Bodnam, Robert (fl. 1650s)
Robert Bodnam (fl. 1650s) is the first builder identified by name at the beginning of permanent white settlement in North Carolina, and he assembled the first house for which we have a contemporary description. Virtually all that is known about Bodnam and his work is contained in a briefly worded suit dated November 15, 1655, that he brought before the court in Lower Norfolk County, Virginia, against the estate of Francis Yeardley, a planter on the Lynnhaven River in that county and son of Virginia Governor George Yeardley. Bodnam stated that he had recently made two trips “to the Southward” on behalf of Yeardley, lately deceased, and spent five months there building a house for Nathaniel Batts, an explorer and fur trader operating in Yeardley’s service, “to live in and trade with the Indians which I did Doe by Coll. Yeardley’s Appointment and he did promise to see me paid for it.” Bodnam sought payment of “what the court Shall please to allow me.” The house was “20 foote square with a lodging chamber, and a Buttery, and a chimney.”
The court ruled for Bodnam and awarded him “One Thousand weight of Tob. And Caske.” The description indicates a house form typical in Virginia, which prevailed in North Carolina for generations: a dwelling of one or two rooms, heated by a single chimney. The “lodging chamber” was the heated room of multiple uses, including cooking and sleeping, while the “Buttery” (a term rarely used after the mid-18th century) indicated an unheated room for storage of provisions.
The Batts House is the earliest (and probably the only) 17th century building in North Carolina for which there is a contemporary drawing though it is surely symbolic rather than descriptive. Nicholas Comberford’s 1657 map, “The South Part of Virginia” (with “Now the North Part of Carolina” added by a later hand) depicts the coast from Cape Henry in southeastern Virginia south to Cape Lookout. On the western edge of “Roanoke Sound” (now Albemarle Sound) beside “Fletts Creek” (Salmon Creek) in present Bertie County, the mapmaker drew a neat rectangle with a triangle indicating a gable roof and labeled it “Batts House.” The house is believed to have been located on the south bank of Salmon Creek probably within a mile or two of the creek’s mouth into the Albemarle Sound. State archaeologists examined possible locations for the Batts House in 1967 and again in 1986, but no evidence of a 17th century habitation has yet been found.
Although details of its construction are not known, the Batts House was probably an earthfast structure of the type predominant in Virginia at the time, with the frame assembled on vertical corner posts set into the ground. Archaeological excavations made in 1996 of a late 17th settlement site at Edenhouse Point, two miles north of Salmon Creek, identified two structures of earthfast construction, and a third with a cellar.
With so little known about events in 17th century North Carolina, the sparse surviving documents invite speculation. A letter from Bodnam’s patron Yeardley to a friend in England in May 1654 raises possibilities about the circumstances attending construction of the Batts House. Yeardley described a small expedition to the south that he sponsored in 1653, and though none of the four members of the party is named, Nathaniel Batts was probably among them. The Virginians met an Indian hunting party “at Roanoke or near thereabouts” whose chieftain showed them Sir Walter Raleigh’s fort on Roanoke Island and accompanied the group back to Yeardley’s plantation in Virginia. Thereafter Yeardley sent a party of six men, “one being a carpenter,” south to purchase lands from the Indians and build “an English house” for the chieftain.
On this journey the Virginians purchased “three great rivers” from the Indians, after which “the Indians totally left the lands and rivers to us, retiring to a new habitation, where our people built the commander a fair house, the which I am to furnish with English utensils and chattels.” Bodnam may have been the “one being a carpenter,” and he might well have built the “fair house.” Yeardley did not name the chieftain or identify the location of his “new habitation.” The Batts House site on Salmon Creek is 50 miles west of Roanoke Island, and while one might assume that the chieftain’s house and the Batts House were widely distant structures, the location of the Indians’ “new habitation” is not known, and it is possible that the “fair house” intended for the chieftain is the same that became Batts’s trading post. Yeardley’s letter indicates the house was not yet furnished “with English utensils and chattels,” and may not have been complete at the time. Bodnam’s suit claimed he made two trips to build the Batts House, and the second may have come after Yeardley’s 1654 letter.
Nathaniel Batts (ca. 1620-ca. 1679) is generally considered the first permanent white settler in what was to become North Carolina. He was probably one of the party whom Yeardley sent to the Albemarle in 1653, and in 1657 the Virginia Council granted him privileges for discovery of an inlet to the south. His explorations may have been the source for details of the Comberford map not seen on older maps. Batts’s 1660 grant on the Pasquotank River from Kiscutanewh, king of the Yeopim Indians, is the oldest surviving North Carolina deed and was recorded in Virginia. George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, visited Batts in 1672 and described him as “captain Batts” who “had been Governor of Roan-oak,” an indication of Batts’s standing in the fledgling Albemarle settlement and never an official title. Batts also owned Heriots Island, shown on the Comberford map, in Albemarle Sound near the mouth of the Yeopim River, and he is believed to have died there about 1679. By the 1690s the island was known as Batts Grave, as it remains on modern maps.
Map historian William Cumming argued that Comberford’s sketch of the Batts House on the 1657 map indicates Batt’s importance to a more extensive settlement in the area, though others believe that the house was a lone outpost. In either case, by 1662 there were enough settlers between Salmon Creek and the Roanoke River to warrant Virginia’s sending Samuel Stephens as commander of the “Southern Plantation.” Stephens was living on Salmon Creek by the time he was named governor of Carolina in 1667, four years after Charles II granted the province to the Lords Proprietors.
The land between Salmon Creek and Roanoke River remained important to the colony throughout the proprietary period. In 1676 the site was designated one of three ports of entry for Albemarle County. Proprietary governors who lived on or near Salmon Creek included Seth Sothel, Edward Hyde, Thomas Pollock, and Charles Eden; and historian Thomas Parramore called the Salmon Creek area “the Cradle of the Colony.” In the 18th century the land was owned by the aristocratic Duckenfield family, and through much of the 19th and 20th centuries it was the site of the Capehart family’s Avoca Plantation.
Although the Batts House was probably a framed, earthfast house, Salmon Creek was also the location of the first log building recorded in North Carolina whose builder is known. Again, our knowledge is based on the builder’s suit for payment. Although log construction was not a traditional English building technique, it appeared in the Chesapeake colonies by the 1650s and in the Albemarle in the early years of settlement. In 1696 carpenter Nicholas Gent sued the estate of Seth Sothel for payment for a “Logg house” he built on the governor’s Salmon Creek plantation in 1683. This may be the same log structure on Sothel’s property that John Lawson described in 1709 as being “such as the Swedes in America . . . make, and are very strong.”
Robert Bodnam appears a few times in other Lower Norfolk County court records of the later 1650s, though no other documents indicate his work as a builder. He is identified twice as “trumpeter,” probably signifying his role in the militia. Adept at blowing loudly on a horn at musters, Bodnam may also have had quick temper, for he was fined on one occasion for “fighting & abusing George Hawkins,” and again for “swearing in open Court.” Published sources for early Virginia immigration do not identify a Bodnam, and it is not known whether Robert Bodnam was an immigrant or a Virginia-born son of a settler. There was an Andrew Bodnam—kinship unknown—who appeared in Lower Norfolk court records between 1642 and his death in 1666. In early 17th century England, Bodnam families lived at Minsterworth and elsewhere above Bristol along the River Severn, with the name often given as “Bodnham,” a contraction for Bodenham, which appears among the same records.
Note: Though transcriptions of Lower Norfolk County court records have been published for the periods 1637-1651 and 1656-1666, none is known for the period 1652-1655. The November 1655 suit that Bodnam brought before the court is cited in Cummings and McPherson, below. Additional references to Bodnam may exist in other court proceedings of 1652-1655.
- 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).
- John A. Brayton, Transcription of Lower Norfolk County, Virginia, Court Records, Volume I, Wills and Deeds, Book D, 1656-1666 (2007).
- William P. Cumming, “The Earliest Permanent Settlement in Carolina: Nathaniel Batts and the Comberford Map,” American Historical Review (Oct. 1939).
- Michael Hill and Mark Wilde-Ramsing, Historical Research Report and Underwater Archaeological Reconnaissance of Salmon Creek in the Vicinity of the Batts-Duckenfield-Capehart Site, Bertie County (1987).
- Loretta E. Lautzenheiser, et al., “I was Moved of the Lord to Go to Carolina…” Data Recovery at Eden House Site 31BR52, Coastal Carolina Research, Tarboro, North Carolina, for North Carolina Department of Transportation (1998).
- Elizabeth G. McPherson, “Nathaniell Batts, Landholder on Pasquotank River, 1660,” North Carolina Historical Review, 43.1 (Jan. 1966).
- Herbert R. Paschal, “Nathaniell Batts” in William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 1 (1979).
- A.S. Salley, Narratives of Early Carolina, 1650-1708 (1911).
- Alice Granbery Walter, Lower Norfolk County, Virginia, Court Records, Book A (1637-1646) and Book B (1646-1651 1/2) (1994).