Friday, January 12, 2024

A matter of historical record: Digging into the secrets of Windham’s Old Province Fort

By Walter Lunt

Two-hundred eighty years after its construction, Windham’s Old Province Fort has begun giving up some of its secrets. Mere months before the outbreak of King George’s War (1744 to 1748), the hardy European colonists of New Marblehead (later Windham) scrambled to build protection from unavoidable hostilities with the local native population. Encroachment on ancient Indian lands, interference with their way of life and mounting conflicts between English and French ambitions on the American continent would make warfare inevitable.

In their Maine Historic Preservation Commission report,
archeologists reveal the precise location of New 
Marblehead's (Windham's) old Province Fort (1744-1782).
Numerous cultural features are uncovered as well.
Construction began in the spring of 1744. Four years of grisly, bloody hostilities followed, largely outside the boundaries of New Marblehead. Most of the settlement’s 12 families lived within the fortress walls, until May 1756 when one settler was killed and another wounded and scalped during a scuffle near the fort that also claimed the life of Polin, sagamore of the Presumpscot-Sebago band of Wabanaki Natives.

Archaeologists John Mosher and Leith Smith from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission along with a dedicated force of local volunteers conducted a state-mandated archaeological investigation on a section of River Road near its intersection with Anderson Road in Windham during the Maine Department of Transportation’s River Road reconstruction project in 2019.

The fort, which may have included two 2-story flankers positioned at opposite corners of a blockhouse and surrounded by defensive fencing was built for the protection of the founding settlers from “Indian raids.”

Laboratory study on the features and cultural artifacts uncovered on the site took months to complete; a 378-page report on the findings was released in 2022. Among the findings: hundreds of cultural items from kitchen ware to gun flints and musket balls; a blacksmith forge; and the precise location of the fort (1744 to 1789), which was in the middle of present-day River Road between the Parson Smith House driveway and the Anderson Road intersection.

Early Windham historians from the late 19th and early 20th centuries described the fort as being “two stories with walls one-foot thick of hewn hemlock timber…surrounded by a stockade about 25 or 30 feet from it.” Mosher and Smith however, reported they could not prove the existence of the two 10-foot square flankers, or watch boxes, said to have been placed at opposite corners of the blockhouse and equipped with swivel guns. The investigators maintain that “such architectural features leave a distinct signature,” but none was found. The blockhouse entrance was located on the façade that faced Westbrook. Excavations failed to reveal a source of fresh water or evidence of at least one privy. When built, the fortress was known to be the refuge for at least 12 families and up to 50 people.

The fort was utilized as a military-style defensive structure from 1744 to about 1760 when its use was converted to a school, a meeting house, and a church. Construction of the Parson Smith house, located adjacent to the fort, began in 1764. It would be the residence of Windham’s esteemed second settled minister, Peter Thatcher Smith.

The accompanying illustration is an interpretive graphic of the archaeological findings.

The blockhouse is the enclosed portion of the fort. Archaeologists Mosher and Smith determined that earlier historical descriptions of the size of the fort’s blockhouse (50-foot square) were accurate. They could not confirm that the great fence surrounding the blockhouse was a palisade, or stockade, style (vertical posts set close together). Instead, they believe the logs were stacked horizontally, one on top of another, several feet high. Mosher and Smith surmised, “…that the trench-bottom was situated within a few centimeters of bedrock and did not reveal post holes or wood fragments, strongly suggest(ing) that the palisade consisted of stacked logs, not log pickets.”

Earlier excavation

An earlier excavation, in 2016, uncovered a chimney base, or hearth (with bake oven), measuring 12 ½ feet by 5 ½ feet located just inside the blockhouse entrance under the present-day lawn of the Parson Smith house. Further investigation in 2019 turned up 18th century stoneware and tin-glazed earthenware – the investigators believe the hearth may have served not only the blockhouse but a possible adjacent building.

Running along the inside of the western palisade (nearly parallel to the River Road’s south travel lane) “…linear arrays of stone rubble suggest there was a boardwalk…for use by sentries as they kept watch over the fort and its inhabitants.”

A cobbled area of sharp, angular stones was discovered over a 300-square-foot area along the south façade of the blockhouse, extending and sloping well beyond the palisade. Called a glacis, or armored bank, the investigators believe the slippery, ankle-breaking field of rocks was intentionally built to “…thwart a direct foot assault on the southern flank of the (fort) and to provide a clear view to direct musket fire.” The glacis, therefore, was placed strictly as a defensive measure during the fort period; investigators, however, determined it was used later as a dumping ground when the fort no longer served a military function.

Fascinating clues to the culture of a period can be gleaned from items lost or thrown away. Several middens, or trash dumps, were discovered during at least five archaeological surveys between 1979 and 2022. The largest and most revealing was found on what is today the lawn in front of the Parson Smith carriage house. Investigations showed that the fort community kept, butchered, and consumed domestic stock, including cattle, swine, and sheep; the remains of deer, turtle, passenger pigeon, fish and freshwater mussels were also found.

Cultural finds included ceramics, Staffordshire slipware, glass, mortar, plaster, clay pipes, buttons, boot buckles, brick bits, sewing pins and bone combs. The fort’s confines also surrendered gun flints and lead shot, a partial musket barrel, musket, and pistol balls (some were 60 to 70 caliber) and one lead ball with embedded molar prints, “…suggesting use during a painful surgical procedure.”

Some items were deemed (imported) English in origin – others were manufactured in America. The investigators believe most were brought to the fort by the New Marblehead farm families.

The authors of the lengthy archaeological report on the Province Fort commented that the artifacts revealed a “life under siege” – one that lasted for nearly six years.

In what the report calls a “fortuitous” event, construction crews had to regrade the River Road end of the Parson Smith driveway. In doing so, the excavation exposed animal bone, wrought nails, discolored brick and stone, glazed stoneware and various indeterminate pieces of iron and iron slag. Further work in the area uncovered deposits of charcoal and soot-covered artifacts buried in 200-year-old dark soil. Their presence, say the investigators, indicate it was the site of a blacksmith’s forge that measured nearly 8 feet in length and likely used by a smithy that was smelting local bog iron, the source of which was probably the nearby Inkhorn Brook, whose waters are known to be iron rich. Smelting is the process of applying heat and an agent to extract a base metal. Iron hardware for the fort was manufactured on site, and the blacksmith shop likely served not only as an armory for the fort defenders, but also as a secondary hearth for food preparation.

The report speculates the forge was probably built while the fort was being constructed in the spring of 1744 and was likely covered by a shed roof. It was located outside the walls of the blockhouse but within the perimeter fence.


Two blacksmiths were known to have occupied New Marblehead at the time of the fort: Caleb Graffam and William Mayberry; they probably “spent a considerable amount of time at the fort (during its construction) due to the requirements of (making) charcoal, collecting bog iron and performing the smelting…Graffam produced and repaired ox shoes, yokes, sleds (for hauling timber), staples and rakes.” Firearm maintenance and the manufacture of lead balls and shot may also have taken place at the forge.

Post Fort Era: Defensive activities at the fort ended with the death of Presumpscot/Wabanaki chief Polin in 1756. By 1790, the formidable structure was sold off and dismantled. Archaeologists Mosher and Smith were able to distinguish later period artifacts. For example, it is known that a later occupant of the Parson Smith house was Edward Anderson. History records he maintained an ample 30-square-meter vegetable garden on the property. Soil staining and evidence of planting holes beneath a layer of old River Road fill revealed the location of Col. Anderson’s late 18th century garden on the eastern end of River Road’s north lane.

Nearby and evident in the historical layering of a gravelly road bed were several sets of tire ruts that likely date to the 1920s – the spacing of the ruts, says the report, suggests they were made by a Ford Model-T.

All told, there were no fewer than seven archaeological explorations on Windham’s old Province Fort site between 1979 and 2020. The so-called Phase IIIB Archaeological Report in 2022 summarizes the cumulative findings. The 378-page manuscript will be available to the public at the Windham Historical Society’s main museum when it reopens with regular hours this spring.

The researchers summarized the results of their many seasons of work this way: “Mitigation archaeology of the Province Fort produced a wealth of information about (this eastern) frontier fort, its layout, and the people who both defended and resided within it. Due to the limits of the research area, the study could not reveal the lives and ways of the Presumpscot Wabanaki who fought vigorously against English encroachment. There is an estimated 5,000 square meters around the Smith house that likely contain activity areas associated with the fort and the Parson Smith occupation. These deposits await future archaeologists with new questions and new techniques.

Next time, we examine the causes of the wars between the local Natives and the founding settlers. And we look at several renderings of the old Province Fort that begin to reveal what it must have looked like, two-hundred eighty years ago. <

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