Ubiquitous across the landscape of Louisiana, Mississippi, southern Arkansas, Alabama, and North Florida, the shotgun house was introduced into the American South through the port city of New Orleans from Haiti. The most distinguishing characteristic of the typology is its configuration: one room wide and several rooms deep, with its primary entrance (usually two doors facing a front porch) at the narrow end. It is generally a one-story structure.
There are three variations on the standard type: double shotgun, “camelback” or “humpback” houses, and North Shore houses. The double shotgun house is simply two shotgun houses attached together lengthwise with a central wall. It is generally an urban adaptation designed to make better use of expensive urban lots. The camelback house has a two-story rear addition. The camelback is also an urban adaptation because of crowding. The Louisiana North Shore type, named for its prevalence on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, is a shotgun surrounded on three sides by large verandas.
Scholar of vernacular architecture John Michael Vlach has argued that the shotgun house derived originally from Africa. Though some scholars of vernacular architecture question this assertion, his model remains the standard interpretation of the shotgun house. Vlach believes that Haitian slaves, a large portion of whom were Yoruba, brought their indigenous building traditions to Haiti. The houses of this group had room dimensions that closely resembled those of the shotgun houses of Haiti. The Yoruba houses and the bohio house type of the Arawak native peoples of Haiti are formally similar. Vlach argues for a cultural connection between the two house types, believing them to be the prototypes for the shotgun house. With the use of French construction techniques, the Yoruba and Arawak house types merged to create the shotgun house. The first shotgun houses in Haiti were rural and were smaller than their later urban counterparts. The urban shotgun houses of Port-au-Prince, called maison basse, are essentially the same as many shotgun houses in New Orleans. In the wake of Toussaint-Louverture’s rebellion, large numbers of slaves and free blacks migrated from Haiti to New Orleans, introducing the shotgun house to the American South. Thus, the shotgun house is a distinctly African American, creolized house type.
From New Orleans the shotgun house spread throughout the South, at first up the Mississippi River and later throughout much of the Deep South and the rest of the United States. Shotgun houses may be found on Jackson’s Farish Street, and recent attempts to improve the neighborhood have concentrated on rebuilding or building new versions of shotgun houses. One of Mississippi’s most famous shotgun houses is located in Tupelo: it belonged to the parents of Elvis Presley, who was born in the house on 8 January 1935.
- Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach, eds., Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture (1986)
- John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (1948)