KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Imagine devoting decades to exploring the local history of a single site. Imagine the thrill of uncovering artifacts from the 18th century and being able to piece together a story about life at that time. Picture a career as an adventurer, detective and storyteller.
Dr. Michael S. Nassaney, professor emeritus of anthropology at Western Michigan University, has had the privilege of doing just that for decades through his involvement with the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project in southwest Michigan—work that continues to reveal details about the lives and cultures of colonial French newcomers and the Native Americans who occupied the area for centuries before settlers arrived.
In honor of this work, Nassaney was recently awarded the 2022 State History Award for Distinguished Professional Service from the Historical Society of Michigan. The award recognizes an individual person’s body of work in a professional, paid capacity in the collection, preservation, and/or promotion of state or local history.
“I thought it was important he was recognized for the work he has done and shed light on his contributions to Michigan’s history,” says Erika Hartley, the Fort St. Joseph archaeological field school director who co-nominated Nassaney for the award with Department of History professor Dr. José António Brandão. “I think he is very deserving of the award for all that he's done to bridge the gap between the academic and public communities.”
Digging into the history of The City of Four Flags
Beginning in 1691 in what is now Niles, Mich., Fort St. Joseph functioned as a trading post, mission and garrison as a part of the French colonial empire in North America. After the fort was abandoned in 1781, it disappeared from sight but remained in the collective memory of area residents, marked by a commemorative boulder dedicated in the area in 1913. The exact location of the fort was uncertain due to land-use changes over the years.
The Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project began in 1998 when Nassaney rediscovered the fort's location through surveys and excavation at the request of a group of local history buffs called Support the Fort. This finding was made possible in part by the efforts of the late Dr. Joseph L. Peyser, professor of French at Indiana University-South Bend, who suggested in the 1970s and 1980s that the fort likely stood on the east bank of the river in Niles.
Excavations began in earnest in 2002, and since then, University faculty researchers and students have been digging up to six 3-foot-by-6-foot holes each year to find and analyze the fort's physical remains. More than 320,000 artifacts have been recovered to date, many of which are on display at the Fort St. Joseph Museum in Niles.
“This work is more like archeologist as detective than it is archeologist as treasure hunter because it’s not the objects that are of intrinsic value. It’s what the objects can tell us about life in the 18th century,” says Nassaney. “So every artifact we find, every straight pin, every musket ball, gunflint, animal bone and so forth is a little clue into gaining that understanding.”
The "little clues" discovered have revealed many stories about life at the fort, but each new finding adds another layer that can either support archeologists' educated interpretations or drive them to reevaluate received knowledge.
“Think of Fort St. Joseph, or archeology for that matter, as a puzzle with no box to look at. It’s infinitely challenging, you never know what you’re going to find and it satisfies that intellectual curiosity,” says Nassaney of what he has enjoyed the most over the years. “Then there’s the daily reward of working with faculty, students and the community to share the story of this remarkable place.”
Educating the next generation of historians
In addition to his excavation work, Nassaney has been critical in sharing the story of Fort St. Joseph with the public through lectures, exhibits and an open house that has attracted some 30,000 visitors to see the excavations. The findings of this work are published most extensively in his 2019 book, “Fort St. Joseph Revealed: The Historical Archaeology of a Fur Trading Post” (University Press of Florida).
Beyond the impact on the community, Nassaney's greatest contribution may be the mentorship he provides to his students, giving them the opportunity to learn excavation skills, how to draw maps and identify artifacts, and how to develop and address research questions.
In fact, it was as a master’s student in WMU’s anthropology department when Hartley first met Nassaney, and she says she even wrote in her application letter that she "wanted to work with Dr. Nassaney" because their research interests were aligned.
“For me personally, he has been a great advisor and mentor. He is constantly not only pushing me to do better but also helping me advance in my own career too,” says Hartley, who was hired as the field school director upon her graduation in 2017. “I think that he does a lot for his students. It’s not just that he does a lot for the public, but he also goes out of his way for his students to really try to make sure that they succeed.”
The Historical Society of Michigan says “the Fort St. Joseph Archaeology Project has become a model for the intersection of academic and public history” thanks to Nassaney’s efforts.
Nassaney retired from Western in 2020 and continues to support Hartley and the project in an advisory capacity, bringing with him a wealth of knowledge, experience and passion for uncovering the fort’s history.
"It's super gratifying to get this recognition for my work with Fort St. Joseph," says Nassaney. "Even though I don't do the work for this recognition myself—I'm one person among many—it's nice when somebody notices."
About the Historical Society of Michigan
The Historical Society of Michigan is a nonprofit organization that was established in 1828, making it the state's oldest cultural and historical institution. The society's mission is to collect, preserve and share Michigan's rich history and provide educational resources and programs to the public.
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