In the summer of 1651, at the direction of Peter Stuyvesant, better known in history books for his leadership in the development of New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island, some 200 Dutch soldiers and sailors became the first Europeans to make New Castle their home.
It wasn’t the first Dutch settlement in Delaware — Zwaanendael, at Lewes, had come and gone some 20 years before. But for 12 of the next 13 years, until the English took over in 1664, the settlement on the Delaware River would be controlled by Dutch interests.
Today, in a town where historic markers seem to appear on most every corner, there is no above-ground evidence of the Dutch primacy. Even the noted Dutch House, now a museum, wasn’t built until the late 1690s.
Fort Casimir dig: Video feature and interview excerpts.
Fort Casimir dig: Video feature and interview excerpts.
Last week, near the corner of Second and Chestnut streets, not far from the ferry terminal that was abandoned when the Delaware Memorial Bridge was completed in 1951, archaeologists dug a trench 50 feet long and resumed their search for the long-lost Fort Casimir, the first and largest structure built during the period of Dutch control.
According to various accounts, the wooden fort had a relatively short life. Frequent repairs were required and, in 1671, the English commandant in New Castle recommended that it be dismantled and be replaced by a blockhouse.
Behind the fort, the Dutch built a small village of small wooden houses and shops, including a grist mill, a brick kiln, a school and a courthouse where cases were decided by the local sheriff, historians Barbara E. Benson and Carol E. Hoffecker wrote in “New Castle, Delaware: A Walk Through Time.” All evidence of the village has vanished, they wrote.
At the time of its construction, Fort Casimir would have been situated quite close to the river, as early drawings indicated that a ramp or elongated pier extended from its front gate to the river to facilitate offloading of passengers, livestock and supplies. But at least 100 years of filling in the riverfront area have created a significant distance between the river and the probable site of the fort, said archaeologist Craig Lukezic of the state Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, who was in charge of last week’s dig.
The crew included preservation experts from John Milner Associates of West Chester, Pa., University of Delaware anthropology professor Lu Ann De Cunzo, and more than a half-dozen volunteers from the Archaeological Society of Delaware.
With a budget of only $10,000 for the projection, “we had to rely on the volunteers,” said Lukezic, who is also the society’s president.
They dug their trench, with help from a City of New Castle backhoe, in an area where archaeologists Ned Heite, a former state archivist, and his wife, Louise, in a dig of their own in 1986, discovered what they said were Dutch tobacco pipes, bricks and earthenware. “Fort Casimir has been found,” Louise Heite wrote in the report of their investigation.
The mission last week, according to Lukezic and Wade Catts, a Milner archaeologist who observed some of the Heites’ dig in 1986, was to expand on the previous research and attempt to further define the boundaries of the fort, which, according to drawings from the era, was a little more than 200 feet long.
The trench, about four feet wide and four feet deep in most sections, was dug perpendicular to the presumed fortification line, based on the Heites’ work in 1986, Lukezic said.
Much like the rings on a tree help tell its age, the layers of soil on the walls of the trench helped tell the history of the site. Under the grass and topsoil was a layer of crumbling asphalt, a remnant of the paving from the ferry terminal. Then came another thick layer of soil, most likely fill deposited before the ferry terminal was built. Next, reaching nearly four feet down, came a layer of gray-black ash and cinder, described by the archaeologists as “late Victorian fill,” most likely deposited between roughly 1880 and 1920. At the bottom of the trench was a layer of sand, with water bubbling through on the end closest to the river, reinforcing the theory that, some 200 years ago, the riverbed extended at least this far inland.
Peter Leach, a geo-archaeologist with Milner Associates, has been using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) on the soil at the Fort Casimir site and around the George Read House, a couple of blocks south on The Strand. GPR, he said, sends a signal whenever it detects a change in the composition of the soil below.
With the hundreds of GPR probes, “we’re starting to get a picture of what’s going on in the town,” he said. “I should be able to take these [soil samples], compare them to the GPR and get a much more accurate view of what’s going on here.”
Since the fort was made of wood and was in poor condition when it was dismantled, there was little expectation of finding significant portions of its framework during a dig as limited as last week’s, Lukezic said.
What did the week of digging yield?
While showing off a flattened musket ball, Lukezic pointed out that, when they’re in the field, archaeologists “have a lot of enthusiasm, but we don’t know everything yet.” Only after they return to their labs to examine and analyze their finds can they determine the significance of their work, he said. “We’ll know better in maybe a year,” he said.
That musket ball, he explained, could be a relic of Fort Casimir, or it might date only to the War of 1812, when the New Castle area was heavily fortified against the threat of British naval attacks.
Also found in the trench, Lukezic said, were a pipe bowl and some yellow brick, both typical of what the Dutch used in the mid-17th century, “and some metal objects that look pretty curious.”
Catts, pointing to two strips of darkened earth running parallel to each other about four feet apart near the end of the trench closest to the parking lot, expressed hope that they were “palisade lines,” remnants of decayed wooden fencing that would have extended around the perimeter of the fort.
If Catts is correct, it would prove that Fort Casimir directly faced the river, running roughly parallel to the line of rowhouses behind the dig site at the north end of Second Street. And, if this theory holds, Lukezic said, it would likely mean that the rowhouses were built over the remains of the fort. It will be up to some future team, they said, to continue the excavations to the north and south of the trench in hope of finding a bastion, which could determine the location of the corners of the fort.
De Cunzo, who has been researching in colonial New Castle for nearly 20 years, said “the signs are good” that the dig confirms the Heites’ findings. And, she said, no matter how much or how little is revealed about Fort Casimir, the uncovered artifacts and soil samples will add to the overall history of New Castle.
“I’d hesitate to say that I know what we’ve found,” she said, “but we will know more than we did when we got started.”