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Dig uncovers key War of 1812 evidence

Researchers further cement location of Pike’s Cantonment

Dr. Timothy Abel speaks to a large crowd at Clinton Community College about his dig that appears to have uncovered Pike’s Cantonment.

Dr. Timothy Abel speaks to a large crowd at Clinton Community College about his dig that appears to have uncovered Pike’s Cantonment. Photo by Stephen Bartlett.

As he applied several theories and reviewed possible sites, one location on property formerly owned by the Plattsburgh Air Force Base arose as the most probably location. The site on the hillside above the Saranac River west of Plattsburgh had been the subject of an archaeological study in the mid-1990s.

Herkalo turned to Dr. Timothy Abel, an archaeologist specializing in the War of 1812.

“I became aware of this site in the spring of 2009,” Abel said. “What we lacked was any type of firm evidence that said this is where the military camped.”

So far, nails glass, clay pipes and brick had turned up at the site, but nothing that suggested a military encampment. Those items did get the site placed on the state Register of Historic Places.

“The site was in limbo,” Abel said. “I approached it with a bit of skepticism.”

Abel supervised the excavation activities in the summer of 2011.

Using metal detectors, workers swiped the site and flagged and mapped hot spots, which where then excavated.

“We needed to do enough work to get the site on the national Register of Historic Places,” Abel said. “We needed to find evidence of military activity.”

Nails seemed plentiful, but that proved little. They found a tailor’s thumb thimble, which was interesting, but a domestic artifact.

Then they found a 1795 bayonet scabbard chape, followed by a .69 caliber round ball, which was ammunition used during the War of 1812.

Finally, they uncovered military jacket buttons that were stamped 15.

“They only stamped numbers on buttons during the first year of the war, and Pike was in command of the 15th regiment,” Abel said.

Workers continued to excavate and uncovered what could have been building sites. There was clear evidence of chimneys, cobble floors and trenches, which were commonly built around military huts.

They also found evidence of burned timber. Pike’s Cantonment was burned to the ground by British troops during the summer of 1813.

Abel and other researchers will continue work at the site this summer.

“What we are hoping now is to go back this summer to excavate the cabin and find out who lived in it and hopefully find evidence of what people were doing in the structure,” Abel said. “We want to find out how the camp was organized and how the huts were structured, and we can then address questions of military culture.”

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