Mitchell, Joshua (ca. 1770-1834)
Joshua Mitchell (ca. 1770-1834) was a master brickmason during New Bern’s celebrated Federal period boom, and probably executed much of the city’s fine brickwork of that era. He was already established in his trade by 1802, when leading New Bern citizen Richard Dobbs Spaight referred to “Mr. Mitchel” as “one of the best bricklayers we have here.” Mitchell was also singled out by Stephen Miller in his memoir of New Bern in the early 1820s as a “master workman who made many of the brick houses and chimneys erected in town.” He surely constructed many more buildings than have been documented as his work.
Although little is known of Mitchell’s family and background, he was evidently a local man. According to Baptist memoirist John D. Whitford, Mitchell was a Baptist and a descendant of Louis Michell, a Swiss immigrant who came to the New Bern area with the early DeGraffenried settlement. Miller recalled that Joshua Mitchell had at least two brothers, Alexander and Elisha, and that Joshua had married Mary Willis, the daughter of Joshua Willis, of Craven County. Joshua and Mary Mitchell had a large family including four sons and seven daughters, all of whom attained adulthood and several of whom were still alive when Miller wrote his memoir about the 1820s fifty years later.
In his 1802 letter to John Haywood in Raleigh, Richard Dobbs Spaight illuminated aspects of the mason’s trade in the period. He had consulted Mitchell as an authority on brickwork standards and prices, and Mitchell had told him that “for the arches made of rubbed brick he has 25/ or $7.50 cents. As inside arches are never made of rubbed brick as they are to be plastered over [they are?] measured in the wall.” Rubbed bricks were a refinement in brickwork in which bricks were burnished to a uniform surface and color and used to accentuate certain elements, such as arches, whether curved or “flat,” over and around door or windows openings. Mitchell’s statement about pricing reflects that in determining the value of work done in construction, some elements—such as arches of rubbed brick—were priced separately, while for the brickwork as a whole, the cost was based on “measuring” the extent and thickness of the wall.
Although Mitchell as a leading mason doubtless built some of the principal brick buildings of ca. 1790-1810, such as the Isaac Taylor House, the Harvey Mansion, the New Bern Academy, and St. John’s Masonic Lodge, none of his early work has been documented. Records of his work have been found for only a few later buildings. In 1818 he laid the brick floors of a smokehouse and wine cellar at the John R. Donnell House, where Wallace Moore did most of the brickwork on the house.
Mitchell also executed the brickwork for the Craven County Jail in the early 1820s. Accounts kept for the project include a payment of $498.12.1/2 to Mitchell for laying 399,500 bricks, and other amounts for “J. Mitchell and hands working on jail.” (Mitchell did not supply the bricks, which were obtained separately from local suppliers and from Philadelphia.) Mitchell charged 15 shillings per day for his own labor, and 5 to 7 shillings per day for his laborers. These men, probably slaves, included Bob, Charles, Jacob, Edmund, Peter, James, and Tom. In 1832 Mitchell was one of the committee chosen to inspect repairs on Christ Episcopal Church. At Mitchell’s death, the brief notice in the local Spectator on September 19, 1834, stated that he was in his 64th year.
- Catherine W. Bishir, “Philadelphia Bricks and the New Bern Jail,” APT, 9.4 (1977), reprinted in Catherine W. Bishir, Southern Built: American Architecture, Regional Practice (2006).
- Craven County Records (Miscellaneous Records, Public Building Records), North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- New Bern Spectator, various issues.
- Peter B. Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (1988).
- Richard Dobbs Spaight to John Haywood, July 2, 1802, Ernest Haywood Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
- John D. Whitford, “The Home Story of a Walking Stick—The Early History of the Biblical Recorder and Baptist Church…” (1899-1900), John D. Whitford Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
1821-1825Location:New Bern, Craven CountyStreet Address:
Craven St., New Bern, NCStatus:
No longer standingType:
PublicImages Published In:
Catherine W. Bishir, “Philadelphia Bricks and the New Bern Jail,” APT, 9.4 (1977), reprinted in Catherine W. Bishir, Southern Built: American Architecture, Regional Practice (2006).
Peter B. Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (1988).
1816-1818Location:New Bern, Craven CountyStreet Address:
Craven St., New Bern, NCStatus:
No longer standingType:
ResidentialImages Published In:
Frances Benjamin Johnston and Thomas Tileston Waterman, The Early Architecture of North Carolina (1941).
Peter B. Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (1988).Note:
Through the records kept by John R. Donnell, known as “Judge Donnell,” the construction history documentation for this house is unusually complete. (See John Donnell Letter Book and Account Book, Bryan Family Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.) One of New Bern’s finest Federal style buildings, it was a 2-story house of brick laid in Flemish bond and followed a side-passage plan. It featured an unusually early local example of bullseye cornerblocks flanking the window lintels. The house was destroyed by fire in 1972. The adjoining office was moved to a suburban site, and some elements of the elegant woodwork were also salvaged. Because this house was similar to other Federal period houses in town, as discussed in Peter B. Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (1988), Donnell’s records provide clues to the artisans involved in other buildings.