Press-Republican

July 31, 2013

Pike's Cantonment dig unveils new evidence

By JEFF MEYERS
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — An archaeological dig at an American War of 1812 encampment continues to uncover evidence during a second year of activity.

More than 2,000 American soldiers spent the winter of 1812-13 at Pike’s Cantonment, a temporary military camp dug out of the forest along the Saranac River near Plattsburgh International Airport.

About 200 of those men perished from illness and the harsh winter environment, but those who survived were ordered from the area in the spring, leaving the cantonment abandoned. 

The wooden huts were all burned to the ground months later by a force of invading British troops.

OFFICER QUARTERS

The exact location of Pike’s Cantonment remained a mystery until archaeologist Dr. Timothy Abel confirmed the presence of the military encampment with some preliminary investigations in 2011.

Since then, he has offered a credit-bearing workshop through Clinton Community College as students and other volunteers have helped uncover the specific location of one of the former huts.

“Last year, we excavated one end of a soldier’s cabin,” Abel said this week as workers continued searching through the remains for more evidence. 

“This year, we’ve expanded the excavation to get the extended floor plan of the cabin.”

Their efforts revealed a cabin that was 12 by 16 feet and included two fireplaces, Abel noted.

“Based on its size, this was probably occupied by one or several officers,” he said.

Troop cabins, he added, were usually much larger since they held more people. Also, the hut was located at the top of a hill, the traditional location of officer quarters in such military encampments.

COMFORT ITEMS

Workers also uncovered the remains of oriental porcelain at the site, a suggestion that its occupant held a position of importance, Abel added.

“Officers often brought in a lot of comfort items from home to make their stay more enjoyable,” he said.

“They were as far away from their home environment as they could get; they’d do anything they could to make it seem more like the environment they’re used to.”

The location of this and other cabins in the immediate area is very significant because of the opportunity it offers in uncovering what it was like to be in the military during that time period.

“We can’t find any other undisturbed 1812 encampment in the nation,” said Keith Herkalo, president of the Battle of Plattsburgh Association. 

“Because of that, this site offers us a chance to uncover and document a record of how they built this encampment.”

UNDER FLOORBOARDS

One of the most significant discoveries this summer has been the remains of several floorboards that survived the British torches and the passage of 200 years.

That discovery also clarified some confusion from last year’s dig, when workers found some shards of glass in the remains.

Glass typically would have melted when the huts were burned, but these pieces were still intact.

“The theory is that a pane of glass hit the floor and exploded prior to the British destruction,” Herkalo said. “The officers (staying at the cabin at that time) had servants who would have swept up the debris, and some of those pieces fell under the floorboards where they would have survived the heat.”

‘SLOW PROCESS’

Herkalo is hoping that future activity will uncover the camp’s trash site, where remains from items such as the broken china and shattered windows may also be unearthed.

Students painstakingly searched for other evidence as they entered their final week at the site on Monday.

“It’s very interesting, very cool,” said Becca Belton, a SUNY Potsdam senior who was on site last year and volunteered to return this summer. 

“I love history, being able to bring factual evidence of history to light. These are things that haven’t been seen or touched in decades.”

Tim Szablewski of Albany will graduate from SUNY Plattsburgh but is not studying archaeology.

“It’s not like your Indiana Jones activity,” he said of the daily grind of looking for hidden treasures. “It’s a slow process, takes a lot of tedious hours of effort with small utensils. 

“But when you find things, it’s very interesting.”

CREDITS TRANSFER

Liz Kizior, an archaeology major from Illinois State, discovered the summer dig through an online source and decided to check it out.

It’s a great experience participating in this kind of live event,” she said. “I love archaeology, digging for historical evidence. It’s my passion.”

Students receive six credits from Clinton Community College, credits they can transfer to their home school and field of study.

Abel hopes to continue activity at the site for many years to come. Next year, he would like to extend efforts to uncover surrounding cabins.

He also has his eye on a spot where the original cabin seems to have been built at an angle to the other huts. 

Based on his understanding of the composition of such encampments, that hut could have housed the cantonment’s senior officer, Zebulon Pike.

Email Jeff Meyers:jmeyers@pressrepublican.com