YORK, Pa. – The mud of a south-central Pennsylvania cornfield may soon produce answers about the fate of British prisoners of war -- and the newly independent Americans who guarded them -- during the waning years of the American Revolution.
A few miles east of York, the city that briefly served as the fledgling nation's capital after the Continental Congress fled Philadelphia, more than a thousand English, Scottish and Canadian soldiers were imprisoned at what was then known as Camp Security.
The fight to preserve the plot where those soldiers and their captors worked and lived has lasted almost twice as long as the Revolutionary War itself. And the end is in sight -- if its backers can raise the last few hundred thousand dollars needed to pay for it.
"This is an extraordinarily important site, because so few of these camp sites survived," said Steve Warfel, a retired curator of archaeology at the Pennsylvania State Museum who is involved in the project. "It's a very important piece for understanding the revolutionary period, and how people were treated when they were incarcerated."
A 1979 archaeological study found numerous artifacts that confirmed local lore about the prison camp's location. Two years ago, the local government, Springettsbury Township, took possession of an adjacent, 115-acre property and last year The Conservation Fund paid a developer nearly $1 million for the 47-acre parcel. Now the Friends of Camp Security faces a May deadline to pay off the fund so it can turn the smaller plot over to the township as well.
Nothing about the property today suggests it was once teeming with prisoners. The first group arrived in 1781, four years after their 1777 surrender at Saratoga, N.Y. More arrived the next year after the battle in Yorktown, Va. By April 1782, there were 1,265 men at the camp, along with 182 women and 189 children -- family members and others who accompanied the prisoners.
The first group was kept under less strict conditions and could be hired out to nearby farms, where among other things they were put to use chopping firewood and hunting wolves. The Yorktown veterans were much more strictly confined, kept inside a circular stockade that had been constructed from 15-foot-high log posts.
The 1979 dig, which focused on a small area, produced metal items such as buckles and buttons that are associated with British soldiers of the period, suggesting that could have either been the Camp Security stockade or the adjacent Camp Indulgence village where low-risk prisoners stayed.
That survey also turned up 20 coins and 605 straight pins that may have been used by prisoners to make lace.
Ken Miller, an associate professor of history at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., said Camp Security's historical significance comes from its role in a network of camps in Pennsylvania and elsewhere that held more than 10,000 prisoners during the war.
"Nobody's really appreciated the extent to which the war reached the American interior in places like York and Lancaster and Reading and Winchester, Va., and Frederick, Md.," Miller said. "These prisoners put the war on America's doorstep, even when the battles were far away."
Researchers recently found lists of Camp Security prisoners in the British National Archives. And an 18th century account of camp life by a British surgeon's mate described a "camp fever" that may have killed some of the prisoners, who were buried on-site.
If there was a cemetery -- there may be two or more -- it has not been found. Some believe graves may be under what is today one of the neighborhoods that encircle the property.
Les Jones, the English-born former chairman of Dentsply International Inc., a York manufacturer of dental equipment, and a member of Friends of Camp Security, said interest in his home country has not been great, possibly because the British military had been so active around the globe during that period.
"There was hardly a year when they weren't fighting somewhere," Jones said. "I think the problem is they're just swamped with wars. This is a little niche kind of thing."
But in York, the fate of Camp Security raised alarms about 14 years ago, after a developer announced plans to put about 100 homes on part of the property. That began a long court fight and a seemingly endless series of contentious local meetings.
At one point, the developer floated a price of $4.5 million, a figure that included projected profits from the development. But by the time the housing bubble had burst and The Conservation Fund stepped in, he sold it for $938,000.
The Conservation Fund wants to turn the property over to Springettsbury Township, as occurred with the adjacent farmland. But for that to happen, the Friends of Camp Security needs to raise more money. The group plans a major fundraising event in York in a few weeks.
"The fact that at least this much of it has remained intact is just mind-boggling," said Carol Tanzola, president of the Friends of Camp Security. "Come hell or high water, we're going to get this piece of property."
Assuming that occurs, they'll need to figure out what to do next. The Friends of Camp Security leaders seem to agree the first step should be an archaeological survey to pinpoint the location of major features and any human remains, and recover whatever artifacts they can.
In December, the property was scanned with a powerful magnet that gave them an idea of where to start looking, but for a 162-acre site, it will be an ambitious undertaking. Even with volunteer labor, Warfel said, the cost could easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The township plans to allow such research and convert the properties to some sort of parkland.
Blake Stough, a printer and history buff from nearby Spring Grove who has donated to and volunteered with Friends of Camp Security, became interested in the site when he discovered his fifth great-grandfather, Andrew Stough, had served as a prison guard. Like others, he's wondering what happens next.
"I think a lot of what the future holds for it is going to be how we're going to interpret the relics that we find," Stough said. "I don't think there's any easy answer with what to do with it."