Revolutionary War soldiers? State archaeologist believes Ridgefield skeletons fit the bill
Archaeologists, historians, and scientists are converging on Ridgefield in hopes that three male skeletons — two buried side by side and another about 15 feet from the commingled pair — found in a basement in early December are the remains of Revolutionary War soldiers who fought in the town’s famous battle in April 1777.
But how confident are the experts that the discovery dates back to the war for American independence? If so, how can these soldiers be identified? And, is there a way of knowing which side they fought on?
Those were some of the questions fielded inside Ridgefield’s town hall on Wednesday afternoon during a press conference with state archaeologist Dr. Nicholas Bellantoni, State Historian Walter Woodward, and author and historian Keith Marshall Jones III.
“We’re not 100% sure but I think it’s safe to say we’re 85 to 90% sure or we wouldn’t be here,” said Bellantoni, who has been excavating the site since he arrived in town on Dec. 3.
The state archaeologist had been asked about the chances the remains belonged to “regular people” and not soldiers.
“There are a lot of things that could disprove our hypothesis that these men were soldiers but I have yet to find any of those things,” he told a room of about 50 residents and media members.
Bellantoni was asked by the same person for an example of something he could find that would disprove his assumptions, and he replied bluntly.
“We’d find kids,” he said, “or something that shows that this was a family ... what we were seeing is a hasty burial of three adult men, two of whom look to have been stripped of their clothes, which was the British custom at the time for infantry men or nonofficers in the army...
“These could just be three strong farm boys,” he added. “But they also could be artillery men who had been used to drag British weapons down from Danbury to Ridgefield.”
Bellantoni, Woodward, and Jones all spoke and agreed that the believed-to-be-soldiers could be American or British. All three insisted that only time would tell.
“We’re in the super early stages of this process,” Bellantoni said toward the end of the hour-long press conference, echoing his co-hosts. “... Something important is happening in your town and it takes deeper levels of analysis to determine what exactly happened.”
Jones, a former Ridgefielder and author of “Farmers Against the Crown,” had laid out five possible identities for the three men.
“The first and most likely outcome is that they were British infantrymen, rank and file. Buried dead here shortly after the battle, stripped of their clothes and tossed in a trench,” he said. “The second likeliest scenario is that they were Loyalist men who had brought whatever artillery they had to the front of the battle. ... They could also be from the Prince of Wales American Volunteers Regiment —Loyalists who wanted to prove themselves as diligent and honorable soldiers as the British. They also would have been up front.”
On the American side, Jones had two suggested outcomes for the men’s identities.
“They could be from Connecticut’s third, fifth, or sixth regiments of the Continental Army,” said Jones, who’s book details the events of Tyron’s Raid on Danbury and the Battle of Ridgefield. “Or they could be just some poor farmers who left home, joined the militia and never came back. It’s unlikely this happened. Why? Because we know they were quickly tossed in a shallow grave.”
Like Bellantoni, Jones emphasized that this was just his hypothesis and that necessary lab work would really be the only way to confirm.
“This is just my gut,” Jones said, “these three are related to the men — 16 British and 8 American — who died here and are remembered on the plaque on Main Street. ...
“Or are these entirely different people?” he asked, gaining the crowd’s intrigue. “That very well could prove my work from 15 years ago wrong. ... It’s possible that the number of dead soldiers could be changed when we know more about who these three are, and that’s very exciting.”
Studying the grounds
Bellantoni reiterated that he and other leaders would be applying for a National Parks Service grant under its American Battlefield Protection Program, bringing the scope of this discovery to a national level.
“It might take a while to get the funding but I would love to work with you guys,” he told the room. “This town’s deserving of this grant and that’s what we’re shooting for. Hopefully, we’ll be around for a while.”
Included in the grant would be an archaeological survey of Main Street and other important locations near the battle site.
Bellantoni, Woodward, and Jones fielded a dozen questions during the press conference, which was hosted and organized by the Ridgefield Historical Society. The last question focused on the possible archaeological survey and how it might impact future development in the downtown.
“If we’re going to be doing this study, then are you going to try to preserve the area from commercial intrusion?” someone in the crowd asked. “I’m thinking of buildings or any construction that might be planned.”
Bellantoni said that if the application was approved, then the state would be able to review projects in town before field work is conducted.
“We’d have to stay on top of any developments here in town that might impede our work,” he said.
The National Parks Service is only the tip of the iceberg for these skeletons, who have already caused a stir internationally.
“The British Consulate in Boston has been notified and they’re excited about the discovery,” said Woodward, the state’s fifth historian. “Some of the tests that will be done in the lab will look to trace their nationality.”
The British or American debate came up a few times during the conference’s question and answer period.
“It’s a challenging aspect to evaluate,” said Gary Aronsen, a biological anthropologist and supervisor of Yale’s University’s biological anthropology laboratories. “We believe the bones are in good enough shape for us to determine, but there are no guarantees. ... There are ways for us to test to determine if someone was born here or if they immigrated here during the early part of American history.”
Bellantoni joked with the room that “DNA works every time on CSI but with archaeology it’s not as accurate.”
Will the men be returned to the United Kingdom if they are determined to be British soldiers?
“We’ll work with the British Consulate on that,” Bellantoni said. “What I do know is that whoever they are they will be interred with full military honors. ... We want to make sure they’re interred properly and respectfully. Perhaps it’ll be right here in town, their final resting place. But that’s really a question for down the road.”
Other questions ranged from could scientists figure out what the alleged soldiers ate to what was their cause of death?
“We haven’t found any evidence of trauma so we’re unsure of what the cause of death was,” Bellantoni said. “What we know is that there’s no signs of older age in the bones — these were healthy, adult men.”
He added that no musket balls or any other weapons had been discovered on the site.
“There’s no smoking gun,” he said. “We’re 100% not there yet. The lab work might help shade it in a bit. Maybe they can see where a saber cut through a rib or something.”
How tall were they?
One person in the audience asked the soldiers height.
“One guy was 5 feet 11 inches,” Bellantoni said.
“Was it one of the two who were commingled?” another person wanted to know.
“No, it was the preliminary guy,” the state archaeologist replied, “the one who’s already been dug out who was the first to be found.”
The commingling aspect of the burial drew questions of the audience: How common was that practice? Is there a significance? Is it possible that an American soldier has been lying next to a British one for all this time?
“It’s unlikely that these two fought on opposing sides,” Jones said, “the British would not bury anyone but their own ...
“The reason why they’re together seems fairly obvious to me: It was a hastily fought battle and their fellow troops buried them and moved on.”
Someone else asked if the radar technology used so far has uncovered any other deaths near the excavation site.
“Not in that basement,” Bellantoni said. “But there’s a real likelihood that there other skeletons are out there. It amazes me that other burials haven’t been unearthed.”