Early Fence Building

By Sidney Perley

Fences often exist today to designate boundary lines; but in the earliest days of our settlements they were probably never constructed for that purpose, unless the three-rail fence erected between the towns of Newbury and Rowley, in 1649, was such an instance. The earliest fences were for protection from the Indians and the larger and more ferocious animals of the forest; the next, to keep both domestic and wild animals from the cultivated crops of the settlers; and the later, to restrain the various kinds of cattle of the settlers from straying into the forest and elsewhere. These fences were all made for the purposes to which they were applied, and were often uncouth and rough. Ornamented fences belong to a still later period, when settlements had acquired some degree of affluence.

Each farmer had to build and maintain his fences when they were erected on or around his individual lots of land; but the common pastures, with their many owners, early demanded some rule or authority by which the fence around them would be built and kept in order during the season of pasturage by all the owners; and in 1633 it was provided that each owner of a common pasture should build and support such part of the fence as was in proportion to his interest in the pasture; certain sections representing such portions being marked off.

These were usually the early two-railed fences. Officers were appointed to examine into the case of any delinquent, with power to levy and collect fines. In 1643, the regulation of common fences was left wholly to the respective towns.

The law in relation to fences around corn fields was peculiar, presumably on account of the necessity of preserving the corn for the sustenance of the colonists.

The owner of the corn field was obliged to maintain a sufficient fence around it. July 2, 1633, it was ordered by the General Court, "that if any corne fence shalbe by the inhabitants of the towne judged insufficient, and the owner thereof forbeare mending of it more than 2 dayes after warning given, the inhabitants shall mend the said fence, and the corne of the owner of the said fence shalbe liable to pay the charges of the mending thereof." The fence had to be sufficient to keep out hogs as well as cattle. In 1637, the law was passed making it incumbent upon owners of corn fields to first show that the fence through which unruly cattle came into the field was sufficient and in order before damages for injuries done to the crops could be recovered. In Topsfield, in 1667, such fences were ordered to consist of five rails, "well placed," and be up by April 20th.

The earliest roads were foot paths, and were so ill-defined that they were not regarded in fencing pastures and fields in the earliest days. Later, in the more thickly settled portions, where they were more defined, carts having come into use, and travel was more common and extensive, fences across these ways were found to be very inconvenient; and in the villages they were fenced on either side. In Rowley, this was ordered to be done as early as 1649. But outside the villages roads remained encumbered by fences, in many places, until this century; though bars and the more convenient gate were found at the crossings.

October 14, 1685, the General Court passed a law that whoever broke down any fence or stone wall, or lay open any gates, bars or locks, unless under claim of right, should pay a fine and the damages thereby occasioned.

Persons were chosen in the various towns to look after fences to see that they were kept up, and to have general oversight of them. There was at first no name attached to the office, the incumbent being called "fence viewer," "overseer to view fences," etc. In 1653 a law was enacted which gave this authority to the selectmen of towns, with power to levy fines upon delinquents. Our modern office of fence viewer is founded upon the Province law, passed December 1, 1693, which authorizes two or more fence viewers to be chosen in each town at the annual meeting. The statute also established legal fences. They were to be made four feet high, of five rails, or boards, or four, if equivalent to five; also, stone walls, brooks, rivers, ponds and creeks were to be deemed sufficient fences.

In early times fences were valued so highly, not only for their use, but for their cost, that in most of the conveyances of improved lands in Essex County they were particularly mentioned almost to the time of the Revolution.

The earliest fence was the palisade built near the house to keep the Indians and large and more ferocious animals away. This consisted of long sticks, called pales, with pointed tops, driven into the ground, leaving about eight feet above the earth, and touching one another, in a continuous row around the house. As villages began to be formed in some instances a high stone-wall took the place of the palisade around the churches, as at Topsfield in 1676, while the palisade about houses was early discontinued.

Where fences were used in early times merely for keeping cattle within certain limits, they were of the simplest construction. The earliest of these was the flimsy two-rail or pole fence, which was made by driving stakes into the ground x form, and laying the lower rails or poles in the crotches thus formed; and then driving other stakes above the rails x form in such a way that rails or poles could be laid above the first, as shown in the engraving.

Two-Rail Fence Brush Fence

The brush fence is about as ancient as the two-pole fence, and has passed away first in our county. Someone has said that, "According to an unwritten law, a brush fence must be a rod wide, with no specification as to its height." In and under the brush fence all sorts of living creatures, beast, bird, and reptile, have made their homes. In building or piling a brush fence the small trees along its line were lopped down, but not entirely severed from the stump, and made to fall in one direction lengthwise of the fence. Other trees were added to give it the height and width required. This was a very effective barrier.

The fence next to be built by our forefathers was a log fence. This was one of the most substantial of fences, but was only erected where there was a great amount of timber at hand. The great logs, generally of pine, were laid straight, overlapping a little at the ends, on which were placed horizontally the short cross-pieces, which upheld the logs next above. It was usually built three logs high, and formed an almost solid wooden wall. From behind the log and brush fences, the prowling Indian shot the settler as he tilled his field, or long watched the lonely cabin before he surprised its defenseless inmates.


Stone Fence

Where stones were plentiful and timber and poles scarce, stone walls were built as early as the seventeenth century. They proved the most enduring and in every way satisfactory. In spite of their being more or less frost-flung, they remain a picturesque and sufficient barrier, and will so remain until they sink beneath the surface of the ground. Often the stones of the wall were taken from the field, where it was built, in the course of tillage. There seems almost to have been a stone age in New England history, when stone was the material most frequently employed for fence building. Sometimes a single stone wall can be found stretching away in a straight line over hill and through valley for miles. In some localities it would seem as if every field and pasture and garden were bordered with it. The great amount of stone wall that remains attests the labor of our ancestors. What bending and straining of stalwart backs and muscles there must have been at the building of these walls, which have been the castle of the squirrel, the weasel and the woodchuck through the centuries.


Half High Wall Fence

Where neither stones nor timber were plenty the half-high wall, surmounted by a rail resting or crossed stakes driven into the ground, as shown in the illustration, was early used, and is still common.


Snake Fence

After these earlier fences came the snake or Virginia fence, made of rails arranged as shown in the illustration. This variety of fence is truly American.


Split Rail Fence

The split-rail fence is also old. Logs, generally of ash, about nine feet in length, and a foot or more in diameter, split the entire length into about sixteen equal parts, formed the rails, which were chamfered at each end. Of such split sections posts were also made, having holes cut in them in the proper places to receive the ends of the rails, the fence being constructed as shown in the illustration. It is to the credit of Abraham Lincoln that in his early frontier home he was a skillful rail-splitter.


Board Fence

The board fence came into existence with the advent of saw-mills. The old board fence consisted of wide, rough-edged boards nailed to posts set in the ground, and was always an inartistic structure.

On leaving this subject, the countless disputes, contentions and heartaches of the past arising from line fences, where slight divergences have created feuds which have continued for several generations, and the matter of maintenance of certain portions of fences and building of spite fences are recalled. They have always been a fruitful source of disputes and friction between neighbors in the past, but under more definite laws will probably be less so in the future.

AHGP Massachusetts

Source: The Essex Antiquarian, Volume I, Number 3, March 1897

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