David Starbuck, Anthropology

David Starbuck

David Starbuck has been excavating a French & Indian War Sutlers’ Camp since 2001, and the project is nearing completion. Sutlers were merchants, private citizens under contract to the army, who supplied goods to the soldiers and officers who otherwise would have had little to relieve the tedium of camp life. From the sutlers living alongside British camps during the French and Indian War, to contractors such as Halliburton that operate in Iraq today, there is money to be made by those who are willing to transport the alcohol, tobacco, articles of clothing, dishes and foodstuffs to the faraway camps. Starbuck has been assisted by Betty Hall and a team of students and volunteers, and they have been unearthing the filled-in cellar hole of a late-1750s sutling house that supplied goods to the military camp in Fort Edward, New York, once the largest British fort and military encampment of the French and Indian War. For a several-year period, goods were transported up the Hudson River from Albany to the waiting army in Fort Edward, unloaded into sutlers’ houses or warehouses on the east bank of the river, and the supplies were no doubt sold to soldiers and officers at the next payday.

Excavations in 2008 have revealed burned timbers and boards that lay scattered two meters down across what was once the cellar floor. The main sutling house measured 20’ x 14’, but there was also a 20’ x 10’ addition at its southern end, and the entire 40’-foot-long structure was underlain by a full cellar. The house was consumed by a fire at the end of the 1750s, and much merchandise still lay inside, including fragments of drinking glasses and numerous bowls and plates of tin-glazed earthenware (delft), suggesting that the sutling house had doubled as a tavern for thirsty and hungry soldiers.

The most unexpected finds have been two burned staircases that both ran from what was once the outside of the building down to the cellar floor. The main staircase at the northeast corner of the house still has intact steps, stringers, and risers. Artifacts were found scattered along its steps, perhaps suggesting an escape route for the sutlers as they abandoned a burning building. In a semi-circle just outside where the upper door had been, there were many clothing hooks and eyes, as well as numerous British and Spanish coins.

In the cellar, Starbuck’s team has discovered the hoops from barrels that had once stood on the cellar floor, as well as a great many broken wine bottles. Fragments of tobacco pipes were almost as common, and the pipes had flattened onto the cellar floor when the building collapsed. Other finds in the cellar included several sets of hinges, a spade, many fragments of knives and two-tined forks, much delft, and undecorated cups and saucers of white salt-glazed stoneware. Butchered animal bones were everywhere inside and outside the building, suggesting that soldiers or officers were able to eat fresh beef, pork and mutton at the sutling house.

As demonstrated by its full cellar, massive brick fireplaces, abundant window glass, and the two staircases that lead to storage areas in the cellar, this sutling house was a better-built structure than any of the military huts and tents that Starbuck has excavated in Fort Edward over the past eighteen years. This building was clearly part of a very lucrative business. This is the first time anywhere in the United States that archaeologists have dug up a “sutling house.”