There are many ways to look at the history of Sag Harbor: through old newspaper clippings, letters written between whaling captains and their wives, a stroll through the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum.
An archaeologist’s job is to look in the ground. With the past literally buried beneath our feet, when construction companies come in with backhoes and begin to dig a new foundation without first examining what lay deep in the soil, there is the potential for a story to be forever jumbled. When JoAnn McLean, an archaeologist, bought a historic house on Otter Pond, she was determined not to let that happen.
“I’ve done a lot of historic archaeology,” said Ms. McLean, “and I’m very interested in the history of this house. I want to know who built it, when it was built, and I want to know more about the residents who lived there.”
Ms. McLean, who happens to be the mother-in-law of this writer, has done archival research, and credits the women at the Sag Harbor Historical Society as being helpful in providing access to historic maps. For members of the historical society, they’re delighted to have someone moving onto Main Street who really cares. When Jean Held, longtime member and volunteer with the society, stopped by 311 Main Street to check out the archaeological site that Ms. McLean had created with her children, grandchildren and a local scouting troop, Ms. Held was excited.
“They bought that house, and you know they respect the history,” said Held. “To see her three generations of kids, that’s thrilling. I hope JoAnn will pass it on to our younger generations. We don’t see that often.”
That’s where the Sag Harbor Girl Scout troop came in. On a sunny Saturday morning, a group of Girl Scouts and some other children set to work with Ms. McLean and her crew to see what was buried in the grounds around 311 Main Street. Ms. McLean had already taught the children archaeological terms like “stratigraphy” and “shovel test,” so the field trip earlier this month was a chance for them to put their newfound knowledge to action.
“We were digging, dusting, and organizing,” said Isla McLean, the archaeologist’s granddaughter and a fourth-grade student at Sag Harbor Elementary School. “Categorizing the different levels by stratum.”
When asked what they found, the children started shouting,
“Mostly coal and glass,” said Lachlan McLean, age 5.
“A doll’s head!” said his brother Euan, 7.
“We found mostly coal,” said Lia Mizrahi, a local scout.
“So, what does that tell you about what the people did here?” asked Ms. McLean.
“That they were burning?” asked Lachlan.
“Exactly,” said Ms. McLean. “They were burning coal for heat.”
Ms. McLean hopes, and expects, to find more artifacts as she continues to do excavations. But in the meantime, she’s uncovering the history through archival research. She’s learned that across from her house on Otter Pond, along Jermain Avenue, there was a Native American site.
“William Wallace Tooker, author of “Indian Place Names,” was our Algonquinist,” explained Ms. Held. “He dug up an Indian grave on Otter Pond, with Indian pottery. There’s a lot to be discovered.”
Along the pond on Main Street, according to old maps and documents, there was a mill and a blacksmith shop.
“I’m quite confident that the house I bought was owned from 1859 to 1873 by someone named Beckwith,” Ms. McLean said. “But I’m trying to figure out if they built the house.”
She knows that the house is one of the few structures that remained around Otter Pond when Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, often referred to as Mrs. Russell Sage, purchased the whole pond and all the buildings around it around 1917.
“According to archival research, she purchased all of Otter Pond and Mashashimuet Park,” explained Ms. McLean, “and tore down structures, moved structures. My house was left.”
From the two test sites excavated that Saturday, she wasn’t satisfied.
“I expected there to be more artifacts,” she said. “For an archaeological site, it was very clean. I can’t explain that. But we are going to keep digging.”
For the children, though, it wasn’t about the particular history of this one site so much as an understanding that history is tangible and that they are a part of it.
“I wanted to impress upon them that they could learn things from archaeology that are not available from any other source,” said Ms. McLean. “They could physically get in touch with the people of the past by touching objects that haven’t been seen for 100 or 200 or 3000 years. It’s another way to look at history.”