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Reclaiming Castine

Reclaiming Castine
Research by a UMaine archaeologist uncovers clues to the colonial and early American military history of the strategic peninsula that four nations battled to control

About the Photo: Alaric Faulkner's work in Castine was at the site of a fortification built by the British during the War of 1812, near the canal that crosses the neck of the peninsula. Called the Musquetry Redoubt, it is a boomerang-shaped earthworks about 60 feet long from which guards could fire on an enemy attempting to cross a bridge over the canal.

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It's well known that no one traveled by horse in 17th-century Acadia, the vast territory that comprises modern-day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec and much of Maine. So why have fragments of spurs been found at the site of Fort Pentagoet in Castine, Maine, on the eastern edge of Penobscot Bay?

Early Acadians are often depicted as rugged, rough-hewn pioneers, yet archaeologists working at Fort Pentagoet discovered bits of silk and satin ribbon, bands of gold braid and elaborate buckles from sword slings.

"What we have found gives us an entirely different picture of gentility as it existed on the frontiers of Acadia, very different from the kind of picture you would expect Disney to create," says Alaric Faulkner, a historical archaeologist in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maine, who began excavating at Fort Pentagoet in 1981.

"We often have images of the French in Acadia as going around dressed in buckskins and rags," he says. "But, in fact, the traders brought with them the finest fashions and fanciest sewing notions from Europe."

In the 17th century, the French decorated their clothes with ribbons, and wore spurs and gold galloons. Rapiers, which by then had become obsolete as weapons, were important items of dress. All were symbols of wealth and status, and they were adopted by every single trader in French Acadia.

Fort Pentagoet was occupied from 1634 until 1674, when a Dutch privateer sacked it. Like most frontier "forts" of that time, Pentagoet was more of a trading outpost than a military installation. It likely was built primarily for trade with the native people in the area, Faulkner says. Early written accounts refer to a number of Indian settlements "at Pentagoet." But archaeological research has shown that those settlements were actually scattered over the entire Penobscot River drainage area, so trading with the native population was much more widespread.

"More nonsense has inadvertently been written about Maine history because the geographical extent signified by place names was often far greater in the past than it is today," Faulkner says.

His work at Pentagoet revealed that commerce between coastal Acadia and Quebec also was more extensive and complex than had been thought, involving more than fish, fur and timber. Coal was a valuable commodity in those days; Faulkner's team found coal from a mine in Nova Scotia in the middle of what had been the armorer's forge in Castine.

From such small discoveries can come answers to large questions, Faulkner says.

"What was so important about Castine in the 17th century that the English and French fought back and forth for decades for this little piece of real estate? Was it control of access to natural resources, such as fur, fish, timber and coal? From what we have found, such as evidence that Castine had access to Nova Scotia's coal, the answer is partially yes. But we have also learned that access to Quebec via the Penobscot River, improbable as it seems today, was thought to be just as important at the time."

Located on a neck of land at the mouth of the Penobscot, Castine also was of great military importance.

The French at Pentagoet, Faulkner's archaeological portrait of the Acadian frontier, published in 1987, has been cited as one of the most important books on Maine history. His ability to read and speak French gives him a great advantage, if not a monopoly, in researching Acadian sites because of the historical documentation associated with them. That advantage brings with it a special responsibility to give the Acadians their due, he believes.

"History is always written by the so-called winners. But there need to be people who can provide some measure of constraint by putting the record straight. We very seldom hear about the Acadians, much less the native people who lived here with them.

"This is something I tried to remedy in my contribution to the history book Maine the Pine Tree State that is currently used in the schools," says Faulkner, who, with his wife, Gretchen, director of the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine, wrote the textbook's chapter on the Acadians.

Alaric Faulkner studies physical evidence of cultures and events in the New World since the arrival of the first Europeans. His work has by no means focused entirely on Castine, although he has returned there several times.

He and his students have added detail and context to the rich history of the area by mapping and excavating a number of significant sites. One of these was the home of Jean-Vincent de Saint-Castin, an early Acadian leader who married a native woman. Saint-Castin, for whom the town is named, was considered a hero by Acadians and Native Americans for defending their rights against the British.

Faulkner also has studied Castine archaeological sites from later times, primarily military fortifications built during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

"There is in Castine a greater density of military installations than I know of just about anywhere else," Faulkner says. "A few of them are in more or less pristine condition from an archaeological standpoint."

Knowing the precise location, size and shape of military works, and the geographic features around them, can illuminate and clarify, and, sometimes, bring into question the written accounts of events that occurred there. Such is the case with the Penobscot Expedition of July 1779, which was the worst American naval disaster prior to Pearl Harbor. The entire Massachusetts fleet of about 42 ships was trapped in the harbor by British warships while trying to drive the British out of Fort George. All but one of the American ships was scuttled. The commanders on both sides described the events in their diaries.

"But those are only word pictures," Faulkner says. "Now that we have found the actual places and put them on the landscape, all previous accounts of the Penobscot Expedition are reinformed by the geography of the events, and they give us quite a different picture of what went on."

Paul Revere commanded the artillery during the Penobscot Expedition. After the smoke had cleared — and the last ship had sunk — he was court-martialed at his own request to clear himself of culpability in the debacle.

When he returned home, reminders of where he had been were all around him. The cobblestones that paved Boston's streets were evidence of trade between that city and the coast of Maine. An excavation of Revere's own house lot revealed cobbles similar to those Faulkner discovered at the Fort Pentagoet site.

Apart from his archaeological fieldwork and scholarship, Faulkner has advanced both the science of archaeology and its practical application through the Maine Historic Archaeological Sites Inventory. The computerized database of about 3,600 sites is administered jointly by UMaine's Department of Anthropology and the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.

Twenty-seven years ago, Faulkner and the late Robert Bradley of the Historic Preservation Commission created the inventory on index cards. Faulkner converted it into an online resource in 1994. It remains one of the only databases in the nation that allows archaeologists to register sites online and to update the record from the field as they make new discoveries.

In addition to new information about an archaeological site, the inventory includes all previous research reports on the site and all relevant references, bibliographies and maps. About 40 archaeologists, many of them Faulkner's former students, routinely register sites and contribute to the database. They, along with historians, use it to plan and inform additional research.

Access to the online inventory is restricted to prevent public disclosure of the location of sites.

The database is frequently used for mapping and modeling. For example, it can instantly show differences in the settlement patterns of the French and British in the 17th century.

"We find that most of the British sites were below the 4-meter contour line above high tide, which tells us their allegiance, at least in the early years, was entirely to their ships," Faulkner says. "From the distribution of French sites, we see that they were much more successful in adopting the canoe and bateau, and going farther up the interior drainages."

The historic sites inventory has very practical as well as scholarly applications. The Maine Historic Preservation Commission uses it to help prevent highways, sewer plants and subdivisions from being built on top of archaeological sites — or at least to aid in salvaging as much information as possible when construction projects cannot be redesigned.

"We review about 3,500 federally funded and federally licensed projects a year, in addition to state projects and local projects, when asked by the municipalities," says Earle Shettleworth Jr., director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.

"One of the things we look at for each project is the potential impact on cultural resources, including historic archaeological sites. So, it is imperative that we have the most up-to-date information about those sites at our fingertips."

by Dick Broom
March-April, 2006

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