An archaeological dig in North Chatham recently uncovered the original homestead of two of Chatham’s earliest white residents, William and Anne Busby Nickerson. They built their house on a site near Ryder’s Cove in 1664, but the site was never preserved, and gradually was reclaimed by the surrounding land.
About 20 years ago, the Nickerson Family Association established its headquarters near where they believed William and Anne’s homestead had stood. They undertook the recent archaeological dig to try and pinpoint the exact location.
“There’s not many opportunities on the Cape to have the piece of land where your ancestors have lived and be able to actually dig there and find artifacts that would indicate their lifestyle, how they lived, what they did for a living, possibly, the size of their home,” said Trish Noyes, the Association’s Project Coordinator.
Those details were lost to history, but surviving deeds indicate the homestead most likely had stood in an overgrown area of land now owned by the Chatham Conservation Foundation – right next to the Nickerson Family Association property. The Foundation approved the excavation plans, and Noyes then called in local archaeologist Craig Chartier.
“When they first showed it to me, it was just this impenetrable wall of this Japanese honeysuckle,” Chartier said. “And you couldn’t see anything that was up here, except for the stone that they had put up.”
That stone was a commemorative marker placed at the end of a pathway to indicate the approximate location of the homestead. After the Nickerson Family Association cleared the site, Chartier and his team began to dig.
“And the very first hole that we dug, we started coming up with artifacts that dated back to the 1660s,” said Chartier.
Among the artifacts Chartier and his team began digging up included nails, charcoal and pieces of coal.
“One of the most important things we found was a little piece of a tobacco pipe…a red clay tobacco pipe that was probably about a half inch long. Those were only made between about the 1670s and the 1680’s here in New England – so when we found that, we knew we were exactly in the right time period," Chartier said.
Chartier’s team also unearthed various bricks, along with pieces of mortar and clay. That led them to suspect they were getting close to the location of the original hearth.
“We know in those kinds of houses back then in the 17th century, the hearth was either located in the center, or it would be against one of the walls like the east wall or the west wall on the gable end. So we were able to locate the hearth and find out the orientation,” Chartier said.
As it turns out, the location of the hearth was only about 50 feet from where the commemorative stone marker had been placed on the ground.
All indications are that the Nickersons were friendly with the local Native Americans. Chartier hopes the artifacts might tell him if William and Anne Nickerson traded with the Native Americans, and if so, to what degree.
At the Nickerson’s genealogy research center not far from the dig site, Chartier laid out a few small glass bottles containing artifacts from the site. To the untrained eye, they look completely unremarkable.
“Some of the most surprising stuff that we found – which is some of the most exciting stuff – doesn’t look like much at all,” he said. “It looks like little chunks of rocks, like little meteorite rocks or something like that. But we think it’s slag from blacksmithing. And so one of the ideas we have is that possibly William Nickerson was doing some blacksmithing down on the site. Being out here all by himself, basically, being able to repair your own tools.”
Chartier and his team are the process of cleaning and cataloging the artifacts, and eventually they’ll go on display for public viewing.
William Nickerson didn’t have a will. Nor did he leave any indication of what his house may have looked like, or other details of his life as one of Chatham’s earliest settlers. The newly uncovered archaeological site could soon help to answer at least some of those questions.