by Kari Allen and Rebecca Nelson
Fort La Presentation was built on a small peninsula called Lighthouse Point on the St. Lawrence River at the mouth of the Oswegatchie in the years preceding the French and Indian War. Abbe Francois Picquet established the site in 1749 as a mission, a base camp for French espionage against the English at Chouaguen (Oswego), and a settlement for French-sympathizing Catholic Iroquois. Known as the "Apostle to the Iroquois," he was attempting to obtain the Iroquois tribes' aid or at least neutrality in the imminent conflict as well as proselytizing. The Native Americans at Fort La Presentation came from the Onondaga, Oneida, and Cayuga nations, along with Mississaugas, Abenaki, and Nipissings, to join the French. Over time they became known as the Oswegatchies. Picquet implemented two conditions for the Natives to live at the fort: 1) to renounce drunkenness to prove themselves self-controlled and to take the promise to never bring intoxicating liquors to the mission and 2) as Christians, to live with their rightful spouses until death.
The fort was roughly square, 150 ft. on each side, and it was 18-30 ft. away from the riverbank. The Indian village nearby was 450 ft. south of the fort and 600 ft. west of the riverbank. The fort was a year-round community, not simply a military outpost. Whole families lived there, including the French military personnel and their wives and children, and many marriages and baptisms were performed: between 1750 and 1760 there were 388 baptisms, 53 marriages, and 131 burials. They used both domestic and wild animals, cultivated maize, and fished for salmon and trout in the river. The Oswegatchies were officially given a daily ration that included half a pound of pork. Also, the area around the fort was rich with game: "deer, rabbits, squirrels and wild birds such as ducks, geese, partridges, and pigeons" (Boyesen 7). A visitor to the fort described the Native village, saying “beside the fort is a village of a hundred fires, each that of an Iroquois chief... [...] They have made a clearing, have cows, horses, pigs, and hens” (Boyesen 9).
The British won the French and Indian War and took Fort La Presentation in 1760, renaming it Fort Oswegatchie. The Oswegatchies allied themselves with the British, although this alliance became increasingly strained during the British occupation of the fort. To be kept at a safe distance, the Native Americans were eventually relocated to a village three miles down the river, at what later became known as Indian Point. The Oswegatchies again found themselves in league with the losing side as the English lost the War of American Independence and the fort became occupied by American settlers. The archaeological site at Fort La Presentation thus represents four distinct groups of people: French clergymen and military personnel, Native American villagers, British soldiers, and American settlers.
Garrett Cook of the Anthropology Department of the SUNY College at Potsdam used old maps to determine the location of the site under the present-day town of Ogdensburg. He excavated the site in 1987 with 5 x 5 ft. square test pits, which only yielded some 18th century material that could not be linked to the fort. Cook encountered an unusual problem: the site was extensively contaminated with oil from a spill that had occurred in the area. Tom Duffy, the owner of the area of excavation, requested that the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation investigate the extent of the oil spill before the next dig took place.
The most productive excavation of the fort took place in 1988, supervised by Steven Marqusee, also of SUNY Potsdam. This season's first excavation goal was to find the original river bank on the east side of Commerce Street. They opened a trench on the east side of the northern end of Commerce Street. Here, they found the outline of the original river bank in the north and south walls of the trench. It was descending at a 45 degree angle to the water table and was 8 ft. deep. This location was identified as the northeastern corner of the fort.
The stratigraphy of the site was secondary, because the ground was frequently overturned by plowing; also, between 1900 and 1910, the local railroad system was modernized and the original ground surface was filled with refuse 3 to 5 feet deep and covered with old spikes and ties. However, the components can be roughly divided into the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The artifacts found at the site included pipe fragments, pins and nails, coinage, strike-a-lights, bottles and glass, leather, buttons, buckles, beads, ceramics, gunflints, musketry and musket balls. In the southern part of the excavation area in a field west of Commerce Street in Ogdensburg, Garrett Cook found, in his own words, “vast deposits of animal bone including sturgeon and other fish, deer, cattle, pigs, and possibly bear” from the 18th century component (Cook 24). Excavating in the western edge of Commerce Street, Cook found similar butchered animal bones. John Barthelme of St. Lawrence University surveyed these 5,000 faunal remains and produced a preliminary report, which stated: “the collection was a mixture of wild and domestic species in which white tailed deer and domestic pig remains were the most common. Cow bones were probably present in small numbers and sheep or goat may be present. Small carnivore bones suggest that trapping was occurring. The only specimen definitely representing a large carnivore was a bear molar. Bird and fish bones were common but have not yet been analyzed except to note that catfish were present, and that chicken and wild turkey were probably also eaten” (Cook 27). These bones probably represent the fort and Native village during the French, Native American, and English occupations, because the site was not extensively occupied after 1800. Today, approximately one percent of the fort site has been excavated. In order to gather more information and fully reconstruct the site of Fort La Presentation and the neighboring Native village, further research and excavations must be organized.
The first step in our zooarcheological analysis consisted of the sorting of specimens into the categories "identifiable," "potentially identifiable," and "likely unidentifiable." Once these divisions were established we then turned to the identifiable category, separating it further into groups of elements. For instance, all the readily identifiable tibiae were placed together as were the femurs and onward. We then turned to one such element grouping, comparing each specimen to the reference collection to determine species or family. Once all easily identifiable elements were labeled, we then turned to the second category, the potentially identifiable bones. At this point, some of the bones were easily picked out and identified from knowledge gained through previous identifications. The other pieces were compared to the deer skeleton in order to determine element. If element could be established we then moved to the entire reference collection for comparison and species classification.
In the case of those specimens that could not be identified, new categories were created. This produced the new classifications of "unidentifiable shaft fragments," "unidentifiable juvenile fragments" (in the case of an apparent missing epiphysis), and "unidentifiable specimens with articular surfaces." In the cases of likely but uncertain identification, we created categories of "probable deer," "probable pig," and "probable sheep." Pieces which were easily identified to element yet provided no species or family information, such as mandible or rib fragments, were bagged together. All identified pieces were bagged individually and each bag was given a label containing all element, species, or family information. Due to a lack of experience and an incomplete reference collection, all fish specimens were not identified to species. Bird specimens that were not clearly turkey or chicken were considered unidentified.
Once all pieces were classified, we returned to the collection, sorted by general anatomical location (i.e. upper limbs, lower limbs), and noted any bone modifications. We labeled these modifications as follows: "B"- burned black, "W"- burned white, "C"- cut, or "H"- hacked. Only one bone was found to be a potential artifact. After careful examination under the microscope and consultation with Dr. Barthelme, the specimen was classified and labeled as such: "worked." We also coded for specimen maturity as follows: "M"- mature, "I"- immature, and "U"- unknown. Maturity and immaturity refer to the fusion or lack of fusion of epiphyses on the specimen. In cases of shaft fragment containing no diagnostic ends, no assumptions as to maturity were made. All specimens were recorded into an Excel spreadsheet. Within the larger categories of "Mammal," "Bird," and "Fish," the specimens were separated under the heading of element as well as any other accessory categories. The specific number of each element was recorded along with any family, species, maturity, or modification observations. We did not attempt to determine body dimension for any species in the collection.
We were able to identify more than 30% of our mammal bones. This is an unusually high percentage, but it is possible that cultural or taphonomic processes left us with only the most readily identifiable bones to handle. As the archaeologists were excavating, they may have saved only the fragments that they could easily identify as bone. We felt that with the small size of our collection, numbering only 807 specimens total with 242 identifiable specimens, a descriptive approach to analysis was warranted; therefore, we did not attempt sophisticated statistical analyses that would be effectively meaningless.
We identified bones from ten different animal species in the Fort La Presentation collection, both domestic and wild, as well as a variety of bird and fish bones. Both white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus, and domestic pig, Sus scrofa, are substantially represented in the collection; they probably comprised a substantial part of the diet at Fort La Presentation. However, there is a greater variation in the type of pig elements found than in the deer elements, which are mostly from the forequarter, hindquarter, and feet. This could be because domestic pigs were actually raised on site, while white-tailed deer were hunted and butchered in the surrounding woods, with only selected portions brought to the site.
Several animal species were conspicuously absent from our collection. Although historical research indicates that there were horses at Fort La Presentation, we found no evidence of them. We also did not find many bones from small carnivores, contrary to the initial report. This suggests that substantial trapping activities for trade were probably not taking place. However, we did find one beaver element, one muskrat element, one raccoon element, and one rabbit element, so a limited amount of trapping may have occurred.
We also found two different elements from a black bear, as indicated by the initial zooarcheological findings. It is unclear what role the bear may have played at the fort, partly because it is impossible to tell which occupation the black bear represents. The bear most likely belonged to the Native American village, because bears were important in the lives of Native Americans, who used their meat for food, their skins for sleeping skins, and their teeth and claws for decorations. Native Americans also honored bears ceremonially. The bear may have belonged to the English occupation: an intriguing but remote possibility involves bear-baiting, a blood sport in which bears were restrained and “baited” by dogs, which was a popular entertainment in England until it was banned in the 19th century. The bear may also have been killed by the English or French as a trophy or a nuisance, or intended simply for food.
Some of the bird bones we found clearly belonged to domestic species of chicken, Gallus gallus, and turkey, Meleagris gallopavo. Others were smaller and probably those of wild birds, such as the ducks, geese, partridges, and pigeons mentioned in historical sources. Although we did not identify the fish bones in our collection to the species level, we did notice a great variety in the size of the fish elements. One fish vertebra was very large indeed. These bones probably represent several fish species, which could include the salmon, catfish, and trout mentioned in historical reports. It should also be noted that in addition to fish remains, thirty-nine gastropod shells were discovered in our collection. Though their use may be unclear, their presence confirms the continued access to and utilization of nearby water sources.
In a minority of instances, young animals were found with unfused epiphyses. The rate of fusion varies by the element and by the species, but animals with unfused epiphyses can be considered juvenile. Many of these elements are unidentified to species, because unfused diaphyses are difficult to identify with confidence, but in general they come from pigs, deer, and other medium-sized mammals. If these juveniles were slaughtered, it may indicate a shortage of mature food sources. This may represent a time of low food supply; however, an alternate explanation is that these young animals could have been killed through convenience or social preference. Immature animals may be easier to kill, and some cultures may view young meat as more appetizing. They could also have died of natural causes.
We found that sex was impossible to determine for our collection, because we did not find any diagnostic body parts such as antlers or horn cores. We did find one spur on a chicken bone, indicating that it was a rooster, or male chicken. We could not use body size to approximate sex because even sexually dimorphic species have a significant overlap between the sexes, and so large samples are needed to show general trends in body size.
The remains of larger mammals- pig, cow, and deer- displayed a moderate level of modifications related to food processing. We observed several specimens from such species to contain cut or hack marks consistent with defleshing as well as burn marks consistent with cooking. The cut marks often were found on the limb bones where the greatest meat can be found, while the foot bones contained the most burn marks. These burnt bones may also suggest that the occupants of the fort burnt their trash. As with other primary data, we must be cautious in our interpretation of such marks, as these modifications could easily be explained through taphonomy, or unintentional burning. In addition to the worked bone artifact, we found a fossilized specimen in the collection. Also, there were small, cylindrical fragments in the collection that could possibly be fragments of pipe stems and not faunal material at all.
Explanation of Tables
Table 1- NISP and MNI Summary for Fort La Presentation
For this table, all "probable" species identifications were counted as respectively "wild" or "domestic;" however, notes such as "good size for deer" were not considered conclusive enough to include in such a count and were therefore added to the "unidentified" category. The category "wild" consists of all deer, raccoon, bear, muskrat, and beaver specimens, while "domestic" refers to domestic pigs, sheep, and cows. The MNI (Minimum Number of Individuals) numbers were calculated using only identified long bones. Each long bone category was grouped by species. Each bone was then sided using the respective reference collection for each species. Maturity was also taken into consideration. For example, four deer femurs, two from each side, would be considered to display an MNI of one; however, if one femur had unfused epiphyses while the others were mature, the MNI would be two. Once the long bones were considered, we then counted all other elements to consider further individuals represented. For instance, if five calcanei were found for one species, this would clearly represent more than one individual.
Table 2- Species List
This table represents all identified species represented by our collection. In this case, we added separate categories for the "probable" identifications so as not to misrepresent our numbers of positive identifications. MNI was determined as described above.
Table 3- Summary of Mammalian Species By Anatomical Region
Anatomical regions are divided following the divisions set forth in Zooarcheology by Elizabeth Reitz and Elizabeth Wing: "Head" includes the skull, mandible fragments, and teeth; "Axial" includes the vertebrae and ribs; "Forequarter" includes the scapulae, humeri, radii, and ulnae; "Hindquarter" includes the pelvis, femurs, and tibiae; "Forefoot" includes the metacarpals; "Hindfoot" includes the metatarsals, astragali, calcanei, and navicular cuboids, "Foot" includes the carpal/tarsals and phalanges.
Table 4.1 and 4.2- Specimen Distribution for Most Common Species: White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and Domestic Pig (Sus scrofa) These tables provide summaries of the element distributions of the two most commonly found species: deer and pig. Left and right side determination were made for long bones through comparison with known reference collection specimens.
Table 5- Bone Modifications
Any bones discovered to be likely modified through human activity were counted by species and displayed here. It should be noted that an oil spill at the site caused many fragments to be stained black, thereby complicating the identification of burning modifications. Our estimates were therefore deliberately conservative so as to prevent any hasty cultural assumptions.
Table 6- Maturity of Specimens by Mammalian Species
Maturity was determined from the presence or absence of epiphyseal union. Those long bones clearly missing ephiphyses or epiphyses found separate from their shafts were counted as unfused, indicating immaturity. Those specimens with fused ends were counted as mature, while those fragments missing their ends were labeled as unknown. In the case of bones other than long bones, skull fragments, scapular blade fragments, mandibular and innominate fragments were considered to be indeterminate.
Summary and Conclusion
Though little cultural data should be interpreted from this collection due to its small sample size, we have been able to glean some information from the specimens analyzed. The extremely high representation of deer and pig remains lead us to conclude that these mammals may have contributed significantly to the diets of the inhabitants of the fort. The specific degree to which they contributed as a food source cannot be ascertained from the data, as we know that a surprisingly large number of specimens have been disassociated from the collection. This may also mean that many species are underrepresented or absent as only a small portion of the recovered remains are presently observable. Despite these research obstacles, we are able to safely say that animal husbandry was practiced by the inhabitants of the fort. This is displayed through the presence of various domesticated species, including pig, sheep, and cow. We also know that for whatever reason- nutritional variety, food shortages, or seasonal subsistence patterns- wild game and fowl were pursued. This is seen in the large number of white-tailed deer remains, as well as the birds that could not be identified as domestic fowl. Marks found on the bones of such likely food sources may indicate that these animals were in fact defleshed, cooked, and consumed. This is a likely scenario, as we know that pigs were raised for butchery on the site (a pound of pig meat per day per person was promised to the local Native Americans) (Boyesen 7).
As aforementioned, broadly general interpretations of animal husbandry, hunting, and consumption can be made from our research; however, many persistent confounds leave us with a disappointingly large number of unanswered questions. An oil spill at the site stained many of the bones black, causing some difficulty in the identification of bone modification. Recent farming activities in the area caused further fragmentation and mixing of the specimens in the site. The fort was occupied by four separate groups and it is unclear that any previous stratigraphy would have allowed us to differentiate between these periods of occupation. It is clear now that if there had been distinct archaeological levels at one time, they were recently lost due to plowing. Perhaps the most disconcerting problem with our research concerns the large number of missing specimens from the collection. As we are unsure as to which portion of the excavated site our specimens (or those lost) represent, it is difficult to determine the specific activities carried out in this area of the fort. Our sample could represent a midden, a cooking area, a butchering site, or perhaps it is simply a random collection from mixed stratigraphic and Cartesian origin. Further study into the site itself as well as the excavation and specimen storage histories could yield some interesting results that would allow our finds to be put into perspective, thus shedding more light on the lifestyles and subsistence patterns of those who occupied Fort La Presentation.
Boyesen, P. Y. 1990. “The French and Indian Settlement at Ogdensburg.” The Quarterly. 4-10.
Cook, G. 1990. “The Dig on Lighthouse Point.” The Quarterly. 22-30.