Archaeology students dig into John Brown Farm

SUNY Potsdam archaeology students Marla Jacobs and Lissa Herzing record and analyze artifacts they dug up in front of John and Mary Brown’s home in Lake Placid Tuesday. (Enterprise photo — Dana Hatton)

LAKE PLACID — Twelve students of SUNY Potsdam’s summer archaeology field school have been digging through the dirt at John Brown Farm for four weeks in search of historical artifacts.

A lot of them had never heard of John Brown before the course began. One student said he may have heard his name briefly mentioned in an AP history class.

Brown, a committed abolitionist, came to Lake Placid in 1846 hoping to help farmers. A wealthy Central New York abolitionist named Gerrit Smith gave away 120,000 acres of land to African-Americans to qualify them for voting rights. Professor Hadley Kruczek-Aaron has looked for traces of one of those farmers, named Lyman Epps, in 2009, 2011, and 2013, off of Bear Cub Road in Lake Placid where the settlement, nicknamed Timbucto, had been located. She didn’t find his farm, however, and decided to pursue a new angle — find artifacts showing how the Brown family lived in the Adirondacks.

The family rented at first, starting in 1849. One of John Brown’s sons-in-law, Henry Thompson, built a house for them in 1855, and the Browns stayed until 1863. The same house sits on the property today. John was rarely there, instead fighting in Kansas over whether it would become a free or slave state.

“When I think about this house, I don’t really think about it as John Brown’s house; I think about it as Mary Brown’s house,” Kruczek-Aaron said.

These scissors and ceramic fragment were discovered by archaeology students at John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid. (Enterprise photo — Dana Hatton)

Mary, John’s second wife, lived on the farm with her 13 children and had to deal with the harsh weather and manage life in the North Country. John was executed in December 1859, after leading a raid on a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and is buried on the farm. After, the farm became a place where supporters of his cause journeyed on pilgrimages. The state took over the property in 1896 and made it a historic site, which has become a tourist attraction.

“We, as archaeologists, are hoping to better understand their experience,” Kruczek-Aaron said. “So we know a lot about John Brown, but we know less about Mary’s experience and the family’s experience, and so that’s our goal, is to use archaeology to better understand their Adirondack story. And we do that by using archaeological evidence, which is artifacts, that can speak to everyday life.”

The purpose of this ongoing project is to better understand how the Browns ate, drank, the kinds of dishes they used, if they smoked tobacco, or even if the Browns took medicine. Not only is the goal for the students to learn about archaeology and have hands-on experience, but also to answer these mystifying questions.

They look for these artifacts in what they believe were high-activity or well-traveled areas on the property, such as near doorways or where a porch once was. Things they’ve found so far include plenty of glass, shards of ceramics, a tobacco pipe and embroidery scissors.

The students, who have been staying at North Country Community College, were especially happy with the hands-on learning.

This broken glass bottle was discovered by archaeology students at John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid. (Enterprise photo — Dana Hatton)

“You’re actually digging it out of the ground yourself instead of being handed the artifacts,” Brandon Catalanotti said. Another student, Jimmy Lien, said one of his favorite parts of the course was “being with the different students in the class. It’s a team-working experience.”

The process for finding artifacts began with getting metal detector hits and digging shovel test pits at regular intervals every 5 meters around the house.

After scouring the holes they dug with brushes, root clippers, dustpans and many other carpentry tools, the students carefully record their findings by recalling the soil color and texture, what they found, at what depth it was found and what stratum or hole they found it in, and eventually bag the artifact.

“All of that enables us to talk about the artifacts as being associated with a certain time period on the farm,” said student Lissa Herzing.

The artifacts are then taken back to the lab at SUNY Potsdam, where they are cleaned. In the spring, other students will be able to analyze and process the artifacts in an archaeology lab techniques course.

The most difficult aspect is understanding what time period the artifacts belong to. In the 1950s, the state wanted to return the house back to how it looked when John Brown died, destroying an addition and filling the hole with sand to grade the land. By understanding this history, the class has been able to look at the soil to determine the dates of the artifacts found above or below the sand.

Kruczek-Aaron was disappointed students didn’t find more artifacts from when the Browns lived at the farm. Other than a few isolated items dated to the mid-19th century, she said the oldest items were from the late 19th century when caretakers lived at the site. Nevertheless, with the class in its final week, she said she was pleased with how productive the site has been.

She also invited the great-great-great-granddaughter of John Brown, Alice Mecoy, out to the site with them. Mecoy hopes that the community continues to be intrigued by John Brown, “or him to be perceived as the visionary he was. He was for equality of all people, not just men, not just women, blacks and whites, Japanese; he didn’t care. He thought everyone was equal. He taught his sons women’s work and his daughters sons’ work. He was very ahead of his time. And it’s the way we should all be striving to live.”