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Lyme's Native Burial Sites

February 24, 2018

 Photo by John B. Nichols

 

“Many curios and antiques were found by boys of the Y.M.C.A. camp on Long Point during their visit Friday to the Indian burying grounds on Point Peninsula.” - The Watertown Daily Times, July 6, 1921

 

Lyme’s best-known Native burial sites are those on Point Peninsula, but Native graves have been found all along our waterfront. Unfortunately many of these sites have been unearthed by amateur diggers and treasure hunters, who treated the human remains with little reverence and the artifacts as curiosities to be pocketed.

 

I found references to the following mass grave discoveries in Lyme: 1886, Cherry Island, six skeletons; 1906, “near Chaumont Bay,” 18 skeletons; 1920, Northrup Farm near Point Peninsula’s Carrying Place, 16 skeletons; 1921, Point Salubrious, 19 skeletons; 1944, Wetterhahn farm in Three Mile Bay, 4 skeletons. These graves may have been ossuary-style burials, in which individuals who had previously died were disinterred and then buried together in a common grave. Some tribes in Canada and Northern New York practiced this type of burial.

 

While some of these sites were discovered and documented by trained archaeologists, many were not. Old newspaper articles mention the cavalier way in which burial grounds were approached and relics were taken (including the camp mentioned at the beginning of the article). Items commonly found around these sites included arrowheads, chisels, barbed fishhooks, awls, beads, pipes, and pottery shards. While some of these artifacts have been collected in the Jefferson County Historical Society and even at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, many are scattered in private collections. (The Jefferson County Historical Society does not keep artifacts specifically related to graves/burials; those items have been repatriated to Native tribes.)

 

Some of the most ardent diggers around the Isthmus and the Carrying Place were not looking for Native artifacts, but for rumored British treasure. In 1777 a British flotilla on Lake Ontario washed into Chaumont Bay during a huge storm and wrecked near the Isthmus. That much is historically accurate. A persistent legend tells that the sailors, guided by Native American allies in a hasty retreat to Fort Haldimand on Carleton Island, buried their quartermaster’s coins in chests, or in the barrel of a brass cannon, under an earthen mound near the Carrying Place. There’s never been any reason to believe this story was true, but nevertheless it spurred on the digging of Point Peninsula’s mounds. 

 

“Many curios and antiques were found by boys of the Y.M.C.A. camp on Long Point during their visit Friday to the Indian burying grounds on Point Peninsula.” - The Watertown Daily Times, July 6, 1921

Lyme’s best-known Native burial sites are those on Point Peninsula, but Native graves have been found all along our waterfront. Unfortunately many of these sites have been unearthed by amateur diggers and treasure hunters, who treated the human remains with little reverence and the artifacts as curiosities to be pocketed.

 

I found references to the following mass grave discoveries in Lyme: 1886, Cherry Island, six skeletons; 1906, “near Chaumont Bay,” 18 skeletons; 1920, Northrup Farm near Point Peninsula’s Carrying Place, 16 skeletons; 1921, Point Salubrious, 19 skeletons; 1944, Wetterhahn farm in Three Mile Bay, 4 skeletons. These graves may have been ossuary-style burials, in which individuals who had previously died were disinterred and then buried together in a common grave. Some tribes in Canada and Northern New York practiced this type of burial.

 

While some of these sites were discovered and documented by trained archaeologists, many were not. Old newspaper articles mention the cavalier way in which burial grounds were approached and relics were taken (including the camp mentioned at the beginning of the article). Items commonly found around these sites included arrowheads, chisels, barbed fishhooks, awls, beads, pipes, and pottery shards. While some of these artifacts have been collected in the Jefferson County Historical Society and even at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, many are scattered in private collections. (The Jefferson County Historical Society does not keep artifacts specifically related to graves/burials; those items have been repatriated to Native tribes.)

 

Some of the most ardent diggers around the Isthmus and the Carrying Place were not looking for Native artifacts, but for rumored British treasure. In 1777 a British flotilla on Lake Ontario washed into Chaumont Bay during a huge storm and wrecked near the Isthmus. That much is historically accurate. A persistent legend tells that the sailors, guided by Native American allies in a hasty retreat to Fort Haldimand on Carleton Island, buried their quartermaster’s coins in chests, or in the barrel of a brass cannon, under an earthen mound near the Carrying Place. There’s never been any reason to believe this story was true, but nevertheless it spurred on the digging of Point Peninsula’s mounds. 

 

If you find Native artifacts on your property, please consider contacting the archaeologists at the New York State Museum in Albany for information about proper handling and documentation.

 

If you’d like to read them for yourself, you’ll find copies of my resources on the Historic Town of Lyme Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ HistoricTownOfLymeNewYork/. I’m still learning about Lyme’s Native history and so I’m very much looking forward to hearing Dr. Tim Abel, the Jefferson County Historical Society’s consulting archaeologist, speak at the Lyme Heritage Center on June 20th. Please mark your calendar and join us! 

 

References:

  • Resources of the Lyme Heritage Center, Three Mile Bay

  • Conversations with the archaeological staff at the New York State Museum, Albany, http://www.nysm.nysed.gov

  • Notes on Rock Crevice Burials in Jefferson County at Point Peninsula

  • by John B. Nichols, New York State Archeological Association, 1928

  • The Watertown Herald, July 3, 1886

  • The Watertown Re-Union, July 29, 1899

  • The Watertown Herald, August 25, 1900

  • The Ogdensburg Journal, April 28, 1902

  • The Syracuse Herald, July 15? (date unreadable), 1906

  • The Potsdam Courier and Freeman, March 24, 1920

  • Cape Vincent Eagle, June 16, 1921

  • The Ogdensburg Republican-Journal, February 2, 1926

  • The Watertown Daily Times, September 29, 1928

  • The Watertown Daily Times, October 20? (date unreadable), 1928 Cape Vincent Eagle, June 15, 1933

  • Ogdensburg Journal, June 13, 1933

  • The Syracuse Herald Journal, September 6, 1944

  • Occupation of New York," William A. Ritchie, Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences, 1944

  • The Watertown Daily Times, February 4, 1966

  • “Lake Ontario Maritime Cultural Landscape,” doctoral dissertation by Benjamin Ford, 2009, available at http://nautarch.tamu.edu/Theses/pdf-files/ Ford-PhD2009.pdf 

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