Three skeletons found under 18th-century Ridgefield house
RIDGEFIELD — Human skeletal remains — possibly belonging to Revolutionary War soldiers who fought in the Battle of Ridgefield in 1777 — were discovered under the foundation of an early 18th-century house last week.
The Connecticut Office of State Archaeology was notified by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner about the find on Dec. 2.
Subsequent excavations by the state archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni, with assistance from the Friends of the Office of State Archaeology, Inc. and University of Connecticut graduate students, have yielded two more skeletons.
“One has been completely excavated already and is in the medical examiner’s office and we’re working on these other two,” said Bellantoni, who began working on the site on Dec. 3.
Bellantoni noted that all three skeletons were “robust adult men lying in an east-west orientation in ground that appears to be haphazardly dug.”
“The sex is sometimes hard to determine in some of these cases but this one was easy,” Bellantoni told The Ridgefield Press at the excavation site on Wednesday, Dec. 11. “There’s no question we’re dealing with men.”
“These were big guys. They definitely weren’t couch potatoes. Their bone size indicates that they were probably militiamen. Their femur bones show that they clearly walked a lot and and carried a lot of weight back in their day,” he added. “Were they carrying cannons or other artillery? We don’t know what their role was exactly yet but part of our interpretation of this scene is that these were soldiers. They were buried in a tight pit and buried hastily — one was put in first and the second one was thrown on top of him. And based on the east-to-west orientation of how they were buried indicates they belonged to a Christian society where that was the burial custom.”
Bellantoni said that the skeletons were found “contorted and confined” in a hole that was relatively shallow —about three to four feet below the gravel floor of the home’s basement.
“We’ve been in the field for five days and done a lot in those five days but we were hoping it would go a little bit quicker. It’s been slower than I would have liked,” he added. “The soil in this area is like clay and that’s slowed us down some. It’s hard packed so we’ve had to work pretty carefully.”
The homeowners were planning a renovation of the basement when a construction crew found the first skeleton. The homeowner called the Ridgefield Police Department, who notified the medical examiner’s office after it was determined the bones were more than 50 years old.
“By law, the police have to investigate any discovery in case there’s an open case that is of criminal interest,” Bellantoni explained. “Once it was determined that this collection of bones was at least a hundred years old — possibly even 200 years old — they were able to contact the ME who then turned to the Office of State Archaeology.”
Despite some frustrations digging out the skeletons, Bellantoni was optimistic about what the excavation could yield. He said that this discovery would be the first time that Revolutionary War soldiers from the field of battle have been recovered in the state of Connecticut.
“We hope to solve this riddle,” he said. “We have a working hypothesis and some very compelling evidence to back it up but there’s no direct evidence yet that these were Revolutionary War soldiers. That determination will be made through the lab work and that takes a few months. We potentially won’t know for sure until the spring 2020. ... Their teeth are in pretty good shape and that’s important for DNA forensics. We could eventually figure out their diet and that might tell us who’s side they were on. It’s amazing what science can do ...
“... Potentially we could put names to these three but that’s way down the road,” Bellantoni added. “We’re at a fun intersection of where archaeology, history and forensics all meet. There’s a lot of potential here to provide real insights into what happened to these men during and after the Battle of Ridgefield.”
One of the other reasons Bellantoni and his team believe the bones belong to Revolutionary War soldiers is that they’ve found five buttons in the grave.
“They were all linear, pressed onto one of the men’s chest area,” he said. “That suggests he was wearing a jacket at the time of the burial ... One of them was wearing a jacket. We don’t know anything beyond that. We haven’t found anything else — no boots or weapons or anything like that.”
The exact location of the dig isn’t being released to the public as the state archaeologist worries about vandalism.
“The buttons won’t be here after today and there’s nothing else down here besides the bones which will be removed completely over the next few days,” said Bellantoni on Wednesday. “Our fear is that when people find out about something like this they try to come and take artifacts. This is a place that needs to be respected, not scraped for collectibles. It’s very sensitive.”
Bellantoni said the site is secure.
“There’s a lock on the door and there’s a security system in place so we’re confident that there won’t be any disruptions here but it’s always on the back of the mind when digging,” he said. “... The Ridgefield Police Department is very aware about this situation and has been here throughout the process and they know to keep an eye out for anyone who’s not here on behalf of the state.”
As for the buttons, Bellantoni said they will be analyzed for potential military inscriptions.
“We have the buttons on one guy but the other one appears to have been stripped and buried, which was common for both armies to do at the time,” he said.
“... This is certainly a dramatic way to brought back into the town’s history.”
Bellantoni wouldn’t rule out that there could be more grave sites nearby.
He did note that he would use this dig as a means to applying for a National Parks Service “battlefield grant” to potentially survey the historic area of the Battle of Ridgefield.
“It’s a significant local and national event, and we could potentially make some fascinating new discoveries about what happened to the men who fought here,” he said. “It’s important to let the community know that these men are still here in some respects.”
Bellantoni said the potential survey will cover private properties across town and up and down Main Street.
“Ridgefield has so much amazing Revolutionary War history and it deserves more attention,” he said. “There’s more to discover but we have to do it with respect and we appreciate how much interest there’s already been in town because of what we’ve found. We hope to build on that momentum.”
One thing Bellantoni’s confident of is that the three men weren’t part of a mass burial.
“This is it for this site,” he said. “We haven’t found anything else here in our various tests over the last week ... If it were a mass burial, then why aren’t there children or women? The fact that it’s just three men really goes to prove our interpretation that they’re possibly soldiers. Why else would three men be buried all at the same time with nothing else to signify who they were and how they died?”
A press conference about the skeletal discovery has been scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 18, at 1 p.m. at the Ridgefield Historical Society (4 Sunset Lane).
The state archaeologist and state historian Walter Woodward, as well as members of the Ridgefield Historical Society and the property owner, will be available for interviews at the press conference.
Photos from the site will be available, but to preserve the integrity of the excavation, site visits cannot be permitted.
For information on the find, call the historical society at 203-438-5821.
More about the home
“The original house was built around 1790 and was very small,” said Sharon Dunphy, president of the the Ridgefield Historical Society.
There have been several additions made to the home over the years — and one of those construction projects built over the burial site.
“The skeletons were not in the original house,” Dunphy explained. “The additions to the home finally put a roof over them. The burials were definitely beyond the original structure.”
More about the battle
The principal skirmish of the Battle of Ridgefield took place near what today is the Casagmo condominium complex on the northern end of Main Street. A monument marking the event was erected by George M. Olcott in front of Casagmo — the site of the Patriots’ barricade.
It reads: “In Defense of American Independence / At the Battle of Ridgefield / April 27, 1777 / Died / Eight Patriots / Who Were Laid in The Grounds / Companioned By / Sixteen British Soldiers / Living, Their Enemies; Dying Their Guests / ‘In Honour of Service and Sacrifice / This Memorial Is Placed / For the Strengthening of Hearts.’”
The Battle of Ridgefield on April 27, 1777 followed Tryon’s Raid on Danbury on April 26. The British forces, about 1900 men strong, were led by Major General William Tryon as they landed at Compo Beach in Westport around 11 p.m. on the rainy night of April 25.
They marched north unimpeded to Danbury, where the Continental Army supply depot was located. By 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, April 27, the British forces, with an additional 100 Loyalist volunteers, had set fire to the supplies and torched numerous dwellings and barns and were marching back to rendezvous with their ships off Westport.
To avoid the gathering Patriot forces, General Tryon took a different route back, going through Ridgebury and then the village of Ridgefield. Regiments of infantry, accompanied by a detachment of horsemen and artillery, quick-marched into Ridgebury and stopped for a rest and food just south of the Asproom Ledges at the northern end of the Scotland School District.
There, General David Wooster led several hundred men in an attack on the British rear guard while Generals Benedict Arnold and Gold Selleck Silliman were organizing a position ahead of the British, in the village of Ridgefield. With the British on the move after Wooster’s first attack, he launched another near the southern intersection of North Salem Road and Tackora Trail. After one horse was shot out from under him, he remounted and continued to attack but was himself shot and carried from the battle, gravely wounded; he later died in Danbury.
Meanwhile, General Arnold was organizing defenses in the village; he had arrived there about 11 a.m. A barricade was established at the narrow part of Main Street, opposite the Benjamin Stebbins home (site now of Casagmo). In fighting near the barricade, General Arnold’s horse was shot, but he managed to escape and within an hour, the British fought around the barricade and the Patriots withdrew, intending to regroup at the Saugatuck Bridge in Westport and mount a fresh attack.
The British troops camped in a field off Wilton Road West, and were harassed by Patriot militia men throughout the night. They marched through Wilton on their way to their ships off Compo at Cedar Point and returned to New York. General Tryon’s report listed 24 killed and 28 missing.
Historians recorded 16 British soldiers and eight Americans were buried in a small field to the right of the American position on the battlefield (which would be south of the Stebbins house). In his extensively researched book, Farmers Against the Crown, Keith Marshall Jones III reported being able to document 13 deaths and 27 wounded from the Patriot ranks. Earlier historians offered varying numbers, he noted. Jones named seven Americans, including one from Ridgefield, Bradley Dean, whose remains are not recorded in any cemetery records. These, he said, were presumably those buried at the battle scene.
They include, in addition to Dean: Private Noah Bartlett of Hartford; Lieutenant Hezekiah Davenport of Stamford; Samuel Seeley of Easton (then part of Fairfield); Volunteer David Selleck of Stamford (via Salem); Private David Stevens of Stamford; and Lieutenant William Thompson of Trumbull (Fairfield).