When Samuel Smith, major general of the Maryland militia, needed a headquarters to plot Baltimore's defense from British invaders in the summer of 1814, archaeologists believe he called on the owner of a shop that gives Butcher's Hill its name.
Jacob Laudenslager leased much of what is Patterson Park today from landowner William Patterson, including a butcher's shop steps from where the park's iconic pagoda sits today.
Archaeologists have uncovered a wall of that structure as they embark on a dig for a better understanding of what happened when thousands of militiamen camped along the hills of southeast Baltimore during the War of 1812. An excavation that began Wednesday has uncovered artifacts including bricks, mortar, glass, nails, shards of pottery and a gunflint — used to ignite gunpowder inside 19th century firearms.
The project has drawn dozens of volunteers from the neighborhood and across the region, and seeks to expose countless others to long-forgotten history buried just a few feet beneath where dogs and children play and runners pass by.
"This is a typical situation where history is forgotten," said Stephen Israel, a 73-year-old Catonsville resident who worked for 30 years as an archaeologist for the Army Corps of Engineers and joined the Patterson Park dig as a volunteer. "It's one more activity to pull the community together."
On Friday, young children worked alongside retirees like Israel, sifting through dirt removed from neat trenches to find artifacts old and new. In one site, archaeologists are looking for evidence of Laudenslager's butcher's shop, while in two others around the base of the pagoda, they are seeking traces of the earthwork defenses that helped repel the British in the Battle of Baltimore.
Baltimore Heritage, a nonprofit focused on local history, launched the project as part of a broader effort to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, and Baltimore's key role in turning the war toward an end. Its findings will be on display in September amid a large festival in Patterson Park marking the 200th anniversary of the battles fought at North Point and in Baltimore.
Eight-year-old Ronan Glick came with his mother, Kathleen Adrian, and brother Declan Glick, 2, from their home in Lauraville to experience some hands-on archaeology. Ronan had been intrigued by War of 1812 history after visits to Fort McHenry, and when neighbor Jason Shellenhamer invited him to the dig, he was eager for a visit. Shellenhamer is field director of the project for the Louis Berger Group, an archaeology firm based in Washington.
"Do you want to see a gunflint?" Shellenhamer asked as he explained the project to Ronan and other visitors. Ronan gave an excited nod as Shellenhamer explained just what exactly a gunflint was.
The spectacle of people digging knee-deep holes and shaking dirt through wood-framed sifters drew the attention of many a runner and walker shuffling by, including 58-year-old East Baltimore resident Michael Wright. Eager to learn more about local history, he planned to sign up for a volunteer shift helping with the dig.
"I would love to fill my time, especially with something meaningful," Wright said.
Dig organizers are hoping for more attention as the weather warms and visitors flock to Patterson Park over the next month. They held community open house Saturday and will welcome visitors at an event called Dia del Nino on April 26 and during the Kinetic Sculpture Race on May 3.
Archaeologists will be working on quiet days in the park, too, until May 15. They had already probed the grounds of the area in the northwest part of Patterson Park near the pagoda last month, which led them to signs of the butcher's shop and network of earthwork trenches.
All the while, they will be answering questions from passersby, hoping to remind neighbors of the forgotten history, if not get them involved. Mike Marcaccio, a 67-year-old former stock broker and history teacher, read news stories about the dig and joined in for the first time Friday.
"I always wanted to do archaeology, and it was very convenient," he said.
If you go
For more information about the Patterson Park dig and how to get involved, visit baltimoreheritage.org/patterson-park-archaeology/ or call Baltimore Heritage at (410) 332-9992