When the Puritans came to New England, one of their first concerns was shelter. They planned to build wood-framed houses with thatched roofs, like the ones they’d left in England. But there was a period of several months during which they had to find other shelter while erecting those houses. They used what they could find: tents and caves and holes dug in the ground. There is even a record of a family living in empty ship casks. They also built huts and “hovels,” modeled after peasant country dwellings in England and similar to the sod houses of the westward expansion that would take place generations later. These were sometimes described as “wigwam-shaped,” because they resembled the house forms of their Native American neighbors.
The Puritans had brought with them their house-building tools, and as soon as possible they began constructing frame houses. They trimmed tree logs into rectangular posts and beams for framing and cut grasses and reeds from the coastal marshes to make thatch. They fashioned their house walls of wattle and daub – a woven lattice of sticks inside the frame filled with a mortar made of clay and dirt. They covered the exterior walls with clapboards – thin boards split from tree logs and nailed over the frame.
These first frame houses were small, often with only one room in which all the indoor activities took place. They ate and worked there. They slept there on mattresses stuffed with straw, corn, or feathers, which were rolled up during the day. Sometimes there was a loft above the room used to store food and other goods. The floor was usually hard-packed earth. The small early windows lacked glass, and were closed with a wooden shutter. The hearth dominated one end of the room. Large enough to step into, it’s where women spent much of their time, usually maintaining several small fires at once. Chimneys, when present, were built of wood and clay like the rest of the house. The interiors were smoky and dark. And cold in the winter.
Over time, as an owner’s fortune grew, rooms were added, and a second story built. Often a lean-to was attached to the back of the house, creating the distinctive “salt box” profile of early New England architecture.
At the time of European-Indian contact, Native American tribes in southern New England lived in settled villages and practiced agriculture. They also hunted. In the spring they burned the undergrowth in the woods, making travel easier and encouraging the growth of game-attracting plants. In some places the hunting lands were so carefully managed that deer could be spotted at a distance of more than a mile. About every ten years, when the soil was depleted, the villagers moved together to a new location. They lived in extended family groups in domed longhouses in the winter and usually moved into single-family circular wetus (also known as wigwams) for the spring and summer.
The men gathered saplings and stripped off the bark to form the wetu frames. The sapling bark was then split and used to tie the frame together. A small wetu required about forty saplings. The wetu frame was covered with sheets of bark in winter, or with double-sided mats woven of dried reeds in summer. A smoke hole was built into the center of the roof, situated directly over the fire pit. Sheets of bark were arranged above the smoke hole to shelter it from rain or snow, sheets which could be adjusted as needed.
Inside, multi-purpose platforms were built that were used for everything from storage to sitting and sleeping. At night they slept under animal skins that were used for sitting on or wearing during the day. Woven mats made of bulrushes lined the wetu interiors. A pot of succotash almost always simmered over the central fire.
In the early days of the colony, the dwellings of these two groups were remarkably similar in size and comfort. There was at least one important difference, though. The round design of the wetus increased their energy-efficiency. When colonists chanced to sleep in wetus in cold weather, they remarked on how remarkably warm they were compared to their own English homes.