Friday, July 4, 2014

Celebrating Independence Day

Winter at Valley Forge

This week the letter “I” is devoted to our struggle for independence from British rule that occurred subsequent to the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. The actions of the Continental Congress would forever change and define a continent that Europeans had only begun to colonize less than 200 years prior. Events preceding the Revolutionary War including the French and  Indian War had created tensions between the colonies and the British government.  Britain was struggling under the financial burdens of war and enacted a series of taxes against colonists who had already rallied together for a number of causes, each time gaining confidence and a growing sense of independence. 

At the dawn of the American Revolution, Pennsylvania was the third largest colony and contributed abundant supplies and labor, essential to the development of our new nation. Philadelphia was the largest city in North America with a population of nearly 30,000 residents. It served as our nation’s capital during most of the rebellion and as an important ocean port to the Delaware Bay. The city’s location was important for the shipping of supplies destined for the military. The British recognized its strategic significance and, after taking New York in October of 1776, moved quickly and decisively to capture Philadelphia.

Cheval de fries undergoing conservation treatment.

Attempts by Pennsylvania to halt the advance of British forces included the installation of a line of defense in the Delaware River between 1776 and August 1777. A series of chevaux de frise  were sunk between Fort Mercer and Fort Mifflin. General George Washington’s successful crossing of the Delaware on December 25, 1776, buoyed the morale of patriots which aided in securing guns and supplies for American troops. The Philadelphia Campaign of 1777 by British forces resulted in Washington’s ill-fated battles at Brandywine and Germantown and forced his retreat to Valley Forge for the winter of 1777-1778.

After being forced out of Philadelphia by the British, George Washington’s Continental Army spent the harsh winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge along the Schuylkill River, about 25 miles northwest of center-city. Although the field of Conflict (Battlefield) Archaeology has only evolved during the last twenty years or so, its new methodologies have greatly assisted the work at this site.  Archaeological investigations conducted by the National Park Service for more than a half-century included large-scale excavations. More recently, technology has provided us with equipment for remote sensing, such as ground-penetrating radar along with sophisticated metal detectors to locate concentrations of artifacts, and architectural foundations of buildings and structures used by Washington’s soldiers.

Excavated huts at Valley Forge

The arrival of troops to Valley Forge in December was poorly planned, supplies such as tents had been directed further west to avoid capture by British forces and food provisions were almost non-existent. Politics, weather and logistical breakdowns contributed to the hardships endured at this site. Even though Washington ordered living quarters to be neatly laid out in rows, archaeology proved that the huts were haphazardly placed in groups by battalion. Two Pennsylvania brigades from General Anthony Wayne’s division were on a rise toward the southwestern edge of the outer line of defense. The second, Conway’s Brigade was positioned towards the center of the inner line of defense. Archaeology has revealed that instead of the 14 by 16 ft. hut stipulated by Washington, some of the huts were 16 by 18 to accommodate twelve men.

Artists rendition of hut construction at Valley Forge.

Excavations in the area of Wayne’s Woods revealed huts terraced into the hillside, fireplaces primarily constructed in stone and oriented to the east. The size of the floors varied, one structure discovered was 12 by 22 ft., and was generally oriented in rows parallel to the crest of the hill along the outer line. Trash pits yielded additional evidence of diet and activities amongst the troops.
Recovered bone from refuse pits at Valley Forge provide evidence of a diet which included beef and pork.

Analysis of the dietary evidence indicates the soldier’s diet included beef and pork in somewhat better conditions than historians often describe. Evidence of the camp kitchen or hearth area yielded evidence of a round raised cooking area with ports or ovens for small cook pots. Individuals could prepare stews and soups that would feed multiple people with just a small amount of meat.

Excavations of the kitchen, note the dark circular stain.

Artists depiction of camp kitchen.

Troops endured harsh winter conditions, as well as disease and breakdowns in the supply system. In addition to the Pennsylvania forces at Valley Forge, Virginia and New Jersey troops were also present.  Historic documents provide evidence of the politics associated with supplies and provisions associated with the various brigades which can be supported by the archaeological record.

The shortage of clothing is well documented in the historic record and archaeology has provided some additional documentation to support this information. The sources of buttons recovered from the site indicate that soldiers were removing buttons from uniforms worn by British forces that were killed or wounded. Anthony Wayne personally contracted with a Lancaster manufacturer for coats, breeches, shoes and hats, but buttons for these garments would have to come from local sources and may have been a wide variety of forms.  Bone buttons were produced in cottage industries, including the prisoner of war camp at Camp Security  and have been recovered in excavations at Valley Forge. 

USA Button excavated at Valley Forge.

We close with an artifact that perhaps best symbolizes this desire for independence and the creation of a new nation. The recovery of pewter USA uniform buttons from these excavations is further evidence of the daily lives of these soldiers and their willingness to persevere and endure incredible hardships so that we may enjoy our freedom as an independent nation. We hope you will be inspired to learn more about the important role that Pennsylvanians played in the Revolutionary War and check your family heritage for connections to these brave soldiers. Enjoy your Independence Day celebrations and help us to preserve our past for the future!


Orr, David G., Ph.D.
Presentation at Workshops in Archaeology, The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Parrington, Michael,  Helen Schenck, Jacqueline Thibaut
   Images of the Recent Past; Readings in Historical Archaeology.  The Material World of the 
   Revolutionary War Soldier at Valley Forge, Chapter 4. AltaMira Press, CA.

Trussell, John B.B.,Jr.
Birthplace of an Army, A Study of the Valley Forge Encampment. Harrisburg; Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Walsh, Richard
The Mind and Spirit of Early America; Sources in American History 1607-1789. Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York.


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

1 comment:

  1. I believe your conclusion on the 11th PA button is incorrect. After checking with the PA archives and Don Troiani, the 11 button is from the 11th Continental infantry of 1776-1777. In January 1777 they became the 2nd Rhode Island regiment. I am told similar buttons were also found in the Lake Champlain area of New York. The old 11th (1776 to mid 1778) was never in that area of Lake Champlain.
    - Justin Blocksom (member of the recreated 11th Pennsylvania Regt.)