A colonial-era home in New Hampshire that survived the Oyster River Massacre of 1694 has been unearthed by researchers in an effort to learn more about this period of American history.
Pre-Revolutionary War colonial history is often overlooked. You learn about the Pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower, perhaps a little about Jamestown, and then it’s straight to the War for Independence and the founding of our nation.
To some, there’s enough knowledge of this era in history, but others understandably feel otherwise. After all, not a lot has survived from the 1600s, unlike the 1700s.
We know the Salem Witchcraft Trials occurred in 1692, but few structures from Old Town Salem still exist. Aside from a few markers and gravestones, you wouldn’t know the hangings even happened.
In New Hampshire, a simple marker sits at the spot of the old Durham settlement that colonists abandoned after Native Americans attacked and massacred more the 100 people and burned down half the structures.
A new Durham was founded nearby and the old one almost forgotten. But amateur archaeologist Craig Brown refused to let the settlement pass into history.
He led the first volunteer dig at the site in an effort to find artifacts giving the researchers clues about the settlement. They found clay pipe stems, pipe bowls and pieces of domestic dishes on the very first survey, resulting in further study.
According to SeaCoastNH:
Oyster River was originally one of three Dover settlements that also included Hilton Point and the current town center. Besides the ferry landing, the Oyster River location was ideal for a local sawmill, for fishing and for felling timber and salt marsh farming. A 1667 map shows the location of a number of buildings in a riverside area with a population that may have peaked at 300 settlers before the devastating 1694 Indian raid. The frontier village was difficult to defend and far from the safety of seacoast forts.
Life for early colonists was fraught with danger as they were literally encroaching on Native American territory. At some point, various tribes became frustrated with broken treaties and took out their frustrations in the form of the fiery and bloody massacre in 1694.
Brown spoke about the massacre with the publication.
The Oyster River “massacre”, he says, was planned and executed with military precision. Native Americans were fighting back against colonists who had broken treaties, destroyed their farming and hunting grounds, stolen their lands and extorted control over natives who had lived in the region for thousands of years. The Indians, Brown says, were not simply attacking British settlers under the command of French forces.
“The Indians were not just sitting around the campfire saying — let’s go kill the Anglos,” Brown says. “The Native people were intelligent. They had a legitimate beef. They tried negotiating and even taking their complaints through the English courts. Warfare was their last course of action.”
Indeed, so a French soldier led 250 Native Americans during what is known as King William’s War.
Shedding further light into the Oyster River Massacre is the excavation of a house that once belonged to Robert Burnham, who had dealings with the Native Americans in the area. He died prior to the massacre, but his home may have been spared out of respect.
We know the home was spared because there’s no sign it was burned down. Most likely, it either fell down is disrepair and became buried in the ground over time or was torn down.
Either way, excavations at the home revealed more clues, including a button found by Jordan Fansler and Caroline Aubry.
“The trowel, when it hits something metal like that, it’s different, you can tell,” Fansler said of the find. “You can hear it and I sort of picked it out and looked at it and it just happened to be a full button, which is a little bit different. Usually, you hit something and it is part of a nail, or a brick, or something like that.”
“When we find something that really puts personhood onto the site like a button like this, it’s really cool,” Aubry added.
— UNH COLA (@UNHCOLA) June 13, 2019
The team, led by Dr. Meghan Howey of the University of New Hampshire, also found a “piece of Westerwald ceramic and some British gunflint,” excellent examples of human settlement at the time.
— Kimberley Haas (@KimberleyHaas) June 12, 2019
Howey observed that the Burnham home didn’t just get lucky. Burnham worked with Native Americans and owned several Native American artifacts that have been recovered at the site.
“It’s a cool case of archaeology kind of rewriting the history,” Howey said. “It wasn’t just luck, it was probably purposeful that they were passed up when all of their neighbors were killed.”
Understanding more about relations between Native Americans and colonists in the past can help us today as conflicts, though not violent, between our two culture continue to this day. The digs have inspired renewed interest in 1600s history in New Hampshire and excavations at other sites have been started because of the Oyster River project. More light is being shed on an era shrouded in mystery so that gaps in current history books can be filled. The more we find, the more we will know.
At an archaeological site in Durham, historian Diane Fiske shows how they sift the dirt. Crews found a metal button, Westerwald ceramic, British gun flint and this bone today at the home of one of New Hampshire’s earliest settlers. pic.twitter.com/A5SV07JRMe
— Kimberley Haas (@KimberleyHaas) June 12, 2019
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