Friday, October 24, 2014

Summary of Major Features Tested during the 2014 Season at Fort Hunter

Two weeks ago, the blog highlighted some of the more interesting artifacts recovered this season.  Our focus this week is on several interesting features that have revealed more of the story of life during the 18th and 19th centuries in central Pennsylvania. According to my favorite archaeology text book by David Hurst Thomas and Robert Kelly, a feature is the nonportable evidence of technology; usually fire hearths, architectural elements, artifact clusters, garbage pits, soil stains, and so on. They are artifacts but they usually cannot be removed from the ground and can only be described.  Fort Hunter was occupied by Europeans for nearly 300 years and contains a very large quantity of artifacts. Unfortunately, the majority of these cannot be dated unless found in features with other diagnostic objects – that is artifacts that can be chronologically placed to a specific and limited time period. Below we will review the more interesting and significant features encountered this season - some were datable and some were not.

(East wall of foundation)

            Feature 22/55 is a rock foundation that we first encountered in 2009 but misidentified as a French drain. As we expanded the area north of the well, it became clear that this feature was a building foundation. It consists of a mixture of mostly rounded cobbles but also some dressed diabase. Many of the cobbles were large, 12” – 18” in diameter. In this part of the site, it is possible to identify the original ground surface present at the time of European contact and the foundation seems to be resting on this surface. At the same level as the foundation or just below it, we uncovered numerous fire-cracked-rocks which were part of a Native American hearth feature to the east. It does not appear that a builder’s trench was dug for this foundation but rather the foundation was simply placed on the ground surface. The east wall of this structure is at least 15 feet long. As we expanded the block north, we carefully excavated around and beneath the rocks but did not find any artifacts that would suggest a date for when the foundation was constructed. Since it rests on the original ground surface, it could be early.  

(Northeast corner of foundation)

This year we reached the back corner and were hoping to solve this problem. The back or north wall makes a right angle turn to the west. Unfortunately, the back wall ended within two feet where it had been cut by a waste water ditch or where a large section of the bank eroded away during the hurricane Agnes flood of 1972. To our dismay, what appeared to be postmolds turned out to be rodent disturbances and the artifacts found in them could have dated anytime during the 19th century. In the future, we will investigate the area to the west of the erosion ditch and hopefully, uncover the west wall of the foundation.
(Feature 24/48 with Andrea standing on the iron pipe in the bottom leading to the well)

            Another feature that attracted our attention this season was Feature 24/48. This was a large hole dug adjacent to the well but it also extends to the north for approximately ten feet. It was first identified in plan-view in 2009 as a large circular stain adjacent to the well. Our excavation eventually extended to a depth of 6.6 feet and an iron pipe was found at the bottom that apparently was part of a pumping system for the well. Based on historic photos from the 1890’s, there was a windmill approximately ten feet to the west and it is assumed that it  pumped water out from the well. This feature was not completely excavated because part of it extended into the west wall. During last winter, the adjacent unit to the north slumped and exposed more of the feature. While troweling the wall this year, we recovered the U.S. Navy button dating to approximately 1809.

 (Navy button probably part of the uniform worn by Thomas Gates McAllister, son of Archibald McAllister, who served in the U. S. Navy from 1805 to 1807.)

After the slump was cleared, approximately 15 inches of the feature was exposed in the floor and considering the date on the button, this required our attention. The button and several pieces of Middle Woodland pottery were the earliest artifacts found, however the majority were post 1850 in age and not particularly chronologically diagnostic. This portion of the feature was over seven feet in depth and revealed a mostly decayed log situated upright with an iron bar extending perpendicular through it. Most of the log had decayed but part was covered in creosote and therefore was preserved. Initially we speculated that the log was a wooden pipe that had been inserted into the ground. However, the iron bar suggested another scenario. Since the pipe connecting the windmill and the well are in the same excavation pit, we are now thinking that this log was part of this construction activity. In this scenario, the log was placed into the hand dug pit upright and the soil was filled in around it to secure it in-place. The log functioned as a “dead man” to which cables were attached to secure an adjacent structure; in this case most likely the windmill. We are reasonably sure that the windmill and pipe were part of the improvements made by the Boas family when they purchased the property in the 1870s. Therefore both structures probably date to that time. This does not help us much when interpreting the 18th century occupation but it does establish the construction chronology in this area of the site.

 (Profile of Feature 24/48 illustrating “dead man” on the left)

            Feature 77/90 is located at the back or north end of the icehouse. Originally, these were considered two separate features but after further excavation, they connected. The Feature 77 section is an 18” by 24” rectangular opening in the icehouse wall with a lining of motar on the bottom. The opening extends approximately two feet below the present ground surface and is approximately 6” below the current wooden floor of the icehouse. The opening does not extend inside the structure but is blocked by a dried laid brick wall. It is associated with a dark stain outside the wall that extended approximately 12’’below the plastered surface. Middle to late 19th century artifacts were recovered from both the opening in the wall and the dark stain area outside the wall.

(Opening in icehouse wall. Brick in back of the opening)

The Feature 90 section started out as a poorly defined stain extending north of the opening in the wall approximately 8 feet. It did not really take shape until the stain had been excavated to a depth of 8”. Rough cut wooden sides were exposed at this point with several long spikes protruding vertically from the sides. The spikes suggest that wood was attached to the top. It appears to have been a rectangular box extending from near the icehouse wall, north, possibly funneling water over the cliff that drops 36 feet to Fishing Creek. Depending on which records are accurate, the icehouse is either 15 or over 20 feet deep with stairs leading to the bottom. The records describe the ice as being stored on the bottom floor but, if the ice is stored on the bottom, why is there a drain at the top? Possibly the historic records are not accurate and the icehouse is not constructed deep into the ground and this feature acted as a drain for the melting ice. We have considered augering into the floor of the icehouse to determine its depth. However, augering inside a building would be very difficult since there is less than eight feet of roof clearance.

(Feature 90 with wood and nails visible on the left side)

            The most productive feature we excavated this season in terms of 18th century artifacts was Feature 62. This was first identified in 2011. It appeared as a dark linear stain under the topsoil that produced a French gunflint and scratch blue salt glaze stoneware. This year, we recovered significantly more stoneware along with tin glaze earthenware. A preliminary analysis suggests these represent pieces of three or four vessels of scratch blue and at least two vessels of tin glaze earthenware. Unfortunately, these were found with 19th century artifacts. The stain was associated with a line of mostly dressed rocks but some rounded cobbles. It extended approximately 15 feet along the top of the slope leading down to the edge of the cliff overlooking Fishing Creek. The 18th century artifacts were generally confined to a six foot long section but, it seems to have been part of a dumping area that was used well into the 19th century. Several pieces of the stoneware and the earthenware have been mended and it will be interesting to see if there are any re-fits from other parts of the site. For example, the area around the bake oven produced a considerable quantity of similar stoneware and they also might cross-mend. Feature 62 produced more 18th century pottery than we have recovered in many years at Fort Hunter, unfortunately all of it was from a mixed context.

            (the alignment of rocks to the left of the rock foundation in the center is Feature 62)

As is frequently the case, one of the most intriguing features was uncovered the last two weeks of the excavation. This is a circular rock foundation, 12 feet in diameter. Many of the rocks are large cobbles similar to Feature 22/55 but there is also a mixture of smaller cobbles and dressed pieces of diabase. However, in this case, there is a significant builder’s trench that is about 18 inches deep. The rocks do not appear to be aligned for a foundation but seem to have been disturbed. Possibly, the foundation was partially removed (robbed) to be used in some other structure. There also seems to be a small open ended rectangular structure on its north side. Artifacts are not common but most date to the 18th century. These include scratch blue stoneware, gunflint, musket ball and the near complete lock from a Brown Bess musket. Along with these early artifacts, the low density of artifacts also suggests that this is an early feature. Once Captain McAllister arrived in 1786, his artifacts became very common. Therefore, the low density of artifacts in this feature suggests a pre-McAllister structure. However, Feature 99 cuts through another feature that seems more recent, suggesting the foundation may not be as old as we think. The inside of the circle is disturbed but not to any depth so it is not a large well or cistern. We have discussed the possibly that it was one of the fort’s bastions or its powder  magazine. However, a re-examination of historic records discovered that in 1798, there was an octagon shaped smokehouse in the back yard. It was elevated off the ground and smoke was produced via a stove on the outside of the structure – probably the rectangular structure to the north of the circle. However, the wooden smoke house was possibly constructed on top of a fort related structure. Clearly more excavation is required in and around the rectangular attachment and the features in the center of the rock circle. This feature will be a focus of our activity in the fall of 2015.

(Circular foundation, builders trench in profile and attached rectangular structure to the north) 

Although, this season produced a relatively high frequency of 18th century artifacts, some of which may be fort related, with the exception of the hillside dump, all of these features could date to Archibald McAllister’s occupation rather than the French and Indian War fort. The features have also given us direction for excavation in the future. Practically all of these features are examples of the mystery and frustration involved in archaeological field projects. We spend considerable time in the excavation of features but their function and age frequently remain problematic.


Thomas, David Hurst and Robert Kelly

2007    Archaeology Down to Earth. Thomson Wadsworth Publishing, Australia. 

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Friday, October 10, 2014

“N” is for No Fort Found Yet, A Summary of the 2014 Fort Hunter Excavations

As we wrap up our time in the field at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park, we have found limited structural evidence of the French and Indian War era fort. Though we have not found structural evidence of the fort, we have found a number of artifacts, some that date to the French and Indian War period and some that do not. 

One of our more exciting finds this year is the “lock” mechanism of a Brown Bess musket. Brown Bess muskets were in service of the British Army from the early 1700’s to the early 1800’s.  At the beginning of the war, which began in 1757, it is said that there were approximately 80 soldiers at the fort, but this changed dramatically when it was discovered that the majority of the war would be fought in the Ohio River Valley. Due to this realization the use of the fort became primarily for supply. At this time the fort was manned by much fewer men, approximately 30, who were a militia made up of local farmers and residents. These militia men would have provided their own weapons, which may have included a Brown Bess gun. This suggests that the gun part, which seems to have been discarded after breaking, could have been used by one of the Fort Hunter French and Indian war era men.
 excavated musket lock with modern replica for comparison

Other military-related artifacts found this year include two musket balls and a French gun flint. Though we cannot be sure these objects are from the French and Indian War era, it is possible. Since the fort was manned primarily by a militia and they would have provided their own weapons, the different sizes of muskets balls and various types of gun flints found throughout the years of excavation at Fort Hunter can be explained. These militia men would not have all had the exact same weapons as an army would have had.   

french flint and musket ball

Another interesting artifact that was found this year and in our excavations in past years is a datable ceramic called Scratch blue. Scratch blue is an English salt-glazed stoneware that was created by incising deep lines in the ceramic body and filling it with cobalt blue oxide before firing leaving thin blue lines in generally floral motifs after firing.  This type of ceramic has a very narrow production date range of 1744-1775. This date range includes the French and Indian War period, suggesting that these ceramics may have been used by the soldiers or militia men of the fort.  Of course, most of the artifacts, including the Scratch blue stoneware, the gun flints, and the musket balls could have been used by the occupants of the Fort Hunter land during much of the 18th and 19th century.   

Scratch blue decorated salt-glazed stoneware

As mentioned in previous blogs, the use of the land surrounding and including the Fort Hunter Mansion and Park extends far back in time. Just this year we have found a number of flakes left behind by prehistoric Native Americans. In our last week in the field one of our interns, Tessa Burns, was lucky enough to find an intact datable prehistoric artifact. This artifact is an Otter Creek projectile point. Just last year we found another Otter Creek point and this year’s find reinforces the idea of a long history of land-use here because Otter Creek points date between 5800 and 6600 BP. 

Otter Creek projectile point

So here we are, another field season complete and, though we still have not found the fort at Fort Hunter, we have continued to add to our knowledge of the long history of the land-use at the Fort Hunter Mansion and Park. Thank you to all of our volunteers for dedicating their time and efforts in helping us in the field and thank you also to all those who took the time to stop by and listen and learn about archaeology and what we have been doing at Fort Hunter for the past 8 years. 


Noel Hume, Ivor
1976  A Guide to Colonial Artifacts of America Alfred A. Knopf, New York

Antill, P
2006 Baker Rifle. Electronic Document,

Ryan, D. Michael
Brown Bess – Musket Misconception. Electronic Document,
For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Friday, September 26, 2014

M is for McAllister… Military, Master, Material Culture

Coinciding with our archaeological tribute to the letter “M” and our third week of excavations at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park this year, we will focus on small things forgotten and the McAllister family who owned and lived on the property from the mid-1780s to 1870. This era marks a turbulent time in early American history, from the forming of the Nation to the first years following the Civil War. Along with historical documents, the archaeological record left behind by the McAllisters reflects a period of dynamic change in frontier economies, the impact of slavery on the farming industry in central Pennsylvania, as well as the day to day hardships of life in the 19th century.

Captain Archibald McAllister (b.1756, d.1831), purchased what is now the park land and adjacent areas as a young man with a growing family in the mid-1780s. The son of Colonel Richard McAllister, a prominent civic leader, military figure and the founder of Hanover in the then undefined boundary between the colonies of Maryland and Pennsylvania, Archibald continued in his father’s footsteps. Both men served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, and encouraged the settlement, development and growth of the Commonwealth’s south-central region throughout their lifetimes (Dickson, 2000). 

Fort Hunter was an abandoned French and Indian War period fort (1755-1763), and the location of a farm with adjoining grist and saw mills when Captain McAllister purchased it in 1787 after living as a tenant on the property for several years. Over the course of the McAllister family stewardship, the land was transformed into a “self-sufficient frontier village".  Many of Captain McAllister’s architectural improvements to the property are still maintained by the park—the stone constructed Federal-style front (1814) and central (1786) portions of the Mansion, and the ice house (1790s) directly behind. Some of these structures have undergone renovation as subsequent owners’ updated facilities, but original early nineteenth century features still remain of McAllister’s  Tavern, The Practical Farmer (circa 1800), attached stone stable with an English-style drive-through barn (1810) and spring house (circa 1800), speculated to have housed the distillery. (Dickson, 2000; Fort Hunter park walking tour brochure).The original milk house, also known as McAllister’s Dairy, no longer stands, but is reconstructed in the back yard of the Mansion in its approximate location. It was regaled for its many innovative features in 1835 issue of “The Cultivator” by an impressed visitor recollecting an 1828 outing and tour of the Captain’s grounds (Chronicler, Spring 2011).

Yearly excavations at Fort Hunter since 2006 have uncovered evidence of other out-buildings and structures buried just below the surface that may date to, or were restored and used during the McAllister era. 

East view of back yard ice house and 2006 excavation block with subsurface cut stone platform visible tothe upper left and eighteenth-nineteenth century bake oven feature also exposed below the topsoil.

This year we continue to investigate around the ice house behind the Mansion. A cut stone platform, possibly indicative of a former structure, was first uncovered on the side of the icehouse during 2006 excavations. We continue to record its perimeter to determine its function as our excavation block expands to the northeast.

Last week staff archaeologist, Jim Herbstritt, directed Franklin and Marshall students,opening investigation units on the north side of the cut stone feature discovered in 2006.

Previous postings have speculated that the well found adjacent and constructed along the west side of the ice house, was potentially dug in the 1750s to service the men stationed at the fort.Due to the well’s close association with the ice house and the lack of datable evidence to suggest otherwise, it was most likely improved upon substantially or constructed entirely under Captain McAllister’s oversight shortly after the purchase of the property.

Cultural deposits of artifacts found during the careful excavation of the bake oven southeast of the ice house would further suggest that this structure too, if originally built during the Fort period, was restored and in continual use for almost the entire 90 years of the McAllister family residency. A 1798 Direct Tax record lists a wooden smoke house among Captain McAllister’s improvements to the property (Dickson 2000). This subsurface feature of highly oxidized soil and burnt organic material, filled with butchered bone and eighteenth and nineteenth century pottery is a likely location for this structure.  

Examples of Mid-Late 18th century and Early to Mid-19th century pottery 
found in association with the bake oven

along with a copious amount of animal bone…….

The historical and archaeological evidence left behind stands testament to the vision of the McAllister family, and the skill and industry of the men and women who lived and worked on the property. In addition to hired laborers, Captain McAllister owned at least twenty-two African-American slaves over the course of his proprietorship at Fort Hunter. During that time, Pennsylvania passed the first gradual abolition law in the country, requiring the freedom of enslaved persons born after March 1, 1790 when they turned the age of 28. In 1828, less than three years prior to his death, Captain McAllister advertised for the sale of his remaining four slaves, three of which were born after 1790 and a 60 year old woman, Sall Craig, who was born into slavery prior to the law. The advertisements speak to the complexities of the gradual abolition laws and the complicated relationship between master and enslaved persons in Pennsylvania. Click here to view the original advertisements and learn more about the Fort Hunter African American Cemetery, and the Pennsylvanian abolition act of 1790. (Weis, Derek. October 2010.)

While our project goals and the scope of our excavations have not focused on finding the material culture of African-American household members or their quarters, these individuals farmed the land, served the McAllister household and performed domestic duties. They built and maintained the facilities, and managed and worked the various industries undertaken by the proprietor—“grist and sawmills, country store, blacksmith shop, school, artisan’s shops, tavern and distillery”. Their lives are as much a part of the story of Fort Hunter as the McAllister family members. 

Captain McAllister and second wife, Elizabeth had six children who grew up in the home and participated in the day to day operations of the property. His third son, John Carson McAllister (b.1790) inherited the estate and ran the property until his death in 1866. Archibald, Elizabeth and John are all buried in the family cemetery located on land east of the park. (Dickson 2000; Weis 2010).

Excavations this year have uncovered a personal item of Captain McAllister’s second son, Thomas Gates McAllister. Thomas, born in 1784, spent the formative years of his short life at Fort Hunter, dying of a protracted illness, five years prior to the addition on the Mansion’s front section.  

Thomas Gates McAllister’s “Double Gilt” brass naval button with thirteen stars surrounding emblem, circa 1805.

The Continental Navy was disbanded after the Revolutionary War, but was reinstated by Congress in 1798. Buttons of this period display an American eagle standing with head to its left and a lined oval encircling a fouled anchor on the eagle’s right. A circling ring of stars was added in 1802. (Hughes and Lester 1981: Plate 307:38 and 40, p. 718; Emilio 1911: Plate 1:26, p.7).

In 1805, Thomas was commissioned into the navy as a surgeon’s mate or acting surgeon where he served consecutive tours of the Mediterranean stationed on the James Adams, the Constitution, and the Enterprise (McAllister, Thomas Gates, diary 1805-1807; link below to PHMC Archives). His service was cut short by a chronic illness and he was returned stateside to a Washington D.C. military hospital in 1807, too weak to write home. A friend of the family happened upon Thomas and arrangements were made for his return. He convalesced for the last two years of his life at Fort Hunter, eventually succumbing to a debilitating disease. Captain McAllister wrote a month before his son’s death at the age of 24, “he continues extremely ill. His limbs are so contracted that he is drawn as it were in a lump. If ever he should recover, I am afraid he will be without the use of his limbs: his knee joints are out of place, also his ankle. You would think it impossible for [a] human being to have life and have so little flesh as he has (January 23, 1809).” (McKee 1991). 

Also last week staff archaeologists and volunteers mapped and excavated historic features behind the
 icehouse. The cut stone cluster on the bottom right was first uncovered during 2012 excavations, it 
appears to be a corner and extends south. The southern linear extension, not pictured here, was 
documented and removed in 2008; and suggests the presence of another historic building 
foundation that may date to the McAllister era or before.

 The remains of past structures and the restoration and conservation of historical buildings chronicle the passing of time and the evolving needs of running a profitable farm and merchant business in the late eighteenth through nineteenth centuries at Fort Hunter. Personal items, when found, provide a direct link back to the individuals, who profited, suffered, lived, loved and lost, reminding us how deep and rich our history is. The McAllisters left many documents to assist future generations in understanding who they were and how they lived. Archaeological investigations at Fort Hunter round out this picture, clarifying details that were not carefully recorded and providing greater insight into the lives of the McAllister household, the laborers and servants, both free and enslaved, who are under-represented in the historic record.

Special thanks to our daily volunteers and all who participated in Fort Hunter Day last Sunday. It was a highly successful event with over 3000 visitors stopping by the excavation. The education experience continues through October 3rd (Mon-Fri, 9am to 4pm). Come on out and see us!

Budding archaeologists screen for artifacts during Fort Hunter Day festivities.

Dickson, Carl
2000.     The Fort Hunter Story: A microcosm of American History. Masters Thesis. The Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg.

Emilio, Luis Fenollosa
1911       The Emilio Collection of Military Buttons: American, British, French and Spanish, with some of other Countries, and Non-Military in the Museum of the Essex Institute, Salem, Mass. The Essex Institue. Salem, Mass.

Spring 2011         Vol 32:No.1. The Friends of Fort Hunter Inc, Fort Hunter Mansion and Park.

Hughes, Elizabeth and Marion Lester
1981       The Big Book of Buttons: p.718, Plate 307. 38. Boyestown, PA. Boyerstown Publishing Company.
McAllister, Archibald to Smith.
January 23, 1809   Columbian Centinel (Boston).

McKee, Christopher
1991       A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the United States Naval Officer Corps, 1794-1815. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute.

Links and Web References:

Fort Hunter Mansion and Park:, see also Fort Hunter walking tour downloadable brochure, Dauphin County Parks and Recreation.

Pennsylvania State Archive holdings, Colonel Richard McAllister and Relatives:

Fort Hunter African American Cemetery:
Weis, Derek
October 2010

Further Reading:

Dickson, Carl A.
2002       Fort Hunter Mansion and Park: A Guide. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

McAllister, Mary Catharine.
1989       Descendants of Archibald McAllister, of West Pennsboro Township, Cumberland County, Pa, 1730-1898. Harrisburg, PA: Schaeffer's Printing and Bookbinding House.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .