WMU News

Site of Fort St. Joseph found by WMU archaeologists

November 5, 1998

NILES, Mich. -- Its location has been a mystery for more than a century, but a team of archaeologists from Western Michigan University announced today that they have discovered remains of what they believe is a colonial occupation associated with the 300-year-old site of Fort St. Joseph in Niles, Mich.

The team, sponsored by a $10,000 grant from Support the Fort, a non-profit organization promoting and preserving the history of the fort, found a number of artifacts through excavation that clearly represent deposits associated with the site of the fort. Known as the Four Flags Fort, because it had flown under four different nations' flags in its history, the fort was established by the French and existed from 1691-1781.

"We found artifacts that indicate colonial occupation dating back to the eighteenth century," said Dr. Michael Nassaney, WMU associate professor of anthropology and leader of the team. "From these artifacts and where we found them, we can tell that parts of the site appear to be intact."

The items found include gun flints, eighteenth century pottery, trade beads and architectural stones that could indicate foundations or fireplaces.

The finding of the fort is significant from historical and anthropological perspectives. Fort St. Joseph is believed to be the only colonial fort in western Michigan and was crucial to French control of trading in the southern Lake Michigan region. The artifacts found at the site also will allow anthropologists and archaeologists to examine the interactions between the colonists and native peoples. According to Nassaney, a sizable number of native Americans, mostly Potawatomi, lived in the area and their lives were changed dramatically by the arrival of the colonists and traders.

"What is interesting is how these two groups affected and influenced one another," he said. "The colonists and traders were dependent on the native peoples, and as a result, they transformed each others' lives. The natives were hunters and gatherers and part-time farmers who captured fur-bearing animals for their own use. But the fur trade in Europe at the time was substantial and soon they were spending less time on subsistence pursuits and more time trading furs for foods. It had a profound effect on their culture and lives."

While historic descriptions and maps gave approximate locations for the fort, the exact site of the fort has been lost to historians and archaeologists alike. Support the Fort sought to reconstruct the fort, but wanted to ensure that it wasn't going to build on any sites of archaeological significance. It contracted with the WMU team this past summer to find the fort's original site.

The team identified a 15-acre parcel in Niles that was likely to contain the fort's location. Complicating matters, however, was the fact that in the past century a dam had been built near the parcel and other low-lying parts of the parcel had been used for landfills. Many thought the site of the fort was either under water or buried in garbage.

"We went in with that understanding," Nassaney said. "There was the possibility that water had washed away or inundated the site or that it was now under a landfill."

The team began in one area of the parcel, but switched to a different site after a local collector came forward with significant artifacts and information on where he had found them.

"The approximate site has been known to people for years and local interest has always been high. Many people used to collect artifacts from plowed fields in this vicinity at the turn of the century," Nassaney said. "Fortunately for us, a recent collector realized the importance of items he had and brought them to us. This led us to look in a different location and that's where we found it."

While willing to share the artifacts that indicate they have found the site, the team will not disclose the exact location and there is no physical evidence in the search area of where the site is.

"Our biggest fear is that this site could be looted," Nassaney said. "The artifacts there have no real value, except in historical terms. Until we do a full excavation, we fear that someone may disturb the site."

Nassaney and his team, as well as officials in Niles and with Support the Fort, are in the process of securing funding for a full-scale excavation. Until then, the property, which is owned by the city of Niles, will be off limits to trespassers in order to preserve the past for the future.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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