Finding Fort Congaree II

Sometimes history is right in the backyard. Sometimes it’s right out front. Sometimes, you discover, it’s buried under both.

That’s how it happened for one Cayce, S.C., couple when a team headed by University of South Carolina archaeology professor and state archaeologist Jonathan Leader approached them this summer wanting permission to dig up their front yard.

Historian and Carolina alumnus Dean Hunt had discovered plats suggesting their address as the site of an 18th century fort near the Congaree River. He, Leader and David Brinkman — another historian who has worked with Leader on other prominent projects — were now hoping to pinpoint the fort's precise location. 

“We have a history of looking for things that are missing, nobody knows where they are, and then finding them, but often not in the place people think they are,” says Leader.

This particular fort, which would have been visited by well-known Revolutionary War figures such as Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens and Isaac Huger, was small, between 150 and 200 square feet, but served as the base for a garrison of approximately 100 people around the time of the French and Indian Wars and after.

Records also indicate the onetime presence of barracks, possibly officers’ quarters and potentially an armory — in other words, plenty of features to locate, document and most importantly, learn from.

After studying period plats and overlaying a variety of different maps, Leader and Brinkman were fairly confident the long-lost fort, now referred to as Fort Congaree II (to distinguish it from another fort nearby), had existed on the present-day site of a small suburban home. They contacted the landowners and then approached the famous Explorers Club of New York City, who gave them a flag designating the dig as an official Explorers Club project.

According to Leader, the landowners were excited to learn that at the remnants of a historically significant structure that, as Leaders says, “had fallen off the map about 100 years ago,” might exist under their lawn.

“We had to get consent from the property owners, and it had to be informed consent,” says Brinkman. “Once that was done, we were narrowly permitted to do work in the front yard. We had to peel back the dirt and sod from the whole front yard, then step back and see what we had.”

What they had, in fact, was a treasure trove of information, but this was no relic hunt. This was a classic community archaeology project, one that brought together almost 40 volunteers from three states.

In addition to Brinkman, an IT specialist at Intel who was responsible for the major computer mapping, retirees in their 80s pitched in at the site, as did middle- and high school students, housewives and househusbands, a Boy Scout and others. Leader educated each volunteer in the proper technique and protocol of unearthing and documenting a site.

“Archaeology is not simply digging a hole,” Leader says. “Archaeology is a very careful, planned process of attack to make sure that you get the information you need, doing the least amount of damage to the resource, if it is, indeed, there. Archaeology is looking at the context of the artifact in as many ways as possible to give you the greatest amount of information about the people who had contact with it in a particular time period.”

In this case, that meant finding, among other things, rotted or burned wood and nails that would indicate the onetime presence of a tree trunk palisade, and discolorations in the soil that would indicate the location of an adjacent trench.

“What we were looking for, very specifically, were things that said ‘fort.’ That’s not guns, that’s not bullets, that’s not buttons — those things could be from anywhere. It had to be trench, palisade, entrenchments, bastions, in other words, architecture of a fort.”

And that’s what they found, though to the untrained eye it might not have looked like it.

“This wasn’t standard archaeology; it was trowel work,” says Leader. “So much of (the fort) had been scraped off that we were actually microtoming the earth to find the remains. You weren’t going down and find the palisade in pristine form with a four-foot trench. We were lucky to catch any of it. We were lucky.”

After photographing and documenting the artifacts and compiling the data, the team filled in their holes, which measured about one-square meter each, and laid new sod across the lawn. To look at the property now, no one would ever know that only a few months ago history had been unearthed there.

But that doesn’t mean Leader, Brinkman and their team of volunteers are finished exploring. If the landowners consent, they might also want to see what secrets can be revealed elsewhere on the property.

“The next thing is to do more work in the backyard and adjacent lots to see if we can identify the other two bastions, see if they exist,” says Leader. “Then we’ll have an idea where the barracks may have been and start putting together the other pieces of the fort. There’s always more work to be done.”

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