The Secret History of Tabby Architecture

Tabby construction is a Native American invention, not a technology that accompanied Spanish colonists to the New World!

It was being used extensively in northern Veracruz State at least as early as 800 AD. Knowledge of how to make a tabby stucco for buildings was carried by ancestors of some ancestral branches of the Creek Confederacy to what is now the State of Georgia. Tabby-stuccoed buildings were commonplace in Southeast Georgia, along the Altamaha River and at Tamatli-Maya colonies in the Southern Appalachians, when the first Spanish and French explorers arrived in the 1500s.

Series: The Evolution of an American Style of Architecture

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

This sample of Totonac “tabby” concrete and attached mural, dates from around 800-900 AD. It laid face-down in the jungle on the outskirts of Tajin until I found it, while on the fellowship in Mexico. Dr. Román Piña Chan, Curator of the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia de México inspected it and approved it to be included in a box containing 125 kg of Mesoamerican construction materials, which were then shipped under diplomatic seal to the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta, GA. These artifacts were utilized as teaching aids for the classes I taught in Mesoamerican Architecture.

The red mural base coat could best be called Totonac Red (play on Maya Blue). It is literally as hard as a rock today, despite laying against damp, acidic soil for about 800 years. It obviously contains Georgia attapulgite, because there is no attapulgite in central or southern Mexico. There were several large Tamatli (Northern Chontal Maya) ports on the coast of Veracruz, containing sailing ships similar to the Scandinavian langbåt, which were capable of hauling large quantities of attapulgite from the Chattahoochee River Basin in present-day Georgia.

Opposite side of Totonac concrete under ultraviolet illumination which causes calcium to become iridescent. The dark specks are crush sea shells. The purple stain is hydrated lime,

Some whole sea shells and calcified twigs can be seen in the cross-section of this chunk of tabby concrete.

What is Tabby Architecture?

Tabby is a primitive form of concrete construction that was frequently utilized on the South Atlantic Coast by British colonists and on occasions by Spanish colonists in St. Augustine. It consists of a crude form of poured-in-place concrete construction. This concrete contains hydrated lime, crushed sea shells, special types of clay and sand. Tabby walls can take over a month to fully harden, but afterward, the walls were able to withstand the fiercest of hurricane winds.

In Spain, however,  the term, tapia,  is NOT equivalent to what Tabby architecture is in the United States . . . despite what the references tell you. Tapia applies specifically to wattle and daub buildings (mostly houses and barns), which were plastered with a lime base stucco.  This is exactly how traditional houses Creek Indian houses were constructed, not the poured in place concrete used in 18th century buildings, primarily by British colonists on the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.

Many references state that the Spanish first mentioned tabby construction in 1585.  Yes, the word, tapia was used in a report, but it refers to wattle and daub construction, which was utilized in the construction of Spanish mission churches, .   The first documented use of tabby construction. (in the modern sense) was the first floor of the Castillo San Marcos in 1695.  Almost all the earliest true Tabby structures were in the southern tip of South Carolina and along the Georgia coast.

First, wooden boards were erected in the form of the building’s walls. Boards were also used to encase window and door openings. A liquid mixture of crushed seashells (or limestone flakes,) sand, clay and crude hydrated lime made by burning sea shells was poured into the forms. It could take several months for the solid walls to fully cure, because they were typically 16 to 24 inches thick. 

Once hardened, however, the walls were as strong as stone and fully fireproof. The upper floors and roofs of European Tabby houses were constructed of wood. For this reason, the ruins of many tabby walls survive in coastal areas long after the wooden architecture has turned to saw dust or ashes.

Wahale farmsteads on St. Catherines Island, Georgia with tabby-walled house

VR image prepared for the American Museum of Natural History, New York City

Spanish and English colonial archives

In 2007 I was retained to prepare precise three-dimensional architectural drawings of the buildings discovered by archaeologists of the American Museum of Natural History while working on St. Catherines Island, GA. They had discovered the Mission Santa Catalina de Guale, plus numerous Native American structures.  Preparation for the work included research into all available Spanish colonial archives. Guale is the Medieval Castilian way of writing the English phonetic sound, wah-le,

The Creek and Panoan R was rolled so hard that it sounds like an L, which is how the Spanish “heard” the Creek word “wahare.”   Waha means “south” in the Muskogean and some southern Mexican languages. The “re” suffix means “king tribe or kingdom” in Archaic Irish, plus the indigenous languages once spoken in the Iberian Peninsula and western France.  In modern Spanish, “rey” means “king.”

A Spanish army officer, who was evidently an architect or engineer, was making inspections of new construction projects along the South Atlantic Coast in 1567.  He described the appearance of Native American buildings in Guale (Wahale) as beautiful edifices that “glistened like pearls.”  

The officer went into detail of how they were constructed.  First, a prefabricated framework of saplings was erected.  This was in-filled with a basket-like mesh of canes, palmetto fronds or marsh grass. Local clay was packed around the mesh. The buildings were finished with stucco, composed of white kaolin clay (imported from about 140 miles upstream on the Altamaha River,) white sand, crude lime made by burning shells and crushed shells.  The finish coat hardened to form a protective membrane that prevented the driving rains of tropical storms from destroying the vulnerable inner core of dry clay and saplings.

The chapel at the Spanish colony of Santa Elena, on Parris Island, South Carolina was NOT true Tabby construction, but rather tapia construction . . . lime-stuccoed, wattle and daub walls.

The archaeologists of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology have found that the buildings of the first capital of the Spanish Province of La Florida at Santa Elena (Parris Island, SC) were built in an identical manner to those indigenous structures described by the Spanish officer. Santa Elena was occupied from 1566 till 1587. Native American workers were utilized to construct the earliest houses at Santa Elena. 

Their structural details were identical to those of Creek buildings, and included the application of stucco made of white clay, crushed stone and crude burned lime.  One can assume that the lime burned from shells was an ingredient applied to nearby Native American buildings, but few have been studied by professional archaeologists, and none have been tested for the presence of calcium carbonate.

Surviving Spanish tapia or tabby buildings and ruins date from a later period when their architects and fortification engineers were already utilizing a natural shell-based concrete called coquina stone to build important structures such the last version of Castillo San Marcos. Evidently, the Spanish figured out in the late 1600s or early 1700s that walls constructed entirely out of the mixture of sand, lime, shells and clay would cure into structures that were similar in strength to coquina stone.

At least as early as 1726, some colonists in South Carolina were aware of the potential of tabby construction, which was vastly stronger than the wood frame construction then being used in most buildings. Savannah was founded in 1733. Almost immediately tabby construction was being used for structures that were vulnerable to hurricane winds.

The oldest surviving tabby construction in both states dates from the 1730s. Tabby buildings in South Carolina are concentrated around the city of Beaufort. However, in Georgia they may be found along its entire coastline. In Georgia, tabby was used extensively for the construction of sugar mills, paper mills and warehouses, plus some of the plantation house on the coastal islands.

Tabby ruins of the Horton House on Jekyll Island, GA

Did other Native Americans build structures with crushed shell stucco?

To date, I have not been able to find any Native American polities, other than those whose roots lay in Mexico and whose descendants became associated with the Creek Confederacy, that applied lime stucco to their buildings. In fact, the Creek provinces of the Georgia Piedmont and Appalachian Highlands typically used mica to reinforce the clay stucco of buildings. Apparently, only some temples and public buildings were finished in white tabby stucco.

The book, Memoirs of Lt, Henry Timberlake, does contain a reference to lime-stuccoed buildings in the Little Tennessee River Valley.  Timberlake was a Virginia militia officer, who journeyed into the Overhill Cherokee towns on the Little Tennessee River to consummate a peace agreement. 

Timberlake spent several weeks in the Cherokee town, which written in English as Tamatly, Tomatly or Tomatla. He recorded many of the customs observed there and drew their buildings. The chief of the Tamataly Cherokees used the Eastern Creek and Itza Maya word, mako, for his title, which means “great leader” in both languages.  Why would a famous Cherokee chief use a Maya-Creek title?   The reason will surprise you.

The Tamatli Tribe, a member of the Cherokee Alliance, did apply Tabby stucco to the exterior walls of their buildings, which was literally what Spanish-speaking colonists called tapia. Their houses were starkly different than the houses, built by other branch of the Cherokees. Whereas all other Cherokee villages were amorphous, having no plan at all . . . the Tamatli had a formally planned village, very similar to Creek towns and villages.

The word Tamatli is a combination of the Totonac, Itza Maya, Cho’ite Maya and Eastern Creek word for trade with the Nahua suffix, meaning “place of or people of.” They spoke a hybrid language that mixed Cho’ite Maya, Totonac and Nahua words. The Tamatli are also called the Northern Chontal Mayas by Mexican anthropologists.

Timberlake stated that the Tamatly houses were large rectangular structures with three rooms.  He used the exact words of the Spanish officer in the 1500s, while describing the houses as white stucco mixed with crushed freshwater mussel shells, which caused the houses “to glisten like pearls.”  The Cherokee Tamatly houses of 1762 were identical in every detail to the missionary’s and chief’s houses at Mission Santa Catalina de Guale built by Wahale Indians on the coast of Georgia around 1600.

Tamatly is obviously an English way of writing Tamatli, which was the powerful province visited by Hernando de Soto in the early spring of 1541.  Further research located the homeland of the Highland Tamatli in a beautiful valley between Murphy, NC and Andrews, NC.  Apparently, the Tamatli established several colonies in the mountains of North Carolina, and also around Tamasse, SC on the Keowee River.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.