Fire and Firefighting in Colonial America
Fire was a very real, ever-present threat to colonial communities. Every uncontrolled fire endangered lives and property. Residents needed to work together to prevent fires from breaking out and to extinguish those that did. As the eighteenth century progressed, colonists took advantage of technological advances and new equipment to dramatically improve their firefighting capabilities. Still, by the time of the American Revolution, fire remained a serious threat to growing colonial towns.
Fire played a role in the very founding of Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia. In 1699, the legislature selected Williamsburg as the site for a new Capitol after fire burned the statehouse at Jamestown for the fourth time. This final calamity provided an ideal opportunity for officials to abandon low-lying Jamestown in favor of the healthier and more easily defended inland location of Williamsburg.
Eighteenth-century Americans depended on the controlled use of fire throughout their daily lives. Fireplaces provided heat for cooking meals and warming homes and shops. Fireplace fires and candles gave off the light necessary for day-to-day activities. With so many people using fire every day, damage resulting from accidents, carelessness, or neglect often occurred. In urban areas, where buildings were constructed close together, blazes could spread easily. In 1731, for example, a fire consumed most of Charleston, South Carolina. Nine years later, the most serious fire yet experienced in the colonies devastated Charleston again, burning more than three hundred dwellings and numerous shops and warehouses.
Though Williamsburg avoided disasters of such scope, several destructive fires occurred there during the eighteenth century. Despite their brick construction, public buildings in the capital city were the victims of fire on several occasions. In 1705, the Wren Building at the College of William and Mary burned. The Capitol suffered a similar fate in 1747. The Capitol fire allegedly started in an “upper retired room without Chimney, or Wainscot.” By the time the fire was discovered, it was too late to save the building. The Capitol was rebuilt and ready for use again by 1753. In April 1754, the Capitol was threatened again when a nearby fire destroyed Mr. Palmer’s house, a storehouse, and Mr. Walthoe’s house and badly damaged Marot’s Ordinary. Daniel Fisher, an English coffee merchant who then occupied Marot’s Ordinary, described the scene of the fire:
With any tolerable management, the fire might easily have been extinguished, but nothing was sure for a great while but uproar, confusion and disorder. . . . the rope to my well, the nearest and only water within a good way, was broke or cut after drawing the first or second bucket. Mr. Palmer’s well indeed was close by the room where the fire kindled, but the Cry of Gun Powder hindered that from being used till it grew too hot to stand at all in that place. . . . [Had Mr. Walthoe’s house] been covered with wet bags or blankets, that would have preserved it, but for more than an hour not a ladder (or other useful implement) could hardly be met with. My Pails, Buckets, Tubs, Axes, Spades, etc. etc. were indeed delivered immediately, but except the well bucket which was secured at the bottom of the well, I never received one thing any more. The Capitol tho’ more than 200 feet distant was by its eastern situation in great danger of being burnt a second time, the shingles catching several times. But that being attended and supplyed with water, etc. etc. it was preserved, tho’ at considerable expense, the assistants there being well paid: whereas, save Mr. Walthoe gave out of his own Pocket to Persons who pretended to have aided at Mr. Palmer’s and his own house, the recompence of the helpers in general, consisted in what they ran away with, of the substance of the sufferers. . . . I would not suffer any of my goods to be removed out of my house, which was then beset by a great numbers of lazy negroes, calmly viewing the Bon Fire. I spoke to a knot of those, exhorting them very civily to assist in drawing or fetching water, etc. but received a surly reply with an Oath of who will pay us?
Toward the end of the Revolutionary War, both the Governor’s Palace and the President’s House at the College of William and Mary were consumed by fire. Fire also destroyed private structures, including Dr. Peter Hay’s apothecary shop in 1756, Dr. William Carter’s stable in 1767, coachmaker Charles Taliaferro’s stable and coach house in 1771, and a tenement house rented by cabinetmaker Peter Scott in 1776.
During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, firefighting equipment in Williamsburg consisted largely of buckets, ladders, and sheer manpower. In 1716, authorities at the College of William and Mary resolved to order from England two dozen leather fire buckets and “1 Ingine for Quenching Fire”—probably a small hand pump. After a nearby fire threatened the newly rebuilt Capitol in 1754, the Virginia Council purchased a fire engine and four dozen leather buckets from London to provide better protection for the capital city. By 1756, a fire engine had arrived in Williamsburg. The newly acquired engine helped to prevent the spread of flames from the fire that destroyed Dr. Hay’s apothecary shop.
Although the original Williamsburg fire engine no longer survives, it was probably a Newsham engine. In 1721 and 1725, Richard Newsham obtained patents for his design of a “new water engine for quenching and extinguishing fires.” His engines were remarkable advances over earlier, more primitive machines. Newsham’s fire engines were long and narrow, allowing them to pass through an ordinary doorway (less than three feet wide). And, unlike the earlier fire engines, which delivered water in erratic squirts, Newsham’s engine was designed to provide a continuous stream of water up to a distance of more than 150 feet. The two-cylinder machine was actuated by hand levers and foot treadles. Several men worked the levers and treadles to pump water through an air vessel and out a pipe, or branch, aimed at the fire. The largest of Newsham’s engines was capable of pumping two hundred gallons of water per minute. Available in six sizes, Newsham engines also came with detailed instructions for use and maintenance.
Newsham’s fire engines were popular both in England and abroad. The city of London used them until 1832, and provincial towns such as Dartmouth acquired them as well. In the colonies, the city of Philadelphia ordered two Newsham engines in 1730, as did New York City a year later. A Newsham engine imported into Salem, Massachusetts, at mid-century is now housed in a museum there. Evidence that Virginians were familiar with Newsham engines comes from early nineteenth-century policies issued by the Mutual Assurance Society of Richmond. The policies contain an engraving of a Newsham engine.
In the twenty years preceding the American Revolution, several Williamsburg residents urged their neighbors and local officials to take additional steps to improve fire prevention. In 1768, a citizen identifying himself as “Timothy Telltruth” wrote to the newspaper, the Virginia Gazette, advocating the acquisition of another fire engine or two and the appointment of a night watch to deter both fires and robberies. Others echoed his recommendations. In the summer of 1772, the City Council made provisions for:
a WATCH, to consist of four sober and discreet People, who are to patrol the Streets of this City from ten o’Clock every Night until Daylight the next Morning, to cry the Hours, and use their best Endeavours to preserve Peace and good Order. . . . They are likewise to have the Care of the FIRE ENGINES, and to be ready, in Cases of Accidents by Fire, to give their Assistance towards extinguishing the same.
The men who were hired made themselves useful the following November. They saved the Public Gaol from burning down after a prisoner set the floor on fire and escaped with the help of accomplices outside.
As the Gaol fire indicates, not all fires in colonial communities were accidental. Criminals sometimes used fire to create diversions or to mask their crimes. In 1768, for example, robbers broke into the post office in Williamsburg. Before departing, they attempted to burn down the building by throwing hot coals on a bed located inside the office. Luckily, the mattress feathers smothered the fire. A few years later, a planter who lived outside of Williamsburg reported that someone had set fire to the tobacco barn on his York County plantation. He wrote, “As this is the second Time I have suffered in this manner, within a few Years, I have the greatest Reason to believe I have some secret Enemy that intends to do me all the Injury he can.” An individual convicted of arson, a capital crime, could be sentenced to death.
If fires sometimes revealed tensions within colonial communities, then firefighting efforts illustrate cooperation in the face of common danger. Organized firefighting efforts required preparation and teamwork; as many as eighteen men were required to operate a Newsham engine. In addition, neighbors helped rescue people and their possessions from the flames.
It appears that the fire engine in Williamsburg fell into disrepair or was removed to Richmond, which became the new capitol of Virginia in 1780. In 1781, when fires broke out in several buildings used to house soldiers, firefighting equipment was difficult to find. In a letter to General George Washington, General Rochambeau, the commander of French troops stationed in Williamsburg, described a dire shortage of both water and buckets.
In 1788, the Virginia legislature passed “An act to authorize the establishment of fire companies.” This act made it lawful for residents of a town to form firefighting groups whose members agreed to be responsible for obtaining equipment, learning how to use it, drilling regularly, and extinguishing any fires that did break out. This act represented another step toward organized fire prevention as we know it today.
From neighbors helping each other with buckets to fire companies manned by local residents to professional fire departments supported by local taxes, firefighting has changed along with population growth and the expansion of local government. The growth and improvements in fire prevention efforts of colonial residents of Williamsburg provide insight into the evolution of community life in America.
This essay originally appeared in the teacher's guide for the Colonial Williamsburg Electronic Field Trip "Backdraft."