Archaeology >  PHMC Archaeology  > Fort Hunter > Digging Fort Hunter's History
Hands-On History: Digging Fort Hunter's History

By James T. Herbstritt, Kurt W. Carr, and Janet R. Johnson
Photos by PHMC/Don Giles

This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXVII, Number 4 - Fall 2011

Archaeologists uncovered an unusual cobble layer measuring four feet wide at Harrisburg's Fort Hunter Mansion and Park during excavations in 2010.

Over the past five years, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) archaeologists conducted investigations at Fort Hunter, the site of a French and Indian War fortification located six miles north of Harrisburg. Hundreds of fort period (1756–1763) artifacts have been recovered along with the identification of a water well, bake oven, and the remains of a road or defensive ditch. In addition, thousands of visitors have been able to see archaeologists at work and better appreciate the contributions of archaeology to the Keystone State's heritage. To date, however, the exact location of the fort remains elusive.

Fort Hunter Mansion and Park, on the eastern bank of the Susquehanna River, is owned by Dauphin County which interprets the property as a nineteenth- and early twentieth-century manor and agricultural complex. Park staff members are interested in expanding the historic site's interpretation to include a French and Indian War theme. PHMC possesses a long history of investigating forts of this period and was interested in continuing this research. A partnership was developed and during Archaeology Month (October) in 2006 an investigation commenced to search for the 1750s structure.

Fort Hunter, along with Fort Augusta and Fort Halifax, was part of a chain of three forts erected along the Susquehanna River by the British in the mid-1750s at the onset of the French and Indian War. The British initially believed the upper Susquehanna Valley would be a strategic center during the impending conflict. Fort Augusta, the largest, was built at the confluence of the North and West Branches of the Susquehanna River at Sunbury. It was also the largest British fort built in Pennsylvania with earthen walls more than two hundred feet long topped by wooden fortifications. The fort garrisoned as many as four hundred troops and served as base for the Third Battalion, Pennsylvania Regiment of Foot, the Augusta Regiment, under the command of Colonel William Clapham (1722–1763). During the French and Indian War, the fort provided patrols along the North and West Branches of the Susquehanna River and a haven for settlers during Indian incursions into the region. The serious fighting took place in the Ohio Valley, however, and Fort Augusta was not involved in an armed conflict.

Fort Hunter began its military history as a stockaded gristmill owned by Samuel Hunter who lived at the mouth of Fishing Creek. It was initially part of a series of defensive forts, blockhouses, and fortified dwellings built in the Great Valley in response to an Indian attack at Penn's Creek in October 1755. The mill's exact location is unknown, but it is believed to have been situated five hundred feet east of the mouth of Fishing Creek. By January 1756, orders had been issued to either complete construction of the fort at "Hunters Mill" or construct an entirely new fortification in a more suitable location. Governor Robert Hunter Morris (1700–1764) ordered Colonel Clapham in April to rendezvous his newly formed regiment at this location and the garrison was placed under his command.

Archaeological feature identified as a bake oven at Fort Hunter in 2007.

By August 1757, there was a reference that the fort "holds a commanding view of the river" and it is assumed that Fort Hunter was by then located on the south side of the confluence of Fishing Creek and the Susquehanna River. Based on historic documents, archaeologists believe it contained a block house and that it was surrounded by a defensive ditch. There are references to a stockade (wooden posts erected in the ground to form a wall) and officers' quarters. Fort Halifax, located along the Susquehanna River just north of Halifax, also served as a supply depot for Fort Augusta and was 160 feet wide with bastions. Fort Hunter could be similar in construction but archaeologists have yet to find drawings or accurate maps.

Documentation regarding the physical description of Fort Hunter was discovered in a letter written by the Reverend John Elder (1706–1792), pastor of Harrisburg's Paxtang Presbyterian Church, to Governor James Hamilton (circa 1710–1783), dated October 25, 1763, in which he discussed Pontiac's War and the re-garrisoning of Fort Hunter. "The Entrenchment thrown up there in the beginning of the late troubles [in 1755], is now level with the ground," Elder wrote, irrefutably validating for archaeologists and historians that remnants of the fort, such as interior buildings, stockade, and entrenchments, had fallen into disrepair.

The property was purchased in 1787 by Archibald McAllister (1756–1831) who built a handsome stone mansion in 1814, which is open to visitors. Over the next 166 years the property went through a succession of owners, with additional buildings and structures being added to the landscape. In 1980, the property was transferred by the Fort Hunter Foundation to Dauphin County and it is administered by the Dauphin County Parks and Recreation Department in association with Fort Hunter's board of trustees and the Friends of Fort Hunter.

The first step in finding the site of the fort was to conduct a geophysical (magnetometer and ground penetrating radar) survey of the mansion's grounds.Undertaken by Timothy D. Bechtel, principal geophysicist of Enviroscan, Lancaster, the survey identified several interesting subsurface anomalies. To locate fortrelated features, the site was initially investigated with three-foot wide trenches excavated by hand, followed by block excavations up to thirty feet wide.

Archaeologists and volunteers excavate a prehistoric living floor. A corner of Fort Hunter's reconstructed icehouse and stone-capped water well are to the far right and center.

Numerous Native American artifacts—dating mainly to the Archaic and Middle Woodland periods between nine thousand and fifteen hundred years ago—were recovered. These consisted of stone tools, spear points, cord-marked pottery, and large cooking hearths. Because there has been minimal flooding at the mansion site, resulting in little soil deposition, the nine thousand years of prehistory have been compressed into less than three feet of soil, making it difficult for archaeologists to separate the various Native American occupations from one another.

PHMC archaeologists found intact pits of the site's fort occupation period immediately above the remnant middens, or trash dumps, of previous occupants. These areas contained typical military artifacts such as gunflints, musket balls, broken glass and glazed ceramics, white clay pipe fragments, and a variety of metal objects, many of which can be dated to the mid-eighteenth century. One of the pits, black in color and oval in shape, contained charred wood, ash, and reddened soil interpreted as the burned remains of a bake oven. The burned cow, sheep, pig, and horse bones associated with this feature suggest the diet of soldiers.

A large icehouse with walls measuring two feet thick is situated less than ten feet north of the bake oven. Letters written by McAllister date this structure to the early 1790s. A stone-lined well, discovered in 2008, and the southwest corner of the icehouse partially overlaps the builder's trench of this well, indicating the well predates the icehouse. Forts in Pennsylvania of this period have wells inside their walls and this could have been the water source for Fort Hunter. It has been excavated to approximately eight feet, but more work will be required to determine the exact date of this feature.

During the 2010 field season, archaeologists and volunteers dug an east-west trench through the mansion's front yard. The soils contained a variety of prehistoric artifacts, and archaeologists initially believed the soil layering was the result of a series of flood deposits. However, historic artifacts were also recovered from these layers and, at a depth of three feet, rusted metal objects and a four-foot wide cobble layer were uncovered. Close examination of the soil profile revealed that a feature, measuring twenty feet in diameter, had been excavated to a depth of three feet in this area. The feature remained open for some time and was later backfilled during historic times using the same soil.

Partially excavated water well at Fort Hunter site in 2010, exposing stonelined shaft containing layered soil and shell and ash deposits.

Several hypotheses have been developed to explain this complex stratigraphy and the cobble layer: an ancient roadbed leading into the fort, a ditch-like entrenchment surrounding the outside of the fort as referenced in military documents, or a natural land surface modified to its current condition by old flood activities. Whatever the case, archaeologists are returning to Fort Hunter this autumn to further investigate and interpret this area.

Archaeology conducted by The State Museum at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park will aid in interpreting the role of the fort and its occupants during this significant period in Pennsylvania history. Because the historic record is often incomplete or biased, this investigation will enhance our understanding of frontier life in these forts and provide a more complete interpretation of their role in protecting the Commonwealth. In addition, archaeologists hope the thousands of visitors to the site each year come away with a better appreciation for the archaeological record and the tangible remains of our heritage. Please join us this fall as we dig the well to a depth of twelve feet and continue to investigate the road or ditch in the front lawn. This just might very well be the year we uncover the outline of the fort!


Hands-On History illustrates the importance of applied history and PHMC's commitment to educating staff, volunteers, students and teachers, and the general public about traditional skills and crafts, often in partnership with other state agencies, educational institutions, cultural organizations, libraries, and museums and historic sites.


James T. Herbstritt is a historic preservation specialist with the Section of Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, administered by PHMC.

Kurt W. Carr, Ph.D., has been with PHMC since 1980. He worked in PHMC's Bureau for Historic Preservation for twenty-seven years and joined the staff of The State Museum as senior curator of archaeology in 2007.

Janet R. Johnson has been employed by The State Museum's Section of Archaeology for eighteen years. Her responsibilities as curator include preparation of exhibits, research assistance, public outreach and education, and management of PHMC's collection of archaeological artifacts.