The Occurrence of a War of 1812 Double Horse Burial at Fort Meigs, Wood County, Ohio
The site of Fort Meigs is located along the south bank of the Maumee River, just west of present day Perrysburg, Ohio. The 10 acre stockade consists of an extensive logpicket wall ramped with earth and fortified with several gun batteries and blockhouses. It was built by the orders of William Henry Harrison in the late winter/early spring of 1813 as protective fortifications for the men and materiel being assembled at that location for the Generals planned campaign to retake Detroit and invade Canada. The fort was named in honor of Return Jonathan Meigs Jr., the fourth and then Governor of Ohio. 1812 had been a disastrous year for American forces in the Northwest. In short order Fort Mackinac in the straits between Lakes Michigan and Huron, Fort Dearborn in what is now the heart of downtown Chicago and Detroit all fell to either British forces or to their Indian allies. The loss of Detroit was devastating to Harrison as he saw it as the key to security in the Northwest and particularly galling as it had fallen practically uncontested following Hulls aborted attempt to invade Canada. A campaign to retake Detroit in the early winter of 1813 resulted in a brutal route of American forces at Frenchtown (Monroe, Michigan) and a winter-time scheme to cross Lake Erie by sleigh to the Canadian side and blow up British ships iced in at their moorings fell through when Lake Erie failed to freeze sufficiently. All of a sudden the Northwest appeared to be wide open and on the verge of collapse with a British invasion of the United States through Upper Canada a genuine threat. Even Harrisons own command was in peril.
Enlistment terms for many of the Pennsylvania and Virginia militia units had expired leaving the remaining force to defend Fort Meigs at less than half strength. It was now a foot race so to speak between a looming British threat to the Ohio Country and Harrison’s efforts to hold back the British and reinforce the garrison at Fort Meigs. Work to finish Fort Meigs continued in fits and starts through the late winter and into the early spring of 1813 and was finally completed in late April largely through the dedicated efforts of Captain Eleazar Wood. Woods exertions could not have been better timed. At the old British post of Fort Miamis, just down river from Fort Meigs, British General Proctor was amassing a combined force of nearly 2,000 British Regulars, Canadian Militia and allied Indian tribes under Tecumseh. Fort Miamis was a decaying British installation located on the north bank of the Maumee a few miles downstream from Fort Meigs. It was built in the 1790s on lands ceded to the United States after the Revolution as sort of a British in your face to American interests in the Old Northwest. Proctors plan was to reduce Fort Meigs by siege and make open a corridor through the Maumee Valley to invade Ohio and the Northwest. However, Harrison had in point of fact chosen the location of his fort very well. Fort Meigs was situated on a promontory at the foot of the Maumee rapids with enough river flats area to serve as an assembly point for stores brought down river from Fort Winchester (Defiance Ohio) and high enough above the normal flow of the river that flooding was never a consideration. The river bottom at this location is bedrock and relatively shallow, keeping the larger, deep draft British gunboats well down stream and their guns out of range of the fort. For reinforcement by land the forts location was easily approachable from the east along the Great Trail from Pittsburgh and from the south along Hulls Trace through the Great Black Swamp and the military roads in western Ohio used by St. Clair and Wayne. As Captain Wood would later write of Fort Meigs The camp was judiciously chosen by General Harrison and Captain Gratiot of the Engineers and afterwards fortified with block-houses, batteries and palisades in such a manner as to stand the test of British artillery
The British bombardment of Fort Meigs began in earnest on May 1, 1813 with an assortment of large cannons, howitzers and mortars firing both solid shot and aerial bombs. The main gun batteries were located on the high ground just across the Maumee River from Fort Meigs (present day Maumee, Ohio). The largest guns in the British batteries were 24 pounders, supplemented by 6 and 8 inch mortars. On the second day an additional battery was brought to bear against the American rear from a position behind the fort setting up a withering cross-fire. As soon as the American mortar platforms on that side of the fort found their range, the emplacement was hurriedly moved into the forest on the American right and the bombardment resumed. All the while the Indians poured musket fire into the fort from vantage points in the tree tops. The Americans were somewhat similarly equipped in terms of artillery although their largest field pieces were 12 and 18 pounders and could not equal the firepower of the British. The Americans were also limited in the amount of shot available. To counter British ordnance that found its mark over the wall, Harrison had his troops erect a series of elongated earthworks or traverses, upwards of 12 feet high, to prevent shot, shrapnel and runaway cannonballs from wreaking even more havoc inside Fort Meigs. As the British battery south of the river changed location, additional traverses were erected throughout the fort to counter these moves. How did Harrison continue to inspire his men to rise above the din and destruction to keep moving earth in the face of deadly fire? One word: whiskey! Extra rations of golden courage were liberally dispensed to keep the soldiers focused on the task of building traverses and other earthen shields. Similarly, a bounty of a gill (1/4 pint) whiskey was given for every serviceable cannonball recovered and shot back toward the British side. It is estimated that this resulted in the recovery of nearly 1,000 British rounds for reuse. To that point it had been a cold, miserably wet spring and it must have been a rather bizarre sight to see less than sober militia men scrambling to recover bounding chunks of iron that steamed as they rolled through the mud.
A bounty for cannonballs wasnt an untried concept. From his reminiscences as a Revolutionary War soldier Joseph Plumb Martin wrote of the British bombardment of Fort Mifflin: The artillery officers offered a gill of rum for each shot fired from that piece, which the soldiers would procure. I have seen from twenty to fifty men standing on the parade waiting with impatience the coming of the shot, which would often be seized before its motion had fully ceased and conveyed off to our gun to be sent back again to it former owners. When the lucky fellow who caught it had swallowed his rum he would return to wait for another, exulting that he had been more lucky or more dexterous than his fellows. In all seriousness such bombardments would have been terrifying psychological and physical ordeals to suffer through. Again during the Revolution at Kips Bay on Manhattan Island; in advance of a 4,000 man combined British/Hessian landing force the British unleashed an 80 gun cannonade from three large Man of War ships anchored in the East River. It was directed toward a thin line of breastworks American Continentals and militia units had thrown up for just such an occasion.
At about 10:00 on a Sunday morning all hell broke loose. The barrage was at point blank range and lasted for more than an hour. Martin further recalled all of a sudden there came such a peal of thunder from the British shipping that I thought my head would go with the sound. I made a frogs leap for the ditch and lay as still as I possibly could and began to consider which part of my carcass was to go first. Needless to say the Kips Bay bombardment had its desired effect as those Americans not immediately mowed down bolted in every direction to escape both the continued broadsides and the imminent invasion. In the first three days of the siege at Fort Meigs the British fired more than 1200 rounds, with the first days bombardment lasting late into the night. By May 3rd the cannonading was so intense that the gun blasts could be clearly heard 45 miles upstream at Fort Winchester where General Greene Clay had assembled a 1,200 man force of mostly Kentucky militia to relieve Fort Meigs. By the time a make-shift truce was in effect on May 6th the British had fired more than 1800 rounds toward the Americans. It had been the intention of the British and their Canadian and Indian allies to reduce the fort by bombardment and then to seize it by frontal assault.
General Proctor had promisedhis Indian and Canadian forces a quick and decisive battle but the effectiveness of the traverses was something on which the British hadnt counted. Much to his chagrin, the British artillery engineer saw that his labor had been almost in vain. Instead of an exposed camp, from which Proctor had boasted he would soon “smoke out the Yankees” he saw nothing but an immense shield of earth, behind which the Americans were invisible and thoroughly sheltered. The bombardments actually seemed to harden the Americans resolve and strengthen them to hold out until the relief force finally arrived. During a lull in the bombardment on the 4th the Americans emerged from cover to jeer the British from the fort walls as if they had just won the war! When surrender terms were extended by the British, Harrison replied ‘Tell General Proctor that if he shall take the fort it will be under circumstances that will do him more honor than a thousand surrenders’. The bombardment resumed post haste. From an article on the Siege of Fort Meigs in Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, Volume X, H.W. Compton relates the following as proof of the dedication and spirit of the besieged garrison and of one fellow in particular, a soldier whose name is now lost to history. One of the American militia men became very expert in detecting the destined course of the British projectiles and would faithfully warn the garrison. He would take his station on the embankment in defiance of danger. When the smoke issued from the gun he would shout Shot or Bomb, whichever it might be. At times he would say Blockhouse No. 1 or Main battery as the case might be. Sometimes growing facetious he would yell Now for the meat house or if the shot was high he would exclaim Now good-by, if you will pass. In spite of the danger and protests he kept his post. One day he remained silent and puzzled as the shot came in the direct line of his vision. He watched and peered while the ball came straight on and dashed him to fragments. General Clay set out from Fort Winchester on May 4th to descend the Maumee toward Fort Meigs in a flotilla of 18 large flat-bottomed bateaux. By late that evening he reached the head of the rapids about 18 miles above the fort and was forced to stop. It was a moonless night and without a pilot to act as a guide he didnt want to risk the safety of his men and the mission.
While descending the rapids early the next morning the flotilla was met abut five miles above the fort by Captain Hamilton with orders from General Harrison on how to proceed, viz.: Clay was to detach Colonel William Dudley and a force of about 800 on the north side of the river to attack and disable the main gun batteries across from Fort Meigs. Clay and Boswell would land opposite Dudley and make their way into the fort, engaging the enemy and neutralizing any resistance encountered along the way. At the same instant Colonel John Miller would lead a sortie from the east end of the fort against the battery in the woods on the American right. It was a concise plan with little that could stand in the way of success – perhaps.
It was the poet Robert Burns that said The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and true to form the situations surrounding the relief of Fort Meigs seemed to go from bad to worse to almost untenable. Dudley attacked and spiked the main British guns as planned but due to a mix-up in orders failed to break off his attack and return to the fort. Instead he and his forces were drawn into a bloody ambush at the hands of the British and Indians, losing 3/4 of his command. By some accounts no more than 170 of Dudleys men ever made it to Fort Meigs. Watching this from atop the forts main battery Harrison stood aghast. His feeling of exuberance at seeing the British flag being pulled down quickly turned to livid indignation as he thought his direct orders were being disobeyed and he had to look on helplessly at the deadly tableau being played out on the opposite bank just a half-mile distant. On the south bank of the Maumee both Clays and Boswells forces managed to make their landings although Clay became separated from Boswell and was forced to come ashore further down stream than planned. Here Clay and his troops found themselves exposed to both intense musket fire from Indians and Canadian Miltia along the bluff edge and cannon fire from small fieldpieces across the river in the main British battery.
Finding absolutely no advantage in his present situation Clay quickly rallied his men and moved forward toward the fort. Boswell came ashore as planned and immediately found his forces engaged in a pitched gun battle with the same Indian and Canadian forces that had just attacked Clay. The engagement was relatively brief but hotly contested. The attackers were quickly overpowered and pushed back by Boswells men supported by musket and cannon fire from the fort. Both companies eventually made it into the fort with only minor casualties and greeted there with rousing cheers. However it was Harrisons plan to simultaneously engage the enemy on both sides of the river and almost immediately companies of the new arrivals and units from the forts garrison were ordered into formation under Boswell, Alexander and Johnson to charge the enemy forces still lurking west of the fort, the same Indians that had earlier attacked Boswell and Clay. Their spirited advance on the enemy quickly became a route driving the Indians ever deeper into the forest to the point of being reckless. Observers in the fort were quick to spot additional Canadians and Indians moving along the forest edge from south of the fort to reinforce their comrades and cut off the Americans eventual retreat.
From his vantage point on the main battery Harrison could see this over zealous charge resulting in the same tragic reversal that had befallen Dudley. According to Benson Lossing’s Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812, Harrison dispatched a volunteer aid, John T. Johnson Esq., on horseback to recall the men before they ran headlong into another ambush. Johnson made it through, successfully communicating the Generals orders to break off the charge and fall back to the fort before the situation became untenable. For his trouble and proving no good deed goes unpunished, Mr. Johnson Esq. had his horse shot out from under him and was badly injured while returning to the fort but his dedicated actions likely averted another military disaster and spared a substantial portion of Harrisons army from sharing the same fate as Dudleys command. Concurrent with these actions west of the fort, Colonel John Miller and about 350 men made their way from the east end of the fort through a series of ravines toward the British battery located on the American right. When all was set the Americans released a withering musket volley from a low wash about 50 yards in front of the battery before charging the British position. They successfully fought their way through the British defenders, spiked the guns and drove a considerable portion of the defenders into the woods toward present day Perrysburg.
However, all the commotion raised in storming the battery alerted the Indians and Canadian militia massed south of the fort, bringing on a vicious counter attack by their combined force estimated at greater than 450 that Americans were forced to stave off with steep losses before regaining the safety of the fort. In all 30 Americans were killed and about 90 wounded and several British prisoners taken. Its worth noting that remains of the British gun emplacements are still visible in the rear of Fort Meigs Union Cemetery near the intersection of West Boundary Street and West Indiana Avenue in Perrysburg. The ground they occupy consists of six cemetery plots that, as of the 1980’s, were still owned by a family named Witzler. The gun emplacements are on the only parcel of land outside the Memorial proper to be included as part of the Fort Meigs State Memorial. For all intents and purposes the American efforts of that day put an end to British actions against Fort Meigs. While the British were able to rehabilitate the guns in the main battery and desultory shots were still being directed toward the fort as late as the 8th, the siege was over. The results of fighting on the 5th coupled with the inability to reduce the fort with artillery left the Canadian militia and the Indians especially disillusioned with the British style of warfare. They had been promised a quick, decisive campaign and lots of spoils but the British had failed miserably in delivering either.
Under a flag of truce the British had the gall to once again ask for an American surrender. Harrison took this as a personal insult and demanded that it not be repeated in his presence. It was actually a maneuver by the British to go unmolested as they disassembled their gun batteries although Harrison was more than glad to hurry them along with a few well placed cannon shots. In parting a small British gunboat released a salvo toward the fort, killing several Americans and exacting the last casualties of the siege. In late July the British regulars and Canadian militia units under now Major General Proctor with Tecumseh leading an even larger confederation of Native Tribes than in May attempted to take Fort Meigs by trick. Although his forces were at strength a significant portion of Proctors supplies, including artillery, had been diverted for use by British naval forces for service on Lake Erie. A mock battle was staged out of sight of the fort hoping that the Americans would think that it was a supply detail under attack and come to their aid. As the Americans emerged from the fort to rescue the imaginary detail they would be ambushed and the fort stormed. However, fort commander General Clay refused to be drawn in and sat tight in the fort probably saying something to the effect since they have so much powder, let them burn it!. Proctor was at an immediate disadvantage in his second campaign against Fort Meigs without the support of heavy artillery as he had enjoyed earlier in the year. His attempted subterfuge a total failure Proctor changed his strategy to a move against Fort Stephenson about 40 miles to the east on the Sandusky River at present day Fremont, Ohio.
Here Proctors forces fared no better than at Fort Meigs and in fact suffered heavy casualties as they were soundly turned back by Americans forces commanded by Major George Croghan. Just six weeks later Perry bested the British (and Proctors commandeered guns) in the Battle of Lake Erie. In quick order Harrison ordered Fort Meigs dismantled, probably not relishing the thought of having to some day take it back from the British and installed in its place a small 1 acre stockade manned by a garrison of about 100 men to guard the approach to the Maumee rapids. He then carried the war into Canada and won a hard fought victory over the British and their allied forces at the Battle of the Thames. While this very much ended British adventurism in the Northwest, the war would move elsewhere in North America and continue to drag on for more than another year.
Ironically the Battle of New Orleans, the final and some may argue the most decisive land victory of the war was actually fought several weeks after the signing the Treaty of Ghent, the official conclusion of the War of 1812. The site of Fort Meigs became part of a farmstead purchased in the early 1800s by the Hayes family who set the fort area aside from farming as honored grounds. General Harrison returned there in the 1840s while on a victory tour of sorts and held a campaign rally there during his run for president. Into to the mid 1900s the actual fort site was an open picnic grounds/ roadside park-like setting with State Route 65 (since rerouted) running through the center of the fort area into downtown Perrysburg. Open areas south and west of the fort remained in mixed agricultural lands into the 1970s although much of this area has since been developed and taken over by subdivisions. Fort Meigs was first reconstructed in the late 1960s and is presently host to a number of annual re-enactor gatherings and related events complete with cannon fire. Its almost musical to hear the house alarms go off throughout the sub-divisions when the big guns are first fired each spring! By the late 1990s Fort Meigs had outgrown its capacity of having exhibits located throughout the fort in different blockhouse settings. The fort is a deceivingly large facility and to take in everything meant a hike through the grounds of a mile or more. In 2001 a general site rehabilitation and replacement of the well worn 1960s reconstruction of Fort Meigs was begun, highlighted by the addition of a new site museum/visitors center to serve as a gateway to the site.
Taking into consideration the forts prominence as a historic site of national importance it was necessary that archaeological investigations take place before construction actually began and monitored throughout the entire process. Archaeological studies for the new construction actually began a few years previous with metal detector, remote sensing and shovel testing surveys in the area of the proposed visitors center footprint. Among the items recovered early on were buttons, lead shot, artillery bomb fragments and other fort related items as well as a variety of modern coins, aluminum pull tabs and other 20th century dross. A particular focus of this preliminary work was to locate one or more of the large fort period refuse pits or trash sinks so described in the general orders as well as several of the soldiers journals. At various times before and after the sieges in 1813 conditions inside the fort began to approach deplorable to say the least. General orders regularly came down to police the grounds and clear the forts interior of any and all debris as was the case on April 17, 1813: “The Qr. Master will cause all the dead animals adjacent to the Camp to be immediately removed & buried or thrown in the river below the encampment”. This meant the disposal of butchered cow and pig carcasses, dead work animals and other unsightly or unsanitary garbage. To quote Napoleon “An army travels on its stomach” and in times before canned foodstuffs meat was either smoked, packed in salt or traveled with the army on the hoof to maintain its freshness. Its not hard to imagine the amount of a rancid clutter that could be generated each day making dinner for a thousand. In true military fashion it was ordered that large holes or sinks of prescribed dimensions and distance outside the stockade be dug to dispose of the material. As one mans garbage is another mans gold such features could potentially provide a wealth of archaeological information about day to day life in the fort. The only thing necessary is to find one.
In June 2001 heavy equipment was used to incrementally strip the top soil/plow zone within the visitor center construction area down to the level of the sterile subsoil, about 12 inches. This would make visible any pit feature that intruded deeper than the plow zone – subsoil interface. Since the construction area measured approximately 100 x 60 meters, large equipment was the only way to proceed in a practical sense. The earth moving process was thoroughly monitored both visually and with metal detectors looking for inadvertent discoveries. A number of artillery bomb fragments and small solid iron shot were recovered from deeper levels of the plow zone as was a
fair amount of typical 20th century farm dump material but alas no trash sinks. Still, there were a couple of interesting and important discoveries made during the earth moving. The first was the recovery of fragments from a single 8 inch artillery bomb, all found in immediate association with each other. Apparently the shell had impacted the ground and buried itself in the mud before exploding, and at that probably less than complete detonation due to wet explosives. It should be noted that in May 1813 the first days bombardment took place in a drenching rain storm, certainly not the best situation where black gunpowder is involved. For whatever reasons, it appears that the bomb only partially exploded and the bomb fragments were recovered tightly clustered in a single deposit. To clarify, artillery bombs were perhaps the foremost anti-personnel weapons of their day. They were hollow, thick walled cast iron spheres usually between six and ten inches in diameter or larger, filled with gun powder and sometimes lead shot and timed by fuse length to detonate at a certain time interval after being fired. Unlike solid cannonballs which are shot on a low angle trajectory over a long distance primarily to bring down fortifications, artillery bombs are launched into the air from short barreled mortars or howitzers on a high apex, parabolic trajectory. This type of ordnance was not designed to impact the ground or fortifications walls but to drop from high altitude behind the fortifications and explode in the air over the target, sending down a high speed hail of hot iron shrapnel. A skilled artillerist could place a charged projectile on target and time it to explode at an optimum distance above the surface, placing everyone and everything below it within lethal range. These are the same bombs bursting in air that Francis Scott Key so eloquently detailed in the Star Spangled Banner. At present it isn’t known how many other such lightly detonated munitions have ever been unearthed on early military sites but it cant be many. Potentially this could prove to be a truly unique, one of a kind discovery. A reconstruction of the bomb is presently on display at the Fort Meigs visitor center.
On archaeology projects in general there is a somewhat anecdotal truism that the best or at least the most complicated discoveries are often made late on last day in the field. This was in fact the case at Fort Meigs. The earthmover had finished and only a small amount of earthmoving work remained to be completed in the construction zone. The recovered artifacts had been entered in the ledger and the crew was doing a final walkover survey of the site. To note, iron shot and bomb fragments uncovered during earth moving were typically just about the same color as the surrounding soil. However, as the object dried, the iron would oxidize to an easy to spot bright orange. What was thought to be another bomb fragment in the extreme northwest corner of the construction zone, as indicated by its telltale orange color, turned out to be a horse shoe that soon became two horse shoes still attached to the skeletal remains of a large horse, an odd and unexpected discovery indeed. The feature was in an area that had been added late to the construction zone and not thoroughly tested during the previous surveys. The earthmover had just skimmed the top of the horse burial and it remained almost completely intact. So where did this find fit into the grand scheme of things? Was it fort related or something else? For arguments sake this part of the property had been part of a working farm into the mid 20th century and dead draft animals would not be that uncommon and were things that had to be dealt with from time to time. It was entirely possible that it was just an old worn out plow horse. Then again perhaps it was one of the refuse sinks previously described or perhaps it was something different altogether.
The shoes were large, slightly mismatched, hand forged items with pronounced calkins or cleat-like projections that provide traction on soft or slippery ground, and are much as would be expected on a late 19th century work horse. It would be just as appropriate for an army work horse from 1813. The question was answered when a US stamped American general service button of the type in use during the War of 1812 was recovered directly associated with the burial. It was found well below the original surface immediately adjacent to the horses head in a narrow window trench excavated to assess the spatial limits of the feature. No matter how it got there, by accident or purposely dropped, there was no easily explained way for this button to get to where it was found other than it was part of the feature at the time the horse was buried. With the age of the feature fairly well established the excavations continued; its not that a farm horse wouldnt be important find but time for a thorough investigation would be hard to justify. Early indications were that the feature contained a single, rather large horse interred on its left side with the legs extended toward the west. A metal detector scan of the immediate area produced several interesting hits at various places indicating that the feature might be larger that first thought. Further excavations revealed that the feature actually contained not one but two horses, one noticeably larger that the other. Their mismatched sizes would seem to infer that they were probably not paired as a work team in life but that each animal likely served the army at Fort Meigs in a different role or capacity. For convenience sake they were cleverly nick-named Big Horse and Little Horse.
When fully exposed the burial feature made a particularly interesting sight as it appeared the horses were intentionally arranged or posed when interred. As stated above Big Horse was buried on its left side with its feet and muzzle generally toward the west. In a mirror like image, Little Horse was buried on its right side with the feet and muzzle toward the east. Big Horse had been placed in the feature after Little Horse. The horses necks and rear legs were crossed and their front legs somewhat intermingled, creating an almost heraldic symmetry to the burial feature. For reasons that will be discussed later, its likely that this is where the horses died, that had been led here to their final resting place and then put down. A site visitor noted from personal experience that its not an easy task to put a horse down. Some innate sense makes them aware of whats about to happen and they react accordingly, becoming even more unruly and hard to handle. He went on to say that all the holes he ever dug were deeper toward the middle and that although he had never buried two horses together he probably would have buried the horses back-to- back taking advantage of the deepest part of the burial pit to accommodate the thickest part of the horse. He then made the odd comment that it looked more like a funeral than a burial. Interesting observations for what they’re worth, but if the only purpose in burying the animals was to dispose of them, it did appear that someone went through a lot of extra trouble to arrange things as they were found.
Aside from their obvious size difference there were other features that defined the two animals, in particular their shoes. Big Horse was a large, robust animal, possibly even a mule. Its shoes were large, thick items with aggressive calks, well suited for an animal tasked with heavy lifting and pulling. The shoes appeared to be individually forged items as they were slightly different one to the next, made and fitted for this particular animal. There were just three shoes recovered with Big Horse, the two rear shoes and the right front shoe. The left front shoe was missing but nail fragments immediately below that hoof indicates it was removed after the horse was down. Their non-standard design tends to rule out that it was removed as a replacement or a spare for another horse. Little Horse was about three quarters the size of its partner with a much more gracile skeletal structure. A single left rear shoe was recovered with this animal. Unlike the bold nature of the shoes on Big Horse, this shoe was small, thin and almost flat, a shoe likely built for running or speed and not for heavy exertions. Iron nail fragments found adjacent to the right front hoof strongly indicates, as in the case of its larger companion, that the shoe had been removed sometime after Little Horse had been put down. Its an interesting phenomenon and after the passage of nearly two hundred years its hard to say exactly what the motivation might have been to remove the shoes from the horses.
Over the nearly 4 weeks it took to excavate, expose and make record of the feature and to remove the bones from the ground it seems two questions were repeatedly asked by interested onlookers. The first was were they eaten? The obvious answer to this was no as all the bones were in place with no indications of butchering. The second was how’d they get there or how did it happen that they were killed? This was a more sensible question and worthy of further thought. A close examination of the remains of Big Horse revealed that the joint between the radius and the cannon bone of right front leg was rotated 90° from its normal alignment, most certainly destroying the ligaments and other connective tissues at that location. It was further determined that the horse had sustained a hairline fracture to the cannon bone of the same leg. These are the types of debilitating injuries that could be expected for a horse straining to pull heavy loads on slick, muddy ground or a horse that bolted in a panic after being scared by a cannon shot or bomb blast. With no quick fixes or time for rehabilitation, injuries this serious would have rendered the animal useless and sounded its death knell. The only choice left would be to put the animal down. The same injuries are common to modern thoroughbred racing horses although for different reasons. Unfortunately such injuries all produce the same outcome. The factors surrounding the demise of Little Horse weren’t as clear as those that might have led to the demise of his friend. There were no old breaks in the long bones, the joints appeared to be correctly positioned and overall there was no major trauma observed. As a matter of fact, other than missing some of its shoes it looked as well as could be expected after 190 years. It wouldn’t be until the skeletal elements were being removed from the ground that some light would be shed on the demise of Little Horse.
As earlier noted, the feature was scanned several times with a metal detector, both while it was being uncovered and as the burials were being removed. The metal detector proved invaluable for locating things like horseshoe nails fragments that otherwise might have been overlooked in loose, crumbled soil. It had been evident all along that there was a steady but diffuse signal from the lower barrel portion of the ribcage although it wasnt strong enough to determine what it might be. It was later discovered that the source of the reading was a scatter of nine (9) pieces of crudely formed .36 caliber buck shot. From their location it would seem that Little Horse had taken a musket blast in its side, just behind the front leg. The wound was in an area that probably would have left the horse barely able to hobble, let alone run. It must have been a particularly painful wound and like Big Horse it was necessary to put Little Horse down and out of its misery. This was made very apparent when a .45 caliber ball was recovered from inside its cranium, evidence that a death blow had indeed been delivered.
When the horse burial feature was first discovered the only things visible were the shoes of Big Horse and the slightly fragmented top of its skull where the earthmover had just barely scraped over it. It was assumed that the damaged condition was due to contact with the machinery, which may be at least partly the case. However when the skull of Little Horse was encountered it was in an equally fragmented condition. It should be noted that the skull of Little Horse was stratigraphically several inches below that of Big Horse, therefore there was no way that the machinery could have caused the sort of damage observed. Horses are smart animals but there brain is only baseball sized, if that, with just enough bone in the cranium to hold its hair in place and to separate its ears, so to speak. Most of the bone in a horses skull is in the muzzle and in the mandible. It can be strongly argued that the fractured condition of Little Horses skull was caused as much by a pistol shot to the head as anything else, the same pistol ball recovered from what was left of the cranium. The same might be said for Big Horse although a pistol ball was never recovered. Its possible that the shot simply passed through the horses head. While the cranium was badly fractured the damage wasnt all necessarily caused by the earth moving equipment. Taken as a whole it tends to lend credence to the suggestion that the two horses were killed where they were found and not dragged to the burial location after expiring elsewhere.
After uncovering, measuring, photographing and accurately drawing the burial feature in-situ the next undertaking was to remove the skeletons from the ground, a tedious and sometimes less than rewarding task. It was interesting to note that while the work of exposing the skeletons progressed the excavating tools seemed to get smaller, going from trowels to bamboo splints to shish-kabob sticks to dental tools. Just try digging up two horses with tooth picks! After two centuries packed in good old Ohio clay the bones were firmly ensconced in their present locations although in a particularly friable state with the consistency approaching corn flakes. What had been perhaps a 30 thick deposit when originally buried was now only a few inches thick and time has taken its toll. Particular effort was made to properly excavate, collect and preserve the skeletal elements as was possible but its safe to say that because of their fragile and fragmented condition the skeletons will never be reassembled and mounted in a manner hoped for by many of the site visitors. Its safe to say that the entire process of discovery and final mitigation of the horse burial was a far from dull experience. We were never at a loss for advice and comments from the several hundred visitors that came by during the project. Many were several time repeat customers. Even with most of the skeletal material removed there was still one more discovery waiting to be made.
All along there had been a flat anomalous bone sticking out from under the shoulder area of Little Horse that sort of defied explanation. As it turned out it was of all things the posterior portion of a pig mandible. In fact it turned out to be an entire pigs skull in a greatly flattened condition much like the horses. How it ended up there and why is anybody’s guess. The pigs head was the last thing removed from the feature and the area was further probed to make sure it wasnt just the top of a larger feature. Its easy to read too much into the horse burial feature although it might be just as easy to not read enough. Were the animals intentionally posed or is that just how they ended up? What of the shoes that were removed, as it appeared, after the animals had already been put down. Were they collected as souvenirs or as talismans to commemorate a favorite animal or for some other non-utility purpose? Harrison had a very well equipped army and it doesnt seem that a couple of horse shoes more or less would make any difference and if they needed iron that bad why werent all of them salvaged? Finally, what should be made of the pigs head; a happenstance or perhaps some sort of inside joke? Possibly, but if the pigs head is instead viewed as a boars head it changes the game slightly. The boar as an icon goes way back in English tradition as a symbol of courage. As a boars head its more commonly associated with the Yule Season but that doesnt preclude it being a translation of some relict custom with roots in a time when the American army was born out of English military tradition. Then again perhaps it is as astute observer noted, it was just a pigs head and two dead horses in a hole in the ground.
Regardless of the features complexity or lack thereof it has to be wondered, was Little Horsethe same horse shot out from under John T. Johnson Esq. in his sprint to recall Boswells late charge from the fort before their retreat was cut off; the same horse that gave everything helping avert another military blunder and save a large portion of Harrisons army?
Archaeological discoveries are typically described in detail but rarely are they explained fully or linked to a particular point in history. Its fascinating to think for once that its possible to forge a link from an odd archaeological find in the present to a little known but important event two centuries past, one that enabled General Harrison and his men of patriotism, courage & enterprise, so described in a recruiting broadside of the time, thwart the invasion of the United States by a foreign power. If nothing else it certainly makes for interesting conversation.