A War Site Offers Historical Insight
Students and amateur archaeologists unearth artifacts at forgotten Mt. Independence. REVOLUTIONARY RESEARCH
MT. INDEPENDENCE juts into the narrow southern end of Lake Champlain like a great tree-covered knuckle of stone. Two hundred thirteen years ago American revolutionaries, fearing a British invasion from Canada, fortified this outcropping. They cleared the mount's 400 acres and built batteries, a star-shaped fort, field hospitals, and a sprawl of barracks and officers' quarters. Paired with Fort Ticonderoga on the opposite bank of Champlain, Mt. Independence - so named after the newly drafted Declaration of Independence was read to the garrison - helped repel a royal fleet sailing south in the fall of 1776.Skip to next paragraph
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That was the extent of the fortress's glory. Weakened by disease and a winter of suffering that rivaled that at Valley Forge, the American defenders fled when Gen. John Burgoyne's redcoats did the supposedly impossible and placed cannons on the heights overlooking Fort Ticonderoga in July 1777.
Historians may debate the importance of Mt. Independence in blocking an early British invasion and thus buying time for later victories. But few would dispute its archaeological value.
Though little was done over the years to protect the site from casual collectors in search of artifacts, its isolation in a corner of the tiny Vermont town of Orwell shielded the mount from the greater ravages of commercial or residential development.
This summer the first scientific examination of Mt. Independence began under the guidance of University of Vermont (UVM) archaeologist David Starbuck. The meticulous, often tedious work of digging and sifting is being done by a team of 42 students and ``avocationals'' - part-time devotees of archaeology who've regularly spent their summers probing historical sites and acquiring field know-how.
Mt. Independence is ``not untouched,'' says Dr. Starbuck, ``but compared to other Revolutionary War sites, it's very undisturbed.'' He says Vermont's bicentennial, coming in 1991, has provided the occasion to launch the dig. As now planned, the project will proceed in three stages.
This summer, the field work zeroed in on clusters of living quarters and the small out-buildings that surrounded the fort. Next summer, the team will move on to what remains of a 20-by-200-foot field hospital. In 1991, Starbuck's crew will explore the fort itself and outlying gun emplacements.
As he moves through the area laid out in a grid for digging, brushing away the perspiration and buzzing insects of a particularly muggy, midsummer day, the UVM professor jokes that sometimes ``archaeologists spend all their time finding the next shady spot.''
In the mottled shade of a scraggly pine, Wendy Politis is painstakingly troweling out a meter-square block. This is a first taste of archaeology for Ms. Politis, a student at nearby Castleton State College in Castleton, Vt. But she has already unearthed a small historical treasure - a pair of decorative, red and white porcelain cuff links. Such items of personal adornment offer the kind of insight into everyday life that Starbuck expects Mt. Independence to yield in abundance.
Diaries kept by officers who served at the fortress indicate social friction between rough-hewn militiamen and their gentlemen officers. One disgusted officer noted that the men under him kept pilfering items of clothing. The cuff links were just the sort of possessions that marked the class divisions on Mt. Independence.