Lost and Found: The Rediscovery of Colonial Fort Halifax

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As the fleet of bateaux slipped into the lee of what would come to be called Clemson Island and Lingle Island along the east shore of the mile-wide Susquehanna River, the smoke from the Armstrong family’s compound would have been visible to the men in the boats, as would the distinctive hook-shaped mouth of the creek that enters the river there.

Aboard the 20-odd bateaux and several dugout canoes were a contingent of some 400 British Colonial troops, accompanied by a parson, roughly 20 officers and noncommissioned officers, and in some cases the officers’ wives and families. Originally formed as the 3rd Battalion of the Pennsylvania Colonials, they became known as the Augusta Regiment.

Their mission was to establish a fort at the forks of the Susquehanna in what is now the town of Sunbury but was then a recently abandoned Native American refugee settlement called Shamokin. On their way to the forks, they were to select a location for a supply and munitions outpost somewhere between Hunter’s Fort, just north of modern Harrisburg, and the planned location of Fort Augusta. This landing seemed perfect to the brigade’s commander, William Clapham (1722–63). The river terraces overlooked the channel between the islands and the mainland, so no movement along the east bank of the river would escape the notice of a garrison. There was also a good landing for the vessels that would carry munitions and men between the forks of the river and the settlements downstream. Robert and Alexander Armstrong’s family compound included a sawmill that would help process the timbers needed for the fort’s defensive works, and the Armstrongs were undoubtedly well connected within the network of other pioneer families in the area and with the local Native American residents.

As the regiment debarked from the bateaux on June 6, 1756, they mustered into their companies to receive orders. The following day they began to strike their first blows against the French and their Native allies not with their muskets but with shovels and axes. They set to building a 160-foot-square fort that would be garrisoned and used as a supply depot for about a year and a half before being abandoned and partially deconstructed. Clapham initially referred to this fort as “the camp at Armstrong’s” in correspondence with Gov. Robert Morris (c.1700–1764). Morris wrote back to Clapham and asked the fort to be named in honor of George Montegu-Dunk, the second earl of Halifax.


Two Worlds

The soldiers of the Augusta Regiment were mostly young men and likely recruits from southeastern Pennsylvania and lower Susquehanna Valley settlements and farms. They would have had limited contact with Native people and with French colonists. Their knowledge of both would have been colored by how the colonial and British press reported on the world war now raging between France and Britain and on the reports of traders and frontier people who had traveled west and returned.

Their names — Field, McDonald, Scredlin, Karr — identify many of them as immigrants from Ulster or the Rhineland or as first-generation colonials with Scots Irish or German roots. In the first half of the 18th century, colonial Pennsylvanians arrived from Britain and Ireland, the German states, and other places in Europe and Africa with the taste of repression still in their mouths. They fled economic hardship, religious persecution, grasping landlords, famines and bloodshed to come to the colony. They often arrived almost penniless, and some came in bondage, either as enslaved Africans or European indentured servants. Their expectations of their new home were colored by misinformation, propaganda and bigotry. Most believed there was endless, unclaimed and freely available land to occupy, clear and farm. Many believed the original inhabitants of the New World were unsophisticated and violent savages with inferior pagan religious beliefs. The young soldiers brought many of their religious and ethnic prejudices with them from Europe, and this, along with irregular provisions and pay, led to strife and even mutiny within their ranks, particularly between the German and British factions.

For most of these young men, this journey into the vast, wooded borderlands of the colony was their first. The forests and mountains they were entering were now rippling with the unknown, full of menace and tension following the disastrous defeat of Gen. Edward Braddock on the Monongahela the previous July. All of them were alert, even fearful. On that same June day that the Augusta Regiment landed at the Armstrong compound, it is a near certainty that concealed in the woods on the height of land east of the landing, or perhaps in the dense forests and thickets of the river islands just to the west, other mostly young men were quietly observing them. They had likely immigrated to the Susquehanna Valley from their birthplaces along the Delaware River or traveled recently from the Ohio Valley. They may have spoken Shawnee, Munsee or Unami or any of several other Algonkian languages. They would not have known Governor Morris’ plans for the expedition, but they would have understood that the heavily armed men in the bateaux and canoes were not a good sign.

Many of the Native people who populated the Susquehanna’s middle and lower valleys had, like their colonial counterparts, arrived as embittered and fearful refugees. Following the infamous Walking Purchase of 1737, many Lenape people from the Delaware Valley found themselves dispossessed and migrated westward to the Susquehanna. Here they made common cause with Shawnee, Susquehannock and other Native American refugees and built settlements at places like Conestoga, Pequea and Shamokin. They formed trading relationships with colonial frontier settlers and traders, like the Armstrongs, and also with the powerful Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) in the northern reaches of the Susquehanna.

The Haudenosaunee exercised de facto military and political control of the upper valley as a consequence of their late-17th-century military successes and via the provisions of the Treaty of Albany in 1722. The refugee tribes found themselves in a dependent and often fraught relationship between their Haudenosaunee and British Colonial neighbors. They were also courted by and traded with French Colonial interests to the north and west. Many of them struggled to remain neutral to avoid the wrath of the colonial powers or the Haudenosaunee, while engaging in trade with all three and trusting none of them. They had to tread carefully among these worlds, and they lived in a complex, shifting and dangerous middle ground.

By 1755 many of the Shamokin refugees had enough of the encroachment and violence of the English Colonists, and as the Seven Years’ War began, they threw in their lot with the French. After the destruction of General Braddock’s army in 1755, the residents of Shamokin could see the handwriting on the wall and abandoned the settlement before the English could exact their revenge. Most would have moved westward to French-controlled areas in the Ohio Valley, or north to French Canada, but some remained in dispersed encampments along the Susquehanna and its tributaries. All of them were left to wonder how the international struggle for empire would affect them and their families. By the end of the war, they found themselves dispossessed again. By the turn of the 19th century, most of the original people of Pennsylvania had moved west and north of the state and never lived again in the place they first knew as home.

As the current century began, the stories of these refugee Native Americans, and those of the Augusta Regiment, remained mostly untold. In truth, beyond the few surviving documents and maps of the period, we know very little about what happened at the Armstrong compound in 1756 and 1757. The story of Fort Halifax is the story of two cultures and two worlds, how they came to see each other, and the consequences of their interactions. In 2011 that story began to be told.


The Search Begins

Following the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution, the Armstrong compound and its abandoned colonial fort remained a farm, passing through the hands of several families over more than two centuries. The 18th-century buildings moldered and disappeared, their locations and appearance forgotten. Fort Halifax always remained a celebrated part of local heritage, and the borough and township that grew up nearby took the name of the fort. A late-19th-century legislative commission that attempted to relocate the sites of Pennsylvania’s colonial forts included an entry on Fort Halifax in its report. By 1896, when that report was published, all that was visible was a well that was reputed to have been associated with the fort. In the 20th century, artifact collectors turned up lead balls, gun flints, coins and other items likely associated with either the Armstrongs or the fort, but the stories of Fort Halifax and its people, and the location of the fort itself, were lost to time. Beyond the knowledge that the archaeological remains of the fort were likely somewhere on the farm of the Yeager family in modern Halifax Township, Fort Halifax remained lost to memory. As it happened, that loss was not permanent.

As the new century dawned, Andrew and Sarah Yeager had been farming their property since 1951 and were hoping to retire and to see their farm permanently protected from development. In 2004 the Central Pennsylvania Conservancy, with support from private donors, acquired the 174-acre farm from the Yeagers, placing the land in a conservation easement. In 2006 the conservancy transferred the land to Halifax Township for use as a municipal park. The following year an all-volunteer nonprofit organization, the Friends of Fort Halifax Park, was incorporated to help maintain and advocate for the park.

In 2010 Halifax Township commissioned a management plan for the park with the support of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR). Through a cooperative agreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), DCNR commissioned the first formal archaeological reconnaissance of the park as part of that planning process. That work was done through PennDOT’s award-winning student cooperative program based at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). Known as PHAST (PennDOT Highway Archaeology Survey Team), the co-op functions both as a training ground for young professionals in resource management archaeology and as a cost-effective tool for completing small archaeological survey projects. The agreement between DCNR and PennDOT launched a series of small-scale investigations at the site by PHAST and IUP students, as well as community volunteers from the Friends of Fort Halifax Park, in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2016. That work included three MA thesis projects by graduate students interning at PennDOT, and the methods employed ranged from ground penetrating radar (GPR) surveys to metal detecting, from traditional excavations to survey work. It was during these projects that I first became involved with the archaeology of the park in my role as the coordinator of the PHAST program at PennDOT.

Those reconnaissance investigations produced the first portrait of the ancient, dense and complex history of human land use at the park. The dominant hue of that portrait is the ubiquitous presence of pre-European artifacts, particularly flakes and shattered pieces of flint and other tool stone, found everywhere in the park. Situated as it is at the mouth of a river tributary, the park lies in proximity to all the resources a great river like the Susquehanna provides. Everything from shellfish to shad, from waterfowl to edible and medicinal plants, were available and abundant for millennia. Cobbles of tool stone are scattered across the riverbed. The river itself was an important route of transportation and trade that allowed dugout canoes to travel from the Chesapeake estuary deep into the Appalachian hinterlands, allowing for long distance movements of goods, people and ideas. It is no surprise that Native people used this place for centuries. Projectile points, ceramics and other objects recovered from those first archaeological projects at the park spanned the period from Early Archaic (approximately 8,000 years before the present) to contact with the first colonists in the 17th century. Long before the Armstrong compound, the park was a familiar place and a home to Pennsylvania’s First People.

There was also ample evidence of historic period land use from colonial times to the 20th century. The more than 250 years of farming, as well as 19th-century construction and use of the Wiconisco Canal and the rail line that parallels it, are all plainly visible in the ceramics, buttons, tools, fasteners, coins, glass and other artifacts recovered between 2011 and 2016. The PHAST/IUP projects also documented the foundations of farm structures from the first half of the 19th century. No foundations or other buried features — nonportable evidence of human activity like trash piles, privies and wells — associated with the mid-18th-century world of Fort Halifax and the Armstrong settlement were found, but there was tantalizing evidence of that era in some of the artifacts recovered. A total of 25 round lead balls were found at the site, many in the right diameters for the fowling pieces, trade guns and military weapons of the period. Fragments of British Colonial pottery of the period turned up. Handmade nails and spikes and other wrought iron objects were found. All of them indicated the proximity of either the fort or the Armstrong compound or both, but the buried features that would have defined the precise locations eluded those first excavations. Still, the evidence recovered from the 2011 to 2016 projects was the springboard that ultimately led to something quite remarkable.


The Rediscovery Project

Like many municipal parks, Fort Halifax Park depends in many ways on the dedication of volunteers. The Friends of Fort Halifax Park (FoFHP) have put thousands of hours into everything from tending pollinator gardens to trash collection and trail maintenance, from helping the archaeologists to organizing festivals and fundraisers. As the information from the various PHAST and thesis projects accumulated, members of FoFHP and the community of archaeologists who had spent time at the site became convinced that remains of the fort simply had to be somewhere close to the areas that had been investigated.

By 2020 a plan to try to relocate the fort had begun to form. It started with FoFHP reaching out to Dr. Jonathan Burns at Juniata College in Huntington. Burns heads the Cultural Resources Institute at Juniata and has been the driving force behind cutting- edge research and preservation efforts at a number of important 18th-century military sites in the commonwealth, including Fort Shirley, Fort Lyttelton, Fort Ligonier, Fort Roberdeau and Fort Dewart. Burns had volunteered his time on several of the PHAST and IUP projects and was familiar with the surviving 18th-century documents and maps of the fort. He agreed with FoFHP that some intact archaeological evidence of the fort had to be preserved somewhere in the park. In 2020, following successful grant proposals to the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Stabler Foundation, and other private interests, FoFHP partnered with Juniata College to support a field school at the site in 2021.

The field school would include 13 students from Juniata College, Dickinson College, Penn State University, SUNY Potsdam, and Saint John’s University, as well as volunteers from FoFHP and the local community. The diversity of programs and experiences in this field crew was an enormous asset to the project as all the students expanded their suite of skills and their understanding of the basics of archaeology over the 16 days of the school. The crew also included two “secret weapons.”

Dave Williams and Jeremy Severn are U.S. Army veterans, both of whom had been deployed to the Middle East in the last decade. They are both products of the Department of Defense’s Veterans Curation Program that employs returning vets in the care, processing and curation of archaeological artifacts and records from the Corps of Engineers and other DOD-sponsored archaeological projects. Both have completed certification training in archaeological metal detecting and accomplished important work at a number of Civil War sites in Maryland. Their metal-detecting skills were critical to the 2021 project at Fort Halifax. As deployed veterans, they shared a surprising number of experiences with the young men who built and garrisoned the frontier fort they were searching for. Their perspectives on that shared experience proved to be invaluable.

The workplan developed for that field school began with a GPR survey focused on a part of the park a short distance south of the areas investigated earlier. Dr. Jorden Hayes of Dickinson College completed that GPR survey in April 2021, with the hope that preserved subsurface features like the foundations of buildings or the fort’s defensive works might be detected by the radar. When she looked at the results, she noted the presence of several promising locations in this portion of the park.

All archaeological projects progress from what is known toward what remains unknown. At Fort Halifax, what Jonathan Burns and the rest of the team knew included the results of the earlier projects, the limited correspondence and records of the colonial government and military, at least two period maps that depict the fort, and the 19th-century commission report. Beginning with this information, a plan was developed that focused on the area north of the park access road and west of the railroad line. The plan to proceed toward the unknown location of the fort included a provision for extensive metal detecting in this area, while simultaneously opening 1-metersquare (roughly 3 feet) excavation units in locations where the GPR survey had detected subsurface targets. Although the excavations encountered large numbers of artifacts, especially tool stone flakes and ceramic sherds, no buried features turned up initially, as the targets the GPR provided proved to be elusive. The metaldetecting survey was instantly successful and, in some ways, full of surprises.

I was volunteering at the site on June 16, working in the field laboratory, when one of the volunteers came and asked me to come out to the excavation area to look at something the metal detectors had turned up. When I walked out there, Dave Williams handed me a coin and said, “Check that out!”

I found myself looking at a worn but recognizable copper French liard with the strike date still quite visible: 1655. This coin was struck and in circulation for a century before Fort Halifax was constructed. This was not entirely unprecedented since coinage was scarce on the colonial frontier and tended to remain in circulation for a long time, but it was still a surprise. The coin was the first of numerous remarkable finds by the metal detectors. The inventory grew daily and included many handmade nails and spikes, gun parts and hardware, ammunition, buckles, buttons, a strike-a-light, hand and farm tools, and other 18th-century artifacts. As the field school progressed, the locations of these metal detector finds were used to emplace more excavation units. They also began to tell us something about their former owners.

Unsurprisingly, many of the artifacts were of British Colonial derivation and documented the activities and lives of the soldiers and officers of the Augusta Regiment, but not all of the period artifacts belonged to them. Of the 15 recovered lead balls from the site, three were in the .65 caliber range used by the French Charleville musket. Of the five recovered coins from the site, three were identifiable and all of them are of French origin. These include two copper liards and a silver liard à la croix struck in 1580. One of the copper liards was perforated to accept a string; that is, it was likely worn as adornment. Perforated coins have been associated in the Middle Atlantic region with Native American and sometimes African American populations as charms or pendants. A gunflint recovered from the site appears to be French or “honey” flint. In short, some of the site’s most recognizable artifacts are of French derivation. This suggests that they are connected to people operating within the French colonial trade networks. It became obvious that if we were close to or inside the fort perimeter, some of the regular visitors were likely Native Americans. This was unexpected. We assumed that to the fort’s garrison Native people were the enemy. It was here that the experiences of our veteran volunteers became valuable and enormously relevant.

Even in the 21st century, military deployment to a fortified base at the edges of friendly territory and beyond has parallels to the 18th-century Pennsylvania frontier. One of them is frequent and close contact with the local population, not all of it adversarial. As Dave Williams explained to me: “The locals are where intelligence comes0 from and where interpreters are found. Also, part of our mission included ‘winning hearts and minds.’” So in rural Iraq and Afghanistan, local people were treated by American medics, and local leaders were invited to meals. Locals came and went to the bases. Neither Williams nor Severn were surprised that some of the same interactions may have been part of life at Fort Halifax. Thanks to the work and understanding of our veteran volunteers, a small window into daily life at Fort Halifax began to open for us, but we still weren’t exactly sure what we were looking at. We needed to find features.


“What Do You Think That Is?”

New excavation units were opened every day through the course of the 17-day field school, eventually exposing about 55 square meters of the site. Halfway through the project, there were tantalizing hints that we were very close to our objective. Those hints came in the form of a thin stratum of 18th-century landscape preserved below the plowed topsoil of the old farm field we were working in and concentrated in the southeast portion of the project area. This inch-thick layer, recognizable by a slight color difference caused by an increase in organic matter, contained only 18th-century artifacts and sat atop the undisturbed subsoil of the river terrace. As the excavations followed this stratum across the site, we felt certain that it would lead us to a foundation or to the defensive works of the fort, but for much of the second week, those features failed to materialize.

Ask any archaeologist about “the rule” and they will know exactly what you’re talking about. It can be most succinctly stated as follows: “The [insert your stupendous discovery here] will be found on the last day of the project.” In part, “the rule” is a product of all projects simply progressing steadily toward portions of sites that seem to be promising based on incoming results in the field, but it is frankly amazing how many great discoveries occur at the last possible moment in the project schedule. At Fort Halifax in 2021, “the rule” was reaffirmed in spades.

On June 26, two days before the project would wrap up, and the penultimate day of excavation, two features appeared right below the thin 18th-century stratum. The first was a dark rectangular organic stain in the subsoil about 10 inches wide and running east-west across the width of a 1-meter-square excavation unit. It wasn’t very deep and didn’t contain many associated artifacts. Its straight edges suggested something like a squared timber laid on the ground, perhaps a sill log for some sort of structure. Nearby, in another excavation unit, was a dry laid-stone masonry feature that was square in shape and appeared to be a corner footer for a structure or part of a smaller feature like the base of a blacksmith’s forge. The features energized the crew and volunteers, but their function remained enigmatic. In an attempt to see if we could decipher what they were, a new 2-meter-square unit was opened just east of the features.

On June 27, the last day of excavation, in the blistering heat of early afternoon, a young field school student approached me and asked if I would come look at something that had appeared in the floor of the new excavation unit. I took one look, told him and his dig partner to stand by, and walked over to Jonathan Burns, who was glued to the surveying instrument where he was working with a couple of students to complete the mapping of the hundreds of objects found by the metal detectors.

“You’d better come over here,” I said. “I’m pretty busy,” he responded. “You’re about to get a lot busier!”

Soon the entire crew of students and volunteers gathered around and gawked at the dense, dark and rectangular stain in the soil running east-west from edge-to-edge across the excavation unit. Burns asked me what I thought it was, and I told him I wasn’t sure, but it was obviously related to some sort of massive structure of some kind. When we reviewed the fragmentary period records of the fort’s construction, the lightbulbs went on. There were references to laying down square timbers side by side and covering them with earth to construct the fort’s perimeter. We were looking at a portion of what is known as a log revetment, a sturdy and artillery- proof earthen-and-log embankment and part of the fort’s defensive works. For the first time after a decade of searching, a small piece of Fort Halifax had been positively identified and relocated.

Since we had almost no time left in the project, the feature was carefully photographed and mapped, covered with landscapers’ fabric and reburied without excavation. Plans began almost immediately to implement a future effort to reopen the excavations, find the perimeter of Fort Halifax, and begin to reconstruct the events that occurred within and around it.

Word of the discovery traveled quickly through the local media coverage, and the Friends of Fort Halifax Park were honored by the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office with a 2021 Community Initiative Award for their support of the heritage of the park. By mid-2022, more support had been secured from the National Park Service, the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and a major field project is scheduled for the site in the spring and summer of 2023. The results will include a plan to protect and preserve the site as the park is improved and managed. They will also include an informed interpretation of the site for visitors and for the public. Perhaps most importantly, we will finally have a chance to understand something of the interactions of the young men in the bateaux and the people who watched them arrive.


What Binds Us All Together

On a hilltop on the eastern edge of Fort Halifax Park there’s a magnificent view to the west and north of this entire reach of the Susquehanna, as it winds through the ridges toward the Chesapeake. It’s a place I visit regularly—an ideal spot to take in the landscape and reflect on its long, consequential and sometimes troubling history. I recently visited the overlook to compose my thoughts on what the rediscovery of Fort Halifax really means and to consider its value to all of us.

There is no escaping the fact that the story of Fort Halifax and the Seven Years’ War on the Pennsylvania frontier is replete with sorrow. Dispossession, terror and mortal violence are woven through that episode of the American past. Much of the violence that engulfed the frontier during the mid-18th century was the result of unfamiliarity, false assumptions and fear born out of cultures that clashed, who misunderstood each other, and could never grasp their common humanity. It is a sobering story that can teach us all something.

Archaeological sites are more than dots on a map and archaeological projects are more than just a collection of catalogs, feature records, surveying and field notes, photographs, maps, profile drawings, and other minutiae. They are in fact a repository of the many mundane and remarkable moments of real human lives. Within that repository are clues to what those lives were like, who those people were, what they thought, how they felt. Defining the parallels and commonalities between those long ago lives and our own, and giving voice to the voiceless, is the real work of the archaeologist and the real value of places like Fort Halifax. The site speaks to all Pennsylvanians and all Americans about how we got to where we are today, about what that heritage means, and what lessons it holds for us and for our collective future. The rediscovery of Fort Halifax is, in part, a rediscovery of who we all are.


Community Initiative

The Friends of Fort Halifax Park recently received a Community Initiative Award for two significant preservation and discovery efforts at Fort Halifax Park in 2021: the archaeological excavation project to find the location of colonial Fort Halifax and the preservation of the 19th-century barn and house at the park. The Community Initiative Awards is a program of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office’s #PreservationHappensHere initiative to encourage Pennsylvanians to discover, share and celebrate historic and older places in their communities. The awards recognize organizations, municipalities, agencies, individuals and others for their preservation successes throughout the commonwealth.

For more information, visit phmc.pa.gov/Preservation


Further Reading

Anderson, Fred. The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War. New York: Viking, 2005. / Burns, Jonathan A. “The Fort Shirley Site: A Nexus of Archaeology and History on Pennsylvania’s Colonial Frontier.” Pennsylvania History 88, no. 3 (Summer 2021): 351–361. / Report of the Commission to Locate the Site of the Frontier Forts of Pennsylvania. [Harrisburg]: Clarence M. Busch, State Printer of Pennsylvania, 1896. / Waddell, Louis, and Bruce D. Bomberger. The French and Indian War in Pennsylvania, 1753–1763. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, 1996.


Joe Baker is an archaeologist, writer and editor. His most recent articles for Pennsylvania Heritage are “The Source: Native American Quarries in Pennsylvania (Fall 2021) and “High on a Mountain: Pennsylvania’s Legacy of Country Music” (Winter 2020).