State recognizes value of Middle Encampment site

A historic Revolutionary War encampment in Redding has been added to the State Register of Historic Places and has been designated an Archaeological Preserve.

On Wednesday morning, the state’s Historic Preservation Council approved both recognitions for the Middle Encampment, located on the former Senber property near the intersection of Whortleberry and Limekiln roads. The town and the Nature Conservancy own the property, which they purchased in April 2003.

First Selectman Natalie Ketcham said the state register designation recognizes the importance of the site to the state, and in this particular instance, to the nation because of its connection to the Revolutionary War.

The Archaeological Preserve designation “gives a layer of protection to the site,” Ms. Ketcham said. State statutes require a permit to do any archaeological work at the site, and provide an enforcement mechanism to prevent unlawful activities, she added.

Kathleen von Jena, town historian and archaeological consultant to the town’s Planning Commission, said when the town and the Conservancy purchased the property “the plan from the get-go was to get the property designated as an archaeological preserve,” which helps protect the historic site.

The Middle Encampment was one of three Revolutionary War encampments in Redding during the winter of 1778-1779. The most well known is Putnam Memorial Park, which is named for Major General Israel Putnam. It is also the first designated Archaeological Preserve in the state, selected in 2001. The Middle Encampment is the state’s 32nd Archaeological Preserve.

The encampment in West Redding was lost to development, said Ms. von Jena, but the Middle Encampment site “is absolutely pristine. It hasn’t been developed into a park. It is unique and undisturbed and is therefore an exceptional opportunity for future study…”

According to Ms. von Jena, the Middle Encampment was under the command of General Samuel Holden Parsons, who reported to General Putnam. This site, and the one in West Redding, was home to Connecticut soldiers, she said, while the Putnam encampment was home to New Hampshire and Canadian soldiers.

“This site is so important because Connecticut troops stayed there,” Ms. von Jena said. There were 1,000 to 1,500 troops at the site, she said. A lot of the Connecticut men could just go home for the winter because there was no fighting, she explained about the number of soldiers there at any one time.

To get the Archaeological Preserve designation, the town and Nature Conservancy had to prove it was a legitimate archaeological site, said Ms. von Jena.

“We knew it was. Our historic documents indicated it. The firebacks, which are chimney remains, were similar to those at Putnam Park, so we knew these features existed and could see them, but excavations had to prove it was what we thought, and it was.”

Enter Laurie Weinstein, Ph.D., a professor at Western Connecticut State University who works with faculty members Bethany Morrison and Cosimo Sgarlta.

“Laurie needed a field school for her students, so part of our deal was that she would help us get a nomination for the Archaeological Preserve designation,” Ms. von Jena said.

Dr. Weinstein said she and her students have been working at the Middle Encampment site since 2004, first to survey the site and for historic research. Starting in 2007 and for four years since, there have been archaeological digs at the site by Western Connecticut State University students and students from other universities, she said.

“We surveyed the whole site. Anything we thought was associated with the encampment we plotted on a map,” said Dr. Weinstein. There was just “a little bit of subsurface testing,” she said, adding the testing was done “to see what’s left behind,” but there were not many artifacts in the ground. “We confirmed it was the Middle Encampment,” she said.

Not much will be found at the site, said Dr. Weinstein, explaining that the soldiers were there over the winter and reused as much as they could.

“The point of archaeology is not just to dig stuff up. We want to leave stuff in place,” she said.

Ms. von Jena agreed. “We excavate to answer the questions we have,” she said.

Dr. Weinstein and her students surveyed the site, determined its boundaries, and that it had archaeological value, Ms. von Jena said. “There was a lot of research and mapping and she did it beautifully.”

The work by Dr. Weinstein and her students “was a huge gift to the town. We couldn’t have afforded this,” Ms. von Jena said, praising the partnership between the university and the town. The site will continue to serve as a field school for the university, Ms. von Jena said.

“They’ll help us going forward with monitoring the site, because we have the existing conditions fully documented,” she said.

To get the Archaeological Preserve designation, said Ms. von Jena, the property needed to be on the State Register of Historic places. This provides some preservation capability, she said. “It makes people aware of the site,” and, she said, any agency that gets state grants or licensing, such as for cell towers or power lines, must have a proposed site evaluated for the impact of such projects.

“It doesn’t unto itself provide any protection from development,” she explained. The Archaeological Preserve designation “gives us teeth and a framework to protect the site,” Ms. von Jena said.

Neighbors can and are encouraged to confront people who are digging at a preserve site, or using metal detectors, to determine if they have a state permit allowing them to be here. “If there is no permit, then people should call the police, who have the right to arrest” those without a permit, she said. There is a maximum five years in prison and a $5,000 fine for violating this statute.

Ms. von Jena said the town and Nature Conservancy will have to work out a plan for this newest Archaeological Preserve and post the property as such.

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