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Digging for history

GRAND RONDE -- The beginnings of a mystery are emerging from the ground at Fort Yamhill near Grand Ronde this summer.

Oregon State University student Meera Satyanarayan holds up a piece of 19th-century glass found in an excavation pit at Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area in Grand Ronde during an eight-week archeological dig.

Photo by Jolene Guzman

Oregon State University student Meera Satyanarayan holds up a piece of 19th-century glass found in an excavation pit at Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area in Grand Ronde during an eight-week archeological dig.

August 13, 2013

GRAND RONDE -- The beginnings of a mystery are emerging from the ground at Fort Yamhill near Grand Ronde this summer.

A team of Oregon State University archaeological students led by Professor David Brauner have been digging up surprising artifacts from where the officers' homes used to stand when the fort was operational from 1856 to 1866.

The team, which started work July 1, have been pulling out evidence that women and children had shared the site with the officers at some point.

The discovery in and of itself is not that unusual, said team leader Justin Eichelberger. Evidence of families staying at military forts in the region has been well recorded in other places.

However, the historic record of Fort Yamhill has no mention of women -- except laundresses who had their own quarters separate from the enlisted men and officers.

"From these particular houses there is no historical evidence of women being here, which is the great thing about archaeology," Eichelberger said. "It can tell us things that history can't. It can provide a much fuller picture of what took place."

The military history of the fort -- now a state park, the Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area (FYSHA) -- has been well-documented. It was essentially a border crossing between the Grand Ronde Reservation to the west and the land owned by settlers to the east.

About 70 enlisted men and officers stationed at the fort represented the authority in the region, and as such, Fort Yamhill was positioned at the highest point in the area.

Artifacts recovered from the Fort Yamhill archeological dig include china, keys, buttons and a perfume bottle.

Photo by Jolene Guzman

Artifacts recovered from the Fort Yamhill archeological dig include china, keys, buttons and a perfume bottle.

The six officers' quarters at the top of the hill, painted bright white and the deep black fortified block house down the hill from the homes could be seen for miles around.

The men stationed at Fort Yamhill controlled the road in and out of the reservation and served as a buffer between the Native American tribes and settlers living in close proximity.

FYSHA opened in 2006 with the purpose of retelling the story of the fort and its role in the region's history in the mid-1800s.

"This is a park in progress and archaeology is helping us come up with plans to develop the park and influence the stories we tell," said Matt Huerter, park ranger. "Through archaeology we have been able to determine exactly where most of the buildings were and how big they were."

Only one of the estimated 27 structures used at the fort is still standing, one of the six officers' homes. It has been carefully restored to its original condition when used at the fort.

Numerous Oregon State University students work at the archeological site at Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area near Grand Ronde Thursday afternoon.

Photo by Jolene Guzman

Numerous Oregon State University students work at the archeological site at Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area near Grand Ronde Thursday afternoon.

Huerter said plans for FYSHA include putting up "ghost structures," or metal framework, of former buildings to show visitors the layout of the fort and develop a small museum and visitors' center.

A half-mile interpretive trail marking building locations already exists at the park, but Huerter said much more can be done.

"We have just scratched the surface doing research here," Huerter said. "It just has a huge amount of potential to just be this amazing historical site where people can have a connection, to see the remains of the fort."

For the last several years, OSU excavations have begun to reveal more about the lives of those stationed at the fort.

Most of the objects found would have likely been regarded as litter by the soldiers, dug up from areas where they discarded broken or unusable items.

"It's just a garbage heap, but it's where the good stuff is," said team member Diane Zentgraff as she dusted off pieces of brick and broken glass in a pit Thursday. "In a thousand years they will be digging up our stuff."

Rusty square nails and pieces of glass are the most common finds, but occasionally, the team locates nearly whole plates, pewter flatware, whole bottles, military buttons, and even pieces of old guns.

The most compelling pieces of evidence found during this year's dig, however, are those indicating the presence of women and children.

Meera Satyanarayan, left, and Krista Iwaniec, part of the archeological dig team, excavate a pit Thursday.

Photo by Jolene Guzman

Meera Satyanarayan, left, and Krista Iwaniec, part of the archeological dig team, excavate a pit Thursday.

"It's time to investigate their stories," said Kathleen Bryant, an OSU doctoral candidate in archaeology whose field of study is the lives of women at military installations of the time. "We will find out. I can imagine there are very interesting stories to be found. We just don't know yet, but we will."

At this point, Eichelberger and Bryant can only hypothesize about what the evidence means. One theory is that the house where they are finding the feminine items was used as a guest cottage for officers moving from fort to fort, who may have been traveling with their families.

Eichelberger said the unexpected twist in the emerging story has made the slow work of finding and cataloging material at the site this summer a little more exciting.

"We are very surprised at what we are finding in this house," Eichelberger said, referring to the house where evidence of a family living at the fort has been discovered. "It makes it fun. Every pit we open up, it's something new, something we've never seen before."

A trip back in time

What: Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area.

Where: 9390 Hebo Road (Highway 22), Grand Ronde.

Hours: Year-round day use park.

Of note: Free tours of the archaeological site are held daily at 10 a.m. through Aug. 20.

For more information: 503-879-5814 or go to www.oregonstateparks.org.

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