As the state of Alabama kicks off its bicentennial celebration, up the road and back in the woods archaeology work quietly continues into a much older piece of Deep South history — the original site of Mobile.
Students at the University of South Alabama and volunteers work in a clearing on squared-off dirt slab that was once a house. A larger one-time house site is nearby, covered in heavy black plastic to keep it clear and protected from weather.
Anyone idealizing archaeology as a glamorous undertaking has watched too many Indiana Jones movies. The people working on the house are literally scraping away the hard-packed dirt with handheld tools, hoping to find scraps of whatever the earliest settlers brought with them from France in 1702 and left behind in 1711, when they headed downriver to a place that didn’t flood so easily.
Once known as La Mobile and nominally protected by Fort Louis de La Louisiane, today the site on the western bank of the Mobile River is known as the Old Mobile historic site. It sits on property that also is home to a DuPont agricultural chemical plant.
Regular access is restricted to Gregory Waselkov and his crew; Waselkov is director of the Center for Archaeological Studies. But occasionally a busload of visitors is allowed onto the property to tour the site. A recent tour group was arranged through Historic Blakeley State Park.
The first stop is 27-Mile Bluff, the site of the fort. There Mobile and Alabama history are tied together at a monument commemorating the 200th anniversary of Old Mobile. A smaller marker just below it denotes the tricentennial celebration in 2002.
Building the fort and a surrounding town at what was also known as 27-Mile Bluff probably seemed like a good idea at the time to Pierre Le Moyne D’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. Waselkov said smuggling was a popular occupation in the region, and French settlers wanted to be relatively close to the Spanish, who had moved into Pensacola.
Fort Louis was high and seemingly safer than another fort in the area, Port Dauphin. But protecting Port Dauphin proved more difficult than settlers anticipated.
Even the modern-day tourists tramping through the woods know enough about South Alabama flooding and mosquitos to be skeptical of Old Mobile being a good site for anything, no matter how pretty the trees and the river view. It’s also swampy, and the land behind the bluff is lower, inviting floodwater to rush in.
Floodwater didn’t come in over the bluff, but behind it. “But if you build off of the highest ground, which you see right behind you is dropping off immediately, that does flood,” Waselkov said. “So there are swamps back there that back up.”
“The priest in particular wrote these really bitter letters back to Quebec to his superiors, saying he had ankle-deep water in his house most of the year.”
Waselkov said excavators today often have to wait for dry periods to dig at the sites. Not only that, but the entire region, not just the Old Mobile site, is a mosquito’s dream. Yellow fever was fought in hand-to hand combat.
In 1710 an Englishman captured and burned Port Dauphin. The following year a flood hit Fort Louis so quickly everyone had to climb trees. Buildings were submerged for weeks. The decision was made to move to the present site of Mobile and to burn the fort and the houses.
There is little evidence left of the actual fort, Waselkov said. It was built shallowly of logs on thin topsoil. Since the site was rediscovered and excavations began in 1989, USA has worked on 10 different houses.
The site has one advantage over other historic settlements, Waselkov said. In Mobile and New Orleans, “new” structures, some of which became historic in their own right, were built on top of the original settlement buildings, make it much more difficult to recover earlier artifacts.
Waselkov said USA knows the locations of at least 55 houses spread over 80 acres. “Because the town moved, we had this amazingly ideal situation where it’s all still here, essentially.”