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History by the Yard: Neighbors Dig Archeology : New York: Ft. Edwards emerges from its obscure past as lawns and gardens sprout clues from 18th Century. Search is now on for a soldiers' graveyard.

August 20, 1995|CHRIS CAROLA | ASSOCIATED PRESS

FT. EDWARD, N.Y. — A dozen strangers are traipsing through JoAnne Fuller's yard, digging deep holes and leaving piles of dirt nearby. Next door, two Port-A-Potties stand like sentinels on Bruce Walker's property as another group hunkers down in a line of trenches resembling neat foxholes.

A homeowner's worst nightmare? Hardly.

"It's wonderful," said Fuller.

"It's a joy," said Walker.

Fuller, Walker and a couple of neighbors in this village on the Hudson River have sacrificed their lawns and yards for the sake of history. A group of 30 students, staff and volunteers are participating in a one-month archeology field course to search for traces of old Ft. Edward, one of North America's largest military installations of the 18th Century.

The remains of the fort are believed to lie under a three-block area of single-family homes on tidy streets that end at the eastern bank of the upper Hudson, 40 miles north of Albany.

In the mid-1750s, the British built Ft. Edward as a staging area and supply base for military forays against the French and their Indian allies to the north. Some 16,000 British and American Colonial troops were billeted here in the late 1750s, a time when only Philadelphia had a higher population in Colonial America.

"This would represent a huge, semi-permanent encampment where the men were here for many years, and where we have a larger buildup of men for a longer period of time than almost anyplace else," said archeologist David Starbuck, who is directing the project for Adirondack Community College.

Ft. Edward is the last of the great French and Indian War forts to undergo an archeological excavation, Starbuck said. Other key forts--Ticonderoga, Niagara and William Henry in Lake George--were excavated or reconstructed as tourist attractions years ago.

"History has said a lot about the events here, but archeology hasn't been used very much to add to the story," Starbuck said on a recent hot summer morning.

Starbuck hopes the Ft. Edward dig will focus attention on the French and Indian War, a conflict known in Europe as the Seven Years War. The war is given little attention in classrooms, a treatment that doesn't do justice to its importance in American history, Starbuck said.

"It's the first important step toward the Revolution, because you've got all these Colonials from different colonies who never really interacted before," Starbuck said. "They're thrown together here, they're forced to fight, thousands of them, against a common enemy, the French."

For the last four years, Starbuck and groups of amateur archeologists have been excavating nearby Rogers Island. Named after the leader of Rogers Rangers, an American outfit of frontiersmen skilled in Indian-style warfare, the island has yielded a trove of artifacts that give scholars a rare glimpse into pre-Revolutionary military life.

This summer, Starbuck's project has turned its attention to Ft. Edward itself. The fort saw some use during the Revolutionary War but was abandoned afterward and left to deteriorate. The village of Ft. Edward grew up on the site, and 12 homes stand on what was once the interior of the seven-acre fortress.

In Ft. Edward, history lies underfoot--literally.

"It's under their houses, it's under their yards, and they have never let people come in with shovels to destroy what they own," Starbuck said.

This is the first time anyone has been allowed to conduct an archeological dig in the neighborhood, Starbuck said. The driving force on Rogers Island and now in Ft. Edward is JoAnne and Richard Fuller, a couple of French and Indian War buffs who sold their modern ranch home so they could buy a 100-year-old house on the fort site.

" 'What are we doing this for? Are you crazy?' And those are some of the nice things people said," JoAnne Fuller said.

Over the years, she has collected nearly 200 copies of diaries and journals of men who fought in the war, many of whom spent some time at Ft. Edward. Living where they lived and reading their words about 18th-Century military life--boredom, bad food and bugs--reveal that a soldier's lot hasn't changed much in 200-plus years, she said.

"You definitely get a feel for what they must have been going through at that time. It brings history alive," she said.

Most archeological digs take place in jungles or deserts or other remote locales. The Ft. Edward project is smack-dab in the middle of a neighborhood. Residents and the occasional tourist drop by, with JoAnne Fuller happily acting as tour guide. It takes some getting used to, Starbuck said.

"To be digging in between everybody's houses, to be destroying their lawns, that is different," he said.

JoAnne Fuller had no qualms about surrendering her lawn to the archeologists' shovels and spades. Her garden is another matter.

"That is off-limits," she said with a laugh.

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