This month's Digging Deeper takes us back two-hundred years to Fort Massac on the Ohio River in southern Illinois and the extensive artifact assemblage discovered there from the late eighteenth-century and War of 1812–era component. 'Ceramics on the Western Frontier: The Archaeological Assemblage from Fort Massac, 1794–1814' by Robert F Mazrim and John A Walthall was published in a 2012 issue of Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology. The hoard included a minimum of 453 ceramic vessels, consisting primarily of creamware, pearlware, and redware products and provides a well-bracketed view of the nature of such goods on the western frontier immediately before and during the War of 1812.
In the spring of 1757, shortly after the outbreak of the French and Indian War, a military expedition was sent from Fort de Chartres to the lower Ohio River. This convoy of bateaux and canoes was manned by some fifty French soldiers and a hundred Illinois warriors. Their goal was to establish a fort on the Ohio River near the confluence of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers in order to protect the Illinois Country settlements from potential British encroachment via the Tennessee and Ohio rivers. The resulting earthwork and timber structure, called Fort de l’Ascension, was abandoned in 1764 after the cessation of hostilities and the surrender of the Illinois Country to the British. The fort was burned by the Chickasaw shortly after the French garrison returned to Fort Chartres.
The fort was claimed and renamed as the American Fort Massac in 1794 and for ten years served as the headquarters for an extensive customs district that controlled river traffic between New Orleans to the south and Pittsburgh to the east.
Works Progress Administration Excavations
Paul Maynard, a graduate student in the University of Chicago archaeology program, was hired in 1939 by the Illinois Department of Public Works and Buildings to conduct test excavations at the site of Fort Massac. Employing a crew of twelve Works Progress Administration (WPA) laborers, Maynard used what were (at that time) standard University of Chicago archaeological field techniques to excavate two intersecting trenches, each 5 feet wide and 120 feet in length, across the supposed location of the superimposed forts.
Large-scale excavations at the fort were begun in the spring of 1940. Over the following months, Maynard and his crew excavated nearly the entire area where the French and American forts once stood. World War II and the conscription of Paul Maynard into the armed services, halted further work at the site. The bulk of the artifacts recovered during Maynard’s excavations relate to the American military occupation of the fort site.
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