ADDISON, Vt. – Old cellar holes – now depressions in the grass – are the most prominent clues that French and later British settlers once occupied the shores of Lake Champlain.
Now archeologists are searching for more.
They’ve unearthed ceramic, brick and plaster fragments, animal bones and shards of glass that may change what they thought about the French colonists that inhabited the region between 1730 and 1759.
“The story is that French settlers lived right here on these little cellar holes and that the English in 1759, they chased everybody out and they built on top of the French cellar holes,” said State Archaeologist Giovanna Peebles of the Division of Historic Preservation. “We are now learning that the French didn’t build cellar holes.”
So the research question has become: Were they built by the French or by the English?
Archeologists from Vermont and the University of Maine at Farmington hope to uncover some answers this summer.
And they want your help. They’ve recruited school teachers and volunteers to pitch in on the three-week dig, digging and sifting dirt and learning how to collect, clean and catalog artifacts.
So far, there’s no sign of the French. In the first two days, the group gathered chips of white ceramic, small shards of window glass and a coin, so worn it’s nearly impossible to tell its age. “So far everything seems to be post-1759,” Peebles said.
But the Champlain Valley is teeming with history before that period.
The land around Chimney Point State Historic Site on Lake Champlain has evidence of human habitation dating back 7,500 years. Abenaki Indians used the lake as a trading route, and after Frenchman Samuel de Champlain discovered the waterway in 1609, the French built a fort on the western side in 1734.
Nine years later, French King Louis XV awarded a large tract of land in what’s now Bripdort and Panton to Gilles Hocquart, the presiding officer of New France, to recruit tenants inhabit the area.
By 1753, 21 houses existed on narrow tracts of land.
But during the French and Indian War, the British moved in and the French fled north to Canada, blowing up their fort and burning their homes.
After that it’s believed that Englishman John Strong built a cabin on top of an earlier French dwelling where the archeologists are now digging.
For the first few days of the excavation, the artifacts appeared to be all English: chips of plaster, brick and a button.
That still fascinated the teachers who were getting a hands-on field course in archaeology with seminars in the afternoon.
“What’s interesting to me is how history can become a narrative,” said Don Taylor, 38, a teacher at Montpelier’s Main Street Middle School.
“The more you want to learn the more it becomes part of a story,” making it more human and easier to understand, he said.
The 11 teachers volunteering this week have learned that the French lived in rustic homes with bare dirt floors and no furniture. They dressed in simple clothes, resembling sleeping garments, and traveled across the lake to Fort Frederic in their canoes to get bread and lard, available to them as tenants of the land.
“Now we know that there were dirt floors, no root cellars,” said Joy Hopkins, a former teacher at Pine Ridge School in Williston. “So we’re moving and changing and it’s just so exciting in every way.”
They are looking for signs of greenware or brownware or other artifacts that are only French. Archaeologists will also examine animal bones and plant life to determine what the settlers were growing and eating, and survey residents of Addison, Bridport and Panton in August to see what they’ve found in their own yards.
The research is funded by a two-year-grant from the Institute of Museum Library Services.
awarded to the Chimney Point State Historic Site, Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, Bixby Memorial Free Library and Vermont Public Television.
State park officials think the project will make the experience more valuable for visitors.
“We’re trying to get people into their natural resources and into their cultural resources, and let them be inspired by them so they help us take care of them,” said State Park’s director Craig Whipple.
Patti Marrinan of Minneapolis and her husband who own a house in Addison planned their trip to Vermont this summer so they could help with the dig.
We’re just passionate about history,” she said.
Jennifer Lawson, 35, a language arts and social studies at Vergennes Middle School, wants to encourage kids and young adults to take part and have an opportunity to work with professional archaeologists, handle artifacts and be a respected participant.
The project fits in with her school’s focus on experiential learning and using the community as a textbook.
“I need to know this because this is where I live,” she said.