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What they found at Fort St. Joe

Published 11:03pm Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dr. Michael Nassaney of Western Michigan University was also instrumental in locating Ramptown in 2002. (The Daily News/John Eby)
Dr. Michael Nassaney of Western Michigan University was also instrumental in locating Ramptown in 2002. (The Daily News/John Eby)

By JOHN EBY

Dowagiac Daily News

“I want to tell you what we’re learning about daily life on the banks of the St. Joseph River over 250 years ago” through ongoing archaeological digs at the Fort St. Joseph site in Niles, Dr. Michael Nassaney told Dowagiac Rotary Club Thursday noon at Elks Lodge 889. “It’s amazing that these material traces are still left in the ground that we can learn about cultures in the past.”

The fort was strategically located in 1691 near the portage between the Kankakee River and the St. Joseph River to create a continuous waterway from Quebec, Canada, to New Orleans.

“Brand-new finds, just unearthed, include a complete ax, gun parts, but what we’re really excited about is a very straight foundation wall of stones. There’s an upright wooden post placed in the ground as part of a building over 250 years ago, and some of that wood is still preserved. They don’t pile one on top of another, straight as an arrow, by chance. Someone is building a wall here adjacent to a fireplace. It’s the first real wall we’ve ever found at the site. It’s an opportunity to get a sense of the size of the buildings and how they were constructed. Ultimately, we want to know who lived inside.”

“We’re learning that Fort St. Joseph was a multi-ethnic community,” he said. “They were interdependent people who were both Natives and French and their offspring. It’s a fascinating model for diversity and a community where people got along. In our violent world today, if anyone differs from your religious belief or something, you’d just as soon kill them as talk to them. It wasn’t so vicious in the past in some ways. People actually wanted to communicate across cultural boundaries and create alliances. I think that’s an important message that the 21st century can learn.”

Field work could continue for decades at the pace of digging a small area each summer.

Fort Michilimackinac started in 1959.

“It’s the site of the longest continuous excavation in North America,” Nassaney said, “so maybe someday we’ll become the second longest. We’re trying to develop plans now for a permanent facility near the site so we can interpret the work we’re doing to the public on a regular basis.”

Well-preserved animal bones that “look like they were thrown out yesterday” indicate people primarily consumed venison, but also raccoon, porcupine and beaver and some pork, beef and chicken.

“Even though they’re French, there’s not much in the way of domesticated animals,” Nassaney related.

“They basically lived like the Indians. They hunted for their subsistence.”

“We found carbonized corncobs and were really intrigued,” he continued. “We tend to find them in tiny pits the size of water pitchers. They dug holes, constructed little frames over them and put deer hides over them. They built smoky fires by putting in green corncobs. That’s the way they tanned hides. It’s a Native practice. We don’t know if only the Indians did this, or the French learned it from them, or it’s the Matis, the offspring of French and Native marriages.”

Archaeological digs have uncovered ceramics from England and France, all sorts of glass containers, scissors and straight pins for modifying cloth, copper alloy for rivets and military buttons.

“They’re scrounging things,” artifacts tell Nassaney.

“When something breaks, they cut it up and make something else out of it because this stuff is not readily available to them. We’re getting a sense of the kinds of economic activity that took place at the site.”

“We’re also getting a sense of the households and the buildings,” Nassaney says, narrating an image of a “huge” fireplace.

“We’ve identified three or four of these fireplaces that we think represent separate buildings. We’re trying to figure out now the function of these buildings. We think they’re domestic residences, but then who was living in them? The site had a commandant, a priest, a blacksmith, about 15 fur traders and their wives, eight to 10 soldiers, an interpreter. Think of your own community. Different people, based on their occupation and their status, are going to have different stuff around their yards. By sampling that, we can begin to get a sense of who was living there.”

Nassaney shows “tinkling cones” cut from copper alloy and worn on garments.

In fact, they look like the adornments jingle dancers wore at the Pokagon Band’s 25th annual pow wow Labor Day weekend at Rodgers Lake near Dowagiac — which Nassaney attended.

Archaeology also unearthed thimbles, baling needles and coins which date from 1709-1713, “so that’s a good chronological marker.

“It wasn’t all work, there was play as well. Smoking pipes. Mouth harps to make music. Gaming pieces. Combs — they groomed themselves. They’re like what you’d buy at Walmart today, with small teeth on one side and larger teeth on the other, except they’re bone and yours are plastic.”

“They adorned themselves on the frontier with finger rings, fancy baubles and beads from Venice. This little piece of trade silver has the name of the silversmith stamped on it, but somebody perforated it,” making it impossible to read.

Medals with Latin inscriptions depict Jesus Christ — “you who are brighter than the sun” — and Mary — “mother of the Savior.”

“People knew the site was there because of historical documentation,” he said. “We knew LaSalle, the early French explorer, had come into this area in 1679. We knew the French had established the fort, which was an important mission, garrison and trading post. We knew the English had a role in it as well. It was attacked and eventually abandoned in 1781. People have been collecting artifacts associated with Fort St. Joseph for over 100 years. A lot of those made their way into the local Fort St. Joseph Museum in Niles. There’s a commemorative boulder moved in 1913 on a little trolley over the Brandywine Creek. It weighs an estimated 65 tons to 70 tons and is 13 feet high. It’s on Bond Street, not exactly where the fort was, but overlooking the fort area. If they’d put the stone where the fort was, it’d be buried under the river. The challenge was people didn’t know exactly where it was, but we were able to work in the area between the river and the landfill. People thought the city dump covered it — and it had, partially.”

Nassaney displays a map dotted with different colors detailing locations of identified “features” — “places where people built houses and fireplaces and trash deposits. The point is that there’s a lot of activity in this area. In fact, we can’t dig a hole without hitting something.”

“We’re not just about finding the artifacts,” Nassaney emphasized. “What we’re trying to study is what was happening in the 18th century here when Native people and French people got together in the fur trade. What were their relationships like? The work is conducted each year through the field school. Believe it or not, I wasn’t there the first year. We train about 25 new people each year. We’re doing real archaeology, real excavation,” such as a white clay pipe recovered in 2009.

Soil is collected in buckets and washed through screens to collect such tiny artifacts as glass beads imported from Venice, Italy, bits of lead shot and bones.

“We need all the clues to tell the story,” Nassaney said. “We’re really proud of our public outreach program, which trains middle schoolers and high schoolers, teachers and folks like you who want to join us and do archaeology for a week. We run these summer camps which have been tremendously successful. We’ve trained close to 200 people over the last five or six years with this awesome program.

“Young middle schoolers here work cheek by jowl with university students, doing real archaeology and learning the techniques while they’re in the field. We’re hoping next year to get the Potawatomi Nation involved. Public outreach also involves our annual open house culminating the field program. We invite the public in to see what we’ve been doing. Michigan Humanities Council pays stipends for our living history re-enactors and we put up informational panels and let people actually see the archaeology being conducted.”

Dates for the 2011 field school haven’t been set yet.

“It’s quite unique,” he said. “If you haven’t seen it, I don’t think you’ve seen anything like this. Most people are amazed it’s happening in Berrien County.”

The City of Niles owns the site of the “community-based service learning project. Students get to learn to do archaeology by providing service to the community and interacting very closely with community members. Western (Michigan University) is fully committed to this, as are Fort St. Joseph Museum, the City of Niles, Support the Fort and other service groups,” including Rotary and Kiwanis. “The Society of Colonial Wars has also been involved, the Michigan Humanities Council. I like to think when you’ve got a winning team, everyone wants to jump on, so we welcome everybody,” Nassaney said.

“WMU signed a 10-year agreement in 2008 with Niles assuring access and committing to doing the work, so I think I’m committed to 2018 at least,” Nassaney said.

During the question-and-answer period, Nassaney was asked whether human remains have been found.

“We find lots and lots of bones, but they’re all animal,” he said. “It’s the remains of meals they ate.

“We haven’t found any human remains whatsoever. Documents tell us that it wouldn’t have been uncommon for that period to maybe bury some of the dead in an area next to a chapel, church graveyards, that kind of thing. We have not encountered that designated area. The area we work in is maybe three times the size of this room. In the big picture, it’s fairly small. We know there were probably 30 to 40 buildings at this site. It probably covered an acre. There might be an area under the landfill where human remains could be.”

Nassaney said, “Water is always our challenge at the site. People think the river washed part of the site away because it was dammed for industrial purposes in the 1860s, then they raised the dam up in the 1930s, when they stopped farming that area because the groundwater table was too high. Today, when we put our spades in the ground, we hit the groundwater table. After a good rainfall this fall, that site will be covered by two feet of water.

“We have to put about 40 PVC pipes in the ground and connect them to electric pumps. We actually pump the water out to create dry site conditions each and every season. We don’t think the river actually washed that much of the site away. We’ve used like a metal detector and we don’t find many targets in the river. Most of them seem to be on the land.”

Why the site seems so well-preserved “is a good question,” he said. “It was plowed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They dumped on one side and the river was on the other side. It’s somewhat fortuitous. The landfill preserves what’s beneath it, so that may be a mixed blessing.”

Nassaney, who spoke as the guest of Doug Stickney, has been active in this area since 1996.

He has a degree in anthropology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Nassaney chairs the Department of Archaeology at Western Michigan University and directs the WMU field school established in 1976, making it one of the longest-running in the Midwest.

He last spoke to Dowagiac Rotarians on May 7, 2009.

“He was instrumental in finding Ramptown in 2002,” Stickney said. “Ramptown was founded by freed slaves in the 19th century in the Vandalia area.”

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