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Don't Fence Me In


The construction of fences was among the most essential activities of the newly arrived Virginia colonist. Though not often without overtones of possession, fences were built for mainly practical reasons. In Virginia, livestock of all kinds was accommodated in the woods surrounding cultivated fields. As the animals could be branded or otherwise marked for owner identification and cleared land was often limited, crops came to be enclosed and livestock was thus fenced out. By no means restricted to agricultural use, fences also defined and protected all types of rural and urban spaces, such as churchyards, gardens, and workyards.

Time Required

Two to three class periods



As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Recognize and identify the uses and the need for a variety of fences
  • Recognize the privileges and responsibilities free people have regarding their land
  • Develop civic and democratic values integral to good citizenship

Setting the Stage

Discuss with students their prior knowledge of fences. The following questions are good prompts to use: What do they look like? What materials are used for making fences? Where are fences found? What was their purpose? What laws affect them? Record answers on a flip chart or chalkboard. Inform students that they will now investigate the use of fences in eighteenth-century Williamsburg.


Divide the class into five collaborative groups. Assign a recorder and leader for each group. Distribute to each group a copy of Legislation Relating to Fences in Colonial Virginia. Have the leader ask the group, "What laws governed the colonial population regarding fencing in their land?" and "What reasons do you think the Virginia Assembly had for writing these laws?" The Recorder will write down all answers. When finished, the group will discuss their responses with the entire class.

Ask class to recall what they had listed earlier as the materials used for making fences. What materials do you think colonists would use to build fences? Inform the class that they will now investigate different kinds of fences used in eighteenth-century Williamsburg. Distribute a copy of The Fences of Williamsburg to each collaborative group. Assign each group one of the fences to investigate. Each student should record their observations independently first, then the group leader should lead a discussion on the description and purpose of the group's fence. The recorder will record all responses. When finished, group will share and discuss their findings with the entire class.

Discuss with the class the similarities and differences among these five kinds of fences. Probe questions might include: What do they look like? What materials are used for making fences? Where are fences found? What was their purpose? What laws affect them? Record answers on a chalkboard or flip chart.

As a concluding activity, compare responses with those given in Setting the Stage. Have the class list the similarities and differences between eighteenth-century fences and twenty-first-century fences. What does this tell us?

Extension Activity

Take the students on a walk around the school's neighborhood to observe the fences which students may see. Have students sketch these fences. Return to class and list the types of fences found during the walk. Discuss why and if their community requires property owners to fence in their land. How is this similar and different from the eighteenth century? Share and discuss the students' sketches after they have had time to finish them in class.

Alternate Plan:

Discuss with students the following directions for constructing a colonial fence.

Sep. 27. 1808.

Directions for mr Watkins when he comes.
Davy, Abram, & Shepherd are to work with him.
Phill Hubard & Bedford Davy are to saw for him when sawing is wanting. he is to live in Stewart's house.
His first work is to pale in the garden, with a paling 10. feet high. the posts are to be of locust, sufficiently stout, barked but not hewed, 12 f. long, of which 2 ½ f. are to go in the ground. it will take about 300: placing them 9. f. apart.
the rails are to be of heart poplar or pine. the stock is to be split into 4. quarters thus then each quarter is to be split diagonally thus so as to make 2 three square rails out of each quarter. they are to be of the size usual in strong garden paling. I do not know what that is. there will be 3. To each pannel & consequently all.
The pales are to be of chestnut, riven, & strong, 5. f. 3. I long, to be dubbed on one another on the middle rail like clapboards, so that I. Nail shall do, & two lengths of pales will make the whole height. I suppose they will be generally from 5. to 7. I. wide, & should be so near as not to let even a young hare in. there will be about 7500. Wanting. they are to be sharpened at the upper end thus and not thus as is usual. they are not be put up till I come how to shew the courses of the inclosure. the pine for the rails may be got either at Pouncy's or on my lands beyond Colle. the chestnut pales had better be got in the high mountain.

Thomas Jefferson, 1808

[Source: Thomas Jefferson's Garden Book 1766-1824.]

Note that this description was written by Thomas Jefferson. Discuss with students how they might construct a model fence using Mr. Jefferson's instructions. Next have each collaborative group construct a model fence using cardboard following Thomas Jefferson's instruction.



Have students write an essay on why laws were important in requiring people in the eighteenth century to put up fences. Students may refer Legislation Relating to Fences in Colonial Virginia and The Fences of Williamsburg.

This lesson plan was developed by Sally Haggerty, Santa Margarita School, Oceanside, CA; Laura Sherman, Santa Monica Alternative School House, Santa Monica, CA and the staff of School & Group Services. If you have a lesson plan which you would like to share, please send to Jim Ebert, School & Group Services, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, PO Box 1776, Williamsburg, VA 23187.