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Originally published Monday, July 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Dig uncovers part of Oregon's past

Archaeologists digging at Champoeg State Heritage Area have turned up artifacts to reveal the history of Oregon's first homesteaders. Among treasures discovered this...

NEWBERG, Ore. — Archaeologists digging at Champoeg State Heritage Area have turned up artifacts to reveal the history of Oregon's first homesteaders.

Among treasures discovered this summer: tobacco pipes, a piece of a child's writing slate, the flintlock mechanism from a 19th-century rifle and a piece of fine leaded crystal glassware.

An Oregon State University team has been digging at the site where fur trappers established the first locally organized government in the Oregon Territory in 1843. The team is learning how the homesteaders, many of them French Canadian, English and American fur trappers, built their homes, raised livestock and lived their day-to-day lives.

"We really didn't have any idea what a French-Canadian household or an American household looked like at this time," said Mollie Manion, an OSU graduate student writing her doctoral dissertation on the excavation.

The discoveries of window glass, decorative printed ceramics, crystal glassware and imported wine in bottles suggest a surprising degree of refinement. Manion says they found no wild-game remains, and bones in the fire ash from one house suggest the family dined exclusively on domestic livestock.

A flood in 1861 destroyed buildings in Champoeg along the Willamette River near present-day Newberg, and the town of about 200 never recovered.

The first scientific excavations began in the 1970s but turned up little evidence. New excavations began in 2002 after park rangers discovered signs of an unknown homestead on the edge of the town.

Weeks of searching uncovered a layer of bricks and ultimately unearthed a complete brick hearth.

The site is the only domestic dwelling uncovered from this period in Oregon. Researchers believe Robert Newell, an ex-trapper and one of Champoeg's most important citizens, occupied the home when he arrived in 1843 to homestead.

The Oregon Parks Department paid for excavations in 2002 and 2003, and provided $51,000 for this summer's dig.

In the meantime, OSU students sifted through soil and used shovels and trowels to scrape away thin layers of earth.

The work is grueling, but "really, phenomenally fun," said Nicholas Campbell, an OSU student who stood waist-deep in a steep-walled pit.

"We get so excited when we find the littlest thing. It's very gratifying."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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