Where did all Those Cannonballs Come From: the Treasures in the Soil Around Elkton

You never know what kind of buried treasures might turn up when someone starts digging around older parts of Elkton.  Many of the town’s parking areas, streets, and buildings lots have yielded relics that were tossed aside and buried long ago.      

Excavation around the Clayton Building.

It’s been that way for centuries as people have been astonished after unearthing Revolutionary War and War of 1812 artifacts.  Beyond projectiles of war, the soil yields up relics of everyday living including old building foundations, bottles, coins, ceramics buttons, and arrow-heads.  One bona-fide archaeological dig produced  Spanish coins, stoneware from prehistoric peoples, and human bones from an aboriginal burial ground.      

Showing up over and over again, those cannonballs grab much of the attention   A decade before the Civil War shattered the nation, “one of those dreaded implements of war, a genuine bombshell, was dug up in the yard of the Elkton Academy [North Street],” the Cecil Democrat reported.  A few years later in 1863, men laying gas lines on Main Street excavated four cannonballs.  Another time in 1877 masons moving earth for a cellar alongside Main Street found an 18-pounder three-feet below the surface.      

These discoveries continued into the 20th century.  When Elkton put in a new storm sewer on Bow Street in 1970,  a backhoe caught on an old mill stone.  Later hundreds of hand-blown bottles were unearthed.  About a half-block south of High Street, they found four cannon balls.  About ten-years ago a contractor uncovered a projectile at the corner of Main and Bow streets while working on the streetscape project.  That sighting generated a buzz as some argued it was just an old bowling ball three-feet under the oyster shell and stone filled colonial-era turnpike.  It was going to stop the Main Street revitalization project others fretted.  Of course that was an unfounded worry and the bowling ball theory was promptly discarded.  At Elk Landing, an untold number of cannon balls have been found over the years.      

Clusters of artifacts such as buckles, bullets, and typical objects discarded by the military were found, along with an occasional cannonball, out on Grey’s Hill in 1885, the Elkton Appeal wrote.  Tradition has it that a British Army unit camped there during the invasion of 1777.  They also found stone from the old turnpike across the Peninsula.      

One of the most important archaeological excavations ever done on the Eastern Shore took place in 1981 on the site of the county detention center, according to George Reynolds.  Those grounds, which were occupied over a 10,000 year period, contained a Native-American village and burial ground.      

As for the question about how all those cannonballs got here, here are a couple of theories.  The major part of a massive, invading British Army occupied Elkton prior to the Battle of Brandywine in 1777, while other military units used this route throughout the war.  In the War of 1812, English barges sailed up the river toward Elkton.  As they approached some accounts say they fired a few bombshells.  Perhaps some of the shot found at Elk Landing came from those blasts or the defender’s stockpiles since the the small, earthen fortificaton had a cannon.  The others some distance away from the waterway were probably simply left as armies passed through the area.      

These archaeological discoveries put the spotlight on a dimly illuminated part of Cecil County’s history.  Our written record here is strong so we know lots about that long period.  But in earlier times, as the manuscripts grow weaker, we have to depend on archeology to help puzzle out the past.  So whenever someone starts digging deep into the earth in some of the oldest parts of the county seat, one has to wonder what’s being unearthed.  Some of those discarded materials might help us solve historical mysteries since our soil is crammed with lots of artifacts that have been buried for centuries.      

This beautiful building was built to serve as the Odd Fellow's hall in 1860

Here’s what brought this matter up.  This week, during the full blast of heat and humidity from a Chesapeake Summer, workers dug deep into the ground around the Clayton Building on North Street.  As they moved earth from around that 1860s granite basement wall, one had to wonder what secrets to the past the soil contained.  This attractive brick structure was the Odd fellow’s Hall and before that the lot was about where the 18th century county jail yard stood.  Immediately next door was the  1790s courthouse .  This is a parcel that is connected with some of the municipality’s earliest development. This area has so much history so you never know what types of surprising artifacts are waiting to be found and how they’ll yield insight to the past.  Whatever we come up with when we search for the secrets in the ground, the key is that there is a lot of stuff we don’t know about that’s buried under Elkton soil.


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