ADDISON — For thousands of years the area of Lake Champlain where Vermont’s Chimney Point and New York’s Crown Point stretch toward each other has played a crucial role in history.
Now, the major find of what appears to be a 279-year-old French fort may help Vermont Division for Historic Preservation officials shine a brighter light on the Addison side of the lake.
Giovanna Peebles, Vermont state archaeologist with the historic preservation division, said experts are all but certain — based on other materials found and the location of the foundation uncovered in December — that they have found physical evidence of the fort, which documents have long indicated was in the area.
But even if it is another building, Peebles said it is a major discovery because so little physical evidence has been found of the 18th-century French occupation of what is now Addison.
“We need to be on the more cautious side and say we need just more testing and confirmation until we’re positive that’s what it is,” Peebles said. “But it’s highly, highly significant regardless of whether it’s the fort or a homestead.”
To understand why the find is so critical, one must understand why the site is so important, officials said. And that starts with geography: The lake’s waters are narrower there than anywhere to the north. In fact, said Elsa Gilbertson, regional site administrator for the historic preservation division, Native Americans and early European settlers called the body of water south of the two points Wood Creek — they didn’t consider it part of the larger lake.
The ease of crossing between the two points sparked trade among Native American peoples — artifacts found on the site date back 9,000 years. When the first Europeans arrived, commerce thrived among the British, French and native peoples. In 1929, it became the logical place to build the first Lake Champlain Bridge.
And, of course, the site held critical strategic value in colonial times. The English built an outpost in the 17th century, but for a time in the 18th century, as the English and the French dueled for world supremacy, the French took over Quebec and most of Lake Champlain.
The 1711 Treaty of Utrecht, signed by Spain and Portugal as well as England and France, drew a line between what is now Ferrisburgh and Westport, N.Y., and stated that France owned all that lay to the north.
But Gilbertson, who is based at the Chimney Point State Historic Site, said the French weren’t satisfied. That point of view soon brought Chimney Point to the forefront of international politics.
The French thought the English were poised to move into Lake Champlain and wanted to stop them. And the French saw the military value of the narrows at Chimney Point, and in 1731 established a fort big enough — four walls between 100 and 125 feet long — to garrison 30 men.
“It was a really bold strategic move to build this fort here, because they had agreed to these boundary lines with the British on territory all over the world,” Gilbertson said. “The French knew if the English got into the lake they couldn’t contain them, because it’s a big lake. So by having a fort here, this is the choke point, so they could cut off British access to Canada and into the lake with just a handful of men.”
The French three years later built the bigger Fort St. Frédéric across the lake at Crown Point. Officials knew of the Chimney Point fort from correspondence from the king of France to his regional officials.
Those letters showed just how important the Europeans considered the narrows on Lake Champlain to be, said Peebles, who acknowledged she had no idea as a Vermont schoolchild the site lay at the heart of world history.
“All of us who went to school in Vermont, we rarely learned anything about Lake Champlain,” Peebles said. “And we certainly didn’t learn about how what happened here on the lake, and how what happened right here on Chimney Point and Crown Point, how it affected world events and how it was part of world events.”
IN THE GROUND
But direct physical evidence of that French fort on Chimney point had never been found. Peebles said a major 2006 archaeological effort in the area turned up frustratingly little evidence of the 154 French men, women and children known to have lived there in the 1700s. Peebles theorizes they built their homes right on the lake, and that erosion erased their traces.
Then a new archaeological opportunity presented itself this past December.
Before the deteriorated 90-year-old Lake Champlain Bridge could be destroyed, rules required a search for traces of earlier history. Workers from the University of Vermont’s Consulting Archaeology Program dug a pit next to one of the bridge’s concrete piers and struck pay dirt: a foundation, near where shards of French windowpanes and ceramics had earlier been found. All date back to the early 18th century, before the English took control of the area in 1759.
The location and the dating of the materials suggest the fort has been found, Gilbertson said.
“More research may confirm it. But they had discovered these French glass bits and ceramics earlier in the same area,” she said. “It’s so close to the edge there (of the bluff overlooking the lake) it makes sense it would be the bastion wall.”
Peebles said she also believes the discovery to be the fort.
“There’s definitely a very significant structural component, this beautiful dry-laid foundation, and we’re calling it the fort now because of its association with the French artifacts and glass. We know that there were several hundred panes of window glass that came from Montreal by bateau, and that the French settlements themselves did not use window glass. They used oil skins or skins,” she said.
Archaeological work will continue on the site this summer, but Peebles emphasized that it will not slow construction of the new bridge. For one, this summer’s bridge plans call for work in the lake to build new piers, and secondly archaeologists and builders are used to acting as a team.
“There will be no delays,” she said.
The dig should enhance the Chimney Point site, Gilbertson said, both this summer and in the long term. She hopes to have signs to explain the fort and to outline its dimensions, which probably ran under the current museum as well as under the old bridge. The museum this summer will host some kind of a work-in-progress exhibit showing some of the artifacts and the history the effort has revealed.
“It just makes it so much more exciting and tangible,” Gilbertson said. “People just love going to the places where history actually happened. So it’s great for us.”
Addison County Chamber of Commerce President Andy Mayer said the discovery could also prove to be a boon to area businesses, many of which could use welcome news after the bridge closing and demolition. Many visitors to the county are lured by its cultural heritage, and he believes such a major find should spark extra interest in Chimney Point.
“If it proves out ... it will be a huge addition to the preservation of history we have in the area, which is a huge draw,” Mayer said.
Historic preservation officials at the Chimney Point museum had been telling themselves during the bridge closing and demolition and ferry dock construction next door that maybe any publicity was good publicity.
They never expected such a positive side effect, a moment in December Gilbertson will never forget.
“I had actually had an emergency call from another historic site, so I had to leave and I went out to tell them I had to go,” Gilbertson recalled. “And they said, ‘Wait, wait, you’ve got to come see this.’ And we were looking at it going, ‘Oh, my goodness.’”
Reporter Andy Kirkaldy is at email@example.com.