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  • Writer's pictureMaria Boyes

The Public’s Interest in History Goes Beneath the Surface

Volunteers assisting with dig at Fort Mercer.

When it comes to historic landmarks, most people picture buildings: a grand mansion, an old farmhouse, or perhaps a commercial structure that holds significance to the origins of a municipality. But what if we scratch beneath the surface? What past secrets and stories might lie in the soil of long-undisturbed land? Two New Jersey communities are in the process of exploring their past with the help of archeology to tell these stories.

In Gloucester County, located on the waterfront of the Delaware River, one of the greatest upsets of the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Red Bank took place at Fort Mercer. The fort was charged with keeping the British supplies out of Philadelphia.

On October 22, 1777, 500 members of the Continental Army, 50 of whom were of African descent, proved victorious in defending the fort, although they were greatly outnumbered. The nearly two thousand Hessian soldiers that made up the King's forces were swiftly defeated. The next day, the Americans were ordered to bury the dead.

Jennifer Janofsky, Professor of Public History at Rowan University knew that this dig could be quite significant and she invited the public to participate. Through an online registration process, volunteers aged 18 to 85 quickly filled the 100 spots.

“We were overwhelmed by the public response,” said Janofsky. “Many volunteers told me this was one of their ‘bucket list’ items and others ‘couldn’t sleep the night before’ because of their excitement.”

The first few days yielded hundreds of Revolutionary War artifacts, including musket balls, belt buckles, and even a rare King George gold coin from 1766. The volunteers were involved with moving soil, working the screens, searching for artifacts and washing the discoveries.

Janofsky described her excitement working with the public on this project. “Usually people see history in a museum, behind a glass case,” she stated, “but to have people hold history in their hands, to be the first to have touched it, is absolutely transformative.”

On the last day of the dig, they came upon skeletal remains believed to be of the Hessian soldiers, indicating a mass grave. Samples of the remains were initially analyzed by the New Jersey State Police’s Forensic Unit and are now in a lab on the west coast with the goal of identifying genetic profiles of those buried at the site.

“This project brings home the violence of war, the violence of battle,” said Janofsky. “It’s important to think about who they were, the families they left behind.” Janofsky says she has been contacted by the German descendants of those who fought in the battle.

Across the state, in another historic area, Passaic County’s Westside Park will be undergoing renovations. Located in the city of Paterson, the Executive Director of their Historic Preservation Commission, Gianfranco Archimede, is requesting an archeological monitoring plan of the renovation project.

Archimede, who is also a trained archeologist, wants to make sure that there is architectural sensitivity during the park’s revitalization. Since the park is home to the landmarked 1741 Van Houten House, believed to be the oldest house in Paterson, much of the surrounding area was part of the family’s original farmstead.

A recent preservation plan commissioned for the Van Houten House noted the potential of archaeological remains including outbuildings, features and material culture that are associated with the dwelling. There is additional evidence that enslaved people were on the site, typical of early Dutch farms.

Van Houten House, Paterson, NJ HABS Documentation 1933. The Van Houten House dates to 1741, making it the oldest structure in the City of Paterson. An addition was added by the Van Houten family in 1831.

Analysis indicates that a possible dwelling was located beneath the current baseball field, which is slated to undergo renovation. Archimede wants to make sure construction monitoring for data recovery is implemented if significant slavery artifacts or features are discovered.

Since the completion of the preservation plan, there has been a surge of community interest in research concerning the lives of these enslaved people.

“There is proof of enslaved people at the Van Houten farm which gives concern for a heightened level of archeological sensitivity,” said Archimede. “We must consider the impacts of our project to the artifacts left by enslaved people who lived here.”

Like with Janofsky’s project, Archimede’s office has been receiving calls from residents who are interested in the renovation of the house and possible findings that may lay in the surrounding area about the enslaved people who worked the farm.

“It’s important that if we do the rehabilitation sensitively,” says Archimede, “we can tell the story of the enslaved people who lived in Passaic County.”



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