Nickerson Excavation Yields More Surprises

By: Tim Wood

Ethan Seufert holds a 17th century coin recovered at the site. Local students spent a day participating in the archaeological dig at the Nickerson homestead. CHRISTOPER SEUFERT PHOTO

Archaeological Dig Fleshes Out The Story Of Chatham's Founding Family

CHATHAM – When he was first asked to investigate what was believed to be the original homestead of the town's first European settlers, William and Anne Nickerson, archaeologist Craig Chartier didn't expect to find much. He figured he'd dig a few holes “just to make the Nickersons happy.”

And indeed, the first few holes yielded nothing. But when he moved farther back from the Nickerson Family Association headquarters, near where a marker had been placed identifying the surrounding land at the original homestead site on land owned by the Chatham Conservation Foundation, that changed.

This key was one of the final artifacts found in the dig. COURTESY OF THE NICKERSON FAMILY ASSOCIATION

This key was one of the final artifacts found in the dig. COURTESY OF THE NICKERSON FAMILY ASSOCIATION

“The first shovelful we had 17th century artifacts,” he said, including a pipe stem. He was able to identify it as being made in Charlestown only between 1670 and 1680. That's when he knew he was on to something, possibly something big.

Last week, Chartier and his company, the New Bedford-based Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project, completed its second major dig on the site, uncovering thousands of artifacts and learning more about how Chatham's founding family lived.

Most significant, the discovery of a “tuyere,” a pipe through which air is blown into a furnace, appears to confirm that William Nickerson had a blacksmith forge on the site. There are no other known blacksmith operations from that period on Cape Cod, and very few in Massachusetts.

“People around the world are excited about this,” Chartier said.

Nickerson apparently smelted iron, a skill he may have learned in Saugus, at the only ironworks in operation in the region at the time. During much of this season, Chartier and his crew excavated in an area with a lot of slag and charred stone on the eastern edge of the site, which he said looked like a small industrial area. He surmised that Nickerson was smelting bog iron, which is naturally occurring, especially in soil with a lot of clay. The slag was in small concentrations, not large mounds, indicating that the operation was probably small, he said.

Also discovered were crucibles probably used to melt other metals. Large chunks of melted brass and copper were found previously, indicating that Nickerson may have cut up brass kettles or similar items and used the pieces to fashion buttons, buckles or rings, which he may have sold or traded.

“He seemed to become a maker,” Chartier said of Nickerson, who was a weaver by trade.

Last year, Chartier uncovered the outline of the Nickerson house, which measured 44-by-20-to-24 feet, enormous for the time the site was occupied, from 1664 to the 1690s. It had a hearth at each end and may have been used as a meetinghouse, he said. Also discovered last year was evidence of a palisade around the compound, which may have been built around the time of King Philip's War, from 1675 to 1678. There may also have been a need to protect against coastal raiders; the spot was right on the water and at the time, “this was the end of the world.”

“It was a very large, very expensive house,” Chartier said. A number of silver coins from the era were discovered this season. “If these were lost, it meant they had enough” not to worry about misplacing a few coins, he said. A significant amount is known about Nickerson through court records—he was fairly litigious, Chartier noted—but the dig reveals that he was in the “upper tier of people living in Plymouth Colony” at the time.

Originally from Norwich, England, Nickerson and his family came to America in the late 1630s. By 1640 they were living in Yarmouth, and in 1656 Nickerson purchased four square miles around the Ryder's Cove area from Mattaquason, the Monomoyick sachem. However, he failed to get permission for the purchase from the authorities in Plymouth; they sued, eventually allowing him 100 acres after he paid a fine. Following correct procedures, Nickerson later purchased much of what is now Chatham.

This year's dig concentrated on locating outbuildings and “chasing stains” to determine the exact area of the palisade. A small, four-foot cellar hole proved to be “almost like a time capsule,” yielding pieces of European and English pottery, wine glasses, a book hinge, a silver cufflink, and many pipe stems, a number of which indicated that one of the smokers who lived at the site had an overbite. Post holes were also found near the cellar, which may indicate that there was a barn, or possibly an earlier house, at the location, Chartier said.

The site was intensely used for a short period of time. After William Nickerson died sometime in the 1690s, it appears as if the location was abandoned. Chartier said small nails that would have been used in the structure were not found, which would have been the case if it had remained in place and deteriorated. That seems to indicate that the house was moved elsewhere, which wasn't uncommon at the time.

An aerial view of the Nickerson homestead archaeological site. CHRISTOPHER SEUFERT PHOTO

An aerial view of the Nickerson homestead archaeological site. CHRISTOPHER SEUFERT PHOTO

There were also indications that the site was used by the native Monomoyicks for centuries. The dig uncovered a 3,000-year-old spear point as well as a 2,500-year-old blade, along with Native pottery and other items. The lack of large shell middens, however, seems to indicate that the site was not a village but perhaps occupied seasonally or only periodically for specific tasks, which was typical of Native settlement patterns on Cape Cod.

In many ways the site was ideal, little disturbed after the Nickerson occupation; it was a chicken farm into the 1960s, and has been owned by the Conservation Foundation since 1988. The digs turned up thousands of artifacts, including some that even Chartier couldn't identify. He said social media has proven to be helpful in this area. A photo of a tool that the archaeologists could not identify was posted on Facebook, for instance, and found to be a type of knife used in shoemaking.

“There are so many elements we don't see in New England archaeology,” he said of the site.

Last week the excavation holes were covered up. Chartier said he believes he has met the goals of the project, and although he'd like to return and do more digging in the area around the house, he doesn't expect further excavations to reveal any major surprises.

Over the fall and winter Chartier and his crew will wash, analyze and identify the artifacts and write a final report. The Nickerson Association may seek funding to do more sophisticated lab tests on some of the artifacts to try to learn more about William and Anne Nickerson's life at the site.

Once Chartier has completed his work, an exhibit of the artifacts will be assembled and travel locally, eventually ending up in a permanent display in town at an as-yet-unidentified location. At this point the Nickerson Association is not planning any further digs, although the site will be marked with an interpretive sign, and the home's heart may be opened and displayed under Plexiglas; those plans are currently being discussed with the Conservation Foundation.

On one of the final days of the dig, a large key was discovered in the cellar hole; it may have been a key to the house or to a chest. The archaeologists saw it symbolic of locking up work on the Nickerson house. But what was discovered there will not soon be forgotten, said Chartier.

“It's something we'll be continuing to research and look at the artifacts for years to come,” he said.