LCMM to investigate 1812 battle

VERGENNES — Almost 200 years ago, Commodore Thomas MacDonough won a crucial naval battle in the War of 1812 that drove the British — the world’s greatest naval force at the time — from the Plattsburgh, N.Y., battle site back into Canada, allowing the United States to retain a larger piece of northern territory when a peace treaty was signed two months later.
The victorious fleet was built in Addison County, along a stretch of the Otter Creek in Vergennes. Thanks to a grant from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program, the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM) will spend the next year figuring out exactly where MacDonough’s shipyard was located.
LCMM archaeologist Joanne Dennis hopes that the $23,985 grant will help researchers figure out the precise area where MacDonough and his crew built the 14-boat fleet that helped turn the tide of the war. Based on historical record, many believe the shipyard to be located near the Otter Creek falls, by the Route 22A river crossing.
“The primary goal of the project is to confidently identify if the location of MacDonough’s War of 1812 shipyard is where we believe it to be, which is just down river a little bit from the falls in Vergennes,” said Dennis, who explained that the lack of primary documents showing its exact location makes it impossible to pinpoint the shipyard without further archaeological research.
To find the shipyard’s boundaries, Dennis and her team will dig “test pits” — small, deep holes in the ground — to search for culturally relevant material and artifacts that indicate the presence of a shipyard. In addition, divers will scour the banks of the Otter Creek — after 200 years of erosion, there are likely to be clues under water along the shoreline.
The field research, said Dennis, won’t take more than a couple weeks. The subsequent analysis and reporting, however, will consume the rest of the year.
According to Dennis, the area they will be testing is archaeologically ideal because nothing has ever been built on the site.
“The state has owned the land ever since the early 1800s, when the shipyard would have been there,” said Dennis. “So there’s been very little disturbance from stuff that came afterwards.”
The project is even more meaningful in light of its timing — next year marks the bicentennial of the beginning of the War of 1812.
“We’re really excited to be carrying out this project along with … the upcoming commemoration event for the War of 1812,” Dennis said. The war, which officially ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, helped the United States earn respect and recognition as an independent nation from the rest of the world.
The American Battlefield Protection Program is dedicated to identifying and protecting the sites of important American battlefields and associated areas. According to Dennis, the Vergennes shipyard is worthy of preservation.
“The shipyard is directly related to the Battle of Plattsburgh, (because) that’s where MacDonough built his entire fleet,” said Dennis. “In order to protect and preserve a site like that, we need to know where it is.”
Dennis hopes that the project will help preserve what she calls “the most important archaeological site in Vergennes.”
“It’s been something we’ve been hoping and planning to do for awhile,” she said. “We’re really glad to have received funding from the Park Service to carry this out.”

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