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Archaeologists find possible clue to location of 17th-century Fort Casimir

Archaeologists may be getting closer to finding the exact location of a 17th-century fort that once stood along the Delaware River in Old New Castle.

 

Fort Casimir was built by the Dutch in 1651.  It was later overtaken by the English, and eventually razed and developed over. Previous archaeological digs located part of a moat-like ditch that likely surrounded the fort and evidence of part of a palisade wall. 

But the New Castle Historical Society is overseeing another dig this year that aims to pin down the fort’s precise location. 

Archaeologist Wade Catts of South River Heritage Consulting is leading the dig. He says the team has found differences in soil that may indicate a curve in the fort wall.

Catts says the team uses clues like soil color and artifacts that help date soil layers because the fort’s walls were made of wood and dirt. 

“It’s not a masonry structure, it’s not a brick structure. So you’re going to be seeing soil stains, and that’s about it,” he said. “Archaeology isn’t finding a pyramid here. We’re not going to find that. We’re going to find the subtle traces of what used to be in this spot.”

If a curve in the wall is indicated, archaeologists may be able to use it to locate and orient the fort based on historic drawings. 

“We have the measurements on this fort from one drawing that was done by a Swedish engineer in 1664, and he gives us measurement points, so if that’s really where it’s turning and it’s going towards the river, we can measure from that point this way and find the other bastion,” said Catts. “If we have found that— then we actually have pinned down exactly where the fort sat, which we didn't know before. In 1986, we didn't know that. In 2012, we didn’t know that. All we knew was that we had a ditch, and we had a palisade line that went with it.”

Catts says 17th-century Dutch or Swedish sites along the Delaware River like Fort Casimir are very rare. “A site like this is pretty significant because it’s one of the early settlement sites that we have for Euro-American settlers coming in.’

Interim Executive Director of the New Castle Historical Society Mike Connolly agrees the site is significant.

“It’s really our beginnings as a community,” said Connolly. “We’ve always sort of heard about Fort Casimir. There have been previous digs here ... It’s been tantalizing. We haven’t been able to figure out exactly where the fort was. That’s why this is so great— we’re finally putting shovels to soil and getting down and seeing exactly how it was laid out.”

The public is invited to visit the dig this Saturday from 10am to 3pm. 

Archaeologists expect to conclude the dig and report their findings next summer. 

The project is being funded by a grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program. Other partners include Dovetail Cultural Resource Group and the Archaeological Society of Delaware.

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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