PHOTO STORY: Fort St. Joseph hosts 2023 Archaeology Open House

Published 2:30 pm Monday, August 7, 2023

NILES — A local archaeological project offered visitors a chance to travel back in time to learn how the “City of Four Flags” came to be.

The Fort St. Joseph Archaeology Open House was hosted over the weekend at the site of Fort St. Joseph, an 18th-century trading post, mission, and garrison located on the St. Joseph River in Niles.

The project is a collaboration between Western Michigan University Archaeological Field School and the City of Niles, with support from the greater community. 

From its founding in 1691 until its abandonment in 1781, the Fort was controlled by three European countries: France, Britain, 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.”

For more than twenty years, WMU archaeology staff and students have worked to reveal the history of Niles’ Fort St. Joseph. More than 500 visitors came out to see the site.

“I really like to see people’s excitement about what we’re finding,” said Fort St. Joseph Field Director Dr. Erika Hartley. “I also love seeing the students take pride in their work and showcasing ‘this is what I found’ and ‘this is what I’ve learned’ so it’s really good to see those students that take part in what they’re showing off as well as looking at the public and what they’re learning from our site and about what is happening their own backyard.”

Guests were invited to tour the excavation area where display tables of artifacts were provided. Berrien County Parks Department was on hand with live animals who may have lived near the Fort. Sarett Nature Center offered rides on a 30-foot replica voyageur canoe along the St. Joseph River. 

In addition to touring the site, guests were able to engage Fort St. Joseph re-enactors who portrayed “people of the post” and offer fun activities and demonstrations. 

The annual open house has extra meaning for re-enactor Cathrine Davis, an alumna of the archaeology program who is pursuing her PhD at the College of William and Mary and is doing historical archaeology work on the Jamestown Rediscovery Project.

“It’s always like a homecoming,” she said. “When I come back, I’m reminded that this is what started me and the enthusiasm of the people here is still vibrant. I come back here and they’re excited to see me and there’s more people in each year that get interested in this… It gives me hope that interest in French colonial archaeology in this area is not gone, yet.”

Attendance and all of the Open House activities were free though donations were accepted to support the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project. Sponsors included Support the Fort, Inc., the City of Niles, and Western Michigan University.

Mary Drolet, whose family has been an avid supporter of the fort project for decades, appreciates the turnout and the community support.

“It’s been a great season,” she said. “The students were all very good this year; they worked together well and had some interesting finds. They’re excited about what they’re doing. I think despite the weather, the event turned out great… Every year, more and more people have become involved. We have more and more committed volunteers who are spending time on the site throughout the season…It’s certainly been something I feel privileged to be involved in.”