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This blog follows the reconstruction of the Revolutionary War Public Armoury on the James Anderson site

Reconstruction of the Blacksmith's & Public Armoury

October 8, 2012

The North Storehouse Near the Armoury

On September 28th, the Historic Trades Carpenters raised the frame on the north storage building at the Armoury.  If you watched this event, or the laying of the sills in the days preceding, you may have noticed that this small storehouse has unusually robust underpinnings.  Here, Master Carpenter Garland Wood explains this design decision and what it may say about use of the building. 

 

In 1975, archaeological excavation on the site of the north storehouse revealed a post hole in the middle of the old foundation. We have interpreted this to be a support for a heavy summer beam at the center of the floor, suggesting that this little structure was built to store something enormously heavy. Ordinarily, we prefer our reconstruction designs to sit on more substantial foundations, but in this case the seemingly flimsy material evidence is shored up by a relatively sturdy paper trail.

The surviving Armoury records describe an abundance of heavy materials delivered into and out of the complex. These materials include iron and steel, coal, and lead. Iron and steel were bought as bar, in lengths generally too long to fit within the ten by twelve foot storehouse, and coal is stored outside. This leaves the possibility that the building was associated with storing lead.

Virginia operated the largest and most important lead mines in all of the thirteen states. They were located “in the county of Fincastle,” near present-day Austinville, Virginia.  Lead ingots (called “pigs”), weighing around 130 pounds each, were taken by wagon to  the Lynchburg area, then carried by boat down the James River to College Landing in Williamsburg, and transported by wagon for the last mile or so to the Armoury. 

WILLIAMSBURG, August 16.

FROM undoubted authority, we can assure the publick that 15,000 wt. of pure lead have been got from our mines  in the back country; which, after being cast into bullets, we hope will be unerringly directed against our enemies.”

Virginia Gazette, Purdie, August 16, 1776.

One of the many kinds of work documented at the Armoury was the casting of bullets. Archaeology has uncovered a small brick forge or furnace, built outside, just a few steps to the south of the new storehouse. It has been suggested that its purpose was heating lead to pour into gang-molds to form bullets. Cast buckshot, still attached to the sprue, has been excavated from a privy pit just a stone’s throw from the proposed “lead furnace.”

Once cast and clipped, lead musket balls were transported to a “laboratory” where they were rolled up in “musket paper” with the appropriate charge of black powder, then loaded into wooden boxes or small casks, and shipped wherever they were needed by Virginia or Continental soldiers.  Small lead bars were provided to Virginia’s riflemen, whose weapons did not accept a standard issued bullet.  These soldiers were expected to cast their own bullets around their camp fires.  It seems reasonable to suppose the storehouse at the Armoury was used to lock up and store the containers of lead bullets and small lead bars until it was necessary to ship them off.

6 November 1777

“At the request of Richard Peters Esquire, Secretary of the War Office the Governor gave directions to Colonel William Finnie to send to York Town (Pennsylvania) the 5,000 lbs of Ball in his Hands belonging to the Continent together with a considerable Quantity of Lead in the hands of Colonel Turner Southall belonging to this State.” (McIlwaine, H.R. Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia, Volume I1, October 6, 1777 – November 30, 1781.)

Colonel William Finnie was Deputy Quarter Master General for Virginia, who lived in a fine house on Francis Street near the Capitol building in Williamsburg. He also served as Deputy Quarter Master General of the Southern Department for the Continental Congress. His surviving accounts were among those records that were particularly useful in uncovering information about the construction and operation of the Public Armory.

A few entries from the James Anderson account books speak well to the lead ball being produced by the workmen in the Armoury:

 October 1778

28 Recd of James Anderson 81 lb of

Ball for the use the Scooner Betsey

Jno Young


July 1779

26 Deliverd Mr Maupin for Ship Draggon

719 wt of Ball with Eight Boxes

 

August 18, 1779

(among listed items)

960 wt of lead to make Ball

 

 September 4, 1779

Deliverd Leut Milbanks 1161 lb of Muskett Ball

Lead was enormously valuable to the war effort, and there are numerous accounts of lead being stripped out of windows to be cast into bullets. There was a slight twist to that story here in Williamsburg, in a letter from Commissioner of War, Colonel George Muter to Governor Thomas Jefferson dated December 12, 1780:

“I am informed by Mr. Kemp that some militia that were lately quartered in the Capitol at Wmsburgh have stripped the Cupola of its lead, in consequence of which the clock stands quite exposed to the weather, and must soon be ruined. If its preservation is wished for, Mr. Kemp wou’d be glad to receive orders concerning it.”

Jefferson, busy as he was at that time, instructed Colonel Muter to have the Capitol cupola repaired to save the clock.

If lead was valuable enough to make it worth a climb to the Capitol roof,  it was valuable enough to steal from the Armory storehouse. For this reason, we have designed the building following a pattern used in other contemporary storage buildings where security was a concern—in particular, smokehouses. Our walls are built of studs set close, on twelve-inch centers, to prevent a thief from prying siding off of the walls and slipping inside between the studs. This, along with a complete absence of windows, a double-sheathed door and a big lock, complete the design for the most secure of the Armoury’s storehouses.

No doubt the storehouse could have been used for other goods as well, including barrels of flour, beef, spirits, and oil. But its proximity to the outdoor furnace, lead artifacts found nearby and the documentary record make it easy to imagine that bullets, fashioned at the Armoury from lead mined in the western part of Virginia, were locked up tight inside the storehouse until they were needed by Virginia’s fighting men.

 -Contributed by Garland Wood, Master Carpenter

 

Comments

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  1. Hi Garland,

    Great information. I now know what that little brick forge was most likely used for.
    Please keep the great info coming our way.
    Thanks,
    Chris

  2. Good day Garland,

    I had been thinking about the large beam set into the center of such a small building and had planned to post my question when your post appeared. Good timing. However, while Ken is not likely to be storing great quantities of lead in the bldg, no one can predict the future and wouldn’t it make sense to fill in the excavation or install a center post to support the beam and joists? We are looking forward to our Thnksgvng week visit.
    Mike

    • Mike – we debated the installation of the supporting post. While the discovery of the posthole is tremedously useful in figuring out what the building looked like, the actual installation of that post creates an expressway for termites into the frame of the building, and we had to weigh the installation of a post under the floor that would be absolutely invisible once the building is finished with the consequences of insect infestation. The old Anderson blacksmith shop was completly devoured by insects, and here we are laying down a second helping for them with our current reconstruction. We want this storehouse to be around for generations to enjoy.

      • OK; but that raises two questions: First, we know from visiting Jamestown that portions of the swamp yielded an oil- or tar-like substance; and I imagine creosote was available and likely being shipped back to England so why were these materials not used to protect below surface timber from rot and insects? Cost, I imagine; but … ? Second, why not a brick or concrete-like material we know romans used to build a pillar? Thanks

  3. Another fantastic post. Thanks, Garland, for the detailed information.
    John

  4. Garland
    It has been so much fun watching the storage building going
    up. My question is. The use of 2x 8′s( looks like )that was
    used in order to make a platform about 3 feet above ground.
    Would think two men on ladders wound be much simpler.Was
    this the way 18th century carpenters work? I thought it was pretty neat though. Just curious.

    • Kerry – We decided we should rig up some scaffolding because the space is so tight between the two buildings there was no room to set ladders in between. We spiked planks across the corner posts and studs of the building, running to the wall of the armoury and extending a couple feet out the other side…then placed walking boards across them. Normally we would work off ladders.
      Scaffolding in the period was very simple – poles lashed together with walking boards across. OSHA has very specific guidelines for building wooden scaffolding safely – and wooden poles lashed together are nowhere to be found within those guidelines!

  5. We are looking forward to seeing the progressduring the las week of October and the first week of November. See you then.

  6. When we were there last week, I noticed that some of the roofs have shingles that stick up over the ridge. What does this do? We were wondering how a ridge vent would be done with shingles or even if they are done? Thanks.

    • Margaret – The last course of roof shingles sticks up about two inches against the direction of our worst weather…and if you look around town you can see that no one can agree where the worst weather comes from. The idea is that the blowing rain blows over the joint at the peak of the roof and not into it. There are no ridge vents in a traditional shingle roof, so we don’t try to incorporate anything like that in the work we do.


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