TOPSHAM — Remnants of the first settlers in the Merrymeeting Bay aren’t easy to find since many were driven from the area by King Phillips War between 1675 and 1678. A team of archaeologists have been excavating such a site in Topsham to see what they can glean about these settlers.

Few of those Maine settlements have been discovered, let alone studied. The Merrymeeting Bay Pioneers Project seeks to learn more about the English pioneers who settled around Merrymeeting Bay during the 17th century, as well as later English and Scotch-Irish pioneers who settled the area.

Bruce Bourque is part of a team of archaeologists and other professionals who have excavated six sites in the bay area.

Bourque said most English settlements in Maine, except for Wells, were wiped out during King Phillips War, the first of a series of wars involving Native Americans and settlers in this area. Bourque and fellow history detectives turn to centuries-old land records and letters to find clues.

That’s how they found a 17th-century dwelling in a field at the Hunter Farm on Foreside Road in Topsham. Bourque looked at records of early colonial developer Pejepscot Proprietors. He found a key to a missing map listing three settlements along the shore of the Androscoggin River, one of six rivers that empty into Merrymeeting Bay.

The home, found in a field, was built with a basic construction known as wattle and daub. Sticks, clay and grass were woven between vertical sticks sealed with a plaster made of mud in the post and beam type construction. Stones were placed below the timbers to keep them from rotting.

This home is believed to have belonged to a settler named Samuel York. Bourque and the team dug up one square meter of soil at a time, sifting it all through screens. It was a humble home with two or three rooms and possibly a small outbuilding.

“History is shadowy because there’s not a lot of records,” Bourque said.

Digging over the summer, volunteers found hundreds of artifacts, including table knives, a spoon handle, clay pipes and some gunflints from flintlocks. They also uncovered melted liquor bottles and fragments of broken pottery, nails and burned animal bone.

Archaeologists with the Merrymeeting Bay Pioneers Project uncover a buckle while sifting through soil at the site of an early English 17th-century dwelling along the Androscoggin River in Topsham this summer. Photo courtesy of Chris Gutscher

The dwelling wasn’t a treasure trove of artifacts and information because the family fled the home with most of their valuables during the war, Bourque said. The house likely was only inhabited for five years.

“It’s useful information and it’s the beginning of a search that will extend to the other sites,” Bourque said. “Eventually, we’ll add up all the information and we’ll probably learn quite a lot.”

With winter on the way, the site will be filled in and then the group will start the lab work, analyzing and writing their reports.

The past helps instruct decisions about the future, according to Bourque. For example, there are national laws in place seeking to restore fish stocks, but there’s no target because nobody knows how large the original fish stocks were.

“We’re trying to reconstruct a community, not a site,” Bourque said. “We want to find all the sites, as many as we can, and then put all the information together — the historic information, the archaeological information, the ecological information (like this is an excellent farming spot) … so we can put together an ecological picture of how the community worked.”


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