Fort Johnson dig yields historical treasures from many eras

By Bo Petersen
Charleston, South Carolina (AP) 5-08

Archaeologists hadn’t even begun the most recent dig at Fort Johnson near an early 1800s powder magazine when the real find was made out on the beach.

Wildlife biologist Daryl Stubbs noticed a large stone chip sticking out of the sand. Then he saw the telltale notches it was man-made, carved by a Native American hunter or fisherman to tie off as a weapon. And when Stubbs pulled free the point, or spear blade, it was still intact. The serrated edges were so sharp it might have been chipped yesterday.

“I was dumfounded it was a whole point in as good a condition as it was. I was figuring, about 300 years old,” he said. He was about to be dumfounded again. The point is 7,500 to 10,000 years old.

Fort Johnson is usually thought of as the place where a cannon shot at Fort Sumter fired off the Civil War, although an earthen fort had been built on “Windmill Point” by 1707.

But not much of that military past remains other than a powder magazine and two nearby cisterns. The history of the place merges with its present mission as a guardian of health and a treasure trove of Lowcountry life.

The archaeologists who just finished excavations around the powder house and in the cisterns were struck by how many non-military artifacts they found: kitchen ceramics and glass, nails from houses, buttons, children’s toys. The fort’s past includes a quarantine hospital, a summer health resort and freedmen “squatter” farms. A 1906 officer’s house for the quarantine station still stands.

“This place,” said archaeologist Carl Steen, of Diachronic Research Foundation, “has served more as a public health facility than a military fort.”

The 22-acre site, on the tip of the finger of James Island that juts toward Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, is a complex of state, federal and academic marine research labs geared toward monitoring the environment for public health. But public health has been a focal point of the site for generations.

As far back as the early 1800s, families summered on the “Johnsonville resort” shell bank to escape malaria. The island, right off the harbor entrance, has been a leeward anchorage for ocean ships since Colonial days. After the Civil War it became a quarantine station to make sure arriving ship crews wouldn’t infest the port city with contagious diseases.

When the quarantine station closed after World War II, the Medical University of South Carolina opened a research lab and the College of Charleston opened a teaching center. A federal research lab opened shortly after. In the 1970s, S.C. Department of Natural Resources opened its marine center. Stubbs works for the latter.

The unusual meld of collaborating research that has emerged led to the Hollings Marine Laboratory and a brainstorming environment considered a model today.

Yet, years of archaeological work show that man has chosen to occupy the site going back to ancient times. Digs have produced pieces of period English slipware cups and ancient Catawba pottery bowls, marbles and dolls and play dishes. A fancy cut glass button has been found, along with military buttons, bullets, artillery shells and fuses.

Research at the early 20th century freedmen cabins unearthed fancy buttons, Charleston Police buttons and badges, slugs and shells for shotguns, rifles and pistols, slate pencils and writing slates, pieces of harmonicas, lead cast net weights and a well made from two barrels stacked one on top the other in the ground.

The unusual meld is the tale of this place.

“There is some aspect of human impact nearly everywhere you look,” Steen said.