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Colonial history on tap for Fort St. Joe visitors

Aug. 9, 2010

KALAMAZOO--A chance to see archaeologists at work uncovering one the Midwest's oldest historical sites will be the main attraction of an open house Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 14-15 at the Fort St. Joseph archaeological site in Niles, Mich.

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days, visitors to the site will be able to watch student and faculty archaeologists from Western Michigan University uncover information about the French fort that was a military, commercial and religious center in colonial times. Visitors also will get a look at what life was like in the 17th and18th centuries when the fort was an active garrison on the St. Joseph River.

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 caps off WMU's annual archaeological field school, which is one of the nation's oldest such programs.

"The open house is the highlight of one of the premier public archaeology programs in the Midwest," says Dr. Michael Nassaney, principal investigator of the project and professor of anthropology. "It is conducted in conjunction with the WMU archaeological field school, which was founded in 1976 and is celebrating its 35th year, making it one of the longest-running programs in the country."

The Fort St. Joseph site has been the focus of that field school in recent years. Nassaney says the work has the potential to help Niles become a heritage tourist destination much like Northern Michigan's Fort Michilimackinac.

During this year's two-day open house, visitors to the fort dig will be able to:

  • Tour ongoing excavation.
  • Talk with student researchers and see how artifacts are uncovered, screened, and recorded.
  • See costumed interpreters talk about and demonstrate colonial life skills such as open-hearth cooking, wool spinning, quill pen writing and basket weaving.
  • Experience colonial music and dancing.
  • Watch a colonial militia drill, with soldiers using flintlock muskets.

Special crafts and activities for children will be available throughout the open house.

"The Women of New France" is the theme of this year's open house, with the focus on both French and Native American women. Professional archaeologists will offer programs about women's lives in the 17th and 18th centuries. Discoveries from previous years' excavations will be on display and will provide examples of the topics covered by the talks.

This is the fifth year for the free event designed to help the public understand Michigan's colonial-era past and see what goes into the preservation of important historical sites. The open house is both the culmination of the University's annual field school and the showpiece of its public education and outreach initiative. Thousands of individuals and families from across Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and beyond have attended previous years' events.

The Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project was initiated in 1998 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, Fort St. Joseph Museum and Support the Fort, a nonprofit organization focused on preserving the fort's history.

The Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project has netted more than 100,000 artifacts and animal bones associated with the French and English occupations of the fort that once was located along the St. Joseph River. Its strategic location near the St. Joseph-Kankakee river portage allowed the French (1691-1761) and later the British (1761-1781) 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.

This year's open house is supported by an $8,100 grant from the Michigan Humanities Council. This is the second year the Fort St. Joseph project has received public funding. The program also was awarded $6,000 in 2008. Other sponsoring organizations include the City of Niles, the Society for Colonial Wars, the Quebec Government and the Office of the State Archaeologist in the Michigan State Housing Authority.

Learn more about Fort St. Joseph at wmich.edu/fortstjoseph.

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Media contact: Cheryl Roland, (269) 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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