The past two weeks at the Steltzriede Farm site in Saginaw Township have been productive and, dare I say, exciting for the Castle Museum Archaeology team! So, what, you may ask, has piqued our interest and raised the level of excitement at the site? Believe it or not, initially it was this unassuming lump of sand and lime…
One of our primary goals has been to locate the original cabin built by the Steltzriedes in 1838 and it’s quite possible we have succeeded! In the previous update (here), I shared a picture of Feature 3, the corner of a square/rectangular pit, visible at the 55 cm level in the northeast corner of unit 535N 489E. As we continued excavating, it became apparent that Feature 3 is intruding into a much larger feature with a fairly straight edge cutting across the entirety of the unit. The larger feature, which we’ll call Feature 4, contained a few square nails, fragments of flat glass, a few ceramic sherds, and, in the 85-90 cm level, a few small pieces of the sandy, limey material pictured above. A close look reveals wood impressions on the face of at least one fragment, indicating that it may well be chinking from the wall of a cabin. The 90-95 cm level revealed larger fragments of chinking, some brick fragments, two nails, a piece of window glass, patches of grey clay, and three pieces of rotting wood. One piece of wood forms the west wall of the feature, the other two lie parallel on the 95 cm floor. Because they are so poorly preserved, it is not clear if the wood fragments are from split logs, whole logs, or cut boards.
Warning, premature and unwarranted speculation follows!
So, what is this whole Feature 3 – Feature 4 mess? Hard to say, but we could point out that what we have found matches pretty well with the oral history we have for the site. We’ll remember that the location of the original cabin was reported by Ralph Stroebel, who, at some unspecified date, is said to have confirmed the location of the cabin by digging a test pit and finding the wall and/or cellar of the cabin along with a few artifacts, including several fragments of chinking. Mr. Hoover, the current owner of the site, retains several fragments of chinking and other artifacts given to him by Stroebel, who stated they were from his test pit. A comparison of the chinking found by Stroebel to our recent finds reveals a match in the material. Clearly, Feature 3 intrudes into Feature 4 and thus post-dates it. In fact, though it is difficult to see in the photograph, the north end of the wood fragment located along the east wall of the unit appears to have been cut through by Feature 3. If we wanted to go way out on a limb we could suggest that Feature 3 is the edge of Ralph Stroebel’s test pit and Feature 4 is the 1838 cabin/cellar we have been searching for. (We could even note the curved shape of the rotted wood where Feature 3 cuts through it and suggest that Stroebel used a round, rather than square-bladed shovel!) Or, we could be more appropriately cautious and remember that we have only uncovered a small part of the edge of two features. So, while the preceding interpretation is possible, and perhaps even plausible, we’ll need to gather a bit more evidence to support the claim.
Meanwhile, work also continued in another area of the site where we have been busy uncovering more of the Feature 2/midden/fill zone. As of the end of July, it appeared that Feature 2 may actually be a midden/fill zone on top of the former land surface, rather than large pit of some sort. We have not found anything during the past two weeks to change that interpretation. We have found some interesting material though, including a few items that help to date the deposit. One such item is a fragment of a hair comb impressed […RS PATENT MAY 6 1851]. This refers to Nelson Goodyear’s patent for improvements in the manufacture of “India rubber,” a hard, plastic-like substance commonly used to make combs, buttons, and other objects in the mid to late 19th century.
We also recovered a number of ceramic sherds including at least three varieties of molded blue-edgeware with scalloped rims, a hand-painted polychrome sherd with dark green leaves and red flowers, a brown transferware vessel, and a dark blue transferware paneled plate. The latter sherd, pictured below on the bottom right, has been tentatively identified by Tim Bennett as the “Athens” pattern made by William Adams and registered in 1849.
Other material from the Feature 2 midden zone includes a couple of charred corn cupules, numerous animal bones (many of which exhibit butchery marks), brick fragments, nails, a few pieces of glass, and slag.
Given the finds of the past two weeks, it appears that the Feature 2 midden zone probably accumulated between 1838, when the site was first occupied, and ca. 1870 when the area was capped with relatively sterile sand fill – probably derived from digging a basement for an addition to the frame house.
Although we are beginning to develop a few tentative interpretations, at this point we are generating far more questions than answers. Have we found the cabin, or cellar? If a cellar, was it under the cabin or a separate structure? How large was cellar/cabin? How was the dwelling constructed? How has the landform changed/been altered since the initial settlement? Was all food grown/raised on site, or was it brought in from elsewhere? Were wild foods important in the early years? These and many other questions will guide our research as we continue to work to understand the Steltzriede family and their place in the early development of the Saginaw community.