SUNY Potsdam archaeology students search for history at Heaven Hill Farm
LAKE PLACID — It’s summertime in the Adirondack Park. Sunshine. A cool breeze. Blackflies biting. Birds singing. And, after a two-year break because of COVID-19, archaeology students from SUNY Potsdam digging up history at Heaven Hill Farm.
Three of the students kneel beside a rectangular hole in the ground. You can only see the back of their heads; their faces are buried in the pit. They’re bent over, eagerly scraping dirt away from the roots and rocks, looking for artifacts. The oldest building here dates to the 1840s. This section, on the side of a hill, is where garbage was dumped.
There’s Jeimi Toribio, a senior; Cameron Murphy, a junior; and Cristina Rivas, who graduated in May. It was Thursday, July 7 — the last day of digging in their four-week field study before the holes were filled in the next day. Other than roots and rocks, they found a lot of ceramic pieces and glass.
“We actually found three large pieces of a mixing bowl that kind of are mendable together, like you can put them together,” Toribio said. “And then we also found a maker’s mark on one of the pieces of ceramic, and that would be back to 1861.”
This dig was part of the Timbucto Archaeology Project. For 13 years, their professor, Hadley Kruczek-Aaron, has been searching for a 19th century colony of Black families, and history related to their story. A resident of Saranac Lake, she is the chair of anthropology at SUNY Potsdam. Timbucto was founded in the 1840s. Slavery was legal in the South, but not in New York state. And abolitionist Gerrit Smith, of Central New York, gave away thousands of acres of land in the Adirondacks — to help free Black men earn the right to vote.
“Because at that time, in 1846 when the initiative was launched, if you were a Black man in New York, you didn’t have the right to vote unless you owned $250 worth of property,” Kruczek-Aaron said. “And so this was a land grant that gave 3,000 individuals — Black males of New York — 3,000 parcels that were about 40 acres each. So the whole gift was 120,000 acres of land in 1846.”
The goal of this project is to use archaeology to better understand the experience of those who actually came to the Adirondacks to be a part of that land experiment. Kruczek-Aaron and her students conducted digs in 2009, 2011 and 2013 at one Timbucto homestead off Bear Cub Lane — that of Lyman Epps Sr., who moved here with his family from Troy. The students didn’t have much luck there, so Kruczek-Aaron took a break from the Timbucto search until she gets more leads. They’ve since been at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site, a short distance away, looking for artifacts there. Brown was a friend of Gerrit Smith and moved to the town of North Elba in 1849 to help the free Black families with their farming.
“There are a number of good colored families on the ground; most of whom I visited,” John Brown wrote to his son Owen on Jan. 10, 1849, about moving to North Elba. The quote is featured in the “Dreaming of Timbuctoo” exhibit at the John Brown farm. “I can think of no place where I think I would sooner go.”
Now the archaeology project is focusing on Heaven Hill Farm, owned by the Henry Uihlein II and Mildred A. Uihlein Foundation. SUNY Potsdam students have permission to dig for three years on the property, more than 1,000 acres, which had included at least four historic farmsteads.
“At least three of those farmsteads have Timbucto connections,” Kruczek-Aaron said. “So they’re not all where Timbucto grantees lived, but they have relationships with the people who lived here, the grantees.”
Heaven Hill Farm was initially owned by Horatio Hinckley. He moved here in the 1840s from the Essex County town of Lewis. His daughter, Abigail, married one of John Brown’s sons, Salmon. Brown’s daughter, Ruth, lived across the road from Heaven Hill Farm with her family, and they sold their property to Lyman Epps Sr. in the 1860s.
“And so they’re here from the 1860s through to the end of the 19th century when Lyman Sr. dies,” Kruczek-Aaron said. “So they likely knew the Hinckleys and had some relationship with the Hinckleys as their neighbors.”
The Eppses also knew Anna Newman, who settled at Heaven Hill Farm in 1876. She lived here until her death in 1915. And she employed Lyman Epps. We’re not sure if it was the father or the son, Lyman Epps Jr. Either way, there’s a connection to a Timbucto family.
“I do have hopes in the future to get across the street and take a look at the second Epps homestead,” Kruczek-Aaron said. “But for our first season, we decided to stay a little bit closer to Heaven Hill here and explore what life was like in the 19th century on this property.”
During the field study in late June and early July, students dug multiple holes to search for artifacts. There were a couple right behind the back door of the house.
“We have pictures of the backyard,” Kruczek-Aaron said. “We know that they were doing laundry. We know there was water. Based on the archeology here, they were probably doing some butchering of animals here.”
There were several more excavation sites just up the hill, where Anna Newman dumped her garbage.
“It’s our bread and butter, we say, when we find those dumping areas because that gives us a window on everyday life inside the home based on what’s left behind,” Kruczek-Aaron said.
The students were looking for clues to everyday life at Heaven Hill Farm from the 1800s to early 1900s. Evidence of what they were eating and drinking. Were they taking medicines? Were they using fancy dishes? Were they drinking alcohol? Were they smoking pipes? How did they organize their farm? Is there evidence of frugality or extravagant living?
“So we’ve found evidence of the food that they were eating,” Kruczek-Aaron said. “We found a nice deposit of animal bone. We found some pig bone over here and found some clam shell and oyster shell. She seems to have been a fan of shellfish, or the people that lived here. We know that Anna Newman boarded some laborers who helped her run the farm, according to the censuses. So those could also be their meals as well.”
In one excavation site near the back door, they found evidence of a wooden-pipe system that brought water to the house. The wood has all rotted away; but what’s left is the metal that held the pipes together and the tar paper that covered it.
“We found the dishes they were eating off of, a lot of kitchen prep material in the dump,” Kruczek-Aaron said. “So yellowware mixing bowls, what she would have been using to prepare her food. Stoneware crocks for her food storage. White ware and iron stone dishes that she would have been using to eat off of. Lighting glass. Lots of architectural material, nails, window glass, brick, mortar, plaster. We’re finding some small finds like safety pins and a grommet and some buttons.”
Four weeks isn’t a lot of time for an archaeological dig. Kruczek-Aaron said she always wishes she had more time.
“We always find cool things on the last day, and so you’re always trying to get more and to get the most out of the field season to learn the most so that you can take that to the lab and figure out as much as you can about what we’ve been looking at for four weeks. There’s always more to know.”
Kruczek-Aaron grew up in Massachusetts, near a living history museum — Old Sturbridge Village. She spent a lot of time there as a kid, dressing up, churning butter, learning about New England life in the 1830s.
“I loved that magic of history and daily life,” Kruczek-Aaron said, “the more mundane, less of what is often mentioned in history books about battles and politics and all of that, and wars and things like that, and more about what people are doing every day.”
By digging up artifacts, she said, it gives us a window to everybody’s world, not just a select few.
“It’s a more democratic kind of discipline in that everyone leaves behind trash,” Kruczek-Aaron said, “as opposed to written records where there’s lots of filters on those written records in terms of what gets preserved.”
As a kid, Kruczek-Aaron said she was captivated by the history of Old Sturbridge Village. Then she tried to figure out what she could do with that passion for history. She discovered archaeology in college, and she was hooked.
“I was a junior in college, did my first field school like what these students are doing and knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she said.
What does Kruczek-Aaron like the most about archaeology?
“Oh goodness gracious. What don’t I like?” she said, adding that archeology is a way to make history come to life.
“There’s an intimacy and a tactile nature to the work that we do,” she said. “We are revealing history. We are touching artifacts that haven’t been touched in 50 years, 100 years, thousands of years for the first time, after all of that time. There’s a real magic to that that makes that history come to life and really reveals things that are harder to come by from the written record. And so there’s a real beautiful quality to that intimate connection that you can get with past peoples through the things that I’m sure they never in a million years thought anyone would be digging up.”
The Uihlein Foundation owns the “material culture,” as it’s called, found at the dig. Those artifacts will now be cleaned, analyzed and catalogued during a lab class in the spring, and the catalog will be used to answer research questions.