Archaeologists hope to find traces of original fort at Boonesborough

jwarren@herald-leader.comJune 20, 2012 

FORT BOONESBOROUGH STATE PARK — Archaeologists here are sweating out the early summer heat this week, digging down through layers of soil and back through 234 years of time to learn more about one of Kentucky's most historic sites.

University of Kentucky archaeologist Nancy O'Malley, who is heading the project, says the main goal is to uncover previously unknown details about the Revolutionary War siege in September 1778, when Native Americans and French-Canadian militiamen tried to overrun Fort Boonesborough.

In the process of that search, scientists also hope to turn up long-forgotten facts about the historic fort itself.

For example, are there still traces of the tunnel the invaders tried to dig under the fort during the siege? Just how big was the fort? How big were the cabins in the stockade, and where were its walls actually located?

"It's never been entirely clear exactly where the wall lines ran relative to today's modern landscape," O'Malley said Wednesday. "We have two estimates of how big the fort enclosure was. One says 125 by 250 feet, but we don't know how they actually came up with those numbers. One of the Boones said it was one-third longer than it was wide, and enclosed about an acre. If you do the math, that's about 180 by 240."

The research is being funded with a grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program, a U.S. Park Service initiative to help preserve historical battle sites. Fort Boonesborough qualifies because of the Revolutionary War siege.

Woodsmen built the fort near the Kentucky River in the spring of 1775, having carved a wilderness road all the way from Cumberland Gap. The place was named for the man who led them: Daniel Boone.

Life was tough at Fort Boonesborough. Particularly in September 1778, when about 450 Shawnees and French-Canadian troops allied with the British surrounded the fort. At one point, they tried to tunnel into the compound by digging 180 feet from the river bank. Fortunately for the settlers, the tunnel collapsed and the invaders gave up and went home after 10 days.

O'Malley's group conducted a survey of the river bank last month, using ground-penetrating radar. While they spotted an "anomaly" that suggested it might be the end of the tunnel, O'Malley said it appeared that two centuries of soil erosion have wiped out all traces of it.

Wednesday, the archaeologists were carefully excavating a small area near the site of the original fort, which is about a quarter mile from the re-created fort at the state park. O'Malley identified remains of a cabin chimney at the location in 1987. Now, team members are digging in what they think was the interior of the cabin, hoping to find artifacts and determine the dimensions of the building.

"We know the cabin was here. But whether it was located on the west wall of the fort or was inside the fort, we don't know," O'Malley said. "We'd love to get a better idea of its dimensions because we really don't know how big these cabins were."

That information could help determine how big the fort was, she said.

Researchers also are trying to pinpoint main features of the 1778 siege, such as the location where Native Americans camped during the battle. They think they know generally where the camp was but haven't found concrete evidence.

"I still think the Indian camp was up there, I just can't say it has any kind of archaeological footprint," O'Malley said.

Nevertheless, the researchers remain optimistic.

"When the project is done, I think we'll be able to say some things about the siege, and place it on the ground in a way that maybe it never has been before," O'Malley said.

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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