YORK, Pa. — The mud of a south-central Pennsylvania cornfield soon may 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 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.
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 an August 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.
The first group was kept under less strict conditions and could be hired out to nearby farms. The Yorktown veterans were much more strictly confined.
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.
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. But by the time the housing bubble had burst and The Conservation Fund stepped in, he sold it for $938,000.
“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.