Earth may yield secrets of Fort Saybrook

Douglas Currie of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum studies an X-ray of a possible gun rest found at the Mystic battlefield of the Pequot War.
Douglas Currie of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum studies an X-ray of a possible gun rest found at the Mystic battlefield of the Pequot War.

Old Saybrook - Residents in the region are well-versed in the bloody battle of the Pequot War in Mystic, thanks to an array of news articles and even a History Channel documentary on the Mystic portion of the 372-year-old war.

But fewer are familiar with the 1636-38 Pequot War's battles west of the Connecticut River, including at Fort Saybrook - the area that is today Saybrook Point.

"In terms of the history of the Pequot War and over the hundreds of years that things have been written, the Mystic massacre - the Mystic Fort - is clearly far more visible," said Kevin McBride, research director at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. "But any historian with any knowledge of the Pequot War ... they know a lot about Saybrook. Saybrook is a very important place. It's the earliest settlement in Connecticut, it's the focal point of the Pequot War. It may not be as visible in people's minds, but it's up there."

Last week, the National Park Service's American Battlefield Protection Program announced it had awarded a $19,000 grant to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center to research details of the battles between colonial settlers and Pequot Indians at Fort Saybrook.

The grant was one of 25 totaling $1.2 million that the National Park Service awarded to help preserve battle sites from wars fought in the United States.

"Part of understanding how a battle works is understanding its key elements," said Kristen McMasters, a grants manager with the Park Service. "What we do in the battlefields program is, we help organizations identify key locations and key understandings of how a battle happened. ... Where did it begin, where was the line of demarcation?"

McBride's research in Old Saybrook is part of a multi-year research project encompassing five areas in Connecticut and Rhode Island: Mystic, Saybrook Point, Wethersfield, Fairfield and Block Island, R.I.

The eventual goal is to have the Pequot War battlefields listed on the National Register of Historic Places, McBride said.

The museum began its fieldwork in and around Groton this summer and is using metal detectors in search of old battle remnants such as brass arrowheads and musket balls. Just Tuesday, the team found a gun rest for muskets at the Mystic Fort battlefield.

The research is only being conducted on land where private landowners give their consent, McBride said.

"These people are sitting on a battlefield," the University of Connecticut professor said. "I think a lot of the Mystic residents kind of know it, but knowing it on one level and understanding that there's stuff coming out of the ground is another."

Similar fieldwork at Saybrook Point won't begin until at least 2012, McBride said. But in preparation for it, McBride and his team will interview landowners about what they've found on their land in the past and hold informational meetings to educate them on the museum's work.

As with many historic battlefields, the primary areas of interest in Old Saybrook- Saybrook Point and Cornfield Point - are today home to dozens of residences and businesses, so gaining property owners' support will be integral to the project's success, McBride said.

Locating the fort

The Saybrook site poses an interesting challenge for McBride's team because no one knows for sure where Fort Saybrook originally stood. The first English fort in the Connecticut colony, the fort was built in 1635 but was destroyed by a fire 12 years later, according to a photo of a 1913 monument of the fort in the Postcard History Series book "Old Saybrook."

A second fort was built near the original fort, but the land was later leveled "so that the Connecticut Valley Railroad could lay tracks and build a roundhouse in 1870-1871," the book states.

In 1981, when the town bought Fort Saybrook Monument Park from the state for $1, the nonprofit Fort Saybrook Monument Park commissioned an archaeological study to determine, without success, the locations of the two forts, said Barbara Maynard, who co-wrote "Old Saybrook" and was the town's first selectman for 16 years.

"Our challenge is to identify where the fort was," McBride said, "learning something about it and also identify all the other sites and actions and battles that took place around Saybrook Point. There was a lot."

But McBride said he was confident his team, which is working with the Office of the Connecticut State Archaeologist, the Connecticut State Historian and various historical societies, research centers and museums, would locate the site of the original fort.

"Whenever we think we've exhausted all of the information, we find that if we keep digging, we always find a lot more," McBride said.

Douglas Currie, head of conservation at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, points out a detail in the X-ray of a possible piece of an eprouvette, which was used to test gunpowder.
Douglas Currie, head of conservation at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, points out a detail in the X-ray of a possible piece of an eprouvette, which was used to test gunpowder.

More information about areas being studied:

PLACES BEING STUDIED:

The five areas that the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center is studying:

• Block Island, R.I., where the war began in fall 1636

• Saybrook Point, where the Pequot Siege of Fort Saybrook and the Connecticut River occurred between fall 1636 and spring 1637

• Wethersfield, the site of the Pequot attack on English colonists in 1637

• Mystic, where the Battle of Mystic Fort took place in 1637

• Fairfield, where the Pequot Swamp fight took place in 1637

Source: Kevin McBride, the museum's director of research; pequotwar.org

WEBSITE WITH MORE DETAILS ABOUT PEQUOT BATTLEFIELDS:

For more information on the museum's research on the Pequot War battlefields, visit http://pequotwar.org.


View Fort Saybrook in a larger map

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