Mystery of Fort St. Joseph

Published 9:01 pm Wednesday, July 28, 2004

By By JAMES COLLINS / Niles Daily Star
NILES -- The most recent archaeological dig at the Fort St. Joseph site has shed a little more light on the mystery of the historical Niles fort.
For the past month, Western Michigan University has held its 2004 Field School in Historical Archaeology at the site, located off of Bond Street.
This year's visit, the third from the university since the project began in 1998, revealed some new information regarding the day to day life at the fort.
On Tuesday, a community day was held to introduce the public to this year's findings and update them on the progress being made.
As the community visited the site, students were busy at work investigating the pits and using a wet screen system to sift through soil samples in search of hidden artifacts.
Among the new artifacts found at the dig were a large piece of wood connected to a hinge, a religious medallion, a crucifix, two leather needles, a mouth harp, fragments of smoking pipes, gun parts and a skillet handle.
Western Michigan University professor Dr. Michael Nassaney gave a presentation to the large group of community members on the information revealed by this year's project.
He said the university's continued work will allow them "to tell the story of Fort St. Joseph in a much more detailed way."
Many of the artifacts show "evidence of the French at play," he said.
Nassaney said the newest discoveries are giving them a better sense of what the lives of the fort's inhabitants were like on a day to day basis.
In addition to finding new artifacts, he said some of the most significant accomplishments of this year's dig are a better understanding of the stratigraphy and the make-up of the buildings located there.
Western Michigan University professor Dr. William Cremin said the dig has been successful, despite the short amount of work time they had at the site.
Cremin said they initially anticipated having 18 work days in Niles, but the impact of last week's storm took two days away from an already limited work schedule. Ruth Byrdak, director of Support the Fort, Inc., is excited about the university's continued work with the Fort St. Joseph Archaeology Project.
Byrdak is pleased that the university's work has confirmed that this particular area was part of the fort.
Niles resident Miriam Harris, who lives right down the street from the dig site on Fort Street, attended the community day because she was curious about what types things were being done.
Amanda Blake, 16, was one of the 10 students who paid $125 to work alongside the professors and students for a week of hands-on archaeological excavations. This opportunity was also made available to adults for a week.
After completing the student week of archaeology, Blake was so enthralled with the work that she volunteered to tag along for the following week as well.
She has had an interest in archaeology since she was a young girl digging up her backyard and has dreams to go into the field professionally.
Nassaney pointed to the partnership of Western Michigan University, Support the Fort and the City of Niles as a vital reason of why the project has been so successful.
He plans to continue the archaeological dig at the Fort St. Joseph site, but adequate funding remains an issue.