RESEARCHERS piecing together Elkton's Colonial past might be one step closer in their quest to locate what they believe could be one of the earliest European settlements and trading posts on American soil.
Archaeologists at Elk Landing - a preserved, 62-acre site in Cecil County that served as a Colonial commerce hub and crossroads for early wars - have excavated relics that might point to the existence of a settlement that historians have long been seeking and have been unable to verify through the structures that remain on the pastoral land.
In August, Maryland archaeologist James Gibb uncovered two postholes behind a historic house at Elk Landing. While the Hollingsworth House, as it is known, dates to 1735, preliminary tests show the postholes could have been sunk as far back as 1690, a time historians believe traders - in particular, a Swede named Jon Hanson Steelman - set up shop in the Elk Landing area.
In 1638, Swedes established a colony on the Delaware River's west bank, which later became Wilmington. Historians believe that by about 1690, Steelman had migrated south and built a post at or near Elk Landing to trade furs and other goods with Native Americans.
Benefit of location
"Jon Hanson Steelman was probably the first to recognize the economic benefits of the area," said Michael Dixon, president of the Historical Elk Landing Foundation, a nonprofit group charged with preserving the site. "It was location, location, location."
Evidence suggests Steelman left Elk Landing during the 1700s to blaze the frontier. Records show he set up a new post in central Pennsylvania, near Gettysburg.
Perhaps, Dixon explained, Steelman followed the commerce trail as Native Americans were forced out of the "urbanizing" Elk Landing area.
Some historians believe that Steelman's log cabin was razed by about 1905; Dixon said it disappeared from maps during the early 20th century.
Archaeologists have not located remnants of the building or artifacts that point to its existence. Some believe it stood near the banks of Little Elk Creek.
Amid the archaeological detritus Gibb said he expected to find in the soil - green button heads, wine-bottle slivers and European ceramic ware - Gibb unearthed crockery bits that could date to the early 1700s and prehistoric Native American artifacts.
Gibb estimated that the quartz and chert arrowheads he found could be as old as 3,000 years. The coil pottery shards, some with a band of etchings, could be 1,000 to 1,500 years old.
The mix of artifacts, Gibb explained, could indicate that the lives of very early settlers and Native Americans intersected, perhaps through trade.
"This is particularly exciting," Dixon said. "If the data continues to support the early conclusion ... this could be one of the earliest European intrusions here."
Test results expected
However, the two cautioned that they are slow in drawing conclusions. Final test results from the dig are expected this fall.
When he made the discoveries, Gibb had been preparing the site of Hollingsworth House for renovation. The Historic Elk Landing Foundation aims to turn the house into a visitor center at the heart of a $5 million living history museum that re-creates life in 18th- and 19th- century Elk Landing. It is expected to be completed by 2010.
The goal, Dixon explained, is to create a town much like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts along the wooded creek banks in Elkton. A stone house on the property would be converted to a tavern. Elk Landing, complete with guides in period dress, is expected to be a boon to Elkton's economy.
The lives of the Hollingsworths - successful shippers, merchants and mill owners - are well-documented. Maryland records show that in the early 1700s, Zebulon Hollingsworth Sr. bought more than 240 acres on the peninsula bordered by the Little and Big Elk creeks, now known as Elk Landing.
Historians believe that about two decades later, Hollingsworth probably built a stone house along the banks of the Little Elk Creek, a stone's throw from the family home. It served as a second house, perhaps an inn, and decades later as a tavern.
The family spread out across Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania - Philadelphia is the likely destination of the barrel hoops, pork and whiskey that journeyed through the most navigable waters of the Chesapeake Bay, across Elk Landing and over the Delaware River from Maryland.
"Think of it as the Colonial I-95 to Philadelphia," Dixon said.
Zebulon's son, Henry Hollingsworth, served as a quartermaster in the Revolutionary War and exchanged letters with Gen. George Washington, who asked for provisions, especially meat. Henry Hollingsworth later served as a state legislator.
Records also show that in 1813, the British tried to attack Elkton, but Fort Hollingsworth at Elk Landing - by then a principal port - and Fort Defiance thwarted them.
Elk Landing declined rapidly after the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal was built in 1829 and railroads crisscrossed the country. For a while, it served as a plantation. Family members slowly sold off its parcels.
Foundation steps in
In 1999, the foundation bought the remaining 62 acres of Hollingsworth's holdings from Elkton.
Researchers who cleaned out the long-abandoned home discovered a letter penned by newly elected President Thomas Jefferson that had been tucked away in a box. He had sent a thank-you note in the summer of 1801 to a Delaware Baptist Association that had congratulated him on his election and urged him to support religious freedom. The letter, valued at $700,000, failed to sell at auction last summer.
The Hollingsworth House that stands today is a white Greek revival-style family home that was rebuilt in 1848 after a fire destroyed the original. The dilapidated stone house, shaded by ancient maples, stands on the property with the help of steel supports.
Despite the richly documented modern history, it is perhaps the unknown that thrills local historians and scientists most.
Gibb said the new findings could fill in gaps in Elkton and possibly in American history. Gibb's goal is not only to locate Steelman's trading post, but other structures and artifacts that have marked Elk Landing's landscape.
The foundation, operating with more than $1 million, is ahead of schedule, Dixon said. But money is scarce. The foundation relies on donations, he said, and if funds dwindle, the project could stall.