Digging the Past

Searching for the remnants of a “lighthouse” in the forests of Barkhamsted.


Ray Bendici

“And there’s the lighthouse,” rang the driver’s shout,
As down the valley toiled the Hartford stage
Past where the lights were feebly shining out
From cabins high on Ragged Mountain side.”

—Lewis Sprague Mills, “The Legend of the Barkhamsted Light House.”

Lake Mcdonough and the Barkhamsted Reservoir are miles to the east, and with the only visible water nearby the relatively shallow, albeit rocky, Farmington River, why would Central Connecticut State University archaeology professor Dr. Kenneth Feder and his field crew be excavating for a “lighthouse” out here in the People’s State Forest of Barkhamsted?

As you may have inferred from the verse above, the “lighthouse” refers not to a seaside tower but a group of landlocked cabins; in particular, a Colonial-era settlement whose hearth fires served as a beacon to weary stagecoach drivers traversing the Farmington River Turnpike from Albany to Hartford, alerting them that it was only five miles to New Hartford, where they could water their horses, get food and rest.

But there’s more to “The Barkhamsted Lighthouse” than being a roadside marker, and Feder, along with his eager team of students and volunteers, are uncovering the historical evidence for what was once thought to be a legend: the union of Narragansett Indian James Chaugham and white Colonist Molly Barber.

The story goes that in 1740, after the headstrong Molly was denied her father’s permission to marry the man of her choice, she declared that she would marry the next suitor, who turned out to be James, a Native American. Ostracized, the couple eventually took up along the Farmington River, where they would have eight children and be joined by other outcasts to form a settlement that would become known as “The Lighthouse.”  

Fast-forward to 2009, and Feder is standing in front of a 16-foot-square depression in the forest, a small hollow along a well-worn trail that no doubt hundreds of hikers have passed by without notice. As a matter of fact, to the untrained eye most of the area looks like it’s been forest from time immemorial.

“Two hundred years ago, all this was a thriving settlement,” Feder says, opening his arms to the woods around us. Indicating the lines where walls used to be, he points out how upon looking more carefully at the depression—one of about a half dozen in the vicinity—you can see it is not a natural formation but a man-made one. He explains how when the site was first excavated back in 1990 and ’91, hundreds of objects were found, from buttons and coins to shards of pottery and plates. When combined with other historical research, it was determined that the story of James and Molly was, in fact, true.

Feder, with 10 aspiring archaeologists in tow (some are here as part of a summer course), was compelled to further explore the site following the recent death of Walter Landgraf, former curator of the Stone Museum—also in the People’s State Forest—and a fellow Lighthouse enthusiast; upon Landgraf’s passing, his widow provided Feder with “a bucket full” of new research material. “Walter is still talking to me,” Feder says as we tour the site. I follow as he scrambles through the woods and shows me an unmarked cemetery where James and Molly are supposedly buried.

At the current excavation dig, four different spots across a shady hillside are being examined simultaneously—in each of the rectangles roped off with yellow cords, field crew members are methodically digging down, carefully scraping away the earth with trowels, brushes or bare hands, painstakingly searching for artifacts. Buckets of removed soil are also sifted through ⅛-inch-mesh hardware cloth screens, with what doesn’t pass through being inspected before being discarded. Sometimes, they discover a fragment of a plate or pot, other times, it’s an iron nail or brass button; a line of stones that might have been a hearth is uncovered. Artifacts are bagged to be brought back to the lab for further study. The crew also tracks its progress constantly, meticulously charting each layer of dirt—and history—they dig through.

Although it’s deliberate, disciplined work—or maybe because of it—Feder’s team is a boisterous bunch, laughing and joking constantly. The fun-yet-focused attitude is spearheaded by “K-Fed” himself (“The original K-Fed,” cracks Feder), who continually moves from pit to pit, enthusiastically embracing each discovery with a passion for archaeology that is infectious. He quotes the opening of H.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country.”

“I want to explore that foreign country,” he says. “[This work is] something visceral, a connection to the past. I can intellectualize it—James Chaugham lived in a place called The Lighthouse over 200 years ago. But then we can come out here and see where the foundation to his home was, we can dig up and hold a piece of a plate that he owned. To me, that’s pretty cool.”

Digging the Past

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