Open house highlights Fort’s historic finds

Published 9:29 am Wednesday, July 29, 2009

KALAMAZOO-Western Michigan University archaeologists are plumbing the depths of Southwest Michigan’s history, and the public will have a chance to see what they’ve learned during an Aug. 1-2 open house at the Fort St. Joseph archaeological site dig in Niles.

The open house, which offers the public a detailed look at the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project and 18th-century life, will take place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday to highlight the history and archaeology of Fort St. Joseph. The theme of this year’s open house is “Jesuits in New France.” There will be a Jesuit re-enactor depicting the life of a Jesuit priest at the fort. The mission, garrison and trading post complex was occupied from 1691 to 1781 along the St. Joseph River in what is now the city of Niles.

Since 1998, WMU faculty researchers and students have been working to identify, investigate and interpret the physical remains of Fort St. Joseph, one of the most important Colonial outposts in the western Great Lakes. WMU has conducted its annual archaeological field school at the site since 2002 in partnership with the city of Niles, the Fort St. Joseph Museum and Support the Fort, a nonprofit organization focused on preserving the fort’s history. The dig has been opened to the public annually during the past several years and has attracted more than 5,000 visitors eager to see the site and hear the explanations and interpretation of those working there.

The Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project has netted more than 100,000 artifacts and animal bones associated with the French and English occupations along the St. Joseph River. The fort’s strategic location near the St. Joseph-Kankakee river portage allowed the French (1691-1761) and later the British (1761-81) to control southern Lake Michigan.

This mission-garrison-trading post served as a hub of commercial, military and religious activity for local native populations and European powers for nearly a century during a critical period in the colonization of North America. The flags of four nations – France, England, Spain and the United States – flew over the fort at different times in its history.
Researchers have uncovered building foundations, fireplaces and hearths, and artifacts of everyday life ranging from religious artifacts to weapon remnants.

The open house will take place in South Riverfront Park on Bond Street in Niles and extend to the public boat launch area near Fort Street. The event will feature an outdoor museum, lectures by historians about life at the fort and tours of the excavation site.
It comes at the end of WMU’s 34th annual field school, the only such archeological field school in Michigan and among the longest running such initiatives in the United States.
At the outdoor museum, attendees will be able to witness ongoing archaeological investigations and view fort artifacts. Field school archaeologists will be on hand to give lectures, lead tours, explain archaeology and recount the history of Fort St. Joseph.

The artifacts that will be on display will include items recovered in recent excavations, as well as items from the Fort St. Joseph Museum collection and discoveries made during this year’s WMU field school.

For more information about the open house, contact Dr. Michael Nassaney at or (269) 387-3981.

Information about Fort St. Joseph is available online at