Press-Republican

March 30, 2012

Dig at Pike's Cantonment proves successful

JEFF MEYERS
Press-Republican

PLATTSBURGH — Artifacts recovered last summer from an archaeological dig at the purported location of Pike's Cantonment offered solid evidence of a military encampment.

And recently released details of structures on the site add a new layer of confirmation.

ENCAMPMENT

Pike's Cantonment was the location of a military encampment during the War of 1812, when nearly 2,000 American soldiers hunkered down for the winter of 1812-13. Although those troops moved out of the area well before the Sept. 11, 1814, Battle of Plattsburgh, the site of the cantonment would play a major role that day as the spot where British troops crossed the Saranac River in an attempt to circle American soldiers defending Plattsburgh.

The fate of that battle — and the importance it played in America's victory in the War of 1812 — is now a solid part of American history, but the exact location of Pike's Cantonment has been debated for decades with no clear-cut evidence surfacing from that harsh winter nearly 200 years ago.

Until now.

EARLIER STUDIES

"We started excavating (last summer) with goals to find evidence of military activity and evidence of intact features," said Dr. Timothy Abel, an archaeologist specializing in the War of 1812 who supervised the summer 2011 excavation activities.

The site, located on property formerly owned by the Plattsburgh Air Force Base, was the subject of an archaeology study in the mid-1990s when the Air Base was slated for closure.

"They found historical deposits, including nails, glass, clay pipes and brick, but still had not found anything Army-like," Abel said during a presentation at Clinton Community College.

"During a subsequent assessment in 1997, they recovered a similar assembly of artifacts, but still nothing of a military nature."

'TREASURE TROVE'

Those activities paved the way to place the location on the New York State Registry of Historic Places.

But placement on the National Registry requires much stronger evidence of a military presence, and the confirmed location of Pike's Cantonment was placed in limbo, Abel noted.

Meanwhile, Plattsburgh City Clerk Keith Herkalo had begun an extensive research of records related to Pike's Cantonment. He built a growing volume of evidence that eliminated at least five other potential locations for the military camp and confirmed the site where the Air Force had conducted its searches.

"We are sitting in a treasure trove," Herkalo said as he described his efforts to uncover facts that pinpoint the exact location of Pike's Cantonment in an area that played such a major role in the War of 1812.

SKEPTICAL AT FIRST

Herkalo, who is now the president of the Battle of Plattsburgh Association, attended a presentation featuring Abel in 2009 and approached the archaeologist with his theories on the encampment.

"I was a bit skeptical," said Abel, who noted that he receives similar requests regularly. But, he opted to move forward with a study of Pike's Cantonment.

"The first couple of days were discouraging," he said of last summer's dig. "We found lots and lots of nails but still nothing of a military presence."

The workers did find a bayonet scabbard and a musket ball, but those two items could have been owned by non-military residents.

MILITARY BUTTONS

The tide turned, however, when workers uncovered two military jacket buttons with "15" stamped clearly on them. Pike's regiment was the 15th.

Over the final days of the dig, workers excavated areas that could have been former building sites and uncovered clear evidence of chimneys, cobble floors and trenches commonly built around military huts, and they included evidence of burned timber. The abandoned huts of Pike's Cantonment were burned to the ground by British troops during the summer of 1813.

Activity at the site will continue this summer as researchers look to gather even stronger evidence that Zebulon Pike and his men did indeed winter on the hillside above the Saranac River west of Plattsburgh.

Email Jeff Meyers at: jmeyers@pressrepublican.com