Luten, William (fl. 1750s-1787)
William Luten (fl. 1750s-d. 1787) was a house carpenter active in Chowan County in the Albemarle region during the mid and late 18th century. Because he left an account book recording some thirty years of practice—one of the few North Carolina artisans of his era to do so—he provides an unusually well-documented example of the versatile woodworkers responsible for many of the modest buildings and much of the furniture of the 18th century rural state. He combined the skills and tools of carpentry, joinery, and coopering, as had his father before him, which enabled him to find regular employment in his small-town and rural setting.
Born in Chowan County, William was a son of carpenter Thomas and Hannah (or possibly Mary) Luten. At his death in 1766 Thomas bequeathed to William two slaves plus “my carpenters Joyners and coopers Tools.” William had probably learned his trade from his father, a common practice. Other Luten family members were also involved in the carpentry trade in the county, including William’s relatives, Ephraim and Constant Luten, apprenticed to the trade in 1747 and 1756, respectively, and his cousin Henderson Luten (d. 1792), who left an estate that included woodworking tools indicative of a carpenter.
William Luten’s account book, which he kept from the mid-1760s until 1786, together with bills in estates records, depicts his work for more than fifty clients, most of whom were probably residents of Edenton and surrounding Chowan County. According to his records, Luten framed and raised houses for George Disbrowe (1756), John Vail (1765), Joseph Sutton (1765), Joseph Blount (1766), Richard Humphrey (1772), Christopher Johnston (1777), and William Roberts (1778), as well as building a schoolhouse with Joseph Champion and John Luten (1764). Men by these names were residents of Chowan County in the 18th century, indicating that most if not all of Luten’s building projects were local.
Luten accomplished a full range of tasks necessary to build a frame house: framing and raising the house, weatherboarding and shingling it, fashioning and installing doors and windows and installing the floors, and making (“running”) stairs, some with turned balusters. Evidently the owners of these houses hired other workmen to accomplish interior plastering or paneling and to construct brick chimneys—if such refinements were included at all. The houses Luten built, typical of the period, were probably one or one-and-a-half stories tall and of small to moderate size, some as small as 13 by 16 feet, some more than twice that extent.
But Luten did much more than build houses. He erected many outbuildings, including dairies, corncribs, barns; he constructed additions to existing structures; and he did large and small repair and renovation jobs. Much of his work consisted of such small items as “putting up 2 shelves,” “putting a lock on your door,” and “repearing 3 windows and putting in pans of glas.” With a diverse set of skills and tools from house carpenter to cooper, he served the multiple needs of his community: making window sash, shutters, doors, and shingles, and also repairing cart wheels, spinning wheels, and looms, and making milk piggins and wash tubs. Using his joiner’s tools and skills, he built simple furniture, including bedsteads, buffets, chests (one “with feet to it”), coffins, cupboards, and a “candel stan to set candle stick on.”
Luten charged for his work according to all the standard methods of the time. He sometimes charged by the item, such as a making a chest or “running up the stair.” He also figured bills by the day, typically at 5 shillings per day for himself, less for his workmen, such as “3 days work on your barn,” or “1 day work on your peasor [piazza].” In construction he also worked by the “measure,” a traditional way of pricing work, such as framing a house at 3 shillings and sixpence a square.
As was common in the rural and small-town economy, Luten often worked on the barter system. In return for his services, he accepted both cash and items in kind such as corn, wood, cloth, brandy, rum, chickens, or pickled shad. An indication of a favorite pastime appears in several charges for “one quart of brandy lost at cards.” As a small slaveholder, Luten sometimes hired out his slaves for a task or a period, and he also hired other owners’ slaves for specific projects, paying for their work by the day.
Operating in a rural economy required not only versatility, but travel within a small region. It is not known how far afield Luten worked, but he seems to have stayed within a fairly small area. The names associated with the houses he built are familiar ones in Chowan County and nearby. Still, travel was an expense even for short distances. For a job for Joshua Bodley (a Chowan County man) in 1770, Luten charged 3 shillings and sixpence for the travel to Bodley’s place for “stoping my tuls that I was fost to come another time for them,” and charged the same amount when “I did come for corn and you did Disappoint me.”
At William Luten’s death in 1787, his modest estate consisted primarily of his tools, several of which were purchased by Henderson Luten and King and Absalom Luten. The total sale was for only £30. The most costly item was “1 chist Tools,” sold for £12 5s. During his lifetime, Luten was involved in land transfers and probably owned land; late in life he may have transferred property to his heirs, reducing his estate by the time of his death. Further research is needed to track his life and career in greater detail, to fill out the story of one man among many whose skills and versatility met the needs of his small town and rural community.
Thus far only one house has been identified as probably built by Luten: the Disbrowe-Warren House (1756), as documented by Thomas Butchko in Edenton: An Architectural Portrait. In 1756, Luten billed George Disbrowe for the lumber and other items for the house; Disbrowe had previously paid Luten for repairs on an existing house on the property, which he had acquired in 1755. The mid-18th century core of the present large, 2-story house was a smaller dwelling, rectangular in plan, which appears on the 1769 Sautier Map of Edenton. It probably had a gambrel roof. Massive sills in the basement (correlated with Luten’s bill for the timbers 53 feet long) and a single early 12/12 sash window are visible survivors of the early house. It is possible that elements of other Luten houses survive within the walls of other local houses as well.
William Luten recorded payment for construction of the following buildings in his account book. Their locations and status are unknown, though they were probably in Edenton or Chowan County. If further information is uncovered through research or fieldwork, entries will be added to the building list: John Vail House (1765); Joseph Sutton House (1765); Joseph Blount House (1766); Richard Humphrey House (1772); Christopher Johnston House (1777); William Roberts House (1778). Notably, there were also men named Joseph Sutton (I, II, and III) in nearby Perquimans County, whose house still stands; it is possible that Luten accomplished some work for Joseph Sutton II, who gave his old house to his son about 1765 and moved to another house.
- Catherine W. Bishir, Charlotte V. Brown, Carl R. Lounsbury, and Ernest H. Wood III, Architects and Builders in North Carolina: A History of the Practice of Building (1990).
- Thomas R. Butchko, Edenton, an Architectural Portrait: The Historic Architecture of Edenton, North Carolina (1992).
- Chowan County Records (Accounts, Wills, Estates Papers) (William Luten, Thomas Luten, Henderson Luten), North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- William Luten Account Book, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Contributors:William Luten, attributed carpenterDates:
1756; 19th century [expansion]Location:Edenton, Chowan CountyStreet Address:
105 W. King St., Edenton, NCStatus:
A bill from William Luten for a house for George Disbrowe is believed to concern the small 18th century house that stands within the subsequent expansions of the two-story Disbrowe-Warren House. Especially notable are the heavy sills in the basement and a single surviving 12/12 sash window with heavy muntins typical of the mid-18th century.