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Unearthing history

OSU students and volunteers continue work on area's oldest farmstead


Photo Credit: GARY ALLEN - Dirty work -- OSU student Cassidy Mayton and a cohort use a level to plot the depth of artifacts found at the Champoeg site in early July.For a sixth year archeology and anthropology students from Oregon State University have descended upon the Newell homestead at Champoeg State Heritage Area to sweat and toil under the sun as participants in the university’s archeology field school.

Led by Professor David Brauner with assistance from doctoral student and field director Mollie Manion, the eight undergraduate and four graduate students began the slow and methodical process of excavating the site June 23.

The students work at the site for eight hours each day, slowly scraping away the dirt in one-meter squares that are 10 centimeters in depth. They catalog and map each artifact they find on paper and then transcribe it on a computer back at OSU.

In addition to educating the public through tours of the archeology site led by park rangers and gaining experience themselves, the group aims to heighten understanding of Champoeg and the Newell homestead’s importance in American history.

“We’re trying to give a voice to the people who were left out of the history books,” Manion said.

Those people include John Ball, who built and lived in the Newell homestead prior to the Newell family, making it what is believed to be the first American farm ever built in the Pacific Northwest.

Champoeg was a significant pioneer town for farmers and trappers starting in the 1850s, but after it was wiped out by a large flood in 1861, few remnants of the town remain.

Photo Credit: GARY ALLEN - Katelyn Bripbs (right), Na-Anduin MacLeod and others will sift through tons of dirt as they search for clues to the form and function of the original Robert Newell homestead at Champoeg State Heritage Area.Today the OSU students are working to piece together a comprehensive history of the town. The university began working at the park in the 1980s, but only became focused on the Newell farmstead in 1999. Since then students have, among other things, uncovered the top of a well, a brick hearth where a fireplace had been, and bricks which served as a walkway into the house.

Other smaller artifacts have also been excavated and are stored at OSU, where they are occasionally placed on loan for interpretive and museum displays.

“This is everybody’s collective heritage,” Manion said, noting that the artifacts are the property of all citizens.

She said she hopes people who visit the site will better understand their own history in addition to learning about archeology by seeing an ongoing archeological dig, a rare event for most people.Photo Credit: GARY ALLEN - Moira Manion (right) and Maryanne Maddoux clean artifacts found at the dig.

This year the group aims to focus on further examining a well that students discovered last year. Due to safety concerns last year’s students were forced to halt their work. Manion said this year the group is digging a wider hole, which will allow them to safely examine the well.

Historically, people discarded their trash in wells. If the aspiring archeologists reach the bottom they hope to recover trash from the Newell family and previous inhabitants of the house that could better explain what life was like in the territory and French Prairie during that time period.

The dig will continue until Aug. 14, when it will be filled in to protect the homestead from the weather.

Tours of the site begin at 10 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the town site. The tours will last around 90 minutes and are free, but visitors must pay a $5 parking fee or own a state park pass.

Participants are advised not to bring dogs or young children. They should bring water and wear close-toed shoes since the tour does cover uneven ground.

For more information, call ranger Dan Klug at 503-678-1251, ext 222, or email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..




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