Dr. Timothy Abel speaks to a large crowd at Clinton Community College about his dig that appears to have uncovered Pike’s Cantonment.
PLATTSBURGH — Doubt hung thick in the air when nails, glass, clay pipes and brick were the only evidence to turn to.
But then a bayonet scabbard was found, followed by ammunition and military jacket buttons, offering strong evidence that Pike’s Cantonment had been found.
And what appear to be military structures at the site of last summer’s archaeological dig further confirm the location of the military encampment.
“We are sitting on the nation’s War of 1812 treasure trove,” said Plattsburgh City Clerk Keith Herkalo.
Zebulon Montgomery Pike, Jr., as a United States Army Captain in 1806-07, 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.
Pike would eventually achieve the rank of brigadier general in the Army.
He served during the War of 1812 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 commend 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 American soldiers defending Plattsburgh.
That battle played an important part in America’s victory in the War of 1812.
Yet Pike’s Cantonment has remained a mystery, the location of the site debated for decades.
Herkalo explained that there were 10 theories, 6 possible locations and no collective agreement nor documentation.
“How can it be in six places at once?”
He began an exhaustive search of every available document he could locate in Clinton County and the state.
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.”