June 12, 2013

Pain, suffering and death at Snake Hill

In 1987, Vincent Dunn was planning to construct a house in Fort Erie. When construction began, excavators uncovered a gruesome reminder of the War of 1812. Bones were discovered during the construction, which led to Dr. Ronald Williamson’s archaeology team taking over the site. Dr. Williamson’s team uncovered 28 American bodies along with medical waste pits, an ox burial and artifacts from the war.

The bodies and artifacts were uncovered at the Snake Hill site that was part of the American defences at Fort Erie in 1814. On July 3, 1814, American forces under the command of Major-General Jacob Brown forced the small British garrison at Fort Erie to surrender. After this action, American forces fought the British at the battles of Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane before withdrawing to Fort Erie.

The Americans improved Fort Erie’s defences with massive earthworks that extended 800 metres (1/2 mile) to the shore of Lake Erie. The Snake Hill site was the location of Towson’s battery during the Siege of Fort Erie and it was attacked on August 15, 1814 as part of the failed British assault to retake the fort. The British continued to bombard Fort Erie until mid-September. During the fighting, the Americans established a field hospital near the Snake Hill site. The hospital saw victims of the British bombardment, those wounded in skirmishes and men who were stricken with disease.

The bodies uncovered at the Snake Hill site came from the American field hospital. One of the soldiers was believed to be 27 to 33 years old and may have been a sickly child. According to Dr. Williamson, the soldier had bad teeth that probably hurt constantly and he had multiple fatigue fractures from carrying heavy loads on the march. From the 28 bodies researchers discovered that 16 died from illness and 12 died from battle wounds. It was also discovered that the youngest of the 28 soldiers was 14 years old.

Repatriation ceremony at Old Fort Erie, 1988
Once the archaeological dig was completed, all 28 bodies were placed in flag draped coffins and each coffin was driven in its own hearse to Bath National Cemetery in New York State. Dr. Williamson remembered the repatriation by stating, “At the ceremony no one had a dry eye. All of the pain, suffering, and death…. We knew what was going on in that horrible land. This was the time we realized that they were getting to go home."

On Thursday, June 13 and Friday, June 14 Old Fort Erie will be hosting two lectures on archaeological digs at Fort Erie. On Thursday, Dr. John Triggs will be talking about the archaeological dig that took place last year at Old Fort Erie. On Friday, Dr. Williamson will be talking about the Snake Hill archaeological dig that took place in 1987. Both talks begin at 7 p.m. and are $5. Click here for more information.

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