FORT EDWARD — The SUNY Adirondack archaeological field school will return to work on Rogers Island this summer, after its year reprieve working on an 18th century merchant’s shop nearby.
But the future of digs on Rogers Island is a bit murky, as local officials work with the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation on a new vision for the historic French and Indian War site, which could include more preservation initiatives, walking paths and signs.
David Starbuck, the archaeologist leading the program, said the state needs to approve any further digging on the island because it helped the town and village acquire it from private hands about five years ago.
The state has approved this summer’s dig, which will examine a wooded area in the middle of the island.
Ed Carpenter, president of the Rogers Island Heritage Development Alliance and a village trustee, said brush will be cleared before students begin surveying and digging at the site starting July 8.
Rogers Island, an approximately 30-acre parcel of largely undeveloped land on the Hudson River, is named after the American frontier soldier Robert Rogers, who wrote the forest warfare strategies called “Rules of Ranging.” Fort Edward is the birthplace of the U.S. Army Rangers.
The island has passed through multiple private owners over the past several decades. Many of them conducted their own excavations with the help of local Boy Scouts.
“It turned them onto local history,” Starbuck said.
By the early 1990s, Starbuck and Adirondack Community College (now SUNY Adirondack) worked together to conduct field school digs on the island. They uncovered some magnificent historical relics including the first and only smallpox hospital unearthed in the nation.
Unlike the enthusiastic digging of the ‘90s, Starbuck and Carpenter said they’re working on a new plan for Rogers Island. It may include some digging to uncover spots of interest, but it may not be the unearthing of full structures as was once done.
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Eventually, Carpenter and Starbuck hope to create a park similar to the Saratoga National Historical Park or Fort Ticonderoga, where interpretive signs and some partially unearthed structures may attract more visitors and better tell Fort Edward’s story during a time when it was the third largest city in America.
They do not plan, however, to build a fort replica. They are working on a management plan for the island.
The town of Fort Ann is working on something similar with its site, Battle Hill, where the 1777 Battle of Fort Anne took place.
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The state Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Department said it is working with Starbuck, Carpenter and others involved in the Fort Edward project “to develop an appropriate scope-of-work for the field school, a process that remains ongoing. The focus of the field school is the cleaning up and mapping of old excavation units. This work will facilitate the production of a comprehensive site map showing where all known archaeological work has taken place in the past.”
Starting the second week of the field school, Carpenter plans to hold daily tours of the island. He will be dressed in his provincial Army Ranger soldier outfit, and will bring visitors to the dig site, too, to see what Starbuck and his students have unearthed that day.
Both Starbuck and Carpenter are hoping the dig and the tours will bring more visitors. It has been a trying year for the Visitors Center, as the town made tremendous cuts to its budget following the default of a private company on its property taxes for the former General Electric Co. river sediment dewatering site.
“This is Fort Edward’s opportunity now to really promote the site,” Carpenter said. “It’s kind of our last chance.”
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While the vision has morphed and changed over the years as Carpenter and his organization adapt to new challenges, he is excited for the island’s future.
Walking at the edge of the woodland, which will soon be the dig site, he said as a kid he heard all about the island and the treasures that were buried. He could never go on it because it was private property.
Now, he is one of the main reasons the island is open to the public, and the story of what happened there centuries ago is getting its time in the spotlight.
In the shadow of the island’s statue of Robert Rogers, we will see what they discover.