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Archeologists digging into mystery along Lake Champlain

Volunteers sought to probe Vt. past

A teacher held a casting last week of a coin found at an archeological dig in Vermont. A teacher held a casting last week of a coin found at an archeological dig in Vermont. (ALDEN PELLETT/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

ADDISON, Vt. -- Old cellar holes, now depressions in the grass, are the most prominent clues that French and later British settlers once occupied the shores of Lake Champlain.

Now archeologists are searching for more.

They have unearthed ceramic, brick, and plaster fragments; animal bones; and shards of glass that may change what they thought about the French colonists that inhabited the region between 1730 and 1759.

"The story is that French settlers lived right here on these little cellar holes and that the English in 1759, they chased everybody out and they built on top of the French cellar holes," said State Archeologist Giovanna Peebles of the Division of Historic Preservation. "We are now learning that the French didn't build cellar holes."

So the question has become: Were they built by the French or by the English?

Archeologists from Vermont and the University of Maine at Farmington hope to uncover some answers this summer. And they want your help. They have recruited school teachers and volunteers to pitch in on the three-week project, digging and sifting dirt and learning how to collect, clean, and catalog artifacts.

So far, there's no sign of the French.

In the first two days, the group gathered chips of white ceramic, small shards of window glass, and a coin so worn it is nearly impossible to tell the age. "So far everything seems to be post-1759," Peebles said.

But the Champlain Valley is teeming with history from before that period.

The land around Chimney Point State Historic Site on Lake Champlain has evidence of human habitation dating back 7,500 years. Abenaki Indians used the lake as a trading route, and after Frenchman Samuel de Champlain discovered the waterway in 1609, the French built a fort on the western side in 1734. Nine years later, French King Louis XV awarded a large tract of land in what's now Bridport and Panton to Gilles Hocquart, presiding officer of New France, to recruit tenants.

By 1753, 21 houses existed on the land.

But during the French and Indian War, the British moved in, and the French fled north to Canada, blowing up their fort and burning their houses.

After that, it is believed that Englishman John Strong built a cabin on top of an earlier French dwelling, where the archeologists are now digging.

For the first few days of the excavation, the artifacts appeared to all be English: chips of plaster, brick, and a button.

That still fascinated the teachers who were getting a hands-on field course in archeology with seminars in the afternoon.

"What's interesting to me is how history can become a narrative," said Don Taylor, 38, a teacher at Montpelier's Main Street Middle School.

"The more you want to learn, the more it becomes part of a story," making it more human and easier to understand, he said.

The 11 volunteer teachers have learned that the French lived in rustic houses with bare dirt floors and no furniture. They dressed in simple clothes, resembling sleeping garments, and traveled across the lake in canoes to Fort Frederic for bread and lard, available to them as tenants.

The group is looking for signs of greenware or brownware or other artifacts that are only French.

The research is funded by a two-year-grant from the Institute of Museum Library Services.

State park officials think the project will make the experience more valuable for visitors.

"We're trying to get people into their natural resources and into their cultural resources, and let them be inspired by them so they help us take care of them," said park s director Craig Whipple.