Commentary

Fences Make Good Neighbors

This article is republished from the Digital Antiques Journal. Fence and field cyanotype by Arthur Wesley Dow.


The cure for Covid fatigue that works best for me is to time-travel back to seventeenth-century Massachusetts. At least the Black Plague never crossed the Atlantic. So here I sit, once again, reading the words of the first settlers of our little town of Ipswich. This time what struck me hardest was how important a well-ordered society was to our early townsfolk. Hmmm, wonder why that stood out at this particular time?

We westerners rely on order because it enables us to assert control – if we lose order, we lose control. And the most fundamental order that we desire lies right under our feet – the land that we settle and inhabit. We organize our land by creating boundaries, and when we have recognized boundaries, we have a well-ordered place in which to live. And when we have that ordered place, we draw a map of it so we can take satisfaction in our boundaries (nomadic societies don’t draw maps.)

Boundaries in Ipswich c. 1672. The Meeting House is in the center. In Laura Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives, (1980) Vintage Books, NY.

Here in Ipswich, the very first entry in the Town Record, in November 1634, established boundaries: “At a meeting holden in November it was consented and agreed unto the length of Ipswich should extend west ward unto the burying place and Eastward unto a cove of the River unto the plantings ground of John Pirkins the Elder.”

An OK start, but with only the vaguest of boundaries. We needed clearer ones than that. Next year we got them: In 1635, the Town Meeting ordered that “All House lotts within the towne are to be fenced by the first of May and such as fail shall pay 2.s pr rodd beside the payne of doing it.”

Also in 1635, the town decreed that all dwellings must be built within half a mile of the Meeting House. Partly, this was to make the town easier to defend from attack, but more importantly it ensured that the townsfolk had to live where it was easy for the minister to keep an eye on their behavior to make sure they were living well-ordered lives.

Even in a small town, this was a tall order for one man, so Ipswich appointed tithingmen whose job was to keep an eye on their neighbors to make sure they obeyed the rules of the Sabbath and, for the rest of the week, behaved in an orderly fashion, such as schooling their children every day in the Bible and, perhaps more importantly, not getting drunk and disorderly in taverns, and not fornicating outside the sanctioned order of marriage. I don’t think I’d have wanted to be a tithingman.

Sorry, I got sidetracked onto discussing a moral order instead of the material order imposed by fencing. The town, however, kept working on its fences:

“January 10th 1637 Att a Town Meeting. Voted that a general fence shall be made from the end of the Towne to Egypt River with a sufficient fence, and also from the East end of the Towne in the way of Jefery’s neck…This fence to be fenced by y* first day of June next ensuing upon the penalty of five shillings for every rod that shall be found unfenced. This fence to be done at the charge of all those that have land within the s’d compass according to their severall shares of Land and by them to be maintained and there is liberty granted to all such p’sons to fell any trees for this use as they shall find most convenient in the Land ungranted on penalty of 5s. a rod and 2s. a week for each rod while neglected.”

Just three years after the town was incorporated, therefore, each household had its own fenced lot within the town, and the town itself was fenced off from the rest of the world. Boundaries matter.

Regulations like this needed enforcement, so in 1639, the town appointed “Fence Viewers” to ensure that all the regulations were kept and to fine those who ignored them.

All this was well and good, but the quality of the fences had not yet been regulated – we wonder if lazy householders were erecting cheap, inadequate fences that merely met the letter, not the spirit, of the law – just adequate enough to allow them to challenge any adverse assessment by the fence viewers, but not well enough built to do a good job.

If that were the case, the problem was soon addressed. In 1653 the town adopted an order from the General Court of Massachusetts that fences should be “outward fences…either general about any common field, or p’ticular about any ppiaty [property], be it house lot or planting lot or meddow, be it lesser or greater quantity…”

We note that they were “outward fences” – fences that kept unwanted animals out, not, as we might expect today, in.

Paled fence (replica) around the replica Alexander Knight House, Ipswich. Photo by Author

To do the job properly, the town “ordered that all the sd. fences shall be made of pales well nailed or pinned, or of five rails well fitted, or of stone wall three and a half feet high at least, or with a good ditch three or four feet wide, with a good bank and 2 rayles, or a good hedge, or such as is equivalent, upon the banke, all and every one of wch kindes shall be made sufficiently to defend, and keep out Swyne and all sorts of cattle.”

Post and five-railed fence. Courtesy Pinterest

Ipswich was in timber country, so we built only paled or five-railed fences, not ones of stone, ditches or hedges. To sum up, property owners had to contribute to building and maintaining the general fence around the town, and had to fence their own properties to keep out “Swyne and all sorts of cattle.”

It appears that fences around house lots were generally paled, and those around meadows or planting lots were post and rails. A good example is provided by Daniel Dennison who, in 1635, was granted “a house lott near the Mill, containing about two acres, which he has paled in, and built a house upon it.”

Robert Tarule, author of The Artisan of Ipswich, has calculated that Dennison’s fence needed 2,500 pales, 1,250 feet of rails and 160 posts. Pales were set into a shallow trench and nailed to the rails, at two pales per running foot, that were fastened to posts about 8 feet apart. In its first decade, the town consumed several hundred acres of forest for fencing alone. Tarule has also calculated that Dennison’s fence cost about £3.50 shillings. By comparison, a modest house sold for £7. A five-rail fence was cheaper than a paled one: it required only 60 percent of the timber.

New paled fence around a house lot today. New, but appropriate except that the pales are not set into a trench. Photo by author

These expensive fences controlled the movement of young animals, particularly cattle and hogs, for the mature animals were taken daily by town herdsmen to graze outside the town’s “generall fence.”

Dogs may have caused more problems than hogs or cattle. Fields and town lots were fertilized with rotten fish, which was obviously a doggy delight, and dogs dug eagerly under fences to get to it. The Towne Record of May, 1644, got the dogs back under control: “It is ordered that all dogs…shall have one legg tyed up…If a man refuse to tye up his dogg’s legg, and hee be found scraping up fish in the corne field, the owner shall pay 12s. [a week’s wages] beside whatever damage the dogg doth.”

For the same reason, young swine had rings set in their noses so that it was painful for them to root in the ground and undermine a fence – they also had yokes tied across their shoulders to prevent them pushing through narrow gaps or gates.

A hog with a restraining yoke.

As we sit here today, looking out of our windows, with our movements constrained by various lockdown orders and problems of controlling young kids, rather than dogs and swine, it’s nice to be able to relax and transport ourselves back to early Ipswich — that well-ordered, well-fenced, peaceful little town whose bustling streets were filled with townsfolk going about their business while dodging three-legged dogs and yoked piglets. Ah, those were the days.

Postscript

Worm Fences

Here is a “photograph” of 17th-century Salem, actually a film set built on Choate Island, Ipswich, for the film The Crucible. At first glance, the “worm” [zig-zag] fence looks inauthentic for Massachusetts. Certainly, there is no mention of one in the types of fencing specified by the General Court in 1653. Worm fences are more typical of Chesapeake Bay and the South than of New England.

But there is at least one record of such a fence in Salem, Mass., where the minutes of a town meeting in 1685 recorded the erection of “a new worm fence about the meeting house at Alloway’s Creek.”

Worm fences were fast and cheap to build. They were made of split rails laid in a zig-zag fashion intersecting at a 60-degree angle and did not require holes nor solid posts. A man skilled in the use of an ax and a wedge could cut and split 150-200 ten-foot rails in one day, and a man adept at erecting fences could lay 200 yards per day. By comparison, a two-man team laying a stone wall could be expected to erect 10 feet per day.

Image from the Colebrook CT Historical Society

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4 replies »

  1. I’m descended from Richard Kimball. He moved to Ipswich in 1637 and according to records he was granted a house lot do you know where it would be on this map?

    Like

  2. Thank you, John, for this wonderful article. I have read Ulrich’s book, as well as Tarule’s, both excellent sources of 17th-century Ipswich, a town that is so close to my heart (though I am a Texas girl). You say nothing about wattle fencing, most likely constructed around gardens. May I also suggest William Cronon’s “Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England,” which so eloquently explains the contradictory philosophies regarding land boundaries of the English who settled in the New England, and the Indians who had lived there for thousands of years.

    Liked by 1 person

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