Vassar College Archaeologist Digs into History

Prehistory Comes to Life

Denning's Point is a peninsula that reaches out into the Hudson River in Beacon, New York. The Point is part of the Hudson Highlands State Park, which encompasses nearly 6,000 acres from Peekskill to Beacon. It is a place where the continuum of prehistory and history overlay the Point's natural history.

In the fall of 2004, Dr. Lucy Johnson was asked to direct The Vassar College Exploring Research Program, an offshoot of the Exploring Transfer Program, and also to teach a course for it.

Offered for the past nineteen years at Vassar College, the Exploring Transfer is a joint venture with community colleges in New York City and the Hudson Valley, two of which are members of the Consortium: Dutchess Community College and Orange County Community College. The program gives community college students the opportunity to earn college credit over the summer and experience an intensive five-week academic experience at a residential college. Also in the fall of 2004, Professor Johnson teamed up with Jim Heron, Project Historian for the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries, who was uncovering an amazing, rich history of the Point. Together, they explored history of prehistoric humans, Native Americans, European settlers, Revolutionary War soldiers, the extravagant Point owners of the 1800's, the industrial barons, and finally the purchase of the Point by the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

In the summer of 2005, Dr. Lucy Johnson led thirteen Exploring Research students to Dennings point for a field archaeology program, which gave them a hands-on experience that conveyed educational value as well as the excitement, intricacies, rewards and effort that go in to an archaeological expedition. For the students, this was their first exposure to archaeology, as well as field work.

Using field notes taken by Dr. Mary Butler of Vassar College in the late 1930's the summer team descended onto Denning's Point. The team spent eight days in the field and excavated 80 Shovel Test Pits (STP) on the Point in hopes of discovering intact prehistoric deposits. STPs were dug in 15 meter intervals, for more than 400 meters along the bluffs adjacent to the River. It was here that prehistoric cultural materials were discovered including chipped stone spear points - a Bare Island and a Rossville Point - dating to at least 4000 years ago. The group augured at several locations to understand why Denning's Point Brick Works moved their operation off the Point to an inland location. Although brick sand still exists, their findings concluded that clay deposits on the Point had run out. Professor Johnson and her students also had time to excavate around the remains of a mansion that once stood, in hopes of determining if the Denning's Mansion was in fact built over the earlier mansion owned by the de Peyster family.

When students were not busy in the field, they spent a great deal of time learning and investigating historical and physical facts about Denning's Point. A highlight for the students during the course was the opportunity to turn the tables and be teachers for a day when faculty participating in the Consortium's 2005 River Summer pilot visited Denning's Point.

The River Summer research vessel, R/V Seawolf, anchored down off Denning's Point, and sent a zodiak full of professors to shore to be taught by Professor Johnson's students about the history and archaeological adventures that had been taking place at the site. For the participants of River Summer, this experience was one of their most memorable ones. For the students of the research field course, Dr. Johnson says, "they gained confidence in their ability to do things they would never have imagined doing and sticking to it."

As the future home of The Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries, Denning's Point begins another segment of its history. But the past will not be forgotten as the history of the Point continues to be uncovered, documented, and displayed so that visitors, residents, students, and the general public will have a chance to step back in time and imagine a land that is rich and potent with vestiges of the Hudson Valley's past. Certain that there are many more artifacts to be discovered, Johnson says, "our results were more tantalizing than conclusive, and we look forward to another season at Denning's Point."

More About Dr. Lucille Johnson

Professor Lucy Johnson has been a member of the Environmental Consortium since its inception. As a current Steering Committee member, Johnson's leadership, enthusiasm and expertise has been an asset that has helped shape the structure and growth of the Consortium. She also serves as Chair of the Criteria and Nomination Subcommittee and is an active member of the Curricular Collaboration Task Force and River Summer/Field Studies Task Force of the Consortium.

Dr. Lucille Johnson earned her Ph.D. and Bachelor of Science from Columbia University. She is editor of a book entitled, Paleoshorelines and Prehistory (1991), and is currently working on a book covering her work on the Islands of the Four Mountains in Alaska. Dr. Johnson has written over two dozen publications, ranging from articles, to book chapters, to reviews, and is a frequent lecturer and speaker. She has been a professor of anthropology at Vassar College since 1973 and has extensive experience in teaching field courses and anthropology courses that encompass traditional topics, but also cut across disciplines to address environmental issues and perspectives.