PLATTSBURGH — When he first purchased property along the Great Chazy River in Coopersville in the 1990s, Andy Black never imagined he would unravel a mystery that had been buried for two centuries.
But it was inevitable: as a professional archaeologist and professor of archaeology, he had training and an interest in the past that was bound to lead him to the site of a homestead long lost and forgotten.
He offered a glimpse of the recent archaeological investigations at what he calls Coop’s Pork N’ Fish Site during a presentation at Clinton County Historical Association Museum.
“This site looks like an old homestead that was on the property no later than the 1820s,” Black told about three dozen people in attendance. “It’s very well preserved and can tell us something about the people who settled there.”
As a new landowner in 1997, Black got involved in a project with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to protect the Great Chazy River from agricultural runoff.
The concept involved creating a 50-foot strip of land along the river that would be used as a natural filter for surface water flowing from pasture to river.
One of the responsibilities for such a project is to conduct a historic preservation survey of the property in question. As a professional archaeologist, Black initiated that requirement and came across artifacts that suggested the property had been used by settlers of the Champlain hamlet of Coopersville early on.
In an area adjacent to the river, he found several artifacts, including bricks, china fragments, glass and the bones of fish and pork — the remains of food those original settlers had been eating.
“I knew I had something here,” he said.
STUDENTS PITCH IN
In 1999, he enlisted the aid of some students from Potsdam University, who helped set up an excavation grid and began searching for further evidence of the homestead.
At one point, they found a fairly well-preserved wooden beam that happened to be hollow inside. Upon further investigation, the beam turned out to be part of a drainage system from the former homestead to the river.
“Part of this area after the Revolutionary War was set aside for Canadian citizens who had fought for the U.S.,” Black said of the possible first settlers to Coopersville.
“After the war, people started settling in what would have been considered a remote area.”
However, official records of property owners in the late 1700s and early 1800s are sketchy, and Black could not locate documents to specifically say who may have first lived on his land.
A property map from 1848 clearly identifies other parcels in the area, but the people who had settled on the lot where Black’s efforts were focused were no longer there when the document was created.
“Oftentimes, people would put up a log cabin to settle a tract of land and would build a wood-framed house after a few years,” he explained. “That didn’t happen here. Where they (the original settlers) went, I have no idea.”
Excavation at the site was put on hold at the turn of the century as Black became involved in running his own archeological-survey business, but his interest has returned in the past several years.
Working as an archaeology instructor for SUNY Plattsburgh, Black reopened the site as a living classroom for his students.
Their work over the past few summers has allowed him to pinpoint where the original cabin stood, including the location of the settlers’ fireplace and an unusual crawlspace beneath the home.
They’ve found a plethora of artifacts, including buttons, brass thimbles and even charred seeds that identify what kinds of fruits and vegetables the settlers had been eating.
Pieces of dishes they collected helped pinpoint the homestead as pre-1820 by the color and design used on the china, he noted.
“Dishes can tell us a lot about people,” he said. “Are they expensive or cheap, imported or local? Ceramics are very datable.”
He categorized the china as inexpensive and probably manufactured locally.
“This archaeological work has brought to light new information on how this family adapted to the environment, how they stayed connected to the wider, growing community and gives us a rare glimpse of daily life in a frontier area,” he said.
There is still plenty more to uncover, he added. Work to this point has located the original cabin, but an aerial view of the surrounding pasture shows an oddly colored rectangle nearby. That location will be the focus of upcoming excavations, Black said.
All combined, the work at Coop’s Pork N’ Fish Site offers a unique look at what it was like living in northeastern New York when settlements were just beginning to take shape.
Email Jeff Meyers:firstname.lastname@example.org