Karen Kennedy and Larry Burton didn’t hesitate when the enthusiastic stranger knocked on their door and asked permission to dig in their Cayce front yard in search of the remains of a Colonial-era fort.
“It’s South Carolina history,” Burton said, a matter-of-fact explanation for why they said yes.
History, indeed, is buried all along the west bank of the Congaree River in Cayce, and an unusual front yard archaeological dig last summer pinpointed an important piece of that history – Fort Congaree II.
About three decades ago, University of South Carolina archaeologist James Michie found evidence of the first Fort Congaree, which was used mainly as a trading post in the early 1700s and located on a bend in Congaree Creek south of the current Thomas Newman boat landing.
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Historians long have known the approximate location of the second Fort Congaree, a more expansive structure built by the British in the mid-1700s with palisade walls and four bastions to hold cannons. The fort, which held three sets of barracks, was built in the 1740s in what is currently the Riverland Park subdivision. Activity was high there during the French and Indian War, but the fort apparently only lasted about a decade.
Amateur historian David Brinkman, who owns a house in the subdivision, and fellow history buff Dean Hunt used historic maps and modern map overlay software to come up with a best guess of which grassy yards might cover the remnants of those former walls. Then one day this year, Hunt approached the owners of one of those yards – Kennedy and Burton.
“He said that they thought that the fort was here, and he introduced himself and asked if later on down the road they could do some work here,” Burton recalled. “Of course. History’s here, let’s find it.”
Kennedy had been fascinated by the neighborhood’s history after reading a newspaper article about an archaeological dig in Brinkman’s yard at the end of Riverland Drive. The volume of artifacts from that dig hints that the major road to an early ferry site ended in that area.
Buoyed by those finds, Brinkman, Hunt and state archaeologist Jon Leader were anxious to do archaeological work in search of the nearby British fort. But they had to persuade homeowners to let them dig in their yards. They hit the right couple in Kennedy and Burton.
“With their excitement, you couldn’t help but be excited, too,” Kennedy said.
Their only requirements: They wanted to work completed early enough for replacement sod to grow for a few months before winter, and they weren’t going to do any digging themselves.
With backing from the Explorers Club of New York City, volunteers began flocking to the yard May 31, with more than 20 showing up from as far away as Colorado and Florida that first weekend. By the end of the dig in August, more than 40 people had aided in the search, ranging from college professors to Boy Scouts to retirees.
The digs’ organizers originally felt an area near the driveway was the best guess for the location of one of the walls, but they quickly hit the extensive root system of a large tree. Then Leader walked the yard again and decided a dip in the northeastern corner was a good spot.
It proved to be the mother lode.
They painstakingly scraped thin layers of soil each weekend, then covered the rectangular holes with blue tarps during the week. They only had to go down only about a foot because the upper layer had been scraped in the 1960s when the neighborhood was developed. The team found artifacts from the Colonial period – fragments of brick, pottery and nails – but that wasn’t enough.
“What we were looking for, very specifically, were things that said ‘fort,’” Leader said. “That’s not guns, that’s not bullets, that’s not buttons – those things could be from anywhere. It had to be trench, palisade, entrenchments, bastions, in other words, architecture of a fort.”
They found burned wood, nails and other debris likely indicating a trench, along with the distinctive color changes in the soil that indicated a wall and a bastion once stood here. This was almost certainly the northeast corner of the fort.
Kennedy and Burton sat back and enjoyed the excitement. They didn’t have to ask many questions because Brinkman or Hunt would give them extensive updates throughout the process.
“I wasn’t about to get out there and tell them what they were doing,” said Burton, who mowed around the tarps all summer. “I just wanted to stay out of the way.”
That first weekend, one neighbor told Burton that another neighbor had asked, “What’s Larry doing? Is he moving and having a garage sale?” Other neighbors stopped on their walks or drives down the street and asked the diggers what was going on.
Brinkman thought they had found a bastion of the fort, but Leader never expressed that with any certainty until a local Explorers Club meeting. Kennedy and Burton were invited to the meeting to hear Leader’s presentation on the dig. At the end, Leader told the gathering that, in his opinion, the dig found evidence of a bastion of the fort.
Leader would like to do another dig in the back yard next year to locate the extension of the palisade wall and later look in another yard for one of the other corners. Brinkman and Hunt have approached a few of the neighbors to see if they would be willing to allow a dig, with mixed results. Some of the homes are rented and have out-of-state owners who likely don’t appreciate local history as much as Kennedy and Burton.
Leader praised the couple for being willing to let the team temporarily tear up a portion of their front yard. “Archeology doesn’t have a lot of curb appeal,” he said. But with the holes filled and new sod installed, anyone driving by today would have trouble noticing where the dig occurred.
Kennedy jokes now about dressing up the house as a fort on Halloween. Burton wonders how much the historical importance of the lot adds to the value of the home, purchased in 1996. Some sort of historical marker is likely to be placed along a sidewalk that will be part of the extension of the Cayce Riverwalk down Riverland Drive. It’ll say that’s the site of Fort Congaree II.
“I never heard about Fort Congaree II, or I,” Kennedy said. “It was not something that was taught in public schools. It was the lost fort.”
Now it’s found.