Archaeologists return to site of historic N.Y. fort

Fort William Henry was rebuilt in the mid-1950s. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Fort William Henry was rebuilt in the mid-1950s. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. (AP) – Even after years of excavations at the 18th-century military outpost that inspired James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, archaeologist David Starbuck says there’s still plenty of history waiting to be unearthed.

Starbuck is overseeing an archaeological field project at Fort William Henry in the southern Adirondack tourist village of Lake George. It’s his fifth summertime dig at the reconstructed French and Indian War fort and 21st overall under the auspices of Adirondack Community College.

Starbuck-led teams conducted excavations at Fort William Henry from 1997 to 2000, turning up, among other things, the charred wooden foundations of the fort the British built here in 1755 and the French captured and burned after a weeklong siege in August 1757. Scores of the fort’s soldiers and civilians were killed by Indian allies of the French in what became known as the massacre at Fort William Henry. The siege and its aftermath were retold in Cooper’s novel and several film versions of his book, including the 1991 adaptation starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

All of which makes the fort, in Starbuck’s estimation, the most famous of the nation’s French and Indian War sites, most of which are concentrated in the Northeast.

Visitors to the fort are encouraged to watch the archaeology work unfold and question the diggers about what they’re doing. Hopefully, such interactions will give people a better understanding of the fort’s role in a little-known yet vital part of American history, Starbuck said.

“Schools don’t teach it, so sites like this have to tell the story,” he said. “We need to convey to people why people did what they did, that it’s not just a good guy versus a bad guy thing.”

Archaeology buff Lauren Sheridan took a break from her job as a nanny for a Long Island family to volunteer as one of Starbuck’s crew chiefs. Growing up near Lake George, she had visited the fort but didn’t delve into its back story until recently. Standing in a shallow trench dug into the fort’s parade ground, Sheridan points to the animal bones and charred wood and bricks they’ve uncovered, remnants of the original fort and its fiery destruction.

“That whole story comes alive again,” Sheridan, 32, said from under the white tarps strung up to protect the crew from the blazing summer sun. “It can be tedious, but it’s all worth it.”

Across the parade ground, two other volunteers are uncovering artifacts from the Native Americans who hunted and fished along the lakeshore for centuries before Europeans arrived.

“The fort was built on thousands of years of Native American settlements, and that’s the story we’d like to tell here more clearly in the exhibits,” said Starbuck, who teaches archaeology at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.

Nearby, just outside the fort’s eastern wall, another crew dug 5 feet down to uncover items dumped in what was believed to have been the garrison’s trash heap. Here amid the overgrowth covering a sloping hill, Chelsey Cook, one of Starbuck’s students, keeps turning up artifacts such as colonial-era buttons, musket balls and pottery shards.

“I never had been big into American history until I took classes” with Starbuck, said Cook, a 20-year-old anthropology major from Meredith, N.H.

The reconstructed fort opened in 1955 on the low bluff on the lake’s southern end where the original log and earthen fortification was built 200 years earlier. Archaeologists uncovered numerous artifacts prior to the 1950s reconstruction, but many objects, along with records detailing the digs, were lost in an arson fire at the fort in 1967.

Starbuck believes the modern builders were off by a few feet, causing sections of the rebuilt fort to be slightly misaligned with the original fort’s footprint. Part of his year’s goal is to find remnants of the original fort’s corners, which would help the archaeologists determine the next sections of ground to excavate, he said.

“There are foundations we can still find and learn from,” Starbuck said.

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Online:

Fort William Henry: http://www.fwhmuseum.com

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AP-WF-07-29-11 1753GMT


ADDITIONAL LOTS OF NOTE


Fort William Henry was rebuilt in the mid-1950s. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Fort William Henry was rebuilt in the mid-1950s. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.