Keeseville Elementary School teacher Sheila Taylor spent part of her summer at an archaeological dig.
PLATTSBURGH — With a small pick, Sheila Taylor removed debris from what at first glance looked to be a pile of rocks.
But as a whole it began to resemble something placed with a purpose in the middle of the woods in a hole in the ground shaped like half a rectangle.
“You have to have patience and do it level by level,” said Taylor, a teacher at Keeseville Elementary School. “We determined that this was their hearth.”
She and other teachers and students recently participated in a dig at the site of Pike’s Cantonment in Plattsburgh, a military encampment during the War of 1812 that may be the only one intact today.
Zebulon Montgomer Pike, Jr., a United States military officer, led the Pike expedition to explore and document the southern portion of the Louisiana Purchase and to find the headwaters of the Red River. During that time he recorded the discovery of what was later called Pikes Peak, in Colorado.
He served during the War of 1812, eventually reached the rank of brigadier general and was killed during the Battle of York.
Pike’s Cantonment was the location of a military encampment during the War of 1812, at which forces under his command stayed. Nearly 2,000 American soldiers encamped for the winter of 1812-13, moving out of the area well before the Battle of Plattsburgh on Sept. 11, 1814.
Still, the cantonment was instrumental that day, utilized by British troops as a spot to cross the Saranac River as they attempted to circle America soldiers defending Plattsburgh.
That battle played an important part in America’s victory in the War of 1812.
Yet Pike’s Catonment, which the British burned to the ground, remained a mystery, the location of the site debated for decades until Plattsburgh City Clerk Keith Herkalo conducted his own extensive research and later enlisted the help of Dr. Timothy Abel, an archaeologist specializing in the War of 1812.
Through a dig that turned up a tailor’s thumb thimble, 1795 bayonet scabbard chape, .69 caliber round ball and military jacket buttons, it was confirmed that the location of Pike’s Cantonment was on a hillside above the Saranac River west of Plattsburgh.
The dig further uncovered building sites, with clear evidence of chimneys, cobble floors and trenches, which were commonly built around military huts.
“This is part of a hut,” Herkalo said recently during a two-week dig conducted by Abel with the help of Clinton Community College students and teachers through the North Country Teacher Resource Center.
“What remains is believed to be the only intact encampment from 1812.”
The remains continue to provide artifacts as well as architectural features.
“We can find out what kind of structures they lived in, what they were eating and we may find personal items,” Abel said.
He stood near the edge of the outlines of a hut, pointing to a pile of rocks placed by soldiers to create a hearth and a red area, the remains of a fire box.
“That is the floor of an 1812 hut.”
Four students and five teachers worked in every corner and along the edges, some with tiny shovels and picks, others with brushes, just some of the tools used as they peeled away layers of earth and uncovered the artifacts.
Abel said the goal this year was to define a structure, how it was built and the camp layout.
“From what I have found they did not mortar the joints of the chimney but just stacked stones,” Abel said. “If I had unlimited money I could spend the rest of my career out here.
“So we set short term goals we can accomplish and keep plugging away as long as the project is supported.”
The dig is sponsored by the courses students from Clinton Community College are enrolled in and a field class for teachers through the North Country Teacher Resource Center.
The Battle of Plattsburgh Association sponsored the initial investigations last year and this year provided laboratory spaces to process materials.
Tara Valachovic, a teacher from Willsboro Central School, couldn’t believe 2,000 soldiers walked on and around the very spot she worked, hunched over the dirt dusting off bricks.