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Ruins of Fort Haldimand continue to fascinate history buffs

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Completely in ruins and covered with overgrown vegetation, the 18th-century Fort Haldimand leaves much to a visitor’s imagination, with only a little rubble left as evidence of the long-forgotten Carleton Island stronghold.

What fascinates archaeologists and history buffs to this day, however, are the fort’s unusual place in history as well as buried artifacts that give invaluable insights into the lives of Carleton Island’s past occupants.

Douglas J. Pippin, an archaeologist with the Department of Anthropology at SUNY Oswego, who led a group of nearly two dozen people for the latest excavation Saturday, said bones found on the site, for example, tell us a lot about the soldiers’ diet.

“Life was harsh on the island. Soldiers were always low on food supply,” he said.

British soldiers stationed on Carleton Island also were seldom allowed to hunt — for fear that they would desert the military — so they resorted to fishing and sometimes ate squirrels.

By carefully peeling off layers of dirt near rubble that was once a chimney and sifting through buckets of soil, the group on Saturday found a handmade nail, what appeared to be a deer bone, pieces of glass from an officer’s barrack and several pieces of masonry.

Because you never know what you’re going to hit, digging for artifacts takes time and patience.

“There’s really no rush in archaeology. It does take a long time, and there’s no way around that,” Mr. Pippin said. “When you’re sifting for artifacts, you’re looking for whatever’s not dirt.”

Many remnants of the fort already had been removed, such as the 6- to 7-foot-high wall around the fort’s perimeter, which had been taken apart by farmers who saw use for the lumber and soil.

Even with the wall, however, the fort would have been rather vulnerable to attacks from enemies approaching from the other side of the island.

This is one of the reasons that scholars, including Mr. Pippin, conclude the fort was never truly completed.

“From a strategic point of view, however, it was a great place to be,” Mr. Pippin said.

Fortified in 1778 by British forces during the Revolutionary War, Carleton Island is situated at the head of the St. Lawrence River between Wolfe Island and Cape Vincent.

Fort Haldimand was three-eighths of an octagon and built on top of a cliff — with a 60-foot drop to the water below — to create a natural defense against attacks from the southwest side of the island.

The fort was named after Gen. Frederick Haldimand of the British military, who decided to build a stronghold on the island.

It once had three bastions, gunpowder storage areas, a well and several barracks that were torched after the British lost control of Carleton Island.

The island once was used by French traders as a transient stop, and had been occupied by British and German soldiers and their families and loyalists during the Revolutionary War, Native Americans, merchants and prisoners.

On average, there were probably a couple of hundred British soldiers stationed at Fort Haldimand, Mr. Pippin said.

But when it was “captured” in June 1812 by a small group of Americans led by Capt. Abner Hubbard, three soldiers and one of the men’s wives were the only occupants of the fort, he said.

Although the island was technically ceded to the Americans under a 1794 treaty, British forces remained on the island and refused to leave even after it was discovered that soldiers were still stationed at the fort.

Now, Carleton Island is part of the town of Cape Vincent and the Thousand Islands Land Trust owns the seven-acre Revolutionary War site, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

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