Archaeologists tout significance of 1600s-era Norwalk fort remains

Archaeologists work Thursday in Norwalk. (Harold Cobin)

Updated, 8:06 a.m.: Copy edits

NORWALK, Conn. – A “giant blank spot” in historical knowledge could be filled in with “incredible detail” thanks to archaeological work underway on a Norwalk site, Ross Harper, Ph.D., said Thursday.  The site’s discovery — a result of the Walk Bridge Program — will yield new information about Native Americans who lived in the area now known as East Norwalk.

“It’s a very rare site, first of all. There’s maybe half a dozen throughout the entire Long Island Sound area and a lot of those have actually been developed and they no longer exist,” Harper said at a press conference called by the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT).

Videos by Harold Cobin at end of story. 

Harper is a senior archaeologist with Archaeological and Historical Services of Storrs, a company hired by ConnDOT to screen for potential impacts of the Walk Bridge Program, which involves rebuilding the 122-year-old Norwalk River railroad bridge (Walk Bridge) and other railroad bridges in Norwalk.

ConnDOT archaeologist Mandy Ranslow said the archaeological investigation is mandated by federal law, and all of the artifacts found on the site will be removed before construction starts.

Researchers could work for decades on what is being dug up, Ranslow said.  “This little piece of the landscape was a valuable part of the landscape for native people for really thousands of years.”

A decorated rim shard of Native American pottery, found in Norwalk. (Connecticut Department of Transportation)

The site contains evidence of a wooden Native American fort that Harper said was built in “a really critical period in human history,” the “earliest period of European settlement,” and had been thought to be “gone” due to the construction of the railroad.  Nevertheless Ranslow and the team performed “really extensive testing just to make sure,” she said.

“This is going to play a really important part in not just Norwalk history, but really, not even the history of New England but really, even a more global scale,” Harper said, because the world changed when the European, Asian and Native American cultures met in what is referred to as the “Contact Period.”

A 1690s deed used the fort as a property boundary and 19th century maps reference the fort.  “We wanted to see if any of it could be left given the amount of heavy development that has happened in this area,” Sarah Sportman, also a senior archaeologist with Archaeological and Historical Services, said.

The federally-mandated process to research possible impacts from the Walk Bridge program began in 2015 and involved “geoprobes,” thin tubes which were pounded 20 feet into the ground to get a sampling of what might be down below, Sportman said.

“There’s actually a remnant glacial landform here called a esker, it’s a little spit of land that was surrounded by salt marsh on the edge of the river,” she said.  Once archaeologists found evidence of the esker they knew that some of the fort could still exist.

The “esker,” was a spit of land that stuck out into the marsh, allowing Native Americans to trade with Dutch settlers from what is now New York.  The land was high and easily defensible, with a view in all directions, Ranslow said.  There’s evidence that Native Americans ate deer, duck, skunks and racoons, and came to the area to catch shellfish. They maintained their own culture while buying trade axes and iron knives in what was clearly “a very selective kind of trade” with the Dutch, she said.

Archaeologists work Thursday in Norwalk. (Harold Cobin)

“We are not even near finished with the excavation. We have recovered more Native American pottery than in the last 30 years combined” in Connecticut, Harper said.

Very little is known about Native Americans in the Norwalk area, he said, describing it as a “giant blank spot” in historical knowledge.   Materials being uncovered will allow researchers “to construct their daily life in just incredible detail,” Harper said.

Researchers don’t even know if Norwalk’s Native Americans were more closely related to the Mohegans and Pequots or the Delaware tribe in New York.  Evidence discovered on the site might reveal their language, Harper said.

ConnDOT worked closely with then-Historical Commission Chairman David Westmoreland, the Norwalk Preservation Trust, the Norwalk Historical Society, the SoNo Switch Tower Museum, the State Historic Preservation Office and the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes to study historic impacts of the Walk Bridge Program, and the process is ongoing, Ranslow said.

“We did a thorough investigation to determine whether we could avoid (the site),” she said. “We worked closely with John Hanafin and his team, the engineers, to see if there was a way we could go around it. Unfortunately, there is not. But fortunately, we do get to do this excavation and we do get to recover and preserve a great deal of really important information.”

The work will continue for at least a couple of months, and everything that is found will belong to the state, she said.

“Artifacts that are found on state land go to the state repository, which is at UConn (University of Connecticut),” she said.  ConnDOT will keep working with Westmoreland, and, “The Historical Society has some great plans about some exhibits and some educational things that they want to do so there will be a lot of opportunities to share information.”

ConnDOT has requested that the location of the dig not be made public.



John Moeling August 10, 2018 at 9:26 am

Offer Norwalkers a chance to participate in the dig — $25/day, proceeds to Historical Society — ?

Piberman August 10, 2018 at 9:48 am

Failure to preserve this astonishing sight will long be evidence of failed governance in our City. So far niether Mayhor Rilling nor the Common Council nor any other official and certainly not our local Legislators “standing up for us” have intervened and suggested preserving the sight. Even when its quite likely construction of the Boondoggle Bridge will be delayed or reconsidered owing to a change in Governor’s next year amidst concerted efforts to deal with the State’s long standing fiscal morass.

City Hall’s indifference to preserving our archeological treasures is expected. And will further enhance Norwalk’s reputation as “the hole in the middle of the donut”. Mayor Rilling claimed in his last campaign “Norwalk was CT’s Greatest City”. Lack of leadership on the archeological site suggests otherwise. As does the lack of protest generally. Maybe we’ve all given up hope here.

John S August 10, 2018 at 10:41 am

Is there any Federal law that would prevent the state from proceeding to simply “clear the area’?

I get that the State owns the property but based on the significance of the find, I’m curious if there are any Federal laws that could help put the brakes on further development in the area until an alternative solution can be made.

This really is a shame that something a big as this will simply be excavated, tagged and bagged.

Bob Welsh August 10, 2018 at 11:28 am

At yesterday’s press conference I asked Ross Harper what would be done differently if Walk Bridge work weren’t happening. He said the excavation would proceed exactly the same either way, and there is not time pressure from the construction.

According to Harper and others the fort was made of wood which decomposed long ago. The fort’s remains consist of dirt which was stained by the wood’s decomposition. No stone formation was found, nor do they expect to find one.

Harold Cobin August 10, 2018 at 12:44 pm

When the archaeologists complete their work, there’ll be nothing left to preserve. Everything of significance will be removed before the project is finished. The site will then become of a part of the New Haven Line’s mainline right-of-way.

Piberman August 10, 2018 at 2:01 pm

Will there be a major display in City Hall from space available from the Mayors Reorg Plan ?

Or waiting for orders from Hartford ?

Rick August 10, 2018 at 3:59 pm

Thank you Bob for asking but I now raise another question

The other historic fact that yet has to be closed is whats in the river where a train dropped into the Norwalk river

The Norwalk rail accident occurred on May 6, 1853, in Norwalk, Connecticut, and was the first major U.S. railroad bridge disaster; 48 were killed when a train travelling at 50 mph plunged into the Norwalk Harbor off of an open draw (swing) bridge.[1]


Maybe with the archaeological work underway right now when they dig up the river around the old foundations would it be worth a few scraps for our Historical society to own and display.

Sounds like all of Norwalks fruit will be gone by the time the State picks us clean.

One writer back then after 1853 seems to think the river still holds history. So is it worth a shot both sites rich in history get done in tandem?

Bear in mind if no one knew about this site why not check under the new rail yard the state is giving Norwalk the rail has been there longer than the landfill even before the mansion correct?

Lisa Wilson Grant August 10, 2018 at 6:03 pm

Thank you for sharing the videos, I took my own the day before (same people speaking) and much said here is the same as on Wednesday. The thing is, no one knew what was all here beforehand, and no one would have expended the amount of money its going to take if we did not have the state paying for this because they are removing a bridge that is on the National Register. Also, since all the artifacts and soil samples are being taken away for analysis, there won’t be anything left to preserve. The train tracks are likely already in the way of the larger footprint. I am just bowled away by how much has been uncovered and what we can learn using modern methods. Its actually a good thing that the train tracks are where they are and that this remained undeveloped for so long. I was always wondering about the Dutch interaction with Norwalk – I know New Haven Colony founded Stamford to block the Dutch and Connecticut Colony followed with Norwalk. I’ve read of interaction in Greenwich, but the written documents are mostly after 1640. To have actual artifacts tell a pre-1640 story is so interesting and that this area was not disturbed prior to now is amazing. I look forward to what is revealed through this process.

Ken August 11, 2018 at 5:29 pm

If the states paying for it Lisa then WE are paying for it. Again I am surprised by any surprise about the Dutch. They were in NY, they went way up the CT river, of course they were here.

I bet the train was laid right over a lot of things there, just like the farmers buried it so would the RR builders. I guess the temp span will be on the site? Otherwise Im not sure why a site that lasted 400 years here because a boatyard was built on it needs to be destroyed so it can be used as a staging area on a construction project. I can assure you that much heavy equipment has gone over it in the past.
As I understood things the city has first right of refusal if the state wants to sell once its over, the guy they took it from has second right. Which brings up another point I think. In cases like this where artifacts are found on state land that was acquired as this was the artifacts should go to the city or town. The state only owns this because they pushed somebody out of business so they could build a bridge. If the previous owner tried to build something and they found this he’d be stopped dead in his tracks.
At any rate I think its a great opportunity for Norwalk to add an authentic reproduction indian village right on the river. Maybe get somebody to look for the fort the colonists had to have had.

Rick August 11, 2018 at 7:11 pm

I agree Ken not much has changed since 1600s taxpayerys just got two blankets and a set of beads for the mall.

Then again if we wanted a Indian village stepping stones would of been a great place for it. Now when the knock down part of the aquarium are we to expect the same thing or will the state simply say no dig your city hall was too busy to get involved.

Im still pulling for things in the Norwalk river , why not its likely there was something given the find.

Lisa Wilson Grant August 11, 2018 at 8:54 pm

Since what has been found is “new news”, it may change things, but I doubt it. My Uncle Howie, a former CIA agent that lives in Falls Church, VA and is also a history professor always told me there was Dutch influence here, but I never read anything about it, so I didn’t include it in my book either. I know that my ancestor Andrew Ward who was a founder of Wethersfield, then Stamford, came down here to found Rippowam (later Stamford) to stop the Dutch from expanding east of Manhattan. I tried to find information on the American Indians here, but not much detail exists about them. I am looking forward to what will unfold over time about the artifacts discovered here. And yes, I know we are paying for it, Ken. And I happily will as this likely will change history books.

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