SANDGATE, Vt. — A New York high school teacher is leading an archaeological dig in the wilderness of southern Vermont where he believes a group of protesters from Shays' Rebellion hid from the authorities.
On the south side of a mountain in Sandgate, Steve Butz and his students from Cambridge High School are unearthing what he and townspeople believe was the hideout of Daniel Shays, a former Continental Army captain who fled Massachusetts in 1787 after leading a fight against harsh economic policies.
"Everybody around here would be quick to tell you that's Shays' village," said Jean Eisenhart, who has lived in Sandgate for almost 30 years. "It's local lore."
Historical documents, including a land transaction, prove Shays lived in Sandgate, but the exact location has never been verified. Butz hopes the dig will be able to pinpoint where Shays and his men made their home.
Butz first learned of Shays' Vermont connection shortly after he moved to eastern New York in 1996. His first glimpse of Shays' fort was during a nighttime snowmobile ride with a local not long after he arrived.
"It looked like a big stone wall in the dark," Butz recalled. "The more I researched, I found there wasn't much known about it."
He worked on other history projects over the years but kept coming back to Sandgate. Last year, he got permission from the timber company that owns the land to search for Shays' settlement, and he unearthed a tavern, a mill and several cellar holes that could have been houses. He then had the idea of creating one-week, for-credit sessions that would be part of his Shays Settlement Project, which exposed students to field archaeology while they helped him expose the ruins.
"It's interesting finding all this stuff from the past and seeing how people lived back then," said 14-year-old Helen Mooney, who has participated in two sessions. "It's really a mystery because all these things we're finding, no one has ever found before."
Butz and his students, limited to 12 per session, have uncovered artifacts every time they dig, including ceramics, old tools, eyeglasses, cooking implements and horse stack. He's now working to date the artifacts to the late 1780s, when Shays and his followers left Massachusetts to avoid what they feared would be treason charges and possibly the hangman's noose.
Shays' Rebellion began in the summer of 1786 after small farmers in western Massachusetts, many of whom were Revolutionary War veterans, began to chafe at the economic policies that led to farm foreclosures and imprisonment for debt.
It reached its peak in early 1787 when the rebels led by Shays tried to seize the federal Springfield Armory. In the ensuing skirmish with the militia, four people were killed and many were wounded.
Shays and some of his followers fled to Vermont, then a republic known for its fierce independence. Vermont authorities were asked to surrender the rebels, but they refused.
Shays stayed in the state for about two years, then left, eventually settling in New York after he and the other rebels received pardons. Some of his followers remained in Vermont.
Butz said the settlement was later abandoned and the buildings burned in around 1810. That's consistent with what other historical records say was an epidemic — there's no indication of what disease — that swept the area, killing many.
Town records indicate the area was never settled again. It was owned by a succession of timber companies that would occasionally log the area in the intervening two centuries.