Skeletons from a Ridgefield basement wait to tell their story
As American independence is celebrated on the Fourth of July, unearthed remains believed to be four soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War sit awaiting studies — suspended amid the COVID-19 pandemic — that may determine which side they fought on.
The four skeletons were discovered late in 2019 during work in the basement of a house in an area of Ridgefield where colonial militia and British troops fought on April 27, 1777. The British were retreating from the burning of Danbury to ships waiting in Long Island Sound off what is now Compo Beach in Westport.
Nicholas Bellantoni, state archaeologist emeritus, oversaw the recovery of the skeletons from their shallow, seemingly hastily dug grave in a Ridgefield basement. The study of the skeletons has been paused by the closure of laboratories at the University of Connecticut and Yale University, where they’d been sent — along with some 40 buttons found in the burial site.
“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the laboratories at all the universities have been closed,” Bellantoni said in a statement on Ridgefield Historical Society’s website. “...The remains and the buttons are all in the laboratories and we are waiting for more work to be done.”
"Hopefully the university labs will be able to reopen before too long and their research can continue,” said Sara Champion, president of the Ridgefield Historical Society. “Mr. Bellantoni affirmed that the skeletons will be returned to Ridgefield for reburial when the lab work is completed."
The discovery of the skeletons, announced back in December 2019, prompted a lot of speculation that they might be of historical interest.
“Four adult men, lying in a common grave,” Bellantoni said.
“...Kind of thrown in,” he said. “...They were very quickly buried… it was a shallow grave even at that time.”
The 40 buttons are believed to have been on clothing from two the four individuals who were buried at the site.
The buttons were being cleaned, and there had been speculation that some regimental insignia or other identification on them might help reveal the identities of the long-buried men. But this hasn’t happened.
“Regarding the buttons they have been unable to discover any insignia on them,” Sara Champion, the historicla socieyt president, said. “Apparently British forces had introduced insignia on their uniform buttons in 1776. However it is possible such buttons had not reached the troops in the Americas. Also the buttons appear to have been cloth covered.”
The discovery of the skeletons led to the Ridgefield Historical Society being awarded a National Park Service: American Battlefield Protection Program grant of $50,150, to finance a two-year study project designed to develop a deeper understanding of the 1777 Battle of Ridgefield and its place in the history of the American Revolution.
“We are thrilled that the National Park Service has recognized our efforts to preserve the history of the Battle of Ridgefield and, of course, we are anxious to know as much as possible about ‘our’ skeletons,” Historical Society President Sara Champion said when the grant was received.
Sharon Dunphy, first vice president of the historical society, is looking forward to starting the work on the grant.
“It’s going to be a fascinating project,” she said.
Researchers are fairly confident — and hopeful — that the skeletons will prove to have histories that run back to the Revolution.
“We came to realize very quickly these may very well be victims of the Battle of Ridgefield, which occurred in April 1777,” Bellantoni said.
The questions raised are tantalizing to historians and archeologists.
“Were they American militia, farmers coming off the fields to defend the town?” Bellantoni said.
Or were they British soldiers coming from Danbury “trying to pass through Ridgefield” on their way back to the waiting ships in Long Island Sound?
Bellantoni believes there is a great deal yet to be learned about the battle, both from continuing studies of the skeletons and associated materials, as well as from the work supported by the Battlefield grant that the historical society has gotten to study the entire area where the battle took place.
There are many questions to look into.
Were the skeletons those of Patriots, or Loyalist colonials, or British troops? How did non-combatant Ridgefielders interact with the soldiers on the two sides of the battle? Who buried casualties from the battle? Where are the other soldiers that died in the battle buried?
“We’re hoping the bones themselves will tell us a great deal about these men,” Bellantoni said.
This might include what he described as their “degree of muscularity” and approximate ages.
“Carbon isotope analysis” will help us understand the diets of these men,” Bellantoni said. And what they’d eaten in their early lives, he said, could suggest whether they came from Europe or were “American born and bred.”