Fort Family (1764-1845)
The Fort family (1764-1845) of house carpenters included the brothers William Knight Fort (June 27, 1764-June 21, 1843); John Fort (ca. 1785-1828); and Elias Fort (ca.1790-ca. 1845). Known for a single large project, Fairntosh plantation, among what must have been many works, the Fort brothers are representative of artisans who strengthened their economic position beyond their wages by acquiring land and slaves and maintaining family ties.
Family genealogies cite the Fort brothers as the sons of Frederick (d. 1819) and Mary Ann Knight Fort, who married in 1760 and had many children over a remarkably long period. The Fort family was a large one, in which several people in different generations had the same names. Evidently Frederick and Mary Ann Fort moved from Sussex County, Virginia, to Wake County in the 1780s, along with their son, William Knight. The younger carpenter sons, John and Elias, were born in Wake County and joined William—who was old enough to be their father—in the carpenter’s trade, and they were probably trained by him as well. By the 1790s,William Fort was busy at his trade in Wake County, where he took several apprentices to the carpenter’s and wheelwright’s trades in 1798, 1804, 1809, and 1814. Another brother, Foster, also took an apprentice to the carpenter’s trade in Wake County in 1804, but little is known of his work as a carpenter.
The Fort brothers’ chief known work is the plantation complex at Fairntosh (1810-1822) in the section of Orange County that became present Durham County. It was built for Duncan and Rebecca Bennehan Cameron. Duncan Cameron was among the wealthiest and most influential men in the state, and Rebecca was the daughter of planter Richard Bennehan, who gave Cameron the land that became the nucleus of his extensive holdings. For the construction of his substantial and handsomely finished plantation house and a large addition, plus outbuildings, Duncan Cameron kept meticulous records that document the project in unusual detail. (See the Cameron Family Papers, Southern Historical Collection). Doubtless the Forts constructed other buildings, but Fairntosh is the only one documented thus far.
At Fairntosh,William K. Fort and his partner David S. Goodloe built the main, 2-story framehouse of eight principal rooms in 1810-1811 for $2,877.40. William’s brothers John and Elias also came to the job, and they worked on the carriage house and kitchen along with their slaves Tom and Moses. Rebecca Cameron commented during the project, “Mr. Fort [probably William] is going on in his usual steadyway.” In July, 1811, she wrote, “Mr. Fort and all his family have left us, I do not know whether he has finished all he promised to do.” For some elements, Cameron employed other artisans from Raleigh and elsewhere, including joiner Elhannon Nutt for the mantels, as well as plasterer Henry Gorman (see Gorman Family) and brickmason William Collier for work in their trades. For the handsome staircase, the Forts evidently subcontracted with Raleigh carpenter John J. Briggs. It seems William Fort did not return after this, but the younger brothers did.
In 1814 John and Elias Fort billed Cameron for building the schoolhouse, dairy, “Jim’shouse,” two other small outbuildings, and a stable well. They also built a second, larger 2-story kitchen of frame nogged (infilled) with brick: in 1814 Rebecca wrote to Duncan, “Mr. Colyer [Collier] requested me to ask you if you wished the walls of the kitchen filled in with brick.” (He did.) After 1815, John Fort continued to work for the Camerons at Fairntosh and other sites. In 1821 John Fort built the large rear addition to the main house at Fairntosh, where Briggs, Collier, and Gorman were involved again. Meanwhile, in1816, Elias Fort was in Hillsborough where, in an unusual action for the time, he advertised in the Raleigh Star a meeting of carpenters and house-joiners to gather at the home of John Craig to draw up regulations for measuring and pricing their work, to prevent lawsuits and unpaid wages; the outcome is unknown.
The Fort brothers all established families and acquired land. William married Charlotte Lyle (Lile) in Wake County in 1792 and had several children; after her death in 1829 he married Elizabeth Wimberly Whitfield, to whom he left his home plantation on White Oak Creek. In 1814 John Fort married Jane Justice, probably a sister of his brother Foster Fort’s wife, and they had six children. He bought 301 acres on Knap of Reeds Creek from Richard Bennehan in 1815 and remained in the area, continuing in his trade and taking apprentices in Orange County in 1819. Elias Fort, who took an apprentice to the house carpenter’s trade in Orange County in 1812, married Jane Hargis of Person County in 1815 and settled on a farm of 300 acres. In 1824 Elias and Jane moved to Tennessee and apparently continued westward thereafter.
- Jean Bradley Anderson, Piedmont Plantation: The Bennehan-Cameron Family and Lands in North Carolina (1985).
- Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
- Cameron Family Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
- James H. Craig, The Arts and Crafts in North Carolina, 1699-1840 (1965).
- Homer T. Fort and Drucilla Stovall Jones, A Family Called Fort: The Descendants of Elias Fort of Virginia (1970).
- Orange County Marriage Bonds, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Person County Deeds and Estate Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Raleigh Star, Oct. 11, 1816; Oct. 25, 1816.
- Wake County Records (Wills), North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Dates:1810-1822Location:Orange CountyStreet Address:5000 Old Oxford Highway, SR 1004, Treyburn vicinity, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).
Frances Benjamin Johnston and Thomas Tileston Waterman, The Early Architecture of North Carolina (1941).