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Bushy Run Battlefield Project

When nothing is something: No bodies turned up during a dig in Bushy Run Battlefield Park

Thursday, August 04, 2005
By Rebekah Scott, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Seven college students spent the best part of July and early August in Westmoreland County, digging for bodies in Bushy Run Battlefield Park.

They dug through ten-hour days, four days a week, in the heart of summer. And as they descended, they graphed the rock formations and noted the way the soil changed at different depths. They mapped each trench using Global Positioning equipment, and shook the dirt through screens to catch any odd object that escaped initial scrutiny.

Historians say fifty fallen soldiers of Henry Bouquet's 42nd Royal American Regiment were buried near here after the Battle of Bushy Run, an important late skirmish of the French and Indian War.

No one is sure just where the mass grave is, but a utility crew twelve years ago did ground-penetrating radar surveys here, and found anomalies about six feet down. It was indication enough to grab the notice of anthropologists at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the state's Historical and Museums Commission.

They found state funding, gathered buckets and spades and recruited seven muscular undergrads.

And at the end of it all, they didn't find anything.

"We call that 'negative evidence,' " said Karl "Chuck" Smith, administrator at Bushy Run Battlefield Historic Site. "Even if we'd found something, we would not have removed anything. Our questions would be answered."

Westmoreland County is digging deep this summer to discover its past—and to ensure future development doesn't disturb buried artifacts.

Earlier this summer, Ligonier archaeologist Thomas Baker dug a series of holes over four acres of Historic Hanna's Town, site of the first law court west of the Alleghenies and Westmoreland's first county seat.

Baker didn't find anything either, and that's a good thing, according to Lisa Hays, executive director of the Westmoreland County Historical Society. "Finding nothing can be just as informative as finding something, albeit not as exciting," she told members in the summer newsletter. "Finding little to nothing from Hanna's Town's time period tells us where the activity was not. That's exactly what we wanted to hear, so we can proceed to plan."

The county hopes to build a new visitor's center on the site over the next decade.

The dig was funded with a $30,000 grant from the state Department of Community and Economic Development, and is part of a ten-year plan to spruce up existing buildings and stockade fences and make the site more exciting for history-oriented tourism.

Meantime, history buffs ages eleven to fifteen are excavating spots of their own at Hanna's Town, part of the historical society's fourth annual History and Archaeology Camps.

Youngsters learn about dividing a site into a grid using strings and posts, then carefully graphing each find on paper. Volunteer historians introduce them to artifact conservation—but they don't let them dig in "archaeologically sensitive" areas.

The IUP team followed similar protocols, led by anthropology professor Beverly Chiarulli. When their hilltop excavation was finished, the group moved to a wooded section of the park to look for ruts and relics from Forbes Road, where Bouquet's troops were traveling when they marched into an ambush. The dig will be out of the way of this weekend's Battle of Bushy Run re-enactment, an annual event that fills the park with faux Indians, Scotsmen, Redcoats and tourists.

"We'll use all this information in our new cultural landscape plan for Bushy Run park," Smith said. He is gathering details on every plaque, map, pathway and document relating to the park site, to plan what the place should be several decades from now.

The Bushy Run site isn't just a battlefield. In the nineteenth century, acres of the thick woods were cleared to create a farm. After the state bought the site, local fire departments and ladies' clubs planted an arboretum, Scout troops camped and cut trails, and countless parties, picnics and reunions were held here.

It's been many things to several generations, but its lack of clear purpose means it's not as well used as it might be, Smith said. About 10,000 people tour its little museum and historic trails each year. About 100,000 more visits are made by picnickers, hikers and mountain bikers.

And early August brings the re-enactors.

"In recent years we've bought about thirty-five more acres that are without historic value, so perhaps we could shift the recreational users over to that section -- with Penn Township growing like it is, we've got to make good use of recreational open space, because it's disappearing fast," Smith said.

He stood atop the hill and pointed to different sections of the park, spread out below him. "We could plant trees again over here where the history happened, over here, over there," the director said. "We want this park to relate better to its visitors. We would like to evoke in people a feeling of what it was like when the battle occurred. I'd love to see it reforested, with the old Forbes Road cut through, so we could tell them 'they were ambushed right here, and they were pushed back to here, where they hunkered down on top of this hill through the night...' "

Funds are short, he said, but that doesn't stop him from dreaming—and digging.

"When money is tight, you think more clearly, you plan better for the future," he said.

First published on August 4, 2005. Rebekah Scott can be reached at rscott@post-gazette.com or 724-836-2655.

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