me Draw any Provisions because i ant at Work and i Cant Doe
      anything With out my Bellus.”

_John Brush_, 1717-1726. Primarily a gunsmith; may also have engaged in
      the blacksmith’s trade. Thought to have been a protégé of Governor
      Spotswood because he did “work and reparations about the Governors
      House,” and built his home on the Palace Green nearby. Was keeper
      of the public arms and those of the governor; in 1723 petitioned
      the legislature (in vain) for an allowance “for his misfortune in
      being blown up and hurt in firing the Guns on his Majtys

_Thomas Cowles_, 1772-1775. He was a patient of Dr. John M. Galt, bought
      bar iron from Robert Carter, and repaired the arms of “Capt. Lynes
      Compy of Minute Men.” Nothing else is known of him.

_John Draper_, 1769-1789. Blacksmith, farrier, and veterinary, whose
      shop was on Duke of Gloucester Street and who lived on the corner
      of Francis and Waller streets “where the Old Play House lately
      stood.” During the Revolution he made guns, rented out riding
      chairs, rode express, repaired arms, and supplied nails and shot.

_James, David, and William Geddy_, 1736-about 1780. James Geddy,
      gunsmith, father of David and William (also of James Geddy, Jr.,
      the silversmith), established his shop in Williamsburg sometime
      before 1736; he died in 1744. He and two of his sons did cutlery
      work, brass casting, and iron founding as well as gunsmithing; the
      sons also purveyed rupture bands and a vermifuge for horses, and
      offered to cure “the most inveterate Pole-evils and Fistulas ...
      and all Diseases incident to Horses.” During the Revolution
      William was paid for repairing arms and casting ball; he died in

_John Moody_, 1776-1779. Smith and farrier, from Philadelphia by way of
      Norfolk, advertised his shop near the church in 1776. Was paid on
      several occasions for shoeing horses, but little more is known of
      him before his death in 1779.

_Hugh Orr_, 1738-1764. Captain Orr called himself both blacksmith and
      “hammer man,” and settled in Williamsburg by 1738. His house and
      smithy were on Duke of Gloucester Street. He may have acted as
      farrier, and either he or a slave trained to do so performed
      phlebotomy—bleeding. He served as armorer for the colony for three
      years and may have been an officer in the Williamsburg militia. He
      is buried in Bruton churchyard.

_Thomas Pate_, 1760-1814. Did blacksmith work for John Custis and Lord
      Botetourt among others, and repaired arms for Virginia troops
      during the Revolution. The location of his shop is not known, but
      his purchase of more than 3,000 pounds of bar iron from Robert
      Carter in 1773 alone indicates a lively trade.

_William Willis_ (or _Willess_), 1768-1770. Came from Birmingham and
      opened his gunsmith and blacksmith shop “near the playhouse” and
      “below the Capitol,” but soon moved to Norfolk.

                   _Suggestions for Further Reading_

Alex W. Bealer, _The Art of Blacksmithing_. rev. ed. New York, Funk and
      Wagnalls, 1976.

Garry Hogg, _Hammer & Tongs: Blacksmithery Down the Ages_. London,
      Hutchinson Co., 1964.

J. G. Holmstrom, _Modern Blacksmithing and Horseshoeing_. Chicago, F. J.
      Drake & Co., 1941.

John Jernberg, _Forging: Manual of Practical Instruction in Hand Forging
      of Wrought Iron_.... Chicago, American Technical Society, 1917.

William Allyn Richards, _Forging of Iron and Steel_. New York, D. Van
      Nostrand Co., 1915.

F. W. Robins, _The Smith: The Traditions and Lore of an Ancient Craft_.
      London, Rider and Co., 1953.

H. R. Bradley Smith, _Blacksmiths’ and Farriers’ Tools at Shelburne
      Museum: A History of Their Development from Forge to Factory_.
      Shelburne, Vt., Shelburne Museum, 1966.

Albert H. Sonn, _Early American Wrought Iron_. New York, Charles
      Scribner’s Sons, 1928.

Aldren A. Watson, _The Village Blacksmith_. New York, Thomas Y. Crowell
      Co., 1968.

_The Blacksmith in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg_, first published in
1971, is based largely on an unpublished monograph by Harold B. Gill,
Jr., of the Colonial Williamsburg research staff. It has been prepared
with the assistance of Thomas K. Ford, editor until 1976, Colonial
Williamsburg Department of Publications.

                          Transcriber’s Notes

—Retained publication information from the printed edition: this eBook
  is public-domain in the country of publication.

—Silently corrected a few palpable typos.

—In the text versions only, text in italics is delimited by

—Marked a lacuna in the original printed edition with “{...}”.

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