Reports from the Field
by Rod McCauley
Lee House Cellar Dig in progress, 2015
Lee House Cellar Dig in prograss, 2015

   At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1781, Americans found that fighting King George’s “Redcoats” was in fact, just the beginning of the numerous challenges to be faced in the establishment of our new republic. One of the legacies of onerous English laws pertaining to currency and trade was a severe shortage of coinage to conduct general commerce and an economy widely based on barter, in which goods were assigned arbitrary monetary values and exchanged without any cash actually changing hands. This situation was exacerbated by the extended negotiations (bickering?) between the former colonies while they debated and finally approved our Constitution in 1789. The original Articles of Confederation (1781) gave Congress the sole right to regulate the alloy and value of coins, but also gave the States the right to strike coins. With the Constitution approved and the federal government reserving the sole right to mint currency, it still took until 1792 for the newly established U.S. mint to start producing coins.  Even after that, shortages continued to be acute (particularly in rural areas) and foreign coinage made from silver or gold continued to be legal tender until 1859.

   In the absence of a Federal mint, several states took full advantage of their right to strike coinage, including Connecticut. In 1785, four gentlemen petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly to authorize the production of copper coins. Permission was subsequently granted and production soon started in New Haven. Connecticut coppers, as they are now known, were widely circulated and continued to be produced until 1788.  According to, over 350 distinct varieties are known to exist today.

   Now that the reader is probably wondering where all this is going,we’ll flash-forward a couple of hundred years to a local park.  While metal detecting one morning, I found an extremely worn copper coin about the size of a modern dollar coin.  Making a specific identification was going to be difficult, as only vague shapes in the center and a few perimeter letters were visible. To compound the issue, this particular size was ubiquitous to numerous coins of the era, starting with the English King George copper pennies 1727-1820, continuing with various pre- and post-colonial copper coins made both in the US and England, and finally used on U.S. large cents/half-cents made from 1793-1857. With the assistance of a flashlight, magnifying glass, and reference books, I was able to identify this coin as one of the aforementioned Connecticut coppers, but was unable to identify a date or specific variety.

Discovered coin-front view Discovered coin-back view

Discovered coin
front and back views

Preserved example of Connecticut coin

Preserved example of Connecticut coin

   While researching the coin, I learned that one of the four gentlemen originally granted permission to strike coins in 1785 was named James Hillhouse. From my kids competing in high school track, I know that the state indoor championships are run at the James Hillhouse High School in New Haven. I checked Wikipedia and learned that Hillhouse (1754-1832) was a prominent citizen of New Haven who served as a Captain in the Governor’s Foot Guard during the Revolution and later became a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate.  Hillhouse is further credited with being active in city beautification programs and planting large quantities of elm trees, leading to New Haven’s nickname of “Elm City”.

   Finally, I learned that Hillhouse was born in Montville to William Hillhouse(1728-1816) and Sarah Griswold (1728-1777). This last piece of biographical information made things start to get interesting from a local perspective and I continued looking at Hillhouse’s family tree. Via internet search and the Vital Records of Lyme, Connecticut 1665-1850 I found the following: Sarah Griswold was the daughter of John Griswold (1690-1764) and Hannah Lee (1695-1773). Hannah Lee was the daughter of Thomas Lee II (1639-1704) and his second wife, Marah DeWolfe (1655-1724).  What started as an attempt to identify a crusty old coin turned into a genealogy research project with an unexpected ending, or, perhaps more accurately, an unexpected beginning. Who would have guessed that the great-grandson of the builder and namesake of the Thomas Lee house would have been instrumental in the minting of our state’s post –revolutionary coinage?

   Note: While researching this article, I heavily consulted A Guide Book of The United States Mint by Q. David Bowers and published by Whitman Press as part of their Red Book series. In addition to being an internationally recognized numismatist and author, Mr. Bowers is a trustee of the New Hampshire and Massachusetts Historical Societies and the town historian for his hometown of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.  His books, while obviously oriented to numismatic purposes, contain a wealth of information on American history.

   This past fall, in an effort to keep the foundation drier by controlling rainwater, we had a gutter installed on the roof along the backside of the Lee house. In conjunction with the gutter, the contractor installed dry wells at the southeast and southwest corners of the house. A dry well essentially consists of a precast concrete “box” with an inlet for the incoming rainwater to flow into and outlets for the water to be distributed out into the surrounding ground in a controlled manner. The installation of the dry wells required the contractor to use a piece of construction equipment to dig 2 pits, each approximately 4’ x 4’ square and 4’deep and connected to the gutter by a gravel filled trench.

   Being mindful of the potential for archaeological artifacts to be located near the house and wanting to spare any such items from the proverbial “wrecking ball”, Society President Norm Peck, Town Historian Liz Kuchta, and myself conducted a limited dig the evening of October 6th.  Using shovels, hand-trowels, and a ¼” mesh sifting screen, we dug out the trench and drywell pit at the southwest corner of the house (identified as pit 1 in the accompanying site diagram). Time limitations precluded any examination of the southeast corner (pit 2). After 2-3 hours of digging and sifting, we stopped due to the loss of daylight. The time turned out to be well spent, as we had accumulated a box-full of artifacts.

   The next day, the contractors started their work. Liz was on-site and recovered a broken bottle, the top from a glass electrical insulator, and a couple pieces of plastic dug from pit 2. Although the pit 2 items turned out to be from the 20th century, they still help illustrate the history of the house. After the work was completed, a pile of excess soil was left in the tree line behind the house. I scanned the pile with a metal detector. In addition to numerous audio signals indicating the presence of ferrous metal (note the large quantity of nails shown in the accompanying artifact wrap-up photo), the detector registered a non-ferrous signal that resulted in the recovery of a coat button made from “tombac”. Tombac is a French word for a brass alloy that was commonly used for the manufacture of 18th century buttons and its use continues for various products today. Due to its relative resistance to corrosion, tombac is sometimes referred to as the stainless steel of its day. Recovered items made from tombac often retain a shiny appearance that can be confused with silver.

   Among the recovered artifacts were some brick/mortar fragments that were co-located in the southeast corner of pit 1 at a depth of 18-26”. That depth was deeper than any other recovered items and extended well into the subsoil, which consisted of sand. Readers may recall from a previous article, relating to the cellar dig of June 2015, that the cellar floor consisted of sand to a depth greater than I was able to dig.  Taken together, this demonstrates the underlying subsoil of the property consists of sand from a depth of approximately 1 ½ ft to greater than 10 ft.  The brick fragments were unmarked, but had very square and uniform edges and corners, indicating that they were not hand-made. Closer examination of the mortar revealed an embedded nail partially protruding from it. Upon removal, the nail was found to be square headed, indicating a manufacture date roughly prior to 1880. Based on the as-found description of the items above and knowing that sand is a required component for mixing mortar, I will submit the following hypothesis: A pit was deliberately dug to access the sand to mix the mortar, a masonry installation/repair job was completed, the remaining materials were discarded and buried into the existing pit. Coupled with some basic house structural history, we can come up with three possible scenarios:

1.) The remains were part of a fireplace reconfiguration project to accommodate coal fired stoves during the early to mid 19th century.

2.) The remains were part of a mid to late 19th century repair to said fireplaces and/or chimney.

3.) The remains (using reproduction nails) were part of the early 20th century house renovations by the Historical Society.

   After the dig, several evenings were spent at the kitchen table sorting, cleaning, and counting. In the end, we recovered well over four hundred artifacts and we’ll do a follow-up story to illustrate and identify them.

   If you’d like to try your hand at Lee House archaeology, make sure you mark August 18, 2017 on your calendar. The East Lyme Historical Society will be hosting a “Family Dig” with Connecticut State Archaeologist Dr. Brian Jones. We intend to excavate a previously unexplored area around the house. Who knows what treasures are waiting to be found?

   Earlier this summer, I took a trip to the Niantic Center School, with the intention to spend an hour or two with my metal detector.  Based on previous experience, I figured I’d do well to find an old mercury dime or buffalo nickel. While searching the school-yard, the detector registered a solid audio signal for a non-ferrous target, 4-6 inches in depth. I dug down and uncovered a coin-like object roughly the size of a half dollar. Initially unable to determine what the object was due to weathering and caked on soil, I gently rubbed it between my fingers. I was then momentarily stunned to find myself looking at a ...SWASTIKA...This thing was some sort of token with an actual swastika on it!!

   I immediately thought of William Colepaugh, Niantic’s very own, authentic Nazi spy, who grew up nearby on Old Black Point Road and attended this very same school in his younger days. I cleaned the token some more to determine just exactly just what it was. I saw the words “GOOD LUCK” under the swastika and “MEMBERSHIP EMBLEM OF THE DON’T WORRY CLUB” above. I saw other symbols between the legs of the swastika, items typically associated with good luck: a horseshoe, a wishbone, a four-leaf clover, and some sort of runes or hieroglyphs. These words and symbols served to further confuse the matter for me, so I cleaned off the opposite side to obtain more information.

   More words were revealed. Around the perimeter it said “J. A. CLORAN REALTY COMPANY NORWICH, CONN”. In the middle it said, “YOU SHOULD BUY PLEASANT VIEW BEACH LOTS WESTERLY, R.I.”. At this point, I was satisfied that I hadn’t found some sort of Nazi “decoder ring” dropped by Bill Colepaugh, but beyond the obvious issue of reconciling how the ultimate hate symbol could be associated with good luck, questions clearly abounded: How did this thing get here? Who or what was the J.A. Cloran Realty Company? What were the Pleasant View beach lots in Westerly? What was the Don’t Worry Club?

   Although we’ll probably never know how the token ended up in a schoolyard, with the help of the internet I was able to find out the following: According to its Wikipedia entry, the word swastika has been in the English language since the 1870’s, with origins in the Greek and Sanskrit languages. The symbol itself has been around for several thousand years, associated with numerous cultural/religious groups throughout recorded history. It is considered a “sacred and auspicious symbol” in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. It has also been found on a 12th century mosaic in the St. Sophia church in Kiev, Ukraine and a 1910 painted ceiling in the Church of St. Laurent in Grenoble, France. Numerous swastika decorated artifacts ranging from a 6th century BC Greek coin, to an iron-age Germanic hair-comb, an Ashanti (West African) gold-weight, and many others have been recovered around the world.

   Wikipedia goes on to say that by the early 20th century, the swastika was in use worldwide and regarded as a symbol of good luck and success. It was used as an early symbol of the US Army’s 45th Infantry Division, a 1909 boy’s basketball team from Oklahoma, and even had a town in Ontario, Canada named after it. The Nazi usage we associate the symbol with in modern times had its origins with the archaeological work of Heinrich Schliemann, who uncovered the symbol in the ancient city of Troy during excavations in the late 19th century. Schliemann associated the symbol with early migrations of “Proto- Indo-Europeans” and theorized they were connected with similar symbols found on ancient pots from Germany. The symbol was then appropriated by various “Aryan race/Master race” theorists such as Alfred Rosenberg and then adopted by Hitler’s Nazi party. The evil that followed is obviously much documented and beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that whatever the original meanings of the swastika were, it is permanently stained in the context of modern, western culture.

   According to a blog posting by Robert Bruce Stewart dated 06-15-15, the Don’t Worry Movement was started by musicologist, Theodore Frelinghuysen Seward, who published a series of Don’t Worry themed books from 1894 to 1898. Seward apparently had a vague philosophy about rescuing “the essence of Christianity from all the layers of dogma built up over the previous 2,000 years”. An interesting local connection to Seward is found in his Wikipedia entry, which states he was an organist in a New London, Connecticut Church in 1857. Apparently the movement didn’t gather much momentum until 1901, when an author and newspaper editor in Atchison, Kansas named Edger W. Howe, used it to promote circulation of his newspaper, The Atchison Globe.  Howe claimed he was inspired by a local butcher named Charlie Poehler and started a Don’t Worry Club, complete with rules and bylaws. The Club became somewhat of a national fad, akin to hula-hoops or pet rocks of later generations, with chapters springing up across the country. A 1905 edition of The Strand magazine (volume 30, pgs. 447-448) has an article regarding a Philadelphia chapter that boasted 75 members, weekly meetings, and a ladies auxiliary. Some clubs lasted into the early 1930’s, whereupon they appeared to fade away with the rigors of the Great Depression and the new Nazi association with its “Good Luck” symbol.

   Joseph A. Cloran and his J. A. Cloran Realty Company of Norwich have been a little more elusive so far, with only some cryptic entries in state records and the Norwich Bulletin newspaper. I’ll list them in chronologic order: 1909 – Pg. 42 of the Connecticut Treasurer’s Report, J.A. Cloran Realty Company paid a $25.00 General Revenue Corporation Capitol fee. February 11, 1909 – Norwich Bulletin lists Joseph A. Cloran as suffering a $150 loss due to a fire in the Shannon building. March 12, 1909 – Pg. 1177 of the Special Acts & Resolutions of the State of Connecticut, J.A. Cloran Realty Company filed a Certificate of Incorporation. September 24, 1910 – Norwich Bulletin lists Joseph A. Cloran as being involved in the sale of land on Asylum Street in Norwich. October 17, 1917 – Norwich Bulletin lists Joseph A. Cloran as being involved in the sale of three lots in Washington Park in Norwich.

   My Pleasant View research started off by asking a co-worker, who is a life-long resident of Westerly, if she had ever heard of it.  She responded by saying, “Oh yeah, the hotel down by the beach”. A Google Map search showed the Pleasant View Inn on the beach side of Atlantic Avenue and the Pleasant View Cottages off Shore Road on the north side of Weekapaug Pond. I made a personal visit to the area and found the aforementioned locations. I tried to envision what the area was like in the early 20th century, but modern commercial development in the Misquamicut area has made that task all but impossible. At this point, I must admit the rest of my visit consisted of a fruitless search for Taylor Swift’s Watch Hill mansion and enjoying the State beach and its sparse, post Labor Day crowd. During on-line research, I found a Westerly Sun newspaper story, dated April 10, 2014. The story pertained to an on-going lawsuit filed in Kent County Superior Court over a lack of public beach access. The suit describes Sound View in the early 20th century as a 2 ½ mile stretch of land from the State beach to the Weekapaug Breach way. The suit further states the area was being developed by a R.W. Perkins and four other property owners. The area was served by a trolley run by the Winnapaug Company, coincidentally also owned by Perkins. The suit described J. A. Cloran as marketing the property and being associated with the trolley company as well.

   General on-line inquiries showed that tokens were a very common form of advertising in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the Don’t Worry Club and the association between the swastika and good fortune are generally unknown today, I found countless photos of tokens with those symbols and club references, advertising everything from clothing to whiskey. One would imagine that there were many embarrassed business owners with the advent of the Nazi regime. I don’t remember if I found the buffalo nickel or mercury dime I was initially hoping for that day at the school, but I hope you’ll agree the token and its converging back-stories are considerably more interesting.

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   Since conducting a limited dig last summer in the Lee house cellar and then experiencing the difficulty of trying to accurately identify the recovered artifacts, I’m beginning to acquire an understanding of just what professional archaeologists have to deal with on a much larger scale.

   Consider item 1. Even though a layman like me could see it’s a button, I really didn’t know when it was made or what it was made from. It certainly looked old and the thread holes had an asymmetrical, handmade appearance, but was it a genuine 18th century Lee family artifact or a 20th century workman’s drop? Was it made from bone, horn, or an early type of plastic? It seemed very polished for bone and what about those circular marks on each side? From my machinist days, I know they look very similar to the tool marks left by engine lathes during an operation known as “facing”.

   I initially guessed the button was made from bone and constructed a mental picture of an 18th century Lee ancestor losing it off his shirt while toiling at cellar chores via lantern or candlelight. I then started with some internet research. Based on the photos I saw of items made of early plastics like bakelite, casein, or catalin, I began to suspect the button was made from one of those materials and was therefore, relatively modern. I also saw that a comprehensive reference book was priced significantly beyond my budget.

   I was then fortunate enough to meet George and Gretchen Gauthier, noted button collectors (experts in my humble opinion) and board members of Groton’s Avery-Copp House Museum. The Gauthiers graciously invited me to their home for what turned into a 2 hour crash course on buttons. George examined the button with a jeweler’s loupe and stated it was definitely made from bone. He pointed out the a series of darker spots randomly scattered on the generally lighter base material and identified them as “canalicular” marks, which are the remains of the blood vessels that run through live bone. He looked at the aforementioned circular marks and identified them as machine made. He told me the marks indicated the button was probably made from the mid to late 19th century, when manufacturers obtained large quantities of bones from slaughter houses and the use of machine tools became common in the manufacturing process.

   We had less success identifying item 2. I initially thought it was a so-called “dandy button” made from pewter during the colonial era. After some cleaning, the Gauthiers examined it carefully, looked through their references, and compared it with known examples in their own extensive collection. They could not find a match and were of the opinion that the notches running axially around the perimeter on one side were too symmetrical to be hand-made. Assuming that the item is a button, the notches would be decorative in nature and on the front.  The center of the back side should therefore contain a sewing loop known as a “shank” for attachment to clothing. While it is not uncommon for the shank to break off, there is still generally a nub present to indicate its former position. The one small dimple located where the shank should have been could just as easily have been caused by corrosion. The metal itself has a crusty gray appearance. It lacked the white patina often associated with pure lead or the green patina common to copper. Beyond a simple magnet test confirming the metal was non-ferrous, we were unable to determine its composition.

   Although the origin of these two items and the story of how they ended up in the Lee cellar will most likely never be fully known, one could make the case that the bone button was once on a piece of clothing worn by the last Lee family member to occupy the house, Osbert Lee.  Land records show Osbert transferring ownership to Dr. Thomas Lee in 1857, but Dr. Lee is believed to have built and resided in the “Lee cottage” located next door. Without further evidence, I can’t confirm item 2 is a button or what it’s made from. But, if the base metal is in fact pewter, that would place its manufacture back into the 18th century and tie it to any number of Lee family members. Readers are encouraged to examine the accompanying photos and share their views.

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Overhead View of Lee Sawmill Site

   Town of Lyme records (page 171) dated January 10, 1727, show that Thomas Lee IV, John Lee II, Stephen Lee (second child of Thomas Lee III with that name), and John Lay were granted permission to construct a sawmill at Bride Brook for the sum of 15 pounds and a provision to supply Town residents with boards priced less than the prevailing market rate.

   Joshua Hempstead noted in his diary (page 263) "Thos Lee Junr Died October the 20th 1733 in the 28th year of his age a hopefull young man. He never Eat any flesh or Cheese". Hempstead referred to Lee as Junior even though he was fourth in the family line to bear the name. As evidenced by Hempstead's observation of Lee's dietary habits, he was evidently a man ahead of his time relative to embracing a vegan lifestyle.

Details of Earthen Berm

   New London court records (sixth book of wills Folio 151 . 152), dated November 15, 1733, show the estate inventory of Thomas Lee and lists: "One quarter part of ye Sawmill & appertenances" valued at 12 pounds and "One half of ye Dragg & Logchain, & Saw" valued at 3 pounds, 15 shillings. Although mills were a crucial part of the local economy during colonial times and the Town (East Lyme) contained at least 18 of various types, no further records of this particular site have been located.

Dam Throat

Dam throat

   Today, all that remains of the site are two heavily overgrown, earthen dam berms. The berms are about one hundred feet from the present Bride Brook memorial marker on the north side of Route 156. A survey of the site reveals the berms extend about fifteen feet out from the east bank of Bride Brook and about one hundred sixteen feet from the west bank. The east berm is about five feet in height and the west berm ranges from five to seven feet in height. The berms are about twenty one feet wide at their base and separated by an opening (dam throat) about six feet wide. Steep banks on the west side of Bride Brook indicate the majority of the material for the berms was taken from that side. All that earth roughly equates to about two hundred ninety cubic yards or about fifteen to twenty modern tri-axle dump trucks, an impressive accomplishment, considering the builders were using only human and animal power.

Berm, facing West Berm, facing South

Views of the berms

   A closer examination of the dam berms revealed the remains of four structural timbers under the surface of Bride Brook. The timbers were located on the west berm and measured approximately five to six inches square. The timbers protrude out into the streambed toward the east berm and curve south, influenced by many years of flowing water. The timbers would have originally extended across the dam throat and connected with the eastern berm. The original dam throat would likely have been closer to three feet wide. The timbers would have been part of the structure that supported the water wheel that powered the mill and the gate that controlled the flow of water.

Artifacts found in the mill area

   The area was swept with a metal detector, which revealed the structural timbers contained the remains of iron spikes. Three iron spikes were also found on top of the west berm near the dam throat and a piece of cast iron was found in the streambed, just south of the dam throat.

   Research for this article found a reference to two mills operated by unknown Lee family members located in the vicinity of Grassy Hill and Beaver Brook Roads. Also, a mill was operated in what is present day Ledyard by a Joseph Lee (1732-1820). Although no other connections have yet been found, both references make for intriguing research possibilities.

   Readers interested in learning more about saw mills are encouraged to tour the Ledyard Up-Down Sawmill (open seasonally).

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Thomas Lee House cellar, bulkhead entrance
Thomas Lee House cellar, bulkhead entrance

   In conjunction with on-going renovations to the Thomas Lee house, a limited excavation was conducted along the south cellar wall during the last week of June. This area was selected due to the proximity of the bulkhead entrance and the hope that a higher traffic pattern would result in more artifacts. The area was laid out in 3’ grid squares and troweled down, with the grid contents sifted through a ¼” screen.

Brass artifact, Thomas Lee House cellar
Brass artifact, Thomas Lee House cellar

   Over 600 artifacts were recovered, cleaned, and cataloged. The majority of the items consisted of nails, broken pieces of window glass, and lumps of coal. Some of the more interesting finds included: a bone button, numerous pottery fragments, and various animal bones and teeth. In addition to the digging and screening activities, the entire cellar floor was inspected with a metal detector.  That resulted in the recovery of a .69 caliber musket ball and a round pewter decorative piece.

   It was noted during the dig that the cellar floor consisted entirely of sand with numerous clam and oyster shell fragments throughout. It was initially assumed these shell fragments were the remains of colonial era meals. Further digging revealed complete shells that were much too small to be of dietary value. Test pits were dug to a 3’ depth in an attempt to determine the extent of the sand base and its relation to the cellar wall construction. The cellar walls (constructed of fieldstone) were essentially laying on grade or 1 course below the surface. The sand base continued past the test pit depths. This indicates the area was at one time sea floor and the builders dug down to the desired depth to lay the foundation stones. One is left to speculate on whether the house location was chosen based on the easy digging and drainage or if it was by happy coincidence.

The dig in progress, June 2015
The dig in progress, June 2015

   Much has already been written about the architecture and inhabitants of the Lee house, but, beyond the items listed in surviving will documents or the generic descriptions of the known aspects of colonial life, little is known about the actual possessions of the former inhabitants. Each recovered item represents a story and provides a tangible link to a past time. Work continues to fully document the dig and to make the results available via this website. Anyone with an interest or experience with identifying artifacts is invited to contact the author at [email protected].

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   Below are pictured some of the artifacts recovered from the Lee House cellar dig earlier this summer.


   Thanks to Dr. Jo Michaelson of the Montville Animal Hospital and State Archeologist Dr. Brian Jones for their assistance in identifying the pig's tooth and ceramic fragments respectively.

   We're making progress with item identifications, but still have a ways to go. If there is anyone out there with experience in animal taxonomy who can help with bone fragment identification, please contact the author at the address above.

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