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Digging into the Oyster River Massacre

Pipe stems found at Bickford site/ SeacaostNH.com and NHDHREXCLUSIVE TO SEACOASTNH.com

Archeology needs you. Why waste our summer tanning at the beach when you dig up historic treasures in the hot sun? Applicants are continually need for field school volunteers who want to search for clues to the earliest Europeans who settled the Seacoast and the Native Americans who beat them by 12,000 years.

 

 

 

TO VOLUNTEER see info at the end of this article

NH ARCHEOLOGISTS SEARCH FOR DURHAM PLANTATION

Craig Brown thinks he has finally located Durham, NH. Now he wants your help digging it up. Brown is not talking about Main Street, home to frats, shops, bars and the University of New Hampshire. He’s looking for the original Durham, the ancient English settlement founded along the Oyster River in the 1630s.

Archeologist Craig Brown / SeacoastNH.com/ Craig Brown photoThis summer Brown is project director of the first in a series of "digs" at Durham Point. He is looking for volunteers to join an archaeological field school in June and July. Researchers will search for the garrison that Thomas Bickford successfully defended against an Indian attack in 1694. By changing clothes, using different voices and moving from window to window, Bickford was able to convince his attackers that the garrison was well defended. Other members of the village did not fare so well; 94 Oyster River settlers were brutally killed and others taken captive.

This was not, Craig Brown says, an "accidental" attack as local historians have often suggested. 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."

Brown hopes to prove that the sunken earth at the "dig" site is the cellar hole of Thomas Bickford’s garrison. Bickford bought the property from Darby Field, who came to the region with Rev. Wheelwright, who founded another colonial "plantation" at Exeter. Darby Field operated a tavern here at a ferry crossing point on the Oyster River as early as 1638. Field is best known in New Hampshire history as the first European to successfully summit the White Mountains, then called the Crystal Hils.

"The Fields-Bickford building was torn down in 1830," Brown says. "So we’re pretty sure we know where it is."

In April an advance team including NH state archaeologist Dick Boisvert visited the site. They found clay pipe stems, pipe bowls and pieces of domestic dishes dating from the 1630s to the 1680s. Brown and Boisvert hope to attract and train a crew of volunteers under the auspices of SCRAP – the NH State Conservation and Research Archaeology Program. A two-week digging session is planned in June and another in July. Volunteers get training, certification, meals, blisters and a warm glow of satisfaction.

Oyster River from 1660s era piscataqua Region map / SeacoastNh.com fourtesy NHDHRSurprisingly little is known about the early days of New Hampshire. Portsmouth (at Strawbery Banke), Exeter, Hampton and Dover were founded in the 1630s. 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. Brown hopes that the Oyster River Environs Project will unlock secrets year after year about the culture clash between natives and Europeans. The ultimate goal is to locate and map the 17th century settlement. Combined with a decade of archaeological work ongoing in South Berwick and elsewhere, a clearer picture of this mysterious founding century will evolve.

It is painstakingly slow science that can take decades, even lifetimes, to complete. Volunteers will begin digging "test pits" roughly one meter square, moving methodically down through layers of dirt and time. New digital tracking allows sites to be mapped by satellite within a few centimeters. Four-weeks of summer digging is followed by months of cataloging and years of analysis. The work has to be precise, because it can only be done once.

"Archaeology is destructive," Craig Brown reminds us. "Once you dig something out of the ground, you can’t do it again. Most of the data comes from the excavating process itself."

Even though the process has just begun, Brown’s search for the lost origins of Durham has already changed his life. It began, he remembers clearly, early on New Year’s Day in 1995. Then in his twenties, Brown was a successful accountant, a purchasing agent, to be precise, for a company that makes snack food processing machines. He was on his way home from a party at the UNH campus when he crossed the little bridge on Route 108. A history buff, Brown stopped the car and stepped into the chilly darkness to read the historic marker posted there.

"I was blown away," he recalls at the brief description of the Oyster River Massacre. "In school you learn about the Pilgrims, and then the next thing you know, it’s the Revolution. But I didn’t know anything about the exciting early history of my own state of New Hampshire."

Determined to get both sides of the story, Brown spent three years writing a detailed history of the 1694 massacre at the Oyster River. He became an assistant and later director of the Durham Historical Society. He quit his accounting job, became a stay-at-home dad, moved from Concord to Wells, Maine. In 2002 he returned to school, this time for a degree in Anthropology from UNH. He hopes to get his master’s degree at Boston University. Nothing has been the same since he spotted that sign on the Oyster River. With any luck, and a great deal of work, Craig Brown may someday balance the scales. Soon he may get to change history, just as history has changed him.

Copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson, All rights reserved.

EMAIL Dick Booisvert at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

TO SIGN UP for the SCRAP Oyster River Field School contact Richard A. Boisvert, NH Division of Historical Resources, at 603-271-6433. Sessions run June 18 – 29 and July 2 – 13. FOR FURTHER READING: "The Great Massacre of 1694" by Craig J. Brown, Historical New Hampshire, Volume 53, Nos 3 & 4, Fall/Winter 1998. 

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014 
 
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