Uncovering Life in 1757 at Lake George

[ Follow Ups ] [ Post Followup ] [ Mohican WWWboard ] [ FAQ ]

Posted by Sarah on September 26, 1998 at 20:37:35:

The following is from "Adirondack Life" Magazine, October 1998. I happened to notice it because of this article on 'Digging the past: excavation at Lake George.' The article is "The Big Dig", by David Starbuck (pp. 44-49, 77-78). The following is only excerpts about Starbuck's finds during a 1997 dig at Lake Geoge.

"When Michael Mann's of 'The Last of the Mohicans' appeared in movie theaters in 1992, it was but the latest interpretation of life in upstate New York during the French and Indian War. James Fenimore Cooper's famous novel of 1826, complemented in the movie by the rugged good looks of Daniel Day-Lewis, was an exciting portrayal of events that accompanied one of the most ruthless massacres in eighteenth-century America.

"But what really happened at Lake George's Fort William Henry in 1757? What brought about the downfall of the small fort, with its garrison of 2,300 British soldiers, civilians and their families? And most importantly, why did the betrayal and slaughter of the retreating soldiers become one of the few episodes of that war that is still widely remembered today?

"These horrific events inspired Cooper's great adventure novel and subsequent films. A more accurate, modern interpretation of the events that led up to the slaughter at Fort William Henry is contained in the book 'Betrayals' by Ian Steele, who reveals how the massacre was the unfortunate result of a series of betrayals: Colonel Monro felt betrayed by General Webb, who held five thousand soldiers in reserve at Fort Edward and did not send them to relieve Fort William Henry; the British felt betrayed by Montcalm and the French because their surrender and safe conduct to Fort Edward had been violated; the French felt betrayed by the Indians who butchered the defenseless British and Provincial prisoners; and the Indians felt betrayed by the French because they did not receive sufficient booty after the surrender of the fort. This last breach of faith occurred because the retreating garrison had been allowed to take possessions away with them, on the condition that they not fight against the French for the next eighteen months. Under other circumstances, this plunder would have gone to the victors.

"A century later tourism began to alter Lake George's bloody image. While resort hotels were built nearby in the late 1800s, the ruins of the fort lay undisturbed within a grove of tall pines. The tranquillity of this setting was not altered until 1952, when a group of Albany businessmen decided to unearth and preserve the fort. Archaeologist Stanley Gifford, assisted by his wife Ruth, was placed in charge of the excavation in 1953 and 1954, and they shoveled just ahead of the construction crews who were rebuilding the walls, corner bastions and barracks. (Though he lacked professional training, Gifford managed to get contracts to dig Native American and historical sites in upstate New York; he had little experience with forts.) Gifford, usually seen with a pipe dangling from his mouth, employed dozens of workmen to dump dirt from their wheelbarrows into a giant sifting machine as they exposed the original floor levels, the bases of stone walls and the limits of the fort. The sifter found tons of material in the fine sand: gunflints, buttons, buckles, bones, projectile points and more. Unfortunately, Gifford's field records burned during a fire in 1967.

"Still, we do know that his team excavated the remains of the northwest bastion, where they recovered dozens of cannonballs and unexploded mortar shells, along with hundreds of flattened musket balls. And southwest of the fort, Gifford found part of the original cemetery. He exposed ten skeletons, some of which still bore signs of wounds and scalping. Other human skeletons, sometimes incomplete, lay scattered throughout the ruins of the fort.

"More than forty years have passed since the departure of Stanley Gifford and his crew; it's been 241 years since the massacre. In the summer of 1997 eighty-some archaeology volunteers and college students, many recruited through Adirondack Community College, in Glens Falls, joined me [the author, David Starbuck] at Fort William Henry. We didn't know whether Gifford had left anything behind for us to find. Still, I knew that I had to discover for myself whether portions of the fort were still intact and if anything new could be learned at this frontier outpost where life had so abruptly ended.

"The Fort William Henry Corporation gave us our choice of any sites we wanted to dig, inside or outside the walls of the reconstructed fort. We soon found that the richest trash dump was just outside the fort's original entrance. Here, on the steep downhill slope that lies east of the reconstructed fort, we discovered thousands of butchered cow and pig bones, tobacco pipes, buttons and even several well-preserved, burned timbers from the structures. We found artifacts down at a depth of eleven feet; this was probably the principal dump for the entire fort. However, the sandy walls of our pit constantly caved in, requiring frequent reinforcing with sheets of plywood and two-by-fours.

"Just as dangerous because of shifting ground was an excavation we conducted at the northeast corner of the parade ground, a few feet east of the fort's well. At depths of greater than six feet, we discovered charred timbers that were probably from the north end of the east barracks, along with great numbers of bricks from a destroyed fireplace. We also unearthed a 1730 British halfpenny, officers' cufflinks, the complete head from a felling ax and pieces of mortar shells that must have exploded here during the siege in 1757.

"West of the well and just below the surface of the parade ground, we found exceptional prehistoric and eighteenth-century objects virtually side by side. We found no traces of buildings, although we had expected evidence of temporary shelters from the time of the final siege, as civilians moved inside the protective walls of the fort. But the most remarkable mix of artifacts was in this part of the parade ground, including a Spanish one-real coin, exploded mortar shell fragments and the ubiquitous musket balls and gunflints. Next to and underneath them were shards of prehistoric pottery, projectile points and even a very intact Native American firepit. The soldiers who defended Fort William Henry--perhaps without realizing it--had erected their bastion on top of the remains of countless prehistoric Indian campsites.

"But finds such as these were ordinary when compared to the greatest challenge of our 1997 research--the fort's well. In 1756 Rogers Rangers, the legendary scouts of Robert Rogers, dug and lined the shaft with dry-laid stones. We knew that the museum's staff had attempted to reach the bottom in 1959-1960, and they had been forced to stop when they hit the water table around twenty-three feet down. Wood planking was the only protection they had as they tried to prevent the walls from caving in on them.

"Undaunted, we purchased an electric hoist, constructed a massive wood crossbeam above the well, purchased thirty- and thirty-six-inch-diameter sections of steel culvert with which to line the well, and started digging down through twelve feet of "artifacts" that schoolchildren had thrown into the well since 1960.

"From the many feet of tourist rubbish, I sent buckets up to the surface that contained tens of thousands of coins. The uppermost levels contained great quantities of dimes, quarters, fifty-cent pieces and even Susan B. Anthony dollars, while children in the sixties and seventies and thrown only pennies into what they thought was a wishing well. Those who had no money--or perhaps had better judgment--instead tossed in a handful of crushed rock from the parade ground. In this fashion, one handful at a time, we calculated the debris in the well had built up at the rate of about four inches per year.

"Alongside the coins, we discovered soda cans, sunglasses, toy cars, flashbulbs and even miniature plastic figures of Batman, King Kong and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Also, starting at about nineteen feet down, there was no end to the wads of chewing gum, right in the middle of what an archaeologist could call the flash-cube era, the 1960s.

"At 23.5 feet down I hit the water table, and between twenty-four and twenty-five feet the recent detritus finally ended. I began finding the boards that were used to shore up the walls in 1960, and I could not help admiring what the eighteenth-century well-diggers had accomplished. After all, there I was, safely surrounded by steel culvert, on the end of a safety line and wearing a hard hat. From my position at the bottom of the twenty-five-foot deep hole, I could easily imagine the utter helplessness they must have felt whenever a stone fell from above.

"At twenty-five feet the nature of the fill inside the well changes. Instead of digging through broken softdrink bottles, pennies and crushed rock, I was now working in fine sand and silt. I had ventured deeper than the best they had done in 1960, but now I had groundwater incessantly rushing at me from all sides. It was like standing in between six or eight faucets with the cold water turned on full blast.

"With the increasing depth, it became harder to keep the pumps running, but the contents of the well were becoming more interesting. I found the complete skeleton of a goose at 26.5 feet and the wood end of a barrel keg at 27.5 feet. I also found several pockets of pinecones and branches from the many years that the well had stood open, between the time of the massacre and when hotels were built nearby. But most importantly, there was evidence for how the well had been lined at its bottom with vertical wood planks, creating a watertight barrel that prevented silt from washing in. I discovered the tops of these planks as I approached twenty-seven feet, and each was three inches thick and from six to twelve inches wide. Massive and tightly joined, the boards were waterlogged and swollen, and groundwater could flow into the well only by running over the tops of the planks or through knotholes.

"Inside the oval barrel lining, which measured thirty by thirty-five inches, there were many small finds, but nothing to suggest that the shaft had been deliberately destroyed or contaminated at the time of the massacre. The well had been abandoned and slowly filled itself in up until the influx of twentieth-century tourists. Because several modern dams have raised the water level in Lake George, I have no doubt that when the barrel lining was added by Rogers Rangers, the depth of the water table (and the water level of Lake George) must have been several feet lower than it is today.

"At the very bottom of the well, working with a two-horsepower submersible pump, we exposed about twenty-seven inches of the barrel lining and reached a depth of nearly thirty feet, but waves of sand kept gushing up from underneath where I was working. As I removed gravel and stones, sand came bubbling up to take it's place. Forcing a steel probe down through the sand, I found that the height of the wood lining must surely be six feet or more. But reaching that depth was impossible because everything was turning to quicksand, and both the pump and I were being pulled down.

"Our effort was worth it, though, for inside the wood lining at the bottom of the well we successfully recovered about a dozen lead musket balls, four French gunflints, a few dozen small pieces of cut lead shot, several butchered animal bones, the bones from five different frogs, many sherds [sic] of pottery and porcelain, twenty to thirty pieces of window glass and the corner from a square-sided case bottle. Contrary to local lore, the well did not contain the fort's payroll, nor bodies of female massacre victims. Instead, there was a representative range of small everyday objects from the 1750s. Most of these artifacts I removed from the layer of gravel that had probably been the original lining at the bottom of the well.

"While our exploration of the well has been a definite high point of the new research at Fort William Henry, our renewed excavations inside the walls have not yet revealed anything pertaining to the massacre. Still, the ubiquitous mortar-shell fragments and musket balls are firm evidence for the final days in August of 1757 when the fort came under siege. Though historical sources provide reasonably good documentation for the bloodbath itself, we know far less than we should about the many months of difficult frontier life that preceded the final attack. Perhaps our most important discoveries, then, await in the undisturbed parts of the parade ground and the exceptionally deep dump that lies outside the eastern wall of the fort. As archaeology proceeds in these areas, we hope to uncover some of the most exciting caches of French and Indian War artifacts ever found.

"Our 1998 field season, underway as this magazine goes to press, revealed more of the fort's dump, but our chief focus was the hospital. Hundreds of soldiers were taken to the facility, at the southeast corner of the parade ground, for amputations and treatments of measles, smallpox and all the other illness and injuries that typified life at a frontier fort. The mortality rate was high by modern standards, and during the eighteenth century infectious disease killed far more troops than the battle itself.

"Of course, we'll never discover the remains of Hawkeye or his Mohican friend Chingachgook, the characters from Cooper's great novel, but the small personal effects of the soldiers and officers are already featured within new exhibits that opened at the fort in spring 1998. In this way, those killed in the massacre and the others who lived in the fort will be brought back to life again and again, not as innocent victims, but as real people who have stories to tell."

Follow Ups:

Post a Followup

Name    : 
E-Mail  : 
Subject : 
Comments: Optional Link URL: Link Title: Optional Image URL:

[ Follow Ups ] [ Post Followup ] [ Mohican WWWboard ] [ FAQ ]