Memorial Sunday for Peyser, Fort St. Joseph expert

Published 2:41 pm Tuesday, February 1, 2005

By Staff
NILES - Dr. Joseph L. Peyser, French and education professor emeritus at Indiana University South Bend and expert on Fort St. Joseph, the forerunner to modern-day Niles, died Jan. 1 at Memorial Hospital in South Bend due to a massive heart attack.
He was 79 years old and a 31-year resident of South Bend.
A public celebration of his life is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 6, from 1 to 4 p.m. in room 225 of the Student Activity Center, Indiana University – South Bend, 1700 Mishawaka Ave., South Bend, Ind.
At IUSB, Peyser was a full professor of French, having joined the university in 1973 as Dean of Faculties and Chairman of the Department of Foreign Languages.
In 1977, Peyser embarked on a fascinating journey into the 17th and 18th century experience of the French in North America, which became the crown jewel of his life's interests and work. He began by translating French-language documents for the Niles Historical Commission relating to Fort St. Joseph, which lead to the publication of "Letters from New France: The Upper Country 1686-1783." Peyser's work with people wishing to locate this site of Fort St. Joseph and to interpret its history and encouraged the Support the Fort group to persist in their commitment to find the original site of the fort. Built in 1691, Fort St. Joseph stood for 90 years and was the only site in Michigan ruled by four countries. At various times France, England, the United States and Spain controlled the outpost, us mostly for trading furs.
Time removed any hint of the forts location, spawning arguments that it perhaps had never existed or that, if it did, it was on the west bank of the St. Joseph River. It was a "lost" map in the National Archives in Paris that Dr. Peyser discovered and translated that detailed the exact location of the fort on the east side of the river. His discovers prompted a team of archaeologists from Western Michigan University to search the east bank three years ago and discover conclusive evidence of the fort's remains. The site is currently being excavated and documented by a team of WMU archaeologists.
The documents he uncovered and translated were written in Old French, which is significantly different from today's French. These letters revealed what life was like in the 17th and 18th century Michigan and Canada and were from all walks of life, from French government and royalty, to businessmen and blacksmiths, to emancipated women engaged in commercial lawsuits and fur trading voyageurs that piled the rivers and forests of Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. Contrary to common perception, he documented that these voyageurs were in many cases quite literate, filling regular reports from the field and sending them back to the court of King Louis XIV.
The documents and Peyser's translations revealed that military personnel from the fort has used connecting waterways to take part in battles hundreds of miles away. They revealed, too, that the son of an early Fort St. Joseph commander lead a contingent of French troops and Indian allies against a surprise attack launched by a young George Washington in 1754 at Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania.
His son states "My father believed in the importance of bringing history to life and he need to ground the present and future in the understanding of the past. His research was a labor of love." Dr. Peyser recalled how he felt in 2002, when he stood near the remains of a hearth once used to warm a building at the fort. "When I stood on that floor, in front of that hearth, I said 'This is what they saw,' I felt a little of what they felt," he said "It was clearly one of the biggest thrills of my professional life."
Support the Fort, Inc. honored Peyser with a dinner in April 2003 upon his retirement from their Board of Directors.
In 1993 Peyser and R. David Edmunds published "The Fox Wars: The Mesquakie Challenge to New France." Ironically, this book also corrected the historical placement of a major Fox Indian battle near Peoria, Illinois through the discovery of a map drawn by the commander of the French troops, a map also "lost" in the National Archives in Paris. In recognition of the book's merit, the French Colonial Historical Society presented him with the Alf Heggoy Book Prize in 1994.
In 1991, Peyser began to work on the French Michilimackinac Translation Project. He collected thousands of pages of photocopies and hundreds of reels of microfilm of French documents, located in archives in France and Canada, pertaining to Michilimackinac and the French experience in the Great Lakes region. More importantly, he translated amy of these documents into English. Mackinac State Historic Parks and Michigan State University Press published two volumes of documents translated and annotated by Peyser; Jaques Legardeur de Saint-Perre; Officer, Gentleman, Entrepreneur (1996) and On the Eve of the Conquest: The Chevalier de Raymond's: Critique of New France in 1754 (1997). In 1994, Peyser and Mackinac State Historic Parks received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund the translations that appeared in On the Eve of the Conquest. Subsequent grants from the Florence Gould Foundation and Mackinac Associates provided financial support for the project. At the time of his death, a third volume of the documents translated by Peyser, titled Edge of Empire; Michilimackinac, 1671-1716, is nearly ready for publication. Jose Antonio Brandao, of Western Michigan University, is the co-editor of this volume.
A man of many talents and interests, Peyser attained the rank of Eagle Scout as a boy, earning every merit badge the Boy Scouts of America offered at the time. As a teen he used to take 100 mile bike rides from New York City where he grew up before the advent of multi-speed bikes.
He loved to play chess, bridge, and hike in the woods, and was an avid football and boxing fan. He also enjoyed drawing cityscapes and portraits that are exhibited in his home. His daughter, Jan Peyser, also fondly recalls her father carving toys out of wood for her and her brother, including a doll house and an old medieval fort. His son recalls camping overnight in the fully-functional igloos that his father built in the family backyard during winters on Long Island in the 1950's.
In 1949 he could not find a teaching job, so he packed up his wife and five-month-old son (against everyone's counsel) and moved to France where he was the first American to lecture in French at the University of Nancy. After a year of teaching and travel throughout Europe, he returned with his family to continue with would become a long and distinguished career. The day before he died he spend several hours talking with his close French friends of 55 years, friendships established during the first trip in 1949.
He graduated with a B.A. in French from Duke University in 1947, earned an M.A. in French from Colombia University in 1949, received a Cerficicat d'etudes superieures, French literature from the Universite de Nancy, France 1950, and received an Ed. D. in Educational Administration from New York University in 1965. His teaching career spanned a half-century. He first served as an assistant d'anglais in Ecole Normal d'Instituteurs, Nancy, France in 1949-1950. Peyser was a teacher of French, Spanish, Russian, English and social studies at high schools in Uniondale and Monroe, New York, before holding professorial positions at Hofstra University, New York University, and Long Island University. In 1968, he became professor of French at Dowling College, a position he held until his appointment as professor of French in Indiana University South Bend in 1973.
The family asks that anyone wishing to send something in celebration donate to either:
The Joseph L. and Julia B. Peyser Study – Abroad Undergraduate Scholarship Fund, Indiana University Foundation, c/o Jan Halperin-Development, Indiana University-South Bend, P.O. Box 7111, South Bend, IN, 46634, or Support The Fort, Inc., 210 E. Main Street, Niles, MI 49120-2376
Joseph and Julia Peyser met on a blind date in 1947 - not theirs - they were the younger siblings attending as chaperones to their older brother and sister's date at the beach. While their brother and sister did not follow up, they did - for 56 loving years of marriage. Dr. Peyser is survived by his wife Julia; sister Jeanne Kaunitz; sone Randy Peyser; daughter Jan Peyser-Gleason; and three grandchildren, Lisa Stamm, Ben Peyser, and Jason Stamm.