Finding buttons and bones in Colonial Fort Laurens, Ohio

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Fort Laurens was built in December 1778 on the banks of the Tuscarawas River, 60 miles south of Cleveland in what was then the Ohio Country. The only Colonial Revolutionary War outpost west of the Ohio River has long since disappeared, but a dramatic 17-day archaeological dig was conducted on the site this past summer. The Continental Congress originally commissioned the fort as a wilderness outpost for troops on their way to attack British-controlled Fort Detroit and to destroy Indian towns along the Sandusky River to chastise them for ravaging settlers in the area.

Military and political sparring, and limited resources, forced the Congress to scale down the campaign. Final orders were to deal only with the Indians and forget about Fort Detroit.

Rough weather, food shortages, Indian attacks, and poor morale crippled the garrison's capacity to attack. The soldiers waited out the winter, hoping for improved opportunities, but deprivation withered possibilities until the campaign was abandoned and the fort deserted in August 1779.

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Surviving records of what happened at the fort during its nine-month occupation tell the story of a group of soldiers who left the fort to collect firewood and were ambushed and killed by Indians hidden nearby. When the fort-bound troops finally felt safe enough to collect their fallen comrades, a month later, wolves had scavenged the bodies. The remains of more than a dozen soldiers were thrown into a mass grave. Meat placed on top lured the wolves to the gravesite, where they were shot, thrown into the grave, and buried with the soldiers.

Excavations in 1973 produced soil markings that indicated where the mass grave was, but it wasn't until this past summer that digging both confirmed and denied legend. The soldiers' bones had carnivore teeth marks on them, but there were no wolf remains. Three other gravesites were found, also confirming written records.

Supplies, equipment, utensils, etc. were very scarce at Fort Laurens, so few artifacts have been discovered during any of the excavations since 1972. This summer's dig was no exception - a couple of buckles and numerous buttons.

But one button bore the previously unknown insignia of the 8th Pennsylvania Regiment.

To a Pennsylvanian who now wears a uniform with authentic buttons when he participates in historical reenactments, that find made the whole dig worthwhile.

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