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04-08-06 Hoping to uncover St. Marys’ past

By Janie Southard

  ST. MARYS -- The land where two archaeological digs were held 11 years ago to find remains of Fort St. Marys, one of General Anthony Wayne's forts built in the 1790s, was donated to the city.

  The 2.4 acres along the St. Marys River was given to the city by St. Marys resident Marvin Bayer.

  "Marv was very supportive when we were doing the digs and his generous gift will enable us to do more with the fort site at our leisure," said city attorney Kraig Noble, who is recognized as the champion of the 1994 and 1995 fort projects.

  More digs could be on the horizon as well as even a footbridge across the St. Marys River. At the least there will be a plaque commemorating the old fort, actually two old forts, according to Noble.

  "Fort Barbee was built maybe 20 years or so after Fort St. Marys on the same site, which made for some confusion at times," Noble said of the area behind the bowling alley on state Route 66. "By comparison, Fort Barbee was much larger, maybe covering (the equivalent) of three city blocks."  The site was excavated twice to look for remnants of Fort St. Marys, once in 1994 and then a year later by numerous local volunteers under the direction of archaeologist Tony DeRegnaucourt of Arcanum.

  "The very first day we found a cannonball. That was really exciting. It was the best evidence we were close to the original survey (of the fort's probable location)," Noble said.

  There were very few historical indications as to the location of the old fort, which was used primarily as a supply post to equip Fort Wayne and Fort Defiance. As well, the fort, positioned just south of the armory in present St. Marys, was there to protect water transportation on the St. Marys River.

  "We know the river was quite a thoroughfare back then, much larger than it is now. We do believe the fort was along the river, but the river could have, and probably has, shifted over the past 200 years. Also various fills have shifted the (ground) levels of the site," Noble said.

  Archaeology is a painstaking sift through centuries of debris. Noble pointed out that "you don't just go in with a shovel and start digging great scoops of dirt."

  Rather, strings are laid out in a grid of, for example, 12-inch squares. The archaeologists or trained volunteers begin digging on a very small scale and dust off objects with a small brush. One always stays within his own square.

  About $5,000 in funding for the digs came from a grant from the St. Marys Community Improvement Corporation, the city, various businesses and many individual donors. "All our workers were volunteers so most of the money was to hire the archaeologist," Noble said.

  Historian Paulette Hoelscher of St. Marys authored with DeRegnaucourt a book about the digs called "The Archaeology of Fort St. Marys: Major General Anthony Wayne's Fort 1795 to 1796."

  She and DeRegnaucourt made a whirlwind trip to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Fort Ligonier in Pennsylvania to look at some of General Wayne's original papers hoping to find references to St. Marys. They made additional trips to Michigan and Indiana in search of local references.

  "There's a lot more research to do. We've barely scratched the surface. You'll find a scrap here and a scrap there -- but it's always interesting," said Noble, a history major in college who plans to write a new history of St. Marys after he retires from law practice.

  He observed that he feels sorry for future historians.

  "Yes, I have great sympathy for them, unless someone somewhere is saving all the (Internet) blogs. You have to wonder if it will one day all disappear off the computers, and there will be no records of us," he said.


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