An archeological dig in Chatham this week aims to unearth the historic homestead built by the town’s founders in the 1660s, which could have included one of the first blacksmith sites in the country.
The Nickerson Family Association, a genealogical nonprofit in the Cape Cod town, is sponsoring the dig to find the remains of the homestead of William and Anne Nickerson, the founders of Chatham and possibly the first English homesteaders to live among Native Americans in New England.
“To have discovered where his original home site was is like finding the founder of Chatham’s original roots,” said Edmond Nickerson of South Dennis, a member of the association’s board. “This is just a very significant kind of find.”
After sailing from England in 1637, the Nickersons lived in Boston and Yarmouth before moving to the area that is now Chatham. They built the homestead in about 1664.
Evidence from the dig site suggests the Nickersons might have purchased the land from Native Americans and lived peacefully alongside the people who had occupied what is now Chatham for thousands of years.
“We believe he built his house on a site that was formerly occupied by Native Americans,” Nickerson said of his forefather.
“He seemed to be on a really friendly basis” with local Native Americans, said the dig’s leader, Craig Chartier of New Bedford. “A really good relationship.”
The dig crew has already uncovered relics that far predate the English homesteaders, including an arrowhead from about 3,500 years ago, Nickerson said.
Chartier’s crew had previously excavated test pits on the homestead site and found several historic objects, furthering interest in the current dig. Nickerson said around 100 people have come by the site to see what Chartier’s crew has dug up.
The site is on land shared by the Nickerson Family Association and the Chatham Conservation Foundation in North Chatham. While the association knew the Nickersons lived in that area in the 1600s, it turned out that buying land for the genealogical society’s archives and site of the current dig at 1107 Orleans Road was a “bull’s-eye hit,” Edmond Nickerson said.
“It’s just very serendipitous when we were looking for a site for the association that we identified this piece of property with the vague knowledge that his homestead was in this area,” he said of William Nickerson. “It’s just beyond belief.”
The homestead’s exact location hasn’t been determined, but Chartier’s dig has been able to “narrow it down a lot” while yielding pieces of history and evidence of the Nickersons’ lives in the area. Evidence of previous Native American habitation was accompanied by homesteader artifacts, including 17th-century European pottery and silverware, clay pipe stems, animal bones, bricks from a hearth, and hand-wrought nails.
William Nickerson might have also run a blacksmith shop at the homestead, where he repaired tools and pots for his family and Native Americans. If he did, the shop would be one of few ever found in New England and “one of the first blacksmith foundries in North America,” Nickerson said.
“It always gives me a thrill when you start finding any kind of artifacts,” Chartier said. “What we’re really trying to do is find out what kind of person William Nickerson was.”
“It’s going really well,” he said of the dig. “There aren’t many 17th-century home sites around in all of Massachusetts. They’re very rare.”
Chartier said he and the family association initiated the dig to answer several basic research questions about the Nickersons, including how big their homestead was, what their standard of living was, and indications of daily life on the property. So far, he said, it seems like the dig should be a success in that respect and could open up new topics for future exploration.
“We definitely have answers to those questions,” Chartier said Wednesday while working on the dig, which could lead to “a whole new series of questions” on the Nickersons’ lives.
Chartier, who has conducted other archeological digs around the state, was glad to be working on a site that wasn’t facing development, as is frequently the case, and to have support from the Nickerson Family Association.
“It’s always nice to work with people that actually care about what you’re doing out there,” he said.
“It’s great because of community preservation, community character, and community history,” Nickerson said of the operation.
The dig will wrap up Saturday, before the start of October and Massachusetts Archaeology Month.