‘Indiana Jones’ of the Adirondacks unearthed park’s hidden tales
By Gwendolyn Craig
If David Starbuck had his way, he would have died digging. He came close.
The archaeologist sifted his last pile of dirt in the second week of November on Rogers Island in Fort Edward, the birthplace of the U.S. Army Rangers. He had outlived doctors’ prognosis for his pancreatic cancer by months. A week after the pits had been filled, Starbuck suffered a stroke.
“It’s almost as if he kept going, kept going until this year’s project was finished,” said Ed Carpenter, a friend and colleague who is president of the Rogers Island Development Alliance.
The 71-year-old was a champion storyteller of the Native Americans who thrived in the Adirondack lowlands, the soldiers who crossed the dangerous landscape in 18th-century battles and the everyday Adirondackers—the miners, foresters and farmers—who settled in the park. He died on Dec. 27 at Glens Falls Hospital.
An Adirondack native, he grew up on a Chestertown farm on Starbuck Hill Road. He turned his childhood delight of digging in a sandbox into an illustrious career uncovering ancient civilizations and historical sites around the world and locally.
Charles “Chuck” Vandrei, archaeologist and historic preservation officer for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, was a friend and colleague of Starbuck’s. The professional and avocational archaeological communities owe Starbuck “a debt of gratitude for the public attention and focus he brought to the archaeology of our region,” Vandrei said.
“This history is much more than what is found in books, but also in the sites of the forts, battlefields and encampments he explored,” Vandrei added.
In his unfinished autobiography, Starbuck wrote how most archaeologists dreamed of digging overseas. His career did include travel, but he found his niche at home. He became a renowned expert on Revolutionary and French and Indian War sites from Lake George to Saratoga. He wrote books focused on the region’s finds.
“Since the ’60s, it’s usually been folks ‘just like us’ that we’ve been studying,” Starbuck wrote. “And why not? We are giving a voice to those whose stories need to be told.”
Starbuck wanted his own story to be told, and to continue encouraging new archaeologists, even from the grave.
“I simply have a story that I’d like to share with a lot of people, if they’re willing,” he told the Adirondack Explorer 11 days before he died.
A final interview
Starbuck invited me to his farm for a tour and an interview. He kept our appointment, even though the day before he had spent an unexpected overnight at the hospital. He wanted to know how I was going to write this piece: focused on how he was before, or how he was now.
The archaeologist sat with his legs crossed, wearing his iconic cowboy boots. Chemo had made his feet swell, and he had bought pairs in several sizes to accommodate the changes. He had lost a significant amount of weight over the past year or so.
A visiting nurse finished a checkup, and Starbuck asked a home health aide to leave the room so we might talk in private. Some words were roadblocks. The stroke had stolen the professor’s ability to talk. He winced and bared his teeth.
“For the past few months, I just haven’t been loquacious enough, but I have been determined,” Starbuck said, the words marching out of his mouth.
He handed me his 37-page curriculum vitae and the start of his autobiography, “Indiana Starbuck: The Story of a ‘Real’ Archaeologist.” Starbuck loved “Indiana Jones,” the adventuresome archaeologist character of blockbuster films.
Starbuck stood up and, using a walker, made his way to the living room and sat down at a computer desk in the middle of it. There was a large wooden spinning wheel, and dozens upon dozens of farm antiques hanging on the walls and scattered across the floor. Framed on the wall, a brief 1999 National Geographic write-up about Starbuck’s Shaker village digs in New Hampshire was one of the most modern pieces in view.
Piles of flash drives were strewn on the floor and desk. He searched their labels until he found the one with photos he had picked out for his autobiography. They were a mix of what he called “Indiana Jones shots,” in which a robust younger Starbuck was holding up some artifact while wearing his adventurer hat. But there were also baby photos, childhood scenes and shots of early university digs.
Starbuck’s 1790s farmhouse and outer buildings were in the process of becoming part of a museum. One building was already set up as such, mostly devoted to artifacts found on the family farm, with a couple of mammoth jaws that Starbuck dug up in Georgia and South Carolina. It also housed his archaeological workshop with equipment for sifting and cleaning objects and bones.
His workshop contained mountains of filing boxes with labels like “3 beaver skulls.” Some were cleared out from his office at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, where he taught for many years. Others were from Rogers Island, which Carpenter later said the visitor’s center will take and store. There were also piles and shelves of books.
When I left that day in December, Starbuck and I bumped elbows instead of shaking hands, a nod to the ongoing pandemic. We made plans to talk in a couple of weeks, after I read about his life’s work.
His last words to me: “Read and read until you want to know more.”
Starbuck was a mischief-maker growing up, putting tacks on school chairs and shooting spitballs on the ceiling.
“I wasn’t going to settle for the boring life of a farmer,” Starbuck wrote at the start of his draft autobiography, “and I wanted—I demanded!—attention.”
He had contemplated going into acting, but digging and finding things “that no one has seen or touched in hundreds of thousands of years” hooked him.
Starbuck wrote that as a teenager, he had thought of an archaeologist as a man who wore tweed coats, grew a beard, smoked a pipe and wore a pith helmet.
When the film “Raiders of the Lost Ark” debuted Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones portrayal in 1981, Starbuck said, archaeologists “would now wear leather coats and felt hats, while wielding our whips and machetes.”
Some of Starbuck’s first field schools were with the University at Albany and University at Buffalo. He would later earn an anthropology degree at the University of Rochester in 1971 and his doctorate in anthropology at Yale University in 1975, at 25 years old.
Starbuck wrote of his digs across the Northeast, including Eli Whitney’s Armory in Connecticut and three Shaker villages in New Hampshire.
There are stories of snakes, skunks, snapping turtles and other surprised creatures who unluckily fell in students’ pits. Starbuck handled plenty of poison ivy, to which he was highly allergic. He also dealt with his fair share of looters. One time, he wrote, he dug a fake pit and planted trash from the local dump so people would leave the real dig site alone.
Starbuck wrote nearly two dozen books, besides editing a number of newsletters and writing more than 160 articles. His CV details nearly everything he has ever written.
Richard Veit, chair for the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology, remarked on what a prolific writer Starbuck was.
“There was a while where he was producing a book a year, and each one was better than the next,” Veit said.
“Now that is actually the biggest thrill you can ever have in archeology: seeing your name on the cover of a new book!!” Starbuck wrote in his autobiography. “(That’s even bigger than finding the lost ark!)”
One of Starbuck’s books, “Archeology in the Adirondacks: The Last Frontier,” describes some of the sites he uncovered in the region, but provides a roadmap for new archeologists to discover even more. (In writing, Starbuck sometimes spelled his vocation archaeology, as is common in American journalism; sometimes archeology, as some academics use.)
In the book, Starbuck writes how his ancestors came to live in the Adirondack Mountains in the late 1700s. He was determined not to focus only on the Adirondack great camps, but discover artifacts that could tell him who the year-round residents were—those loggers, farmers and miners.
There was plenty to discover about Native Americans in the region, too—their campsites, fishing areas and hunting practices.
Starbuck was one of the expert archaeologists who dug at Fort William Henry in Lake George and at the Lake George Battlefield Park, both important Revolutionary and French and Indian War sites. He began work in that area in 1997, continuing on even until 2019 when Revolutionary War soldiers’ remains were unearthed blocks away from the park and fort sites.
On Rogers Island in Fort Edward, just outside of the Adirondack Park, Starbuck unearthed a French and Indian War smallpox hospital; it was the first one to be dug up, he would say. The site of an 18th century merchant’s shop down the road from the island produced wine bottles, coins and plenty of animal bones and pottery. Another claim to fame for Starbuck was digging up the remains of Jane McCrea, a young woman killed by Native Americans during the Revolutionary War. She, too, was buried in Fort Edward.
The archaeologist was also content to dig in his backyard. He began restoration work at Starbuck Farm in 2009, where he dug up bottles, leather, tobacco pipes and other artifacts.
“Archeology begins at home,” he wrote in his autobiography. “(There’s) nothing more exciting than digging up artifacts from your own ancestors.”
Starbuck won numerous awards for his work. The last one, announced at the end of 2020, was the John D. Austin Jr. Contribution to History Award from the Warren County Historical Society. Starbuck already had it noted in his autobiographical appendix of professional awards, including the date he was to receive it—Jan. 30, 2021.
Fostering the next generation
Starbuck never had a family of his own, at least in the traditional sense. His parents and brother died before him, leaving him alone at the homestead. His thousands of archaeological students and colleagues became his family.
“His life was driven by his work,” Carpenter said. “Basically, it kept him from settling down.”
Starbuck put a tremendous number of miles on his car, Carpenter said, between teaching at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire and running SUNY Adirondack’s archaeological field school. The school sometimes dug in Lake George, and sometimes in Fort Edward.
Through these schools, Starbuck opened archaeology’s door to countless students. It was one of the prides of his life to have taught thousands of diggers through 70 archaeological field schools.
The students came in all ages, too, and that was something that stood out to Pam Collyer. Collyer, an accounting manager at Fort William Henry, dug with Starbuck for more than a decade and appreciated that he allowed “avocational” helpers.
“There were so many through the years,” Collyer said. “Some people only came one year, tried, it, fulfilled what I wanted to do, and checked it off the bucket list. Others were hooked forever.”
John Schroeter, a retired social worker and Medicaid supervisor, was one such person hooked. Schroeter, who had a degree in anthropology and sociology, said life and paying the bills led his career away from archaeology, but a few years ago, he went on a David Starbuck dig.
Schroeter would become Starbuck’s lab manager at the Rogers Island Visitor Center, cataloging and identifying artifacts.
“David believed in archaeology being accessible to people,” Schroeter said.
“His enthusiasm was so contagious,” said Kristine Duffy, the SUNY Adirondack president, who also attended some digs. “He never missed an opportunity to share his passion and enthusiasm for his work.”
Starbuck will be buried at the family cemetery in Chestertown. Carpenter said he had discussed leaving his homestead museum to a school, but details are not yet clear.
Starbuck’s autobiography ends with some advice for those looking to get into the field. You won’t become rich, he writes, but you will become famous.
He also suggests that the next great dig sites will be in outer space—debris scattered on the moon’s surface from space missions.
“Archaeologists are dreamers, we are story-tellers, we lose track of time, we never grow up, we never want to retire, and we always fantasize about some day being in National Geographic Magazine,” Starbuck wrote. “That’s why we will always have a future in the past. We love what we do!”
Don’t miss a thing
This article is in the March/April 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer.
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Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to correct that Jane McCrea was killed during the Revolutionary War, not the French and Indian War.