Dr. David R Starbuck was a well-known archaeologist, historian and professor in the Adirondack region who devoted his life to unearthing the region’s history. He was known for leading numerous local archaeological digs over the decades at Fort William Henry and Battleground Park in Lake George, on Rogers Island, and in the village of Fort Edward where key battles of the French and Indian War and the American Revolution played out.
Dr. Starbuck was born and raised in Chestertown, New York where he lived on a farm that belonged to his family for generations. A professor of Anthropology at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire and SUNY Adirondack, he conducted more than 70 summer archaeological field schools. Many of them on Rogers Island and in the Village of Fort Edward.
He inspired a love of local history and archaeology in his students, volunteers, and local residents. His enthusiasm and dedication to his work made him a mentor to his students, many of whom returned to dig with him as volunteers. Dr. Starbuck worked in and became a part of the community of Fort Edward. He was an integral member of the board of the Rogers’s Island Visitors Center and helped to found the Adirondack Chapter of the New York State Archaeological Association (NYSAA) in 1992.
His research helped reveal details of the local region’s historical roots hidden in the ground for centuries. In 1990, an archaeological team under his direction discovered the outline of the British army’s smallpox hospital. This unique discovery was the first smallpox hospital to ever be excavated in the United States. This was just one of many structures and thousands of artifacts unearthed on Rogers Island. His work increased our knowledge of the prominent role Fort Edward played in our country’s early history. Scroll down to find more information about his local excavations.
Dr. Starbuck continued his archaeological work on Rogers Island through the fall of 2020. He passed away on December 27, 2020 following a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer. Out of respect for his many contributions to the history of Rogers Island, the Rogers Island Visitor Center Archaeological Laboratory and the island’s road have been named in his honor. He is greatly missed.
Dr. Starbuck was also an accomplished author, having written hundreds of articles and many books about his archaeological investigations. Many of his books focus on investigations conducted in and around Fort Edward including, Excavating the Sutlers’ House, Rangers and Redcoats on the Hudson, Archaeology in the Adirondacks, The Legacy of Fort William Henry, The Great War Path, and The Archaeology of Forts and Battlefields.
Many of these books are available at the RIVC Gift Shop. Visit the Gift Shop page for more information.
fort edward Excavations
Beginning in the 1990s, SUNY Adirondack (formerly Adirondack Community College) hosted field schools for students studying archaeology. During these digs, Dr. Starbuck and his team were able to find artifacts from many different time periods, showing a long history of inhabitants. The outline of a French and Indian War era building was identified by the post holes in the ground, a destroyed fireplace (with a small cache of musketballs, dice and gunflints), and extensive garbage dumps were discovered (from both soldiers and Native Americans that populated the Island). In these dumps, were everything from burnt animal bones and shellfish remains to musketballs and Spanish coins. One of the most interesting things discovered on Rogers Island during these digs were the remains of a smallpox hospital, the first one ever to be excavated in the United States.
Morrill grace house
The Historical Association was thinking about adding onto the barn for storage and Dr. Starbuck was without an available place to dig for two summers. Examination and excavation of the Art Center site revealed that the property was part of the outer earthworks of Fort Edward itself. Much historic material from the early occupants was discovered along with material from the encampment area located around the Fort.
Jane Mc crea
Jane McCrea was a young woman killed during the approach of the British Army under General Burgoyne when a plan to reunite her with her fiancé went astray. Her unfortunate death was used as a political tool to rally the local populus against the British. She died July 27, 1777 and was buried in what is today known as Fort Edward Center. Due to the rebuilding of the Champlain Canal in the 1820s, local citizens organized to have Jane’s body removed to the village cemetery. The granddaughter of Sarah McNeil, Polly Hunter Tearse, had Jane’s body buried on top of Sarah McNeil’s coffin. In 1853 her body was moved to Union Cemetery. Unfortunately souvenir hunters stole parts of her skeleton. In the early 21st Century, Jane’s remains were disinterred by Dr. Starbuck for scientific and historical purposes, at which time a shocking discovery was found. The grave contained the remains of at least two individuals. Because Jane McCrea was killed as an act of war, her remains were subjected to DNA tests by the Armed Services branch at Quantico. The other skeleton was confirmed to be Sarah McNeil using the DNA from a direct descendant who still lived in the area. It is believed that when the remains of Jane were moved to the McNeil lot, the two sets were commingled. After he had conducted his investigation, the two women were given their own graves.
Old Fort House
From 1993 into 1994, Dr. Starbuck led an excavation at the Old Fort House Museum during a foundation repair in order to look for artifacts in the areas that would be disrupted. The Old Fort House is the oldest frame house in Washington County and is in close proximity to both Fort Edward itself and Native American settlements. The house had been rebuilt several times, most notably when it was acquired by Abby and Abraham Fort and, later on in the 19th century by R.A. Linendoll. Found in the excavation was an original cellar from the 1760s. Many unique artifacts, including lots of china shards (that match china at Jefferson’s Monticello), an early glazed teapot from the 1760s, and Native American stone points of prehistoric times were also found, showing that the site had been occupied for thousands of years.
Sutlers were merchants who traveled with or set up along military encampments to provide soldiers with commodities that they would not have access to otherwise, namely alcohol and tobacco, but products like chocolate were not uncommon. The Sutlers’ House itself was unique compared to similar sites that had been investigated before it because, instead of a tent or temporary space for selling, this was an entire building, complete with a cellar and full glass windows. Dr. Starbuck and his team were able to uncover a large cache of artifacts including two complete Brown Bess bayonets, the remains of thousands of wine bottles, and a bottle seal with a family coat of arms. This dig helped to establish some of the first information on the merchandise and functions of Sutlers at that time.