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Archive for March, 2021

Dr. David Starbuck maps the Officers Dwelling on Rogers Island, September, 2019. Matthew Rozell photo.

Longtime readers may know that even before I began interviewing WWII veterans and started my work with Holocaust survivors—in fact, even before my teaching career began—I began doing important historical archeological work locally with Dr. David Starbuck, who recently passed away at the young age of 71. We spent a lot of time in the middle of the 1750s, David Starbuck and I and others, tediously teasing clues out of the physical remains of our colonial wars. But what was most fun was the speculation and the pursuit of hunches and leads, through steamy summer days and cool fall mornings, for over 35 years, digging these important military sites along the Hudson River/Lake Champlain/Lake George corridor, ‘The Great Warpath’, developing a delicate touch in reading the soil and the scattered fragments of nation-building events now nearly 275 years away.

I met David Starbuck the summer after I turned 24, just six years out of high school. I had visited the Saratoga National Battlefield and picked up a flyer regarding a field school doing archeology at the American Headquarters of General Horatio Gates, a major turning point of the American Revolution. In that summer of 1985, I rode my motorcycle down scenic US Route 4, following the meandering Hudson River just as British General John Burgoyne’s army had in the summer of 1777. I pulled into an old farmhouse on Bemis Heights, just in time for the morning announcements and opening introductions that he would conduct at 9AM over the course of every one of the 70 field schools he led over the years. By the end of the Saratoga season I had found the only evidence of military occupation, canister shot that would have been fired out of a cannon, large pea-sized lead balls that would rake through men on the field, in the rubble of the excavated house that had served as Gates’ Field Headquarters for two or so weeks.

Dr. Starbuck must have seen something in me, because he asked about my training―I was finishing my studies to be a history teacher―and asked me if I would ever consider the field of archeology. Well, as it turned out, I didn’t have to; I would go on to be by his side as one of his main field supervisors for the next three decades coming up, where I met many of my lifelong friends. He gave me the go-ahead to lead others and disappear into the excavation pits, lost in the discovery of the tangible remains of a people and story I had grown up hearing about―think ‘Last of The Mohicans’, and you’d be about right. It was all in my backyard, and now, Dr. Starbuck was giving me the latitude to uncover and record things that had not seen the light of day since the fall of Fort William Henry, like the only known smallpox hospital from the French and Indian War discovered in North America, on Rogers Island in Fort Edward. The West Barracks and west curtain wall of Fort Edward herself and the actual East and West Barracks of Fort William Henry, burned to the ground by French forces in 1757. Taking the troweling lead on the historical exhumation investigation into what really happened to Jane McCrea, victim of Burgoyne’s foray into Fort Edward as part of the ill-fated Saratoga campaign.

The incredibly rich Sutlers House near Fort Edward, where we would spend over a decade unearthing and recording this amazing frontier fort ‘store’, where the soldiers bought their booze and tobacco, littered with bottles and pipes, with coins lost everywhere in the process into the cellar hole, burned staircases and all, an otherwise worthless parcel of land prone to flooding on the banks of the Hudson just south of the fort. But not to us—not to David, who was able to purchase this land and which he would wind up leaving to the Fort Edward community’s Visitors Center on Rogers Island.

He had such grand plans—outdoor exhibits and walking trails, signage and interactive interpretation. He felt strongly that the artifacts we discovered which told our collective early history should remain in the community where they were found, so much of our nation’s heritage being sold off on collectors sites and lost to history forever. He was meticulous about record keeping and mapping and photographing, and he drove that ethic, that mantra, into me as well.

David was a prodigious writer, publishing books on our finds with color plates that he paid for out of his own pocket, because, what is the point of excavating if you are not also teaching about your finds and contextualizing them for generations to come to learn from? He was not a boring academic at all. When he spoke, you could feel his excitement every time, no matter how many times you had heard the story before.

And most of us in the field also fell victim to his penchant for taking candid photographs, which would invariably appear on the screen of his public presentations larger than life and in full color as he told an anecdote about that day, and what you were doing in the picture. He would rock on the balls of his feet with a devilish grin on his face, beaming in his target’s direction, though he was not a fan of having his own photo taken. He wanted to celebrate you, doing something that we knew was important, that tied us all together.

Every time I walked into a lecture room, I could not sneak in unnoticed in the back; he would either stop to introduce me, going back to that summer of 1985, or work me into the context of what he was talking to the group about—and he always ask me if I had something to say, to which I would generally deflect, to shift the focus back on him. And goodness help you if you were in his sights when he needed a lunchtime speaker, his traditional 12:30 mini-lecture series where diggers would relax out of the summer heat or rain showers, which on many occasions stretched on for over an hour. The point was, you were still learning, and we were all in each other’s company.

At his farmhouse, he would order dinner each weeknight for the students staying with him, and some of them would keep him up all night with their shenanigans, but he never complained to them, whereas I would have probably gotten out of bed and knocked one or two out cold. That just wasn’t how he was wired. He didn’t drink—not even coffee— or smoke, or use strong language. From the oldest farm in Warren County, he baked blueberry pies with the berries plucked from his family’s own bushes to share at our lunchtime meals. He was a patient teacher who always had the time for his students, never cancelling lessons even when a huge find was emerging in the field—never. If you asked him a question, he would think about it aloud, sometimes, formulating his answer, covering all of the bases until you were both satisfied.

His love for history also showed in his restoration of the family farm complex. He had grand dreams of preserving it as a working farm museum of sorts, an astronomy center, an archeological workshop, and studio. He loved his sports cars, too. I understand that he attracted the attention of the State Police in the last season of his life, but that the officer really was only interested in the make, model, and potential performance of the car on a personal level.

David Starbuck (white coat) tours with visiting Egyptian archaeologists, the Sutlers House, 2009. They were impressed.

Somewhere in the second decade of the 2000s, I let life get in the way a bit—to the extent of relinquishing supervisor control of the Sutlers House that I had led him to in the summer of 1996, me summoning him to point out a small silver Spanish coin on the edge of a looter’s depression in the ground. The depression would grow to become the largest single site, over the longest sustained period of time, that we ever worked together. He would call me on the phone in the offseason, we would talk and speculate and bounce ideas and plans off each other for hours—to the point where my wife would roll her eyes in the background [I normally eschew the phone!]. A growing family and burgeoning career now competed a bit for my attention with archeology with David; though my own kids played in mountains of backdirt and my own students would come into the field for formal summer lessons as well. It devolved to the point where I would come down with my digging friend John K., and the two of us would catch up with David and put in a day or two of work, before cutting out to fulfill these other obligations of life.

It was on one of these late-July visits in 2019 when David told us that the previous week, his doctor was concerned about his jaundiced appearance and other symptoms. The diagnosis came back—pancreatic cancer. A few weeks later—Stage Four. I was in shock. He had to immediately commence treatments which would knock him out. I told him I would help him finish his ‘rekindled-after-20-years-work’ on the so-called Officers Dwelling just north of the Rangers Hut John K. and I excavated in the summer of 1991 on the Island. Great artifacts here being found, and respectful of the NYS guidelines, I re-gridded the entire site and took over as supervisor for the rest of the season. Incredible things were being uncovered on an almost daily basis. This was important to him, and kept him going in these troubled times for a man who had never been in a hospital before for any time in his life. He told those close to him that this was his purpose. We had to answer these research questions.

David joined us in the field, digging more than I ever remember him being ‘a digger’, filling buckets like a man possessed, trying to reach the floor, and the conclusions. We took turn lifting and sifting these buckets and moved around our tarps to keep him out of the late summer sun. He only stopped to answer his phone, in anticipation of the hospital call— ‘Hello, this is David Starbuck’—and sputtering under his breath when the expected call began with, ‘We have been trying to reach you about your car’s warranty’. On more than one occasion he muttered something ‘about a special place in hell’ for the robo-scammers, but that was as strong as it got. He just never had much time for anger or resentment, and it served him well. He was not happy about his hospital stays, but he loved the nurses and doctor who cared for him (he told me that more than one of them were my former students).

We worked together with others in the field though the summer and into the fall when he was up for it. Other diggers were especially attentive to his personal comfort, as were those closer to him on the home front. He was blessed with good friends, and he knew it, the Adirondack Chapter of the NYS Archaeological Association being full of them.

David Starbuck, Rogers Island, Nov. 1, 2019. M. Rozell photo.

David Starbuck, cufflink from Officers Dwelling, Rogers Island, Nov. 1, 2019. M. Rozell photo.

We finished the major portion of the Officers Dwelling just as winter arrived in 2019. He had lost nearly 70 pounds by then, less than five months after being diagnosed. I volunteered to help lead a tour of the Island down to the site of the smallpox hospital that had been the center of archeological attention nearly 20 years before, giving the history to the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology conference participants as he shivered off the very sudden onset of winter on their bus. I was so pleased that I was able to give him my time and efforts in what turned out to be the twilight of his life; I cherish most not our discoveries, but his determination and excitement to see the project though, despite his discomfort, and our unspoken ‘alone-time’ at the end of the day on the site, just me and him, me an old sounding board for him to process what was happening, an almost stream of consciousness flow down what were to be the final chapters of his life. I’m sure he did this with several people in his life, and looking back, those conversations are what meant the most. At some point, talking about our own parents and mortality, I reminded him that his mother and my father had passed on the exact same August day two decades before, the first of our folks to pass. “That’s right”, he said. “I had almost forgotten about that.” He spoke about his mother, and his father who died at the farmhouse after that, and his brother James who died in an accident in the early days of the Sutlers House dig. David was the last of his line.

David Starbuck photographs fireplace hearth from Officers Dwelling, Rogers Island, Nov. 5, 2019. M. Rozell photo.

In one of his last morning announcement field school sessions following that summer’s diagnosis, he frankly laid out the prognosis and quietly shifted the direction back to what the gathering of diggers over the years meant to him, and to all of us who had been with him over the decades. Most diggers came and went, he said, but what remained in his field schools with volunteers and students was a quiet acceptance of our different backgrounds, of where we had all come from and been through, an honoring of the personality quirks and differences in an atmosphere of non-judging and equal standing as we all pursued the mission that we were doing together, which he was quietly leading us through. He said that our grouping was always special, even though our numbers seemed to fall over the years, because we all had the common love for learning from the past, of discovery, of being together doing something important. We frequently remembered our ‘old’ digging partners, Toni H., Bill K., John F., Nate L., and others, who were our sisters and brothers in the field who passed before us. I could get frustrated at times, when some of the new ‘kids’ did not pull their weight in the field, and so did he, but he never got angry or issued reprimands or ultimatums. That just wasn’t his style; he focused instead on being enthusiastic for the ones who were working hard, showing their curiosity and willingness to learn. He just kept going.

One of the young diggers got up and left the lecture room abruptly—to sob in the bathroom, as I later found out. A few weeks before he passed, he wrote to me after I reached out to congratulate him on a history award milestone, wishing me and my family a happy Thanksgiving and hoping I could be at the awards ceremony on January 30, 2021. Of course we would be there.

David did not live to collect his well-deserved award—he died on December 27th, 2020, but he left us with something important—the memories of that time together, the determination and hard work, in reconstructing and resurrecting the past. As for me, I will wander down to the sites, for the rest of my days, and ‘mash up’ these two worlds—the 1750s and our shared decades on the Island—and walk and wonder aloud with him. But now you know all the secrets, David. And I suppose I’ll take some comfort in that.

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