Rick Spurling spearheads a project to build an authentic settler’s dwelling, circa 1612, to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the first settlers in Bermuda.

The old cliché that history is merely a collection of lies imposed by one victorious group over another can lead to an unhealthy skeptical attitude that discourages interest in studying the past. It is also false. True historians can, in fact, discern accurate knowledge about the past. While it is true that some famous chroniclers have mutilated history for their own ideological purposes, ever more careful investigative methodologies continue to evolve from the foundational premise that history provides perspective with intersecting stories of individuals who encounter reality from different points of view.

Retired lawyer and former MP Rick Spurling advocates the value of Bermuda’s history. He is the founder and president of the St. David’s Island Historical Society and currently serves as chairman of the St. George’s Foundation. Both organizations are committed to bringing history to life with exhibits and projects that educate and inspire Bermudians to study the past.

Their common ethos is that understanding our Bermudian heritage through the many eyes of its people is invaluable because it brings Bermudians toward a meaningful understanding of who they are and why they think the way they do. This can encourage, in turn, a willingness to reflect on how they can continue to grow together as a society.

“We can choose not to live in the past,” says Spurling, “but we cannot prevent the past living in us. Our thoughts and beliefs about our Bermudian identity are the product of those that came before us. Their experiences, the good, the bad and the ugly, shape how we view ourselves today.”

Spurling founded the St. David’s Island Historical Society in 1998 at Carter House after well-known local historian Joyce Hall approached him for help in restoring the venerable property. He negotiated a lease with the BLDC, raised the $150,000 needed for restoration and repairs and reopened Carter House as an exhibit of St. David’s soul.

To visit Carter House today is to step back in time and experience an uncanny nostalgia, perhaps a stirring of ancestral memories embedded deep in the genes, provoked by the elegant beauty of handcrafted tools, deep stone fireplaces and cedar beams. Over the last 14 years, Spurling has collected pictures and artifacts that capture the character of St. David’s and its independent, maritime people. Outside, a myriad of native and endemic flowers bloom in neatly tended gardens around the house, illustrating history with their colors and scents.

The Project

On July 11, 1612, three years after the Somers expedition to Jamestown was detained temporarily on the “Isle of Devils” via hurricane and shipwreck, Bermuda’s first group of permanent settlers arrived from Britain aboard The Plough. Among the 60 or so pioneering souls that cruised into Smith’s Sound was our first governor, Sir Richard Moore. He chose Tortus Island (today’s St. George’s Island) for their town site and instructed the settlers to build “cabbens of Palmatta.”

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of their arrival, the St. David’s Island Historical Society has launched a project to build a settler’s dwelling, circa 1612, using the same materials, techniques and tools that the settlers used 400 years ago. There is no precedent in Bermuda’s history or contemporary expertise for building this sort of structure. The dwelling predates the permanent stone buildings that began to appear by the 1620s. No archaeological records of the wooden houses remain, therefore many of the building decisions involve guesswork and logic, based on historical knowledge of what Moore and the settlers knew about building houses.

A primary reason why Moore was appointed governor is that he was a skilled member of the London Carpenter’s Guild and author of the technical handbook The Carpenter’s Rule. Moore had an expert’s knowledge of the many different construction styles employed in England. He would have been capable of mixing and matching styles as necessary according to what building materials were available, and many of the settlers were trained at shipbuilding, skills that translated well into house building, giving homes the shipwright’s flavor.

To bring this project to fruition, Spurling has relied on the expertise of many engineering minds, including that of his friend and fellow enthusiast Larry Mills. Mills has been in the construction trade for over 40 years, having survived and then flourished under the tutelage of the infamously tough-as-nails Edward “Icewater” Smith. Mills brings an infectious enthusiasm, creativity and energy to the site. “I have always been interested in the authentic, whether it be people, places or things,” he says. “This project is a double-barreled pleasure for me. I get an emotional kick out of being part of 400 years of history, and I have the opportunity to apply my creative skills.”

The Structure

The settler’s structure measures 12 by 20 feet, which is notably larger than the earliest shelters Sir George Somers’s men would have erected in 1609, but it is consistent with the dwellings of 1612. The door, two windows and the wall plate are noticeably lower than those in modern houses, as people in the 1600s were several inches shorter in height, on average, than they are today. A settler’s rough-made ladder that stands against the side of the structure accesses the roof. Although there is no upper floor, the space above the tie beams would have been used for storage and accessed by such a ladder.

The original structures would have been made entirely of Bermuda cedar, but given the laws of the land, Spurling and Mills were obliged to make other arrangements. They collected any available pieces of cedar that could be found or donated and imported Virginia cedar logs from North Carolina. In the interests of authenticity, however, they took particular care in ordering Y-Top lumber, and they used the natural structure of the trees in the dwelling.

Mills explains, “We prided ourselves on using uneven, unfinished logs and lathes in keeping with the spirit of the building. Using random or unevenly spaced wood added to the difficulty component but also to the authenticity of appearance. The settlers did not have the luxury of precise machinery that we do today, and so they used odd-shaped or naturally shaped logs and lathes to suit the purpose at hand. The need for practiced skills in carpentry, along with sensitivity to replicating the inconsistencies of this kind of structure, played well into my skills.”

Of course, precision is a virtue in construction today, but in 1612, speed and utility would have been the prime virtues. Upon arrival, the settlers had no homes to shelter in at night so they were motivated to finish their work, not in four months part time, but as soon as possible. Structures of this sort generally did not last long, and that is why Bermuda’s Department of Planning has listed the dwelling as a temporary structure.

In the early days of its history, the town of St. George’s had to be largely rebuilt after every hurricane. For one thing, the settlers probably did not bring more than one barrel of nails with them on The Plough. Each builder would have been given a limited number of nails to work with, and the settlers used them sparingly. Cut-wood nails (treenails or dowels) were used to hold the roof’s steep-angle rafter beams in place. Perhaps somewhat counter intuitively, there is no ridgepole on the structure. Crosses of wood, called wood weights, were placed on top of the palmetto leaves at the apex of the roof to hold them down and prevent the roof from blowing off. These can
be removed easily in order to replace the top layer of leaves as needed from time to time.

Further, to prevent the gabled roof from sliding forward and backward, angled beams, called cross bracing, were attached with reproduced rose-head nails. The team did take some small liberties with their use of metal nails, if only to help ensure that the 2012 structure might be exhibited to the public for at least a year or two. The palmetto was nailed down, thus making the structure slightly less vulnerable to storms. It is unlikely the settlers would have had that safeguarding luxury except perhaps for Governor Moore’s first house.

Thatching the roof proved a considerable challenge. As no local expertise on palmetto thatching could be found, Spurling hired Val Deere, an expert thatcher from Mississippi who also happens to be a Native American member of the Choctaw tribe, to instruct them. Deere was rightly concerned with the size of the endemic Bermuda palmetto leaf, as it is larger, harder and less supple than other leaves he would have used for such a project in the U.S. However, it is what the settlers had to work with, so the team had to figure out how to use them. After some frustrating false starts and a few truckloads of wasted palmetto leaves, they realized they had only a small window of two to three days to use the leaf once it was cut. A day-old leaf was still too tough, and after four days the leaf was dried out and no good. They had originally blocked aside three weeks to thatch the roof, but the time constraints forced them to finish the job within a week.

The structure exhibits three different methods of attaching the thatch to the roof lathes. One method weaves the stem under and over the lathes; another lashes them to the lathe with strips of the palmetto leaf itself (in some cases hemp may have been used); and a third method uses one or two of the precious metal nails for each leaf.

For the walls, the poorer settlers would probably have used thatching all around, but Moore could afford to make something more substantial and fairly dry, with cooking facilities for him and his wife. He knew about how to burn limestone and mix slaked lime with water, sand and clay to produce a cement-like substance. Moore would have chopped or cut limestone to create a stone-fill base for the fireplace, with a detachable smoke hood on top to draw the smoke away from the interior of the house. The smoke hood could be knocked aside if the chimney caught on fire (a common occurrence), which would save the thatch from catching fire.

Not all such structures would have had fireplaces with chimneys, but Captain John Smith’s Generall Historie of 1624 illustrates drawings of Bermuda houses built in the Elizabethan style surrounding the church (St. Peter’s), most of which had chimneys. It is a reasonable inference that at least Moore’s structure might have had a chimney, and the team felt it would be aesthetically pleasing to include it.

To learn what materials Moore would have used to build up the walls, Spurling consulted experts from England, the Jamestown Yorktown Foundation, Preservation Virginia (Jamestown Rediscovery) and the Williamsburg Foundation. Given the raw materials that would have been available to the settlers, the 2012 structure employs a technique called “mud and stud,” which involves a combination of clay/earth, sand and lime, plus a contemporary substitute for turtle oil.

The People

This project would not have been possible without the generosity of so many people at every stage of development. Many of the materials were donated, including truckloads of palmetto leaves, mounds of clay, pieces of cedar and volunteer time. Somers Isles Shipping kindly provided shipping,  trucking and a container  from the United States without charge.

The Jamestown Rediscovery was so eager to help that they donated the services of their senior archaeologist, David Givens, for three full days. Spurling provided food, accommodations and expenses, but Givens was so pleased that the project was being done he insisted on paying for his own plane ticket. The thatching expert also charged only a fraction of his normal rate.

Volunteers continue to assist in the building and maintenance of the structure, and it has proven a highly attractive exhibit among children. All the original tools, including augurs, froes and various types of axes, are on display at Carter House, and school groups love watching demonstrations.

Spurling and Mills are hopeful that the settler’s exhibit will attract attention to the importance of history as an educational tool. The study of history is not simply a pastime for the wealthy, or worse, a tool of propaganda for the powerful. It is a vital means of discovering Bermuda’s heritage, warts and all, which will assist as the island moves forward together as a nation with dignity, grace and optimism.