Skeletons found near Ridgefield battle site fascinates history lovers
Old bones tell stories. Old teeth and old buttons may talk as well.
What stories will be told by the three skeletons and five buttons recently found not far from the site of the Battle of Ridgefield?
That’s what people interested in Ridgefield history are anxious to hear.
“It’s quite an interesting mystery, isn’t it, about the skeletons?” said historian Keith Jones, whose book “Farmers Against the Crown” provides a detailed and in-depth account of the Battle of Ridgefield.
“As town historian, I’m thrilled,” said Kay Ables of the Ridgefield Historical Society. “Because this a new page in Ridgefield history and State of Connecticut history. It’s something brand new that’s just been discovered.”
It’s through research — from DNA on the bones and teeth, to the materials and size of buttons found — that historians hope to piece together the story of the three skeletons found in a shallow grave in the basement of a building in the village.
“Everything is just speculation,” Ables said. “We’re hoping that this was from the battle in 1777.”
State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni is leading the research and was expected to share some information at a press conference scheduled Wednesday afternoon — too late for this week’s issue of the paper.
“When the state archaeologist has finished,” Ables said, “...we’ll know a whole lot more. But there are so many question marks.”
Bellantoni has been to Ridgefield previously, using ground penetrating radar at the Old Burying Ground on Wilton Road West, and later he used the radar in the area behind the wall of Casagmo where there’s a monument that honors the Battle of Ridgefield, which took place near there on April 27, 1777, and the “...Eight patriots / who were laid in the grounds, accompanied by 16 British soldiers, living their enemies; dying their guests. …”
The Casagmo exploration was unsuccessful.
“He tried to use his ground penetrating radar but there’s so many tree roots and the ground was so disturbed he couldn’t find anything,” Ables said.
Bellantoni was also called in when an affordable housing project on the former Skillen property on the west side of north Main Street was being dug up for development.
“He found a few little things,” Ables said, “but nothing of great importance that would tell a story.”
A very fun mystery
As a researcher and the author of “Farmers Against the Crown” — a book closely focused on the Battle of Ridgefield — Keith Jones said he’s fascinated and hopes to be able to help out with the research around the recently discovered bones.
“They haven’t articulated if there’s any role for me in that, but the mystery is so much fun I can’t resist,” he said.
“What I’ve provided for the Ridgefield Historical Society and Nick Bellantoni is a list of the confirmed military units that we know were there, and what were the casualty numbers that seem to be the best.”
Jones lived in Ridgefield from 1978 to 2006 and was the Ridgefield Historical Society’s first president.
He came back to town last week after reading about the bones that were found, and wonders where it all might lead.
“There were buttons apparently discovered, and it’s easy to lead to some conclusions about particular soldiers,” Jones said. “What the buttons were made of, and what size were they?
“That’s all premature,” he admitted.
“There were no British officers killed at the Battle of Ridgefield, and the American officers who were killed are accounted for. So any military buttons would have been an enlisted man from one side or the other,” Jones said.
“A military enlisted man would have have about 25 buttons on breast, cuff and pockets. So, there were only five found — it raises a question: Were they indeed military?” Jones said. “However, there were civilians on both sides, so it could have been somebody who grabbed a musket and fell in, and was wearing whatever jacket they had at the time.
“I’m interested in meeting with Nick on Wednesday, to see what he concluded about the buttons, and what he might have concluded about the skeletons,” Jones said..
“I guess he was doing DNA on them and has some thoughts about diet and composition of the bones, and was there trauma to the bones that might have been muskets or bayonets or cannonball?”
“Farmers Against the Crown,” now in its third printing, is the second of four books written by Jones. His first was “Farms of Farmingville.” The third is “Congress Is My Government,” which tells the story of the Revolutionary War service of John Marshall, who was the fourth Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The most recent is “John Laurance, the Immigrant Founding Father America Never Knew,” which explores the role in the nation’s early history of a New Yorker who’s gotten less attention than some of his contemporaries..
“The Battle of Ridgefield is like the gift that keeps on giving for anyone who’s ever written about it, because something just keeps popping up,” Jones said.
“From time to time cannonballs have emerged,” he added.
There’s the famous cannonball in the wall of the Keeler Tavern, long known informally as “the cannonball house” and now a museum and history center.
“Along Main Street, as businesses went up, cannon balls were found,” Jones said.
Jones now lives in Tucson and Manhattan.
“We’re back half a dozen times a year,” he said. “Once a year or so I go to Books on the Common and give some kind of a discussion about the Battle of Ridgefield book, or another one.”
He recalled the Rochambeau Trail March re-enactment in 2006 — the 225th anniversary of the march from Newport R.I., to Yorktown, Va., by the French under Rochambeau who were supporting the colonials.
“We had quite a party at the Community Center with the French who came over,” he said with a chuckle.
“There were no French at the Battle of Ridgefield, nor any Hessians. It was all British regulars and local Tories,” Jones said.
“That‘s the question with the bones,” he added.
“There was a Tory regiment called the Prince of Wales American Volunteers, who were in the vanguard of the attack,” he said. “And there was the artillery, three six-pounders, in the vanguard of attack as well...
“I think that’s one probability,” Jones said. “We know at least two members of the British artillery unit were killed in the Battle of Ridgefield, although we don’t know where, and we know one assistant was killed. One theory could be those are the bones of the three men.
“But that’s pure speculation,” he admitted. “There’s forensics to be done. There’s no guarantee the forensics will give us an answer.”