Friday, September 27, 2013

Interpreting the Archaeological Record at Fort Hunter

Is this a road, a ditch a redoubt or something else?

Recent archaeology conducted on the side yard at Fort Hunter Mansion has left us puzzled and searching for answers as to the feature we had previously discovered. Since beginning the investigation of the French and Indian War occupation at Fort Hunter, several excavation units have been opened east of the mansion towards the front of the house (hereafter denoted as the front yard) this on the highway side of the mansion.  Our followers will recall the discovery of a feature in the fall of 2010 that we thought might be a possible road.  The compressed cobble layer appeared to have a series of ruts that ran through the cobble, much like wagon wheels.

Volunteer Wes troweling the feature uncovered  this spring

Several trenches had been excavated in this area subsequent to the initial discovery, but they provided little interpretive value to this original feature.  Test trenches installed in March 2013 allowed us to open up a larger area than hand troweling permitted. This provided an opportunity to look at the soil stratigraphy of this section of the property and hopefully expose more of the “road” feature.  These trenches produced stratigraphy that provided further evidence for a road or ditch feature. Trenching exposed an oval shaped basin, approximately one to three feet deep, 40 feet wide (east–west) and 170 feet long (north-south). Defined by a layer of dark soil that slopes down in profile around its edge, the basin is approximately two feet deep in the center and lies on top of a gray sandy hardpan material. The deepest section of the basin measured less than 18 feet wide and is approximately 160 feet long. The gray hardpan exhibits iron staining and in most places a ¼ inch thick layer of iron concretion marks the top of this soil. The gray color frequently represents a soil that was formed in a low oxygen environment such as under water and the iron deposits are also compatible with a surface that was frequently covered with water. Sections of this gray hardpan are layered or paved with pebbles, possibly to stabilize the roadbed.

Excavations in the spring had left us with additional questions and areas to investigate.  After reestablishing ourselves on the site, we reopened our trench from this spring in order to expand upon this area. We enlisted our backhoe operator, Corry Harner, to assist us with removing our backfilled soils and taking off the modern fill layers identified in our previous investigation.  This will allow us to examine a larger area than time would permit with traditional flat shoveling and hand excavation.

Our compressed cobble layer continues across several of the units we have opened in the front yard.  There appear to be narrow ruts filled with cobble, again indicating an improvement necessary due to water standing in these ruts. Remember this is a supply fort for Fort Halifax and Fort Augusta.  We know from inventories at Fort Augusta that there was small cannon, gunpowder, musket balls, guns along with food and provisions for between 300 and 400 men stationed at the fort.  Inventories of supplies at Fort Hunter are much lighter, but did list the following in November of 1756;  the garrison consists of two sergeants and 34 privet men, amunition included 4 ½ lbs of powder and 28 of lead and the provisions consisted of 1,000 pounds of flour and 2,000 of beef.

excavated rut

Faintly visible ditch or road feature continues into the adjacent units

Historical archaeology examines an array of documents which often serve as clues in understanding the activities of a site.  At Fort Hunter we have examined maps, journal entries, and photographs of not only this site, but other French & Indian War period sites hoping for details that were previously overlooked. Publications heavily referenced include Forts on the Pennsylvania Frontier, 1753-1758 by William A. Hunter and The French & Indian War in Pennsylvania 173-1763, Louis M. Waddell and Bruce D. Bomberger.  The following quotes provide some of the accounts of conditions at Fort Hunter between 1756 and 1758.

Instructions from Governor Morris to Captain McKee  in January 1756 - As soon as your company is completed & mustered you are to march to a place called Hunter’s Mill upon the Susquehanna and Either compleat the fort already begun there or build another at such other convenient place as James Gilbreth Esq. shall adivise, who is requested to go with you for that purpose; and in case it should be thought necessary to erect a new fort you are to build it in the form and dimensions herewith given you.” 

A report in August, 1757 of conditions states; “tho the fort or blockhouse at Hunter’s is not tenable, being hastily erected, and not finished, yet the Situation was the best upon the river for every service as well as for the protection of the frontiers.”

An entry from July 1758; Engineer Rich’d Dudgeon “  I am of the opinion that Stockading of it & Opening & Deepning the Ditch, according to the Scheme left with the Commanding Officer there, will be sufficient to protect it against any Indian Attack.”

The officer in charge at Hunter’s wrote a few days later to Governor Denny indicating he was ordered to “repair it” but that the locals would not help until after harvest in 3 weeks- he closes with –p.s. the stockades are cut.

The review in 1758 requiring an “opening and deepening of the ditch” was a common complaint among British officers who had taken over control of Pennsylvania’s small provincial forts. Many of these were erected hastily in 1756 & 1757 as the result of Indian raids in the area.  The construction of these “forts” varied from houses with gun ports cut into the basement wall to traditional forts with stockade walls.  There often was not a uniform manner of construction and the officers charged with construction were inexperienced.  Very little documentation exists of the construction of these forts, with the exception of Fort Halifax and Fort Augusta.  These forts were constructed under the direction of Colonel William Clapham, an officer from Massachusetts experienced in fort construction.

Plan of construction for Fort Augusta- largest of the Provincial forts

Bastions were not typical for small Provincial forts, but were installed at larger British forts

Variety of construction of fort walls

Archaeology conducted at Fort Augusta as early as 1938, recovered evidence of the officer’s quarters and stockade. Preserved posts, still in their upright positions were uncovered, erected in the same manner as described by Shippen in July 1756, shortly after Clapham’s arrival.  Subsequent archaeology by the PHMC has uncovered evidence of the earthen wall, powder magazine and an additional portion of the stockade. Comparisons between the fort construction at Fort Augusta and Fort Hunter have been of little benefit since their functions were significantly different.  Fort Augusta was constructed to house up to 400 men; Fort Hunter never housed more than ninety.  The location of both on high terraces overlooking the Susquehanna River, appear to be one of their only similarities.

We will continue to map and excavate this road/ditch feature and evaluate the artifacts recovered from within to determine an age for construction. Hopefully, a potential stockade post discovered this week will be the first of many- confirming the location of the stockade.

Note the possible postmold circled in red at foreground
Excavation has continued on the north side of the ice house and the dog burials are being removed.  We will bring those to the lab for cleaning and examination, hoping to identify the species and confirm them as dogs owned by the Reilys.
Removing the dog burials, with special assistance.

We continue to have a steady stream of volunteers who have provided us with amazing assistance during sometimes difficult conditions.  The weather this year has been stellar which makes it much easier to keep the volunteers happy! 

New Deal Archaeology in Pennsylvania- Free Admission from 11:30 -1:30

October is Archaeology Month in Pennsylvania and we have a steady stream of events scheduled for the month. Our first event is this Friday, October 4th with a Learn at Lunchtime event at The State Museum.  Dr. Bernard Means and curator Janet R. Johnson will provide a presentation on New Deal Archaeology in Pennsylvania from 12:15 to 1:00 in the Galaxy Room. Their research into archaeology conducted under federal relief programs initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression, provides a fascinating approach to archaeology, curation and historical research. Shovel Ready, Archaeology and Roosevelt’s New Deal for America, 2013, will be available for purchase and signing by these presenters. This free program will also offer an opportunity to visit the museum from 11:30 to 1:30. 

Sunday, October 6th is Indian Festival Day at Fort Hunter- come out for our last weekend at the fort.  The excavation closes for the season on October 11th, so if you haven’t stopped up to see us yet, please come out for this educational and fun family event.  The program runs from 12-4 at Fort Hunter Mansion & Park.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

No comments:

Post a Comment