SUNY Potsdam students "dig deep" to unlock local history
SUNY Potsdam archaeology students are spending the month of July unearthing a mid-19th-century African American farming settlement and land reform experiment located in the Adirondacks.
The Timbucto Archaeology Project field school in Lake Placid involves both field excavation and primary source research at local archives that is giving 18 Potsdam students first-hand experience in the field of archaeology.
“I'd have to say that this is proving to be one of the most challenging sites I've ever worked on, as the precise location of the Epps homestead has been difficult to identify. Because of this, the students are definitely getting a wonderful introduction to how complex archaeology can be,” said Assistant Professor of Archaeology Dr. Hadley Kruczek-Aaron, who is leading the school.
Junior anthropology and archaeological studies major Andrew Barkley of Norwood said this challenge has been the most surprising aspect of the experience.
“Archaeological sites can be extremely complex, Barkley said. “The methods archaeologists have adopted to solve these mysteries are equally complex.”
The experiment was the brainchild of the wealthy central New York abolitionist Gerrit Smith (1797-1874), who announced his intention to end his own land monopoly by distributing 120,000 acres of his land to African American New Yorkers in 1846. The experiment was inspired by Smith’s belief in the sinfulness of land monopolies, and his commitment to the idea that property ownership and a rural, farming lifestyle could uplift the character of the poor.
He also sought to give the recipients of the land grants access to the ballot, since at this time free African American males could not vote in New York state without owning $250 worth of property. Smith hoped that the land grants would give the African American recipients political and economic power, while also demonstrating to racist skeptics that African Americans could prosper and a compensated emancipation plan could succeed.
Though most grantees accepted the land title but chose not to settle on their land, approximately 200 joined the settlement, nicknamed “Timbucto.” These ambitious Timbucto grantees left New York City and other upstate cities and settled on their 40-acre parcels that were scattered across Essex and Franklin Counties.
The quality of the land was marginal, and most settlers did not stay long. Most 19th-century commentators viewed the experiment as a failure.
Given that sources authored by grantees and/or relating to the grantees’ experience in the Adirondacks are scarce, the Timbucto Archaeology Project offers a unique opportunity to understand the daily life of the Timbucto settlers, Dr. Kruczek-Aaron noted.
Through archaeological and documentary research, the SUNY Potsdam students are documenting the spatial layout of the farms, the agricultural and household production strategies of the different settlers, as well as their consumption patterns.
“The students are gaining hands-on experience with the many techniques archaeologists use to find sites, and they are getting the chance to dig in many of the different types of deposits archaeologists commonly encounter on historic sites,” said Dr. Kruczek-Aaron. “They are learning about how to recognize a range of 19th- and 20th-century artifacts, including ceramic tableware, glass bottles, cut nails, window glass, tin cans, lamp parts, horseshoes and even a 78-rpm record.”
With this research, project archaeologists seek to complicate the narratives generated by the 19th-century observers who were variably motivated by racism and/or the desire to protect Smith from critique by instead blaming the failure of the settlement on the grantees themselves, said Dr. Kruczek-Aaron.
In addition to learning archaeological excavation techniques, students are also participating in ongoing documentary research related to the Timbucto project, which is taking place at local archives, including the Essex County Clerk’s Office and the Essex County Historical Society in Elizabethtown.
“Students have also had the chance to take a few field trips, including one to the John Brown state historic site in Lake Placid and another to the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake. All of these activities have really helped give the students a well-rounded field experience in archaeological field methods, material culture, and Adirondack history,” said Dr. Kruczek-Aaron.
During their month-long study, students are housed at the High Peaks Hostel or camping at the Adirondack Loj Wilderness Campground. The weather has played a large role in their experiences both at the field school and at “home” on the campground.
Junior Archaeological Studies major Katie Seeber of Wheeling, WV, was not used to the constant climate changes the Adirondack region often provides and how that can impact her daily routine.
“After percolating some coffee and bajaing to the site, I usually go open my unit and look over some of yesterday’s paperwork. After determining what the plan of the day is, we get to work,” Seeber said.
“One or two partners and I work on these tasks stopping periodically for sporadic rain showers or lunch and we continue on. At some point, I have to re-apply some much needed bug spray and/or sunscreen (though that is rare) and screen the buckets of dirt we are pulling up for artifacts. It all really relies on teamwork and cooperation as a group to accomplish the main goal,” she noted.
Even the weather challenges haven’t dissuaded sophomore archaeological studies and history major Courtney Doyle of Brasher Falls from following this type of career path.
“I do plan on being an archaeologist, and taking this field school has helped me see what archaeology is really all about, which is exciting,” Doyle said. “Before graduating, I plan to get another internship on a different archaeological project so this experience will help me achieve that and understand the time, energy and thought process needed to run my own projects in the future.”
For more information about SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Anthropology, visit www.potsdam.edu/academics/AAS/Anthro/.