As far as Mike Roets can tell, A.H. Van Vliet did a pretty good job.
Roets, director of the New York State Historic Sites Archaeology Program, has been in charge of the recent digging at the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site in Montgomery County, an effort that has helped historians pinpoint the location and heighten their perception of Fort Hunter, built back in 1712 by the British. As it turns out, what Roets and his associates have uncovered is a lot like the artists’ rendering created by Van Vliet back in the late 1970s.
“He drew what he thought the fort looked like, based on the 1711 plan and the contract, and the archaeology we’ve done seems to support his drawing,” said Roets, who will speak about his findings at Thursday night’s Colonial Festival Dinner at the Glen Sanders Mansion. “Sometimes the historical record and the archaeology don’t always agree, but in this case, they seem to be lining up nicely.”
Roets, who works for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation at Peebles Island, said his experience at the Fort Hunter project, which is within the grounds of the Schoharie Crossing Historic State Site, may very well be the highlight of his career.
Colonial Festival Dinner
WHAT: A presentation by New York state archaeologist Michael Roets
WHERE: Glen Sanders Mansion, 1 Glen Ave., Scotia
WHEN: 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7
HOW MUCH: $50
MORE INFO: Contact Diana Carter at 225-6948 or firstname.lastname@example.org
“Our goals are always preservation first, but you also like to make great discoveries, and sometimes it does happen,” said Roets, who lives in Round Lake. “I’m still in the beginning to the middle of my career, and I feel very lucky to have been involved in this work at Fort Hunter. I think it’s very important history.
“I did some very exciting things in college, working on my archaeology degree, and spent a lot of time down in Central America. We uncovered a throne from a Mayan king and plenty of other really cool things, but to me, this discovery, right here in Montgomery County, is as good or better than the Mayan throne.”
Roets’ work at Fort Hunter is going to help state officials change some of the educational emphasis at the Schoharie Crossing site. Now, much of the interpretive history is focused on the early days of the Erie Canal, but with the information collected since Roets’ work began in 2011, site staff will be able to tell more of the Fort Hunter history a century earlier.
“The canal locks and the aqueduct are amazing features of the Erie Canal history now located at the Schoharie Crossing site,” said Roets. “But with our recent discoveries, we’re going to be able to put up new interpretive markers that will give more detail about the fort and the Mohawk village that was also right there. Before, when you visited the site, you didn’t really get a sense of where the fort was. All that stuff was underground, but now we really do have a feel for it, and we’re going to be able to give people a sense of where everything was.”
Flooding aids effort
The state had done some earlier digging at the site, but never to a large extent, the first priority being preservation. However, when Hurricane Irene hit upstate New York during the last few days of August 2011, Roets and his colleagues were presented with a wonderful opportunity as the floodwaters receded.
“The flooding was on Sunday and Monday, and we were also flooded out here [at Peebles Island] and couldn’t get in until Wednesday,” remembered Roets. “But I had spoken to the people at Schoharie Crossing, and on Thursday we were there. I was just amazed at what I saw. I had been there a few times before and had dug out a few test units, but we don’t typically open up these big, 30- to 40-foot areas. We don’t have the resources for that. But the flood did it for us. It was remarkable how much of the site was exposed.”
Along with remnants of the fort’s walls, Roets found several smaller items that date to the time the fort was initially erected and a later time, 1760, when the structure was reportedly rebuilt.
“It’s hard to say exactly what’s what, but we have various artifacts, trade beads, stones and other objects that date back to 1760 and a bit earlier,” said Roets. “One very interesting item was a silver ring with a blue stone in the middle and flanking green stones on both sides. It was probably something somebody used as a trade item for the Mohawks.”
A Buffalo native who grew up in Rochester, Roets is a SUNY Geneseo graduate who went on to get his master’s at the University at Buffalo. He began working for the state in 2006.
“There are 42 historic sites and parks across New York, and if there’s any construction at any of the sites I go out there and try to make sure they’re not going to ruin anything important,” said Roets, who spent much of October, November and December 2011 at the Fort Hunter site. “Any kind of issue like that, it’s my responsibility to deal with it.”
None of Roets’ work has done anything to discredit the illustration of Fort Hunter that Van Vliet was hired to come up with for the state more than 30 years ago. His drawing shows the fort with four blockhouses two stories tall at each corner, as well as Queen Anne’s chapel in the middle. The fort was constructed just 20 years after the 1690 Schenectady Massacre, when that entire area was still regarded as the New World’s western frontier.
Van Vliet, a Kingston native who died in 1981, was an Amsterdam High School graduate who worked for Bell Telephone and the New York State Barge Canal before retiring to Fultonville. He drew and painted many scenes from the Mohawk Valley and was the illustrator for John Vrooman’s 1958 book “The Promised Land,” a story about the early German Palatine settlements in the Mohawk, Hudson and Schoharie valleys.
This year’s Colonial Festival Dinner is being held on behalf of the Community Archaeology Program at Schenectady County Community College. The first event was held back in 1985 by the Central State Street Merchants Association to help commemorate the anniversary of the Schenectady Massacre on Feb. 8, 1690.
The dinner has not been held every year and since 2003 has been sponsored by the Schenectady Heritage Area Visitors Center at Proctors. Dick Purga, acting director of development for the city of Schenectady, which oversees the visitors center, said his office is no longer connected with the dinner.