Do you know exactly where your property lines are?  Do you have your garden fenced high enough to keep the rabbits out?  From the beginning, Portsmouth settlers were concerned about property boundaries and managing crops and livestock. Good fencing was called for and the town council mandated it. The book Early Records of the Town of Portsmouth is filled with concerns about fences.   References to requiring a hedge or fence begin in 1640 with all in town obligated to help create a hedge and gate with “Mr. Samford overseer.”  As land grants were given out there was a 1643 mandate that the responsibility “equally be born half by one party and half the other party – fenced in with a general fence and fences to be maintained by the proportion agreed.”  People were appointed by the town to “view the fence run,” and others were appointed as judges to determine property line disputes.

Virginia type fence

What type of fences did they have? It took a long while to clear enough stones to build a wall.  Hedges and wooden railed “Viriginia Fences” were put up before the stone walls were erected.   At first hedges are mentioned.  The first mention of stones for a stone wall comes in 1651 when Mr. Earl gives Mr. Tripp “leave to take the loose stone on the said Earl’s land of the nearest to Tripps house to make about eight rod of such wall…”

The most comprehensive rules on fences come in 1671.  Because there was damage done to cattle which caused arguments between neighbors, ” It is ordered for the time to come that he or they within the bounds of this town of Portsmouth that will make sufficient fences shall recover satisfaction of the owners …of the cattle that doth him damage.”  There was an order to have:

“…a fence called a virginia fence. It is ordered that it shall be four foot and a  half – staked with stakes half a foot above the fence plumb up and that not any of the rails be above four inches from his fellow…… And for stone wall they shall be four foot and six inches high, .. for hedge or hedge and ditch only the sufficiency of any of them.”

Four men would be viewers  to “see and view the fences when we shall have occasion to look for satisfaction for damage.”  

Although the first fences in Portsmouth were hedges and post and rail wood, stone walls became more permanent.  In his book Stone by Stone, Robert Thorson comments that eventually Rhode Island had the highest percentage of fences (78%) being made of stone.  Boundary fences would be shorter while fences to protect crops from damage or to pen in livestock were higher.

What kind of fence do you have?