Monday, April 14, 2014

Mystery on the Maumee

This week, we have a fascinating article from Patrick M. Tucker, RPA, of Firelands Archaeological Research Center in Amherst, Ohio. I recruited him as a guest blogger when I read an article he wrote with David Stothers in Northwest Ohio History. This project focuses on a frontier settlement in Ohio called Port Miami, and the long, strange story of how Port Miami was lost, almost found, almost found again, and finally really found through diligent historical research and the revisiting of an old and almost forgotten archaeological collection. That archaeological collection, and the excavation of the site (18Wo50), led to the discovery of a really remarkable piece of history that had been overlooked for 200 years - and it was a very exciting story, too. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Note: Port Miami was known variously as Port Miami, the Port of Miami, Miami Rapids, and Maumee Rapids, among other combinations. For the sake of clarity, I have changed all references to the town's name to "Port Miami," although this name was by no means agreed upon historically. The river near the settlement is known today as the Maumee, so I refer to it as such, although it likewise has had many names in the past.


By Patrick M. Tucker, RPA
Firelands Archaeological Research Center, Amherst, Ohio

The historian Donald Hickey has famously called the War of 1812 “America’s forgotten war,” but forgotten or not, the war was particularly hard-fought along the Detroit frontier. In North America and Canada, over 45 battles were fought during the course of the entire conflict. Three of the five worst actions in terms of the number of Americans killed, wounded, and captured were all fought near Lake Erie’s western basin. Those three battles were the siege and surrender of Detroit (2,340 men lost on August 16, 1812), the battles and massacre of the River Raisin (1,067 between January 17-19, 1813), and the first and second sieges of Fort Meigs (938 between April 28-May 9 and July 21-27, 1813).

But what happened to the small American frontier settlements and communities in the Midwestern part of the country, caught in the web of military action between Great Britain, her native allies, and the United States? History, for the most part, remains silent on this aspect of the war. There must have been dozens of frontier settlements in the present-day states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin that faced the problem fight or flight during the War of 1812. This is the story of one such settlement.

The Mysterious Village

Early military reports of the War of 1812 near Fort Meigs, Ohio, and late 19th-century reminiscences by early settlers suggested the existence of a previously unknown and mysterious settlement along the Maumee River prior to the construction of Fort Meigs in 1813.

Elias Darnell, a volunteer soldier with the Kentucky militia stationed at Fort Meigs, kept a journal. On January 16, 1813, he noted the solemn appearance and majestic beauty of the rural landscape, draped in a blanket of white snow. He remarked that the only signs of human settlement were the brick chimneys of ruined houses, their former owners apparently long gone and unknown. Less than a month later, Captain Daniel Cushing, commander of a gun battery of the 2nd U.S. Light Artillery Regiment at Fort Meigs, fired a cannon ball from the fort, across the Maumee River, where it landed short of its intended target and bounced into the only abandoned house still standing among the ruins of this unknown village. The ruins were mentioned once again in June of 1813 when Samuel Williams, of Chillicothe (Ohio), sent a description and sketch of the area to the editor of the Weekly Register in Baltimore (Maryland) for publication and the interest of its readers concerning the war near Fort Meigs.

Samuel Williams' map of the area around Fort Meigs, Ohio, including the ruin of a village. From the Miami Rapids Weekly Register, Jul 17 1813 V4 No 98
Other clues to the mysterious village’s existence came from celebratory activities and reminiscences of early settlers remembering the War of 1812 in the local community. At a battlefield preservation ceremony conducted at Fort Meigs in 1896 by the Maumee Valley Monumental Association, two women, Esther Purdy Green and Philothe Clark, shared their experiences with the public as young girls who lived as frontier pioneers near the Maumee Rapids in 1812. And, in 1908, hundred of musketballs and other War of 1812 artifacts, including a copper U.S. 1813 cent, washed out of the river bank below and slightly upriver of Fort Meigs. Local historian John Gunckel was eager to attribute these remains to military activities at Fort Meigs, not knowing these objects could have been the result of military action well before Fort Meigs was constructed to defend Ohio from British and Indian military invasion and attack.

Was the village destroyed in fighting during the British and Indian invasion of Ohio after the fall of Detroit in August of 1812? Or had the settlers simply fled, abandoning their homes? What caused the village to disappear, almost without a trace, from the American frontier landscape?

The Discovery of 18Wo50

In 1977, students from the University of Toledo, under David M. Stothers, excavated the Strzesynski site (33Wo50) on the Maumee River floodplain just west of Fort Meigs. The excavations revealed structural remains of an early 19th-century log farmhouse, as well as some prehistoric materials and various other artifacts. Historical investigations, including the examination of the property records, deeds, and other archival sources, had not been conducted. Lesson number one: never dig an historic site without first conducting historical investigations. Historical research will tell you what questions to ask of the site, where to look, and its overall significance to local, regional, and national history.

Excavations at 33Wo50
Among the artifacts recovered from the site were coins, War of 1812 military artifacts (1st and 3rd light artillery regiment buttons, U.S. general service button, scabbard chape, musket sling clasp), crockery, buttons with quality marks, a brass locket with a glass cover, a Britannia ladle handle, a musket ball and shot, iron nails,  brass thimble, a jaw harp, a lead bale seal,a screw driver, a silver-plated Indian brooch, federal-style drawer-pull plates, and a pocket knife with an engraved bone handle.

An assortment of the artifacts recovered at 33Wo50
One of the features identified during the brief excavations, designated Feature 4, contained some of the remains of a structure. The profile or cross-section of this feature showed a cellar hole at the bottom, followed by a layer of fire-reddened clay and a burned structure floor, structural rubble and debris above the floor layer, and the plow zone above this with scattered artifacts and other materials. Cultural contents consisted of foundation stone (large limestone rock slabs and cobbles) above the cellar hole, heat-oxidized limestone mortar, lathe-plaster from the structure’s interior walls, fire-reddened clay, pieces of carbonized wood with mortar still attached, hand-forged and machine-cut iron nails, various early 19th-century artifacts, burnt brick from a collapsed chimney, deformed and discolored window glass (burned or heat-oxidized), and highly corroded sheet iron. This feature probably represented part of the north wall of the farmhouse, which contained the home’s doorway with at least one window facing the Maumee River, which was the primary means of transportation during the pioneer period.

The base of the structure had a limestone rock or slab foundation supporting a wooden floor. Handmade brick recovered from this feature and the general fill of the excavation unit represented a fireplace and chimney. The structure was destroyed by fire at some point, and the debris and rubble with cultural contents slumped into the cellar hole. 

After only a week of test excavations, the property owner visited the site during lunch one day, and asked the field crew what they had found. The principal investigator was away from the site at the time, and the field crew, excited about their interesting discoveries, told the property owner about their findings, including the handful of coins they had recovered.

Excavations at 33Wo50
Later that day, the property owner returned to the site and ordered the archaeologists to pack up their equipment and leave the property. Members of the Toledo Area Aboriginal Research Society (TAARS) at Fort Meigs later observed a backhoe at the site excavating several trenches; it appears that the property owner believed some sort of buried treasure was present on his property. Lesson number two: never let the field crew engage in conversation about the excavations with the property owner. That’s the job of the principal investigator. A simple slip of the tongue can compromise an entire archaeological project.

Preliminary historical research identified Aurora Spafford and his mother, Olive Spafford, as the owners of the farmhouse and property from 1818 to 1823. Amos Spafford, Aurora’s father and Olive’s husband, was a customs collector from 1810 until his death in 1817. Most of the artifacts recovered from the site were consistent with a frontier domestic site dating to the first part of the 19th century; but Stothers was intrigued by small discrepancies in the material culture and the historical documentation. There were a number of War of 1812-period military artifacts among the materials recovered from the site. Were these heirlooms? The only widely known War of 1812 activity that occurred nearby was at Fort Meigs. What was the connection between the Spaffords and the War of 1812?

Lacking funding for further research, and with plenty of other endangered sites to worry about, Stothers moved on to other projects.

18Wo50 was boxed up and shelved for 32 years.

The Spafford Farmstead

In 2009, with the War of 1812 bicentennial approaching, interest in sites with a connection to the war increased, and 18Wo50 was dusted off for a second look. Stothers recalled there were several War of 1812 military artifacts in the 33Wo50 collection that were not satisfactorily reconciled with the historical context of the Spafford farmhouse. Stothers and a former contract archaeologist (the author of this post) began in-depth historical investigations of the site and analysis of its material culture, to see how much of the mystery they could unravel.

The first key piece of evidence they found was a petition written by Amos Spafford to Ohio State Senator Thomas Worthington in 1811. In it, Spafford asked Congress to pass a law giving him the right of pre-emption to purchase his land. 

Spafford’s petition was not a major priority when it was originally received, likely due to the government's preoccupation with the specter of war with Great Britain. The request resurfaced after the War of 1812 in a report to Congress by the Committee on Public Lands in 1816. This report recounted a fascinating history: in August of 1812, the Spaffords, along with several other American families, fled Port Miami to the interior of Ohio, leaving their home and property to be “plundered, burnt, and destroyed." The committee concluded that Spafford had incurred considerable expense in erecting the necessary buildings to accommodate his family and carry out the duties of his office as customs collector and inspector of the revenue at Port Miami. They recommended to Congress approval of the right of pre-emption to purchase the land upon which his homestead had once stood. So Spafford’s house and outbuildings described in 1816 were not his original house and buildings, but had been rebuilt after the War of 1812.

This was the secret concealed from archaeologists in the rubble and debris excavated at 33Wo50 in 1977. It wasn’t a single house, but two separate houses built on the same site during back-to-back occupations. 33Wo50 was a pre- and post-War of 1812 frontier farmstead. The original Spafford house (1810-1812) was destroyed by fire in August of 1812. The second house was built by 1816, and inhabited by the Spafford family until 1823, when Olive Spafford died. The farmhouse was inhabited by another family in 1833, and eventually abandoned due to flooding, which completely destroyed the house by 1858. The Spafford farmhouse, and the other buildings that had once formed the settlement of Port Miami, were soon concealed beneath layers of silt deposited by the Maumee River.

Personal letters and memoirs by Port Miami residents, kept in the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library, shed still more light on this lost chapter of frontier history. Some of these, but not all, were reprinted in the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections between 1874 and 1924. In 1809, Port Miami was described as a rural village of about 100 inhabitants.

By 1812, Port Miami consisted of about 70 French and English-speaking families, around 280 people. Jean-Baptiste Beaugrand, a partner of the firm Godfroy & Beaugrand, managed a store that sold transnational goods to farmers, traders, and Indians alike. Farms generally consisted of a log house, one or more outhouses, garden, barn, fenced livestock compound, and fenced fields for crops. Amos Spafford had an warehouse and office for his duties as customs collector, and David Hull, nephew of General and Governor William Hull, had a store and warehouse in the settlement. But as the settlement grew, Spafford found that the Port Miami community was deeply divided into contentious pro-Michigan and pro-Ohio factions who vied for political control of the settlement.

Relations were also adversarial between the Port Miami settlers and the local Native Americans. In January of 1812, news of Indian depredations on the frontier prompted Spafford to write Reuben Attwater, Acting Governor of the Michigan Territory at Detroit, asking for arms to be issued to the community’s militia company.

Reports circulating throughout the region claimed that Indians were burning houses, killing cattle, and attacking settlers. Unfortunately, the rumors proved all too true. Indians killed two young men twenty miles east of Sandusky on April 4, 1812; twelve days later, they killed three others near Fort Defiance.  When local settlers brought their bodies into Port Miami on April 19, most Port Miami citizens were ready to flee the settlement for fear of massacre.

Official reports in the Canadian library and archives at Toronto and the Knopf volumes at the Ohio Historical Society revealed that the situation changed drastically when Detroit surrendered to the British on August 16, 1812. The terms of surrender demanded by Major-General Isaac Brock, and agreed to by Brigadier-General Hull, included all American troops who were now prisoners of war. The Michigan and Ohio militia were paroled upon their pledge to remain in an inactive status for the remainder of the war, or suffer hanging if captured again. The surrender included the militia garrisons and military blockhouses at the River Raisin and Port Miami.

Early in the morning of August 21, 1812, Lieutenant John Caris made ready to evacuate the Ohio militia garrison at Port Miami in fear of the British and Indian force at Frenchtown. He informed the remaining residents, about 25 families or 100 individuals, that his detachment would quickly evacuate to Lower Sandusky (now Fremont, Ohio). He urged them to take what provisions they needed from the block-house.

Later that morning, a British and Indian detachment from Fort Malden, Canada headed to Port Miami to accept the surrender of the port facility. The party consisted of Captains Peter Latouche Chambers and William Elliott, both of the British 41st Regiment of Foot, Captains Matthew Elliott and Thomas McKee of the British Indian Department, Captain Charles Askin and Jean-Baptiste Barthe (interpreter) both of the Essex County Militia (Ontario, Canada), Lieutenant Benoit Bender, commander of the British gunboat Chippewa, and some Canadien boatmen, Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, Wyandot Chief Roundhead and his band of Indians.

When Spafford received word of their approach, he immediately gathered his family and several neighbors and headed for the river, where they launched a barge that had descended the river the year before from Fort Wayne (Indiana). Raising a square sail made from a bed blanket, they headed downriver and made cover under old Fort Miami, when they saw flames rising from their deserted homes. While the Indians looted and plundered the houses, Spafford and his little band of fugitives sailed downriver to Miami (Maumee) Bay, where they made their way eastward on Lake Erie, hugging the shoreline, and keeping out of range of rifle shot. The party descended the Huron River, and eventually made it safely to the Quaker settlement at Milan.

Several other families hastily left by wagon south for Urbana (Ohio) through the Black Swamp. Nearly devoured by mosquitoes with no water, except what filled the cattle tracks, the group arrived at Urbana exhausted and hungry after a two week journey. Other Port Miami residents hid in the woods upon arrival of the Indians, and watched from concealed positions as their homes were ransacked, feather beds ripped open and contents scattered to the winds, money and valuables stolen, and their houses burned to the ground.

When Chambers arrived at Port Miami, he was stunned to see its destruction in progress. Tecumseh stopped the Wyandot from burning all the houses and personally saved the life of long-time resident Lewis Bond. The Indians confiscated horses and mules, shot and killed cattle and hogs, drove off other livestock, and burned 26 of the 30 houses. Tecumseh himself set fire to the militia block-house and stockade, which was still burning when Chambers arrived.

When Captain William Elliott and Lieutenant Benoit Bender arrived late in the afternoon on board the gunboat Chippewa with two other smaller vessels, the British loaded all the confiscated public property into the boats and five additional canoes they took from residents. They seized 77 barrels of pork, 18 barrels of flour, nine barrels of whiskey, two barrels of salt, a musket bayonet, a cartridge box, and some soap and candles. The British found no other arms or ammunition, although they suspected such items were hidden somewhere in the village.

Skirmishes continued in the area in the following weeks, but eventually, the British returned to Port Miami in October of 1812 to gather all the livestock and produce left behind and transport it back to Fort Malden. The animals did not cooperate, however, and the detachment soon grew frustrated in their attempts to capture the creatures. Most of the houses and outbuildings still standing at that time were destroyed by fire before the British and their Indian allies departed. The only house left standing was Beaugrand’s house and store, but even this building would soon disappear from the landscape. And so, in a remarkably short period of time, the village of Port Miami was left in ruins, its only inhabitants the hogs and dogs left behind by the unfortunate settlers.


  1. The Artillery buttons may be useful in dating the site, since the organization of US Army artillery units changed greatly over a few years and we know fairly well which units were present in the area. There was one company of the Light Artillery (only one regiment of 10 companies was authorized: the men of Captain Samuel Price's company were stationed at Fort Wayne, came downriver on 5 May 1813 with Brig. General Clay's brigade-- half of them were captured, and the other half made it into Fort Meigs and were amalgamated into Capt. Daniel Cushing's Co, 2nd Artillery). There were three regiments of "foot" artillery, expanded from the single regiment that existed before 1812. Captain Dyson's Co. of the 1st Regiment was stationed at Detroit and surrendered with Hull's Army. Two companies of the 2nd Artillery were present after 1813-- one was Capt. Cushing's mentioned above, and the other was Captain Stanton Sholes, stationed at Cleveland. Both companies were combined at Detroit for the remainder of the War of 1812. In 1814 all the companies of the three foot regiments were reorganized into the Corps of Artillery, which changed little about the makeup of the individual companies. Most likely, coats with regimental buttons continued to be shipped from Newport Kentucky or Buffalo New York until long after the war. My understanding is that Spafford was instrumental in moving ordnance and stores from Fort Meigs to Buffalo and bringing back refugees from the other end of Lake Erie.