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City Archaeology Program Announces Charlestown 250 Archaeology Project

The City of Boston Archaeology Program announces the release of original research on the residents of Charlestown impacted by the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775, including a reconstructed census, digitized resident loss claims, and a new map of 1775 properties at the time of the battle.

The City of Boston Archaeology Program announces the release of original research on the residents of Charlestown impacted by the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775, including a reconstructed census, digitized resident loss claims, and a new map of 1775 properties at the time of the battle.

With one year to go before the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the City's archaeology team announces the Charlestown 250 Archaeology Project. We are hard at work researching and planning for a series of archaeological surveys across the neighborhood of Charlestown focusing on the events surrounding June 17, 1775. Today, the 249th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, we are releasing the results of our research and announcing plans for archaeological surveys.


The Battle of Bunker Hill and the Burning of Charlestown

The Battle of Bunker Hill, one of the first battles of the American Revolution, greatly changed the impression British forces had on the military abilities of the Continental Army. In addition to the deaths of over 300 troops, British forces fired upon the town of Charlestown burning it to the ground.  

Reconstructing 1775 Charlestown

The goal of Charlestown 250 Archaeology is to document underrepresented histories of Charlestown residents impacted by the events of the battle and to better understand the archaeological features associated with the battle. 

“Underrepresented histories” in this project refers to those who have not been the primary focus of existing discussion and research surrounding the battle including women, children, people of color, Native people, and others including those who represent multiple underrepresented histories. Because the battle was fought primarily by adult white men, and a great deal of commemoration and sharing of these important people and their significant contributions to history are already included in existing events and histories, our project will be primarily focusing on others.

A 17th century map depicting Charlestown and Boston after the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775.

"Plan of the town of Boston, with the attack on Bunkers-Hill, in the peninsula of Charlestown, the 17th of June, 1775" by John Ward, 1781 (via Leventhal Map & Education Center).

In order to identify these histories and in order to conduct archaeology at these places, we first needed to know who they were and where they lived. Since December 2023, the City Archaeology Team has researched the ownership of the entire Charlestown neighborhood on June 17, 1775.  This map, the first of its kind for the neighborhood, reveals the landscape of property ownership on the day of the battle. Each property is clickable, with details including a direct link to the property deed (via free familysearch.org account).  

Map of Charlestown Land Ownership on June 17, 1775

The Archaeology Team will next create property descriptions based on deeds and claims documents to better understand the layout of buildings, structures, wharves, agricultural spaces, fences, and other landscape features for a future 3D landscape reconstruction of 1775 Charlestown.

1775 Charlestown Census

The archaeology team relied heavily on The Genealogies and Estates of Charlestown written by Thomas Wyman in 1879. These books include the names of Charlestown residents and property owners from 1629-1818, and they include listings of the property bought and sold by the resident, their families, and associated dates. From this, the City Archaeology team was able to recreate a “census” of Charlestown in June 1775. The members of households and their ages are accurate to the date of the battle.

Link to reconstructed 1775 Charlestown “Census”

On June 17, 1775, the population of Charlestown (had they not fled) was 1,375. Of these people, 3% were Black (n=38), one person was listed as both Black and Native, and 41% were under the age of 18 (n=561). At least 27 single mothers fled Charlestown with their families.

 

1775 Charlestown Resident Claims

Every resident of Charlestown lost their homes and livelihood. All or nearly all residents had left Charlestown following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and most took their most valuable possessions with them, leaving behind the majority of their possessions, their homes, their businesses, their livestock, and their farmland.

In November 2023, the City Archaeology Team visited the Boston Public Library where their special collections team retrieved the documents for research. The team photographed all of the 340 claims on record. These documents are inventories of items lost by residents during the battle. Each is hand-written by the resident and submitted to Charlestown leaders in an attempt to request compensation from the new US Government for losses. Despite multiple attempts over half a century, no funds were ever granted. 

Handwritten 18th-century document detailing Elizabeth Moore's property that was lost of destroyed during the burning of Charlestown in 1775.

An excerpt from the loss claim of Elizabeth Thomas in 1776.

The documents include personal items, homes, animals, crops, fences, trees, boats, wharves, businesses, and other items consumed by fire or by the events surrounding the battle. Notable claims include Cato Hanker, a Black and Native cobbler who had earlier stopped a British supply team from aiding in the Battles of Lexington and Concord; Margaret Thomas, a Black woman who is likely the same Margaret Thomas who served as George Washington’s laundress; and John Larkin, who famously loaned Paul Revere his horse during the Midnight Ride. Larkin did not list a horse in his claim. 

The Claims summary document includes listings for individuals who submitted a claim which has since gone missing and is not included in the archive. If anyone is aware of the location of an original Charlestown 1775 claim, please email us at archaeology@boston.gov. We would like to include the information it contains in our dataset.

The archaeology team is actively working on transcribing these claims.

Link to the transcribed index of Charlestown 1775 Claims

Link to the folders of images of the claims document

Link to transcribed claims (ongoing)

Link to Letters to the Vice President, Secretary of State, and Massachusetts State Representative requesting restitution for Charlestown losses

1775 Charlestown Diaspora Map

Of the more than 300 claims, 101 listed the town from which the Charlestown resident sent the letter in 1776. A diaspora is the spreading of a people from their original homeland. By knowing where Charlestown residents were living the year after the battle, we have a greater understanding of the Charlestown diaspora following the battle events.

Link to diaspora map

Link to a list of resident claim locations

Searching for Answers about Fallen Soldiers and the 1775 Redoubt

The Bunker Hill Monument is located near the center of the fortifications created on Breed’s hill the night of June 16, 1775. In a period of around 4 hours during the night, the colonial troops used pickaxes and shovels to excavate a trench on top of the hill. The excavated materials were piled against the edge of the trench creating a ridge or parapet supported with bundled sticks, barrels and stone-filled containers. This ridge and trench fortification was known as a redoubt.

 From behind the redoubt, the soldiers could stand in the ditch and be protected by the ridge facing west and south towards British troops in ships and fortifications in Boston. Following the battle, British troops modified and expanded the fortifications. 

There have been multiple archaeological surveys surrounding the Bunker Hill Monument, the site of the redoubt on Breed’s Hill and currently a National Park. These surveys have revealed the likelihood that the 1775 redoubt structure may still be identifiable under the current surface of the grassy hill.

Ground penetrating radar (GPR) and other non-invasive remote sensing techniques have been useful for finding earthworks, and a previous GPR survey on the monument hill in the 1990s had promising results suggesting an oval-shaped trench present on the hill. Technology has significantly improved since this original survey and the City Archaeology Program is actively working with the National Park Service and other partners on a plan to re-survey the top of the hill to provide an even better underground snapshot of the location and condition of the 1775 redoubt.

Training Field fieldwork

Volunteers excavating shovel test pits during the Archaeology Program's 2015 archaeological survey of the Training Field at Winthrop Park in Charlestown.

A goal of the project is to accurately document the presence and location of the 1775 redoubt, including the potential for an archaeological trench across the original redoubt to reveal a section of the surviving fortification as part of the 250th celebrations in the summer of 2025.

In addition to the redoubt, the team is also actively working to use remote sensing techniques to identify areas of potential burials for the more than 300 individuals who lost their lives during the battle, including both colonial and British forces. The colonial forces included people of color and Native individuals from multiple Native nations. No burials will be disturbed as part of this work, but radar and documentary surveys may help to better protect these locations. The City Archaeology Program is coordinating with the National Park Service on Native consultation.

Research is still at an early stage for both the redoubt and burial aspects of the project. This will include extensive documentary research to understand where soldiers died during the battle and the assembling of reports that mention the finding of a burial in Charlestown potentially associated with the battle after 1775. If you know of a discovery or account of a discovery of a fallen soldier in Charlestown, we encourage you to reach out to us at archaeology@boston.gov 

Of particular note is the Bunker Hill Cemetery, which is located on or near the “rail fence” where a number of soldiers died. It is unlikely that the fallen were transported far after the battle, and there is legend that this current cemetery location was chosen because it was once a mass burial of casualties. This is one of several theories and legends the City Archaeology Program hopes to test through radar and other remote techniques as part of the Charlestown 250 Archaeology Project.

The City Archaeology Program will be seeking financial support to fund the specialized Ground Penetrating Radar surveys in 2024. If you are interested in financially supporting these efforts, please reach out to us at archaeology@boston.gov

Future Archaeology

Today, the City Archaeology team is actively pursuing research with the goal of choosing sites in Charlestown to conduct initial archaeological surveys in 2024. These sites have yet to be selected but will highlight underrepresented histories including places where enslaved and free Black Charlestown residents and others lived in 1775. No survey will happen without explicit property owner permission. Based on the results of the 2024 surveys, the team will return in 2025 for additional survey as appropriate.

If you are a property owner in Charlestown and would like the City Archaeology Program to consider your property for archaeology in 2024 and 2025, please reach out to us at archaeology@boston.gov.

The City Archaeology Program is an active partner in the Charlestown 250 planning activities and working with multiple neighborhood partners on this project. Like all City of Boston Archaeology Projects, volunteers are needed. For this project in particular we are hoping to have neighborhood residents, descendant communities, and others directly associated with the events around the battle work with the archaeology team on the planning, excavating, and analysis.

Fieldwork is expected to begin in the fall of 2024, resume in the spring of 2025, and continue through at least the end of June 2025 on multiple locations throughout the neighborhood. 

For updates on the Charlestown 250 Archaeology Project, follow us on social media at @bostonarchaeo and through our newsletter.  You can also find information about the Charlestown 250 project and other 250th projects from the archaeology team through the Boston 250 Archaeology page.

We are indebted to the tireless work of our volunteers, as well as the assistance of the Charlestown Preservation Society, and Charlestown Historical Society in the preparation of this data for public view.

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