The Commonwealth's Archaeology Program investigates Fort Hunter

Come visit us.
Our project is part of Pennsylvania’s “Archaeology Month” celebration in September and October. The excavations at Fort Hunter are open to the public, weekdays from 9:00 am until 4:00 pm, weather permitting.

Visitors at the Fort Hunter site. During Archaeology Month 2012, archaeologists from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) will investigate one of "history's mysteries” - where is the "fort" at Fort Hunter? Beginning on September 12, PHMC archaeologists will conduct an archaeological testing program at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park, located five miles north of the city.

The goal is to locate the remains of the French and Indian War era supply fort occupied between 1757 and 1763. This will mark the seventh season of this project and numerous fort period artifacts and features have been recovered - some of these may be part of the fort occupation. The stockade and the blockhouse, however, have yet to be located as our excavations continue.

The goals for this year’s investigation.
This year there are two main objectives. We will continue to search for the fort’s stockade line by excavating a series of trenches mainly in the yard around the mansion. Of considerable interest, is a new discovery that Jim Herbstritt made while examining aerial photographs of the property. He noticed several patches of grass across Front Street and east of the barn that appeared to be different in color and contrast than that of the surrounding vegetation.

The anomaly seems to outline an L-shaped area about 100 feet by 100 feet long reminiscent of a buried foundation wall or some other architecturally related feature. There are no known records of buildings on this part of the Fort Hunter Park property therefore we are speculating that it possibly marks the location of the former “old barracks”. Several trenches will be placed across this feature to determine its identity, function and age.

The second area of interest this season will be the north side yard of the mansion where a waterwell was discovered. It is stone lined and located adjacent to the 1805 ice house. Again, there are no historic maps of the well’s existence and its placement suggests that it is older than the ice house and therefore dates earlier than 1805. The top of the well contains 19th century artifacts but the bottom could contain very important artifacts from the fort period occupation.

Excavating a waterwell is a complicated undertaking that will require several seasons to complete. This year our hope is to resolve the chronological relationship between the well and the ice house. We will also excavate the soils surrounding the well which will provide a better idea as to the nature of the well’s construction. The 2008 excavations revealed that the upper 12 inches of the site’s stratigraphy contain prehistoric materials as old as 9,000 years and these need to be archaeologically recovered prior to the well’s excavation.

Fort Hunter was part of a chain of three forts built along the Susquehanna River by the British in the mid-1750s at the outset of the French and Indian War.  The largest of these was Fort Augusta, located at the confluence of the North and West braches of the Susquehanna River at Sunbury.  This was a massive military installation, with earthen walls over 700 feet long.  The second fort was located at Halifax, about 20 miles north of Harrisburg. Based on historic documents, Fort Halifax was square with wooden walls or a stockade that measured 160 feet on a side.

Fort Hunter was designed as a supply fort.  However, there are no verifiable accounts that anything more than a blockhouse was actually ever built, and the exact location of a stockaded fort has long been debated. There is a reference that the logs for the stockade had been cut, but there are no accounts of the posts ever being erected.  The site is currently being interpreted as a 19th-20th- century manor and farm.  Archaeological investigations conducted west of the mansion in the 1960s were negative.

Map of historic fortsThanks to a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Fort Hunter Mansion first contracted with Enviroscan, Inc. of Lancaster to conduct a remote sensing survey of the area where the fort supposedly existed.  Enviroscan conducted a magnetic and ground penetrating radar survey that located subsurface remains or "anomalies" that may have represented evidence of the fort.  However, these required an archaeological excavation to determine their exact nature.  CAP archaeologists, assisted by a loyal group of volunteers and students, began investigations to verify or "ground truth" these remains in early September and worked for five weeks.  The site was open to the public, and thousands of visitors viewed the excavation and interacted with the archaeologists.

Stockade postsInitially, none of the anomalies test by CAP turned out to represent fort features.  The field strategy was revised, and historic documents were used to re-prioritize the excavations.  There are several references to the "commanding view of the Susquehanna River" from the fort.  The current garden area, located northeast of the mansion, certainly fits this description.  When this area was tested, amazingly, thousands of artifacts from the 1700s were recovered.  These included nails, gunflints, in both English and French flint, pottery such as delft ware, scratch blue stone ware, locally-made redware, and military buttons.   Remains of posts and other subsurface features that probably represent parts of the fort were also found.  Unfortunately, the excavation was only about 30 feet by 20 feet, and CAP was not able to exactly determine the bounds of the fort.