This area owes a huge debt of thanks to WMU anthropologist

Published 3:10 pm Monday, June 5, 2006

By Staff
Cass and Berrien counties owe a debt of gratitude to Western Michigan University anthropology professor Michael Nassaney, who made a career out of exploring history by uncovering everyday items left behind by previous generations.
Communities like ours call on Nassaney to sleuth through garbage to solve their mysteries, and he gets results, whether the topic is the Underground Railroad or Fort St. Joseph.
In Cass County, Nassaney pieced together clues about Ramptown, a community of escaped slaves that once existed near Vandalia. Displays which result, like one at the Museum at Southwestern Michigan College, stimulate further public interest in archaeology and promote preservation.
As he notes in a profile in the spring issue of WMU magazine, “The kind of work I do involves questions that come to me from communities. These are issues that are important to them.” One was Niles in 1997 in the form of the historical re-enactors from Support the Fort. Where might the remains be of Fort St. Joseph, the 18th century trading post and garrison whose occupation by the French, British and Spanish helped Niles become the City of Four Flags?
Located along the St. Joseph River, the fort was one of the Great Lakes region's key frontier outposts. Once, it was a hub of commercial, military and religious activity for colonists and Native Americans from 1691 to 1781, but eventually it was abandoned and lost.
Nassaney accepted the assignment without knowing people had been looking for the fort for 100 years or that no maps existed to point him in the right direction. But team Nassaney was game, nonetheless. He and a team of students from the Western Archaeological Field School dug in earnest in 1998.
The excavation area continues to yield artifacts today, including animal bones, awls, scissors, pins used for embroidery, tools of all kinds, musket balls and gun parts and an unmistakable stone fireplace where 50 to 60 people lived.
It is estimated that only 3 percent of site has been excavated.
The fort's fate is largely an issue of dollars and cents.
The magazine said Nassaney knows the work is important as well as interesting and they may be getting close to some major funding. A decision this month from the National Endowment for the Humanities could bring in almost $400,000.