The North Country Archaeology Center is open during library hours, but those who want more than a cursory view of the artifacts should contact the library.
Kenneth J. Knapp, curator of the Knapp Family Collection, is available to host tours of the center and give talks on local archaeology. For more information, contact the library at 686-3299.
In a small room at Depauville Library, local Native American relics tell stories
By CHRIS BROCK
Published SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 15, 2015 in the WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES
In a library full of stories, there is one here for the ages, sheltered beneath them all.
On one recent morning, Kenneth J. Knapp opened a display case in the basement of the Depauville Free Library and held history in his hands: arrow and spear points made by Native Americans hundreds of years ago, found locally.
“The best way we can honor the native American people is to raise public awareness and to say, ‘Look at this story,” Mr. Knapp said. “And what a story it is.”
Mr. Knapp, 53, Clayton, is the curator of the Knapp Family Collection. It was started in 1908 by his grandfather, Watertown resident Arthur R. Knapp, who died in 1966 at the age of 74.
“My earliest childhood memory, around 4 years old, is about this stuff,” Mr. Knapp said, recalling visiting his grandfather’s home on Bishop Street in Watertown and dashing upstairs to the fossil room, where items were carefully displayed in cabinets.
The collection represents more than a dozen documented and undocumented Native American sites in Jefferson County and two in St. Lawrence County.
“My grandfather had stipulations as to how the collection should be treated,” Mr. Knapp said. “It’s a quite gratifying thing that the (library) folks did here.”
Five generations of the Knapp family have been involved in gathering items and doing research.
A small portion of the collection (a couple of hundred out of a few thousand items) has found a home at the Depauville Free Library’s new North Country Archaeology Center. In addition to spear and arrow points, it features such artifacts as pottery shards, tools and ornamental objects. There’s even a food item: a small piece of a corn cob and a kernel, both about 500 years old.
Room for the center was created following an expansion project at the library that was completed in September. After the dust settled, library director Karen Nadder-Lago noticed a storage room, about 8 by 15 feet, that could be put to better use. She was familiar with Mr. Knapp, who regularly hosts talks on archaeology and the Knapp Family Collection.
Also key in the creation of the center was Laurie Rush, cultural resources manager at Fort Drum, who contributed ideas and validated Depauville’s location for the center by attesting to its deep Native American history, Ms. Nadder-Lago said.
“We’re trying to raise public awareness,” said Mr. Knapp. “This room here is a good case in point.’’
Its focus is on the St. Lawrence Iroquois and the “prehistory” of the area — before the arrival of French explorers Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain.
Cartier, in his journey of 1534, made the first European contact with the St. Lawrence Iroquois. In 1603, when Champlain came to the same area, those Iroquois people had disappeared. But not what they left behind.
“It’s a mystery,” Mr. Knapp said as to why the area was abandoned.
The Knapp collection mainly consists of items found in the area from the upper St. Lawrence Valley, near Ogdensburg, to the Lake Ontario lowlands near Sandy Creek.
“There’s probably more mystery surrounding Jefferson County and its Native American archaeology than any other place in the state, just because of the sheer amount of sites,” Mr. Knapp said.
A family interest
The Knapp family consists of amateur archaeologists, but Mr. Knapp’s daughter, Colleen R. Knapp, graduated in 2013 from SUNY Potsdam with bachelor degrees in both archaeology and history. She now works in Portland, Ore., as a bookseller, and hopes to attend graduate school to study archaeology again.
Mr. Knapp’s other children, Nolan Knapp of Clayton and Jennifer Hubbard of Cape Vincent, also continue to be involved in the collection.
Colleen recalls treks she and her father took to uncover local artifacts and being “super pumped about finding the tiniest piece of a projectile.”
“Most people are completely unaware that archaeology isn’t just in Egypt, in big, exotic locales,” Miss Knapp said in response to emailed questions. “This legacy helps us to be aware, be more knowledgable, to remind people that Europeans were not here first. There were other river folk here first.”
Miss Knapp said her father always stressed that what they were doing was not about family glory.
“It’s about respect for those who came before us,” she wrote.
The roots of the Knapp family’s interest in archaeology and Native Americans goes back to Frank Knapp (1869 to 1927), known as “the hermit of Dexter Marsh.”
According to a history of his family and the collection written by Kenneth Knapp, Frank was a hunter, fisherman and guide who lived in a shack in a marsh in Dexter. His nephew was Arthur Knapp, Kenneth’s grandfather.
According to Mr. Knapp’s research, his grandfather, who was a lineman and later a superintendent for local power companies that would become Niagara Mohawk, became acquainted with key archaeologists who studied in the area.
“My grandfather, beyond just a physical connection, had an almost spiritual kinship with the native people. Most of the people from this area were fascinated with just getting stuff out of the ground,” Mr. Knapp said, referring to other archaeologists.
But he said Arthur Knapp had “potent and strong” feelings against disturbing burial sites, a policy Mr. Knapp said was ahead of its time and caused antagonism among his fellow collectors and archaeologists. Nowadays, laws prevent such disturbances, Mr. Knapp said.
In 1982, Mr. Knapp’s father, Gerald T. Knapp, who died in 1996, bestowed Kenneth the guardianship of the collection.
Mr. Knapp recalled several trips he made with his father. One time they went to Chaumont Bay to visit a friend of Kenneth’s grandfather. Apparently unaware, the man was using ancient Native American artifacts as edging around his wife’s garden. Many of those items are displayed at the library.
Since Mr. Knapp became curator of the collection, it has grown through the discovery of more sites. For example, in 1995 the Knapp family located the “Mattson site,” an Iroquoian village just south of Clayton’s French Creek.
Ms. Nadder-Lago, the library director, said Mr. Knapp seems to have a “sixth sense” when it comes to finding Native American sites. She recalled times in mid-1990s, in the early days of the Thousand Islands chapter of the New York State Archaeology Society.
“I watched him sit almost perfectly still on a partially excavated site, looking as if he was resting, while his mind really was hard at work, judging the site’s distance from the wood line, the steepness of the grades, calculating how the terrain may have changed over time and thinking through how people would have settled into the place around him,” Ms. Nadder-Lago said in an email.
Mr. Knapp said, “I’m seeing the landscape as it was a long time ago and trying to understand it all. To me, this whole story is a movie and I’m trying to see that movie. But we only know bits and pieces of it.”
The basement of a small library in Depauville is now helping to fill in those blanks. Mr. Knapp has plans for rotating displays.
“The folks at the library here were really listening,” Mr. Knapp said. “They saw this space and said, ‘It’s not much; it’s small.’ But it’s a start.”
Meanwhile, he will keep searching for artifacts. When he does, he has a plan, and a vision of what things looked like in the past.
“I’ve never found anything unless I was looking for it,” he said. “People say to me, ‘How do you find this stuff?’”
“I look,” Mr. Knapp said. “I’m always looking.”
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Ken Knapp on the Archeology of the 1000 Islands
Ken Knapp's April 2012 library talk, "The First Boat People". It is presented in two parts:
Ken Knapp's May 2013 talk at Depauville Free Library, "Ancient Man in the Thousand Islands"