July 20, 2011

Historic excavation on Pike's Cantonment to begin soon


PLATTSBURGH — An upcoming archaeological investigation at Pike's Cantonment will include an opportunity for members of the public to participate in an historical dig.

Pike's Cantonment, located on land between the Saranac River and the Clinton County Airport flight line, was part of the winter encampment of the U.S. Army during the winter of 1812-13 under the command of Zebulon M. Pike, when nearly 2,000 soldiers were camped there.

Some historians have made comparisons between Pike's Cantonment during the War of 1812 with Gen. George Washington's winter stay at Valley Forge during the American Revolution.


"When you find Pike's Cantonment, the entire battle scenario shifts from what people originally thought," said Keith Herkalo, president of the Battle of Plattsburgh Association.

British commanders sent a small number of soldiers into what is now the downtown area of Plattsburgh as a diversion, while the mainland skirmishes took place west of the city, where British troops forded the Saranac River at the site of Pike's Cantonment, he explained.

Dr. Timothy Abel, a SUNY Canton professor who specializes in War of 1812 archaeology, will oversee the week-long project on a two-and-one-half-acre site.

Tasks will include orienteering, archaeological testing, soil-color matching, soil screening, artifact collection and documentation.

"For this year, our job will focus on interval shovel tests," Herkalo said. "We'll dig a test hole every nine feet or so over the entire site and then examine any materials we've collected."


This year's efforts will be expanded next year with a more extensive dig, and in 2014, the project will focus on excavating one of the "hut" sites that were used by troops at the cantonment.

"This is quite an interesting project for us locally," Herkalo said. "There are people who still say this is not the site, despite all of the primary evidence that points to this location."

The U.S. Air Force conducted a survey of the property before relinquishing ownership of Plattsburgh Air Force Base and identified it as the location for Pike's Cantonment.

"Everyone who was alive knew where Pike's Cantonment was, including the Platt family, who owned the place, and the Averill family, who lived across from the place," Herkalo said. "It's all there in the primary records."

The New York State Office of Historic Preservation and the Battle of Plattsburgh Association are supporting the project. The North Country Chamber of Commerce has also provided a grant for the work.

A limited number of positions are available for the public to work on supervised activities throughout the project, with a $150 fee charged per person.

Teachers wishing to participate may receive in-service credit. For more information on those credits, teachers should contact the North Country Teacher Resource Center.

The site is on restricted property and is not accessible to the public except as official participants in the project.

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