Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project celebrates 25 years

Published 9:00 am Thursday, July 13, 2023

NILES — A local archaeological project celebrated more than two decades of discovery on Wednesday.

The Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project marked its 25th anniversary of enriching the community with a celebratory dinner hosted at the Grand LV Wednesday evening. The Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project is a partnership between Western Michigan University, the City of Niles, Support the Fort, Inc., and other community groups.

The event featured dinner inspired by 18th Century New France, artifact displays and archaeology exhibits as well as a brief program highlighting the Project’s history and impact. The event was sponsored by Support The Fort, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, dedicated to preserving and promoting the history of Fort St. Joseph in Niles since 1992.

“Thank all of you for coming tonight,” said Mary Drolet of Support The Fort. “Thank you for both your great past and future support for the Fort St. Joseph Archeology Project.”

Fort St. Joseph was founded in 1691 and was abandoned in 1781. It was a trading post, mission and garrison located on the St. Joseph River in Niles. The Fort was controlled by three European countries: France, Britain and Spain, and was also occupied by several Native American groups, including the Potawatomi.

That distinction is why Niles is known as the “City of Four Flags.”

In 1998, Support the Fort, Inc. asked Dr. Michael Nassaney of Western Michigan University to search for the fort. Dr. Nassaney worked in partnership with Dr. Joseph Peyser, a French Professor at Indiana University-South Bend who had identified an area of Niles as a likely location. 

Through surveys and excavation, Dr. Nassaney was able to definitively locate the area that once contained the fort itself in 2002. Ongoing excavation and research are revealing information about the appearance of the fort, its occupants, and their role in the fur trade and colonialism.

“People have asked me over the years ‘what’s your favorite artifact’ or ‘what’s the best thing you ever found’ and that always baffles me because I just don’t think in those terms,” Nassaney said. “Because we’re looking to derive information. As we’re fond of saying, it’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.”

According to former State of Michigan Archaeologist and friend of the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project Dean Anderson, of the seven confirmed French fort sites in Michigan, Fort St. Joseph is one of just two to be thoroughly investigated.

“The fort site is an archaeological resource of extraordinary importance because of what it can teach us about life in Michigan in the 18th century but also because it’s a rare and valuable example of that kind of archaeological resource,” he said.

At the conclusion of the event, Support The Fort presented a $1,000 donation to Christina Arseneau of the Niles History Center designated for the support of the history center’s Fort St. Joseph Creation Project.

“We are hoping that that will be just the beginning of the continuation of this local effort to actually fulfill our ethical responsibility to make sure that these artifacts are preserved and studied in the way that they deserve,” Drolet said. 

“I’ve been a part of this project now for the eight years that I’ve been at the history center,” Arseneau said. “I just think it’s such a tremendous community project and it really illustrates the past, present and future of the Niles community and it just means so much to see all these different groups supporting us.”

The Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project will host its annual Summer Archaeology Lecture Series on Wednesdays this July and August at 6 p.m. in collaboration with the Niles District Library. Two of the lectures will be virtual and one is in-person.

People of all ages are invited to attend the Fort St. Joseph Archaeology Open House from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 5 and Sunday, Aug. 6 near the corner of Fort and Bond Streets in Niles. Attendees can tour the archaeological site of Fort St. Joseph, view recently uncovered artifacts, visit with reenactors at the Living History Village and take a ride on the St. Joseph River in Sarett Nature Center’s reproduction 36-foot birchbark canoe.

Attendance and all of the Open House activities are free, though donations will be accepted to support the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project.

Merchandise and food will be available for sale. Several community groups have helped to sponsor the event including Support the Fort Inc. and the City of Niles.

For further information, visit or contact the Niles History Center at (269) 845-4054.