In the town of Mount Kisco in Westchester County, there is a small graveyard known as the St. George’s/St. Mark’s Cemetery, after the two successive Episcopal churches that once stood there. Established in the 1760s, the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its role in the American Revolution. In the late 18th century, the small wooden St. George’s Church was one of the few man-made structures in a sparsely populated area that was transformed into a hostile wilderness with the onset of war.
Accordingly, the church was used by American, British, and French armies as a landmark in their journeys through Westchester County. General Washington’s troops retreated to the church to tend to the wounded and bury the slain after the Battle of White Plains in 1776; Colonel Tarleton brought his army to the church on the eve of the Burning of Bedford in 1779; and in the summer of 1781 the Comte de Rochambeau’s army camped near the church prior to the meeting with Washington that would ultimately bring their combined forces to victory at Yorktown.
In September 2013, the Louis A. Brennan Lower Hudson Chapter of the New York State Archaeological Association began an archaeological excavation of the site to investigate the location, nature, and use of the 18th-century St. George’s Church (also known as the North Castle Church). Laurie Kimsal, a local resident and trustee of the Lower Hudson Chapter, and I have acted as co-directors of the excavation. Our team includes both professional and avocational archaeologists, history buffs and metal detectorists, along with adults and children of all ages. All of them have made valuable contributions to the work we have done this field season.
Our goal in excavating the St. George’s Church is not simply to gain insight into the more colorful chapters of its history (although evidence of the Revolutionary War occupation of the site was anticipated, and discovered, with great excitement). We would also like to understand how the church was used on a daily basis and how its parishioners’ lives shaped, and were shaped by, the creation of the modern world. As part of the historical research leading up to the excavation, I investigated about half of the approximately 400 people buried at the site.
Buried between 1773 and 1940, their numbers included farmers, doctors, carpenters, housewives, and factory workers; soldiers and veterans of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War; criminals and prison guards; the physically and mentally ill; one slaveowner; and men, women, and children ranging in age from a few days old to over 90. Their lives constituted the even terrain of everyday existence in the 18th and 19th centuries against which the peaks and valleys of great events such as the Revolutionary War were formed. It would be impossible to understand one part of this history without the other.
A significant amount of information on these people is preserved in documentary sources. However, these sources do not tell the whole story, and the story they do tell can be painfully skewed. For instance, it was relatively easy to research the life of Dr. Enoch Greene, who was born in Weare, New Hampshire, in 1820 and was buried in the cemetery in 1851. Though only 30 when he died, he had held several prominent positions, including medical director of Sing Sing Prison, superintendent of hospitals on Ward’s Island, and chief physician at Kings County Hospital. Dr. Greene’s education, from primary school to his graduation from the Medical University of New York (now NYU School of Medicine) is described in The History of Weare, New Hampshire, and the story of how he rescued two dozen child patients from a fire on Ward’s Island is vividly recounted in the 1861 Annual Reports of the Commissioners of Emigration of the State of New York. Details on the life of Dr. Greene’s wife Phebe are more elusive. From her husband’s biography in The History of Weare we learn that her maiden name was Phebe Hoag Chase, that she was born in Weare in 1810, and that she came from a Quaker family. But perhaps the most evocative testament to Phebe’s life comes in the form of a sampler stitched by her thirteen-year-old first cousin, Mary Gove, in 1827. The sampler, which also includes a section of watercolor painting, credits “P. H. Chase, Instructress.”
As a document, the sampler is closer to the realm of archaeology than that of history. It is not simply a representation, but a piece of the physical material of Phebe Greene’s life, and it speaks to us in a different way than historical documents do, embodying its meaning rather than stating it directly. This divide between historical documents and material culture is a reflection of the divide between men’s and women’s worlds in the 18th and 19th centuries.
With a few exceptions (notably the diary of midwife Martha Ballard, described and interpreted by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Midwife’s Tale) ordinary women’s voices have not been recorded, and the details of their daily lives are marginalized in traditional historical accounts. Other marginalized groups include minorities, slaves, immigrants, the poor, and children – but all ordinary people are neglected by the historical record in relation to famous figures such as Washington and Lincoln. This is simply the nature of American history as it has been written since the beginning – but fortunately for us, the nature of archaeology lies in its ability to uncover hidden worlds, whether they have been concealed by tons of molten ash or the prejudices of the historical record.
Accordingly, while we have all been thrilled by the discoveries of a French gunflint, a bronze buckle from a military bag, and a musket ball within the walls of the cemetery, my favorite artifact from the excavation is of a much more quotidian nature. About three weeks into the dig, Susan Ross, the director of a local nursery school who helped spearhead the project to restore the cemetery that began in early 2013, noted that a stone excavated from among some large quarried boulders felt surprisingly “right” in her hand. Upon closer inspection, Carol Weed, an archaeologist with VHB, Inc. and an essential member of the excavation team, identified it as a hand pestle. Though inconspicuous at first glance, the stone has distinct indentations and a pitted end that testify to its use as a tool. It is my favorite for many reasons. First of all, the pestle represents the power of archaeology to reveal the inner workings of daily life; as an everyday part of a world that is gone, its very ordinariness makes it special today.
On the other hand, the pestle also represents the challenges presented by archaeological evidence. As soon as it was uncovered, everyone wanted to know how old it was and whether it was used by Europeans or American Indians. Unfortunately, answers are not forthcoming. Many Native technologies were adopted by Europeans in the Colonial Era, so while pestles of this type were originally used by Indians, this particular one could have been created and used by the site’s European inhabitants. As for its age, stone artifacts are notoriously difficult to date; because they are inorganic, carbon dating is useless (unless there is some organic material preserved on them), and because the same tool-making technology was often used for generations, it’s impossible to fit them into any chronology more precise than a few hundred years. Stratigraphy, or the study of layers of earth that have been deposited in a sequential fashion, doesn’t help either; the pestle was found three inches below the ground surface, at the same level as 19th-century glass, 18th-century nails, and modern debris.
To determine the origin of the pestle, we may need to look beyond its context within the site to the site itself. As Laurie pointed out, the pestle, as a domestic artifact, is inconsistent with the nature of the site, which was religious and, temporarily, military. While the pestle might make sense within the context of a European house, it seems out of place in a churchyard, especially given the other artifacts we have found, which are mainly architectural (e.g. nails, window glass, brick, painted plaster, slate tiles, mortar). The pestle makes more sense as an artifact of an American Indians living in the area of the churchyard prior to the 18th century.
While there is no evidence of such an Indian presence aside from accounts made long after the fact, the characteristics of the site – an elevated area at the edge of a lake (drained in the 1880s) – are consistent with those of known Indian sites in the Lower Hudson Valley. So while the pestle raises some tantalizing questions, it will require more investigation to find the answers.
Archaeology is a constant dialogue between theories and the reality of the evidence as it arises. Throughout five weeks of excavation, we have seen theories built up, knocked down, and replaced by new ones, only to be knocked down again. Any conclusions we make in the months of analysis that are to follow are likely to be irrevocably altered by what we find in the spring. We hope that this constant cycle of building and rebuilding brings us a bit closer to the truth than we were before. At the very least, archaeology provides a body of evidence and ideas that supplement and in many cases challenge history as it has been traditionally written.
Photos: Above, excavators John, Gretchen, and Bill working on the unit where the hand pestle was found; middle, St. Mark’s Church pictured between 1890-1910; and below, the hand pestle.