The earliest homes in the United States were built during the Colonial period, which stretched from roughly the founding of the Jamestown settlement at the start of the 17th century to the late 18th century. Those looking to renovate a home from this period are likely to find that the original roof is gone, or no longer in usable condition. While homeowner associations and historic preservation boards are helpful when determining what types of roofing materials to use on a historic home, not every homeowner has access to these types of organizations. When renovating or restoring your historic Colonial home, stick to these traditional roofing materials for authenticity, character and a nod to the builders of the past.
Wood Shingles -- But Not Shakes
Many people romanticize the idea of hand-sawn cedar shakes covering the rooftops of the early American colonists. While wood was certainly one of the most widely used roofing materials during the Colonial period, this wood took the form of hand-planed shingles, not roughly hewn shakes. In fact, shakes were known to rot and fall apart, making them an ineffective roofing choice for the period. Builders simply formed smooth, square shingles out of locally-available wood to finish their homes. This included eastern white cedar in the northeast and white cypress in the south. Pine and oak were also used for some roofs where available. You can copy this look for your home by choosing wood that grows in your area when selecting wood shingles, much as the earliest American homebuilders did several centuries ago.
Those curvy clay roof tiles found primarily in the southwest may look like a modern construct, but they were actually invented centuries ago, and used on many early Colonial homes. Germanic settlers brought terra cotta tiles to the east coast, while round or S-shaped clay tiles were used on homes built by Spanish colonists throughout what is now the United States. One of the first U.S. settlements at Jamestown had homes with either flat or curved clay roof tiles, and builders in big cities like Boston and New York used these tiles for their natural fire resistance.
During the Colonial period, wealthy homeowners shipped slate from Wales to use to make roof tiles. Some of these slate roofs were found on early homes at Jamestown. Throughout most of the Colonial period, however, the expense of importing slate across the Atlantic -- and the difficulty of transporting it from local quarries when railroads were not yet constructed -- made slate a bit of a high-end roof finish. It wasn't until the end of the period that the construction of canals and railroads allowed for local supplies to be shipped over a greater area.