AT the close of the seventeenth century, the Chesapeake was a mosaic of landscapes, building forms, and subsistence activities, layers of cultural patterns imposed by adaptation and innovation. Whatever the original intentions of the colonists and their London backers who carved out the initial settlement at Jamestown, at the end of the century the Chesapeake was unlike anything they might have previously imagined. Certainly, it did not mirror old England, nor was much in Virginia and Maryland like English settlements in New England. A dependence on tobacco set the Chesapeake apart. So too did the dispersed character of its plantations, separated from each other along the region’s rivers and broad creeks. Even the character of its housing was unusual: almost all houses were made of timber and raised by earthfast construction, a method found elsewhere but embraced in the Chesapeake with a singular tenacity. Its growing dependence on slave labor and the patterns of segregated house plans, yards, and labor routines that emerged at the end of the century made the Chesapeake still more distinctive.
Historians have suggested two main factors to explain the seemingly transitory character of the built Chesapeake environment: the demographic chaos of the region’s beginnings as well as the continued instability that troubled it until the second half of the century and the failure to create a diversified economy. Edmund S. Morgan argued three decades ago, as did Cary Carson and his collaborators in the early 1980s, that Jamestown’s boomtown character and the later dominance in the region of what has been styled “impermanent architecture” bespoke shallow attachments to the place and modest investments in its future.  More substantial houses appeared only at the end of the century with economic diversification, in particular the rising importance of wheat production. These explanations for the seventeenth-century Chesapeake’s architectural impermanence, compelling as they are, fail to consider other dynamic cultural forces. . . .