Trash Leads to Treasure: Dig Uncovers Info About Nickerson Family

During an excavation last fall, 17th-century rubbish led an archaeological team to the Nickerson’s family hearth in North Chatham. An upcoming dig will likely yield even more information about what life was like here hundreds of years ago.

Written and photographed by Debra Lawless | Pictured above: Archaeologist Craig Chartier and Ron Nickerson of the Nickerson Family Association.

For more than 350 years, the site of the first English settlers’ homestead in Chatham has been buried beneath a foot of soil tangled over with invasive honeysuckle and scrub pine trees.

That will soon change. In the coming months, the Nickerson Family Association (NFA) hopes to sponsor a 40-day archaeological excavation, a continuation of a five-day dig last fall where an archaeological team, led by Craig Chartier, made a spectacular breakthrough. Their work uncovered the circa 1664 hearth where William and Anne (Busby) Nickerson cooked their meals and warmed themselves during long winters on the frontier.

“The hearth has psychological significance,” says Chartier, director of the Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project. “It’s the center of family life.” The upcoming dig will yield more information about the Nickersons, their home and how they lived among Native Americans.

The clearing in the woods behind the Nickerson Family Association campus in North Chatham.

William Nickerson was born in Norwich, England, in 1604 and became a weaver by trade. In 1637, he and Anne, along with their children, arrived in Salem. The family lived in various places in Plymouth Bay Colony until 1664 when they arrived in Monomoyick—an area where William bought more than 1,000 acres from the sachem Mattaquason. The couple’s 17th-century homestead and its outbuildings once sprawled over land owned today by the NFA and Chatham Conservation Foundation.

Archaeology can offer many tantalizing insights into what life was like in the Nickersons’ day, says Chartier. “We get a lot more details from the trash he [William Nickerson] left behind than from any kind of diary.”

The stones of the
hearth are uncovered.

For most of the 20th century, the NFA has known roughly the location of its ancestors’ homestead behind the NFA campus at 1107 Orleans Road in North Chatham. In his “History of Chatham, Massachusetts,” William Smith noted that on the site where the house stood, a 19th-century farmer “ploughed up the foundation of a chimney and found relics of the past.” A decade ago, coordinating Smith’s information with GPS technology, the Nickersons located the approximate site of the homestead and marked the spot with a granite stone. When Chartier’s crew excavated the hearth, it was only about 15 yards from the stone.

Chartier began digging test holes near the stone in 2016 and soon found a remarkable “halo” of strewn household trash—fragments of broken English and German pottery dating to the late 17th century, pipe stems, animal bones, handmade nails and slag from blacksmith activities. From these bits of 17th-century rubbish, Chartier knew the homestead was nearby. His suspicions were confirmed when two of his workers dug up the 8-foot-by-8-foot hearth where granite rocks, each about the size of a melon, had been settled into the ground beneath bricks. In the hearth, the crew found two fragments of Staffordshire pottery dating to the 1670s, raising the likelihood that Anne Nickerson broke a pot while cooking a meal. Because of the position of the hearth near a slope, Chartier speculates the Nickerson homestead was of the “hall and parlor” style with the chimney at one end rather than in the center. Finding the perimeters of the homestead is one of the goals of the upcoming dig.

This site, long used by Native Americans, was inhabited by the Nickersons from only circa 1664 to the 1680s or 1690s and then abandoned. (William is believed to have outlived Anne by three or four years; he died in 1689/1690.) The couple’s married daughter, Sarah Covel, possibly lived in the house for a time after her parents’ deaths. At some point in the 1690s, “somebody must have just taken the house right away,” says Chartier. “It could have been lifted out and dragged by oxen.” If the house had rotted in place, the soil would be littered with nails, and few have been found.

As the dig continues, Chartier hopes to determine that the house had a cellar, and discover even more 17th-century trash—gold for the archaeological team. Chartier will investigate the yard, which would have had outbuildings, such as a barn, and possibly, as evidence suggests, a blacksmith shop run by William. A shop would represent “the oldest such site ever found in Massachusetts and one of the few ever found in New England,” Chartier wrote in his preliminary report.

Potsherds found in the hearth.

After the dig concludes, Chartier will spend weeks analyzing the finds. To help pay for the estimated cost of $48,000 to complete the work, the NFA has been raising funds and is also applying for a town grant to continue the work.

Once the dig is finished, the site will be filled in and returned to its natural state. NFA board member Edmond R. Nickerson looks forward to learning how the NFA can use the artifacts and information about the homestead to illustrate 17th-century life in Chatham.

“A scale model (diorama) of the homestead complex might be envisioned in a miniature tabletop size; a roadshow of the artifacts could be assembled and put on display in various venues,” says Nickerson. “The possibilities are endless.”

Craig Chartier examines a test pit while Gregory Lott sifts soil.
Bruce Brockway, left, and Blaine Borden uncover the hearth.