By JEFF MEYERS, Press-Republican
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Researchers at Pike’s Cantonment continue to uncover clues that not only verify the location of the winter home of American troops during the War of 1812 but also reveal what life was like for those soldiers.
Led by noted War of 1812 archaeologist Dr. Timothy Abel and local Battle of Plattsburgh expert Keith Herkalo, several North Country teachers as well as students from an archaeological field class at Clinton Community College are uncovering the remains of a hut on the historical site.
“We don’t know a lot about how the common foot soldiers lived (during the war),” Abel said recently, as the group completed its second week of activity on site.
“So much of history focuses on the battles and the generals who led the battles. This (archaeological dig) is so important because it gives us a glimpse of how the individual foot soldiers lived.”
Most of a soldier’s activities were centered around camp life, Abel added, and most casualties occurred in camp and not on the battlefield.
Approximately 2,000 soldiers wintered at Pike’s Cantonment, and about 200 died while there, mostly during the first month when shelters were being built and sanitary conditions were inadequate, he said.
Activity during last year’s dig focused on verifying that Pike’s Cantonment was indeed located on land adjacent to Plattsburgh International Airport along Route 22. This year, activity is much more focused.
“The goal for this year is to try to get a sense of how a single hut was structured,” Herkalo said.
Although much of the cantonment was disturbed by the construction of Route 22 and the Air Force Base, the location now being uncovered is remarkably untouched.
“There has never been any other layer of human activity on top of this location,” Herkalo said. “It’s fabulous.”
In fact, Abel called this section of Pike’s Cantonment “amazingly intact” and said he did not know of another site in the Northeast that is as well preserved.
Using brushes and tiny excavation tools, the participants have removed about 4 to 6 inches of soil and have just about reached what is believed to be the floor of the original hut.
The structure was burned along with the rest of the cantonment by British troops in June 1813, months after it had been abandoned by U.S. soldiers.
The workers have uncovered nails, glass, hinges, shattered pieces of pottery and the bones of animals the soldiers had dined on.
“What better way to have a hands-on experience than at a dig,” said Laura Bridge, a sixth-grade teacher at Willsboro Central School. “It’s a lot of hard work; each day I go home tired and sore. But it’s well worth it. When you uncover something, it’s just so neat.”
Researchers can clearly identify the hut’s boundary by the different shades of soil as they dig. Also, the public roadway used by soldiers also stands out with the excess amount of stones and pebbles lying on the ground adjacent to the hut.
“Personally, when I uncover things, I try to envision the life of the soldier back then,” said John McCarty, a fifth-grade teacher at Cumberland Head Elementary School. “It reminds you of how easy we have it compared to what life was like back then.”
“The best part of this project as a teacher is that we can go back and tell our students what we experienced and allow them to experience it as well,” said Ingrid Cote, who teaches reading and writing at Ausable Valley Middle School.
SPOTLIGHT ON HISTORY
City of Plattsburgh Mayor Donald Kasprzak and CCC President John Jablonski both visited the site to learn a little bit more about the cantonment.
“The timing of this excavation is special with the War of 1812 and Battle of Plattsburgh anniversaries happening,” Kasprzak said. “It’s not only interesting to discover all of this, but it also spotlights the importance of local history and our heritage.”
As artifacts are uncovered, they’re transferred to a lab at the Battle of Plattsburgh Museum, where they will undergo extensive analysis, Abel noted. Items that need additional research will be sent to experts in particular fields of study.
Abel also hopes to spend some time on the ridge above the cantonment in an attempt to locate the camp’s artillery bunker, which would have been located behind the camp and not between the cabins and the Saranac River.
Participating CCC students are enrolled in a six-credit Military Site Field Archaeology course.
If the project continues into next summer, work will focus on identifying a broader image of how the cabins were laid out on the cantonment grounds, Herkalo noted.
Email Jeff Meyers: