May 19, 2019
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‘Trash’ from Revolutionary War general’s parties found in Maine

Brian Swartz | BDN
Brian Swartz | BDN
An archeologist believes he has discovered a pile of kitchen trash originating from Revolutionary War General Henry Knox. His Thomaston estate was torn down in 1871, but a replica was built in 1929 and houses the General Henry Knox Museum.

THOMASTON, Maine — When archaeologist Harbour Mitchell began digging into an untouched field near Thomaston’s waterfront two years ago, he hoped to find items originating from a colonial trading post that once stood nearby.

Or he thought maybe he’d find remnants of conflicts between English settlers and Native Americans, originating from the mid-1700s, when the trading post was converted in Fort St. Georges.

Instead, Mitchell found what he believes to be a pile of kitchen trash left behind by Revolutionary War General Henry Knox, who built his estate, Montpelier, just across from the field around 1790.

“We had a good idea what we might find. But we found a completely different thing,” Mitchell said. “This is almost certainly Henry Knox’s trash.”

The trash pile, known as a midden, was found several feet underground in a corner of the field, which is located across the street from the Lyman-Morse boatyard. The boatyard is located where Fort St. Georges and the original Montpelier once stood.

The midden was discovered during a two-phase dig that began in 2017. Mitchell, partnering with volunteers and the Thomaston Historical Society, spent the first summer digging 100 small test pits. Having located an unusual pile of bricks, stone and other materials in one corner of the field, Mitchell returned last month to conduct a wider excavation of that area.

In the 1-by-2-meter unit dug last month, Mitchell’s team found shards of pottery and hand-painted ceramics among the bricks and debris.

What makes Mitchell so certain that the pile of broken kitchen materials derives from Knox’s estate is the high quality of the materials, including pieces of gilded porcelain painted in China 300 years ago.

“This was not your average quarry worker’s trash,” Mitchell said.

The types of ceramics found also date to the time when Knox lived in the area — now known as Thatcher Street — which at the time was not developed with other residences or streets, Mitchell said.

Knox, who came to prominence during the American Revolution, later served as secretary of war under President George Washington before retiring and moving to Thomaston. His mansion, Montpelier, was completed in 1794, according to the Knox Museum’s website.

Knox died in 1806, and Montpelier fell into disrepair. It was torn down in 1871 to build the Thomaston Railroad. In 1929, a replica of Montpelier was built just north on Route 1 in Thomaston. Today, it houses the General Henry Knox Museum.

So how did a pile of Knox’s kitchen trash get mixed in with what Mitchell described as “construction debris” and then moved across the street to a field?

Mitchell has a theory.

Because of a layer of topsoil found buried with the midden, Mitchell believes the pile was moved from its previous location. He believes the topsoil and construction debris are from when the cellar of Knox’s mansion was dug out and possibly left on the grounds of the house in the early days that the home was occupied by Knox.

Until the 19th century, households threw trash out their windows or doors, Mitchell said. Those waste piles formed the middens now found by archeologists, or just the home gardener digging in their front yards.

The types of ceramics, pottery pieces and broken glass wine bottles found in the midden in Lyman field are consistent with a kitchen midden, Mitchell said, which was likely collecting on the pile of cellar debris. Mitchell believes the pile of debris and kitchen materials was moved to its current location to accommodate landscaping at the estate.

Mitchell says Knox’s trash tells us one thing: that in the early days of Montpelier, Knox and his guests were likely doing “a whole lot of eating, and drinking, and breaking of dishware.”

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