First Posted: 5/17/2013
When John Philips and his family first arrived in Wyoming Valley, the welcoming party wasn’t too welcoming.
The newcomers were surrounded by local Native Americans who wanted Mr. Philips’ vest, Mrs. Philips’ bonnet, and the family’s horse. When Philips resisted, a native man raised a hatchet, leaving no room for argument. The newcomers gave away their possessions — sort of a reverse housewarming gift — but were left with their lives.
That is one story of the Philips family, some of the first white colonists to settle in Wyoming Valley in the mid-1700s. Aside from this tale and scattered references in old books, relatively little is known about the area’s first settlers and their experiences. Recently, however, local archeologists discovered evidence of these pioneers that may help reconstruct missing chapters of the history of Wyoming Valley.
This evidence, tucked away in trees and brush alongside a dirt road in Duryea, consists of the remains of a cabin. Most of the cabin vanished long ago, but the foundation and cellar, lined with stones, remain. Clues found among these stones have suggested to local archeologists that this site was most likely the home of the Philips family and one of the first settler cabins in the Greater Pittston area.
“We’re excited about the age of the site because very few sites remain in Wyoming Valley from that period,” said Ted Baird, a member of the Frances Dorrance Chapter of the Society for Pennsylvania Archeology.
The cabin remains, now known as the Philips Site, are a rare gem of Pennsylvania history, but their discovery was unexpected. Volunteer archeologists from the Frances Dorrance Chapter had been working nearby since 1993, excavating a large prehistoric Native American settlement along the Susquehanna River. In 2009, some of the chapter members began searching in the nearby woods for more evidence of ancient life. What they found instead was a buried foundation.
“At first we were puzzled. Obviously we were dealing with a manmade wall, but we didn’t expect to find such a thing there,” said Baird. While other volunteers focused on the prehistoric dig site, Baird spent hundreds of hours digging out the mysterious underground walls.
Over months, Baird uncovered a foundation and basement that seemed relatively modern. As he continued digging, however, new layers of subterranean stone walls appeared. This indicated to the archeologists that the site had been reused through the years. Baird believes it was used three or four times, both by families and by the local railroad company. He has even located early photos showing some of the structures that once stood there.
The archeologists studied the construction of the walls and artifacts found in the dirt to trace the history of the site. Their work clearly dated the site back to the 1800s — but another surprise awaited them.
When researcher Martin Reinbold began analyzing some of the artifacts, he determined that many dated back to the 1700s or even earlier. Most of these artifacts were pieces of broken glass and ceramic. There were also iron nails, animal bones, coins, buttons, and blue glass beads of the type traded with Native Americans in the mid-1700s.
Reinbold explained that the most surprising and important finds included bits of pottery he identified as Staffordshire slipware dating to 1675–1770, and Moravian slipware from around 1770–1825. These were most likely from plates and pitchers used by the Philips family before and during the Revolutionary War period.
The Philips Site is just the most recent addition to a growing list of important archeological finds in Wyoming Valley. According to Al Pesotine, vice president of the Chapter, local archeologists have found evidence of human presence in the Valley dating back to 8025 B.C. — ten thousand years ago. Native American camps and villages were common sights in the region for thousands of years until European settlers began to arrive in the 1700s.
At the time of John Philips, Native Americans and white settlers lived together in the Valley, sometimes fighting for control and other times living and trading peacefully. Conflicts and tragedies in the later 1700s ended the region’s Native American occupation.
The Frances Dorrance Chapter of the Society for Pennsylvania Archeology has been working for decades to uncover and analyze evidence of these early Wyoming Valley people. Since 1993, Chapter members and other volunteers have been excavating a highly productive Native American site at Coxton Yards in Duryea.
In February 2013, vandals struck the long-running site. However, Society members, volunteers from the community, and local businesses responded quickly to repair the priceless site and continue its ongoing work. “So many people showed up to help — all volunteers, and many even became members after that. It was just wonderful,” said Paula Cenera, secretary of the Chapter.
The Society meets regularly at the Duryea Municipal Building and holds weekly free open digs at its Coxton Yards site. Visitors are invited to watch, ask questions, or help with the digging. New members are also welcome. No prior experience with archeology is needed.
Currently the Society is seeking sponsors and funding to help them expand their research on the Philips Site. They hope to scientifically analyze artifacts and conduct in-depth research on Greater Pittston’s colonial times.
In addition, the Chapter hopes to develop an exhibit and a publication highlighting their discoveries and their importance to local history. These would be costly ventures for the all-volunteer group.
“There are several years of work ahead at the Philips Site: photos, mapping, drawing, research, and artifact analysis,” said Pesotine. “Without proper funding, we may not be able to complete the analysis needed to verify our assumptions about this site. We want to get a complete understanding of what’s happening there.”
For more information about the Frances Dorrance Chapter and its projects, contact Ted Baird at email@example.com.