WMU News

Structural remains of Fort St. Joseph unearthed

June 21, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- WMU archaeologists digging at the site of an 18th-century fort in Niles, Mich., have found what they were looking for.

Underneath layers of mud in a bog, they have discovered structural remains of Fort St. Joseph, which existed more than 300 years ago and is believed to have been the only colonial fort in Western Michigan.

Fort St. Joseph has been the object of study by WMU archaeologists for a number of years. Established by French colonists on the banks of the St. Joseph River in what is now Niles, the fort existed from 1691 to 1781 and is known as the Four Flags Fort because it was held by four different nations during its history.

In 1998, at the request of Support the Fort, a nonprofit organization promoting and preserving the history of the fort, and Niles city officials, WMU researchers determined the original site of the fort, evidence of which had disappeared centuries ago. It wasn't until this summer, though, that it was possible for the researchers to conduct an excavation of the site.

A WMU archaeological team directed by Dr. Michael Nassaney, associate professor of anthropology, and Dr. William Cremin, professor of anthropology, and including students in WMU's 2002 Archaeological Field School, spent the past three weeks conducting a dig at the site. They unearthed significant artifacts including the remains of a stone hearth and what appears to be stone pavement or foundation marking a second structure. Hundreds of other recovered artifacts including glass beads, gun parts and engraved cutlery handles dating to the 18th century, told the archaeologists that they had truly found the fort.

"All the artifacts we found are of European origin. Because there are no Native American artifacts, we know we have unearthed structural remains from inside the fort," says Nassaney, explaining that historical documentation shows that Native American encampments were often located outside fort walls.

"We are at the heart of where we wanted to be."

Finding structural remains of the fort is critical to further archaeological endeavors at the site. WMU and local organizations had sought state and federal funds to finance a major exploration of the site, but were turned down due to the lack of physical evidence and terrain challenges presented by the area. Construction of a dam had left part of the site submerged in water and the use of the area as a landfill had made exploring the site difficult.

"We were told we had to answer two questions: would our proposed dewatering of the site actually work and were there any undisturbed structural remains?" Nassaney explains. "We can most definitely answer 'yes' to both of those now."

Support the Fort contributed $12,000 for dewatering efforts at the site and earlier this month, a pump and 60 11/2-inch pipes were installed to remove water. Nassaney and Cremin then called upon their WMU colleague, Dr. William Sauck, associate professor of geosciences, to employ ground-penetrating radar and other geophysical techniques to distinguish "hot spots" for digging.

"The radar detected subsurface anomalies, like areas that were high in magnetics," says Nassaney. "It hit off that stone floor and we knew we had something significant there."

Cremin says that a dozen pits were dug in an area approximately 2,200 square meters in size and that each of the pits yielded important artifacts. In addition to structural remains, researchers found a burn pit with dozens of charred corn cobs that might have been used for tanning, handmade nails, kettle parts and parts of flint-lock muskets, including gun flints and musket balls.

"In searching for the fort, many archaeologists might have gone looking first for the palisades ­ the wood fence or structure surrounding the fort. We were determined to find evidence from inside the structure. Our dig site, while not large, gave us a small window into the fort," Nassaney says.

This is the second significant finding this summer for WMU archaeologists and participants in its 2002 Archaeological Field School. Last week, it was announced they had recovered artifacts that confirm the existence of Ramptown, a settlement of escaped slaves in Vandalia, Mich., that had long ago disappeared. After concluding that project, the researchers and students went to work at Fort St. Joseph, and in a short amount of time, found the structural remains.

"This is the 'whew' we've been waiting for since fall 1998," says Nassaney. "It took a long time to get here. Even though we identified the location through smaller samples of artifacts, Bill and I always felt there were structural remains of the fort. We've been able to find them on a shoestring with the assistance of Support the Fort and the University, which has supported the field school."

The pits opened up by the dig will now be filled and the dewatering equipment removed in an effort to protect the site from the environment and potential looting. While Support the Fort hopes to one day fully excavate the site and reconstruct the fort, the future of the project is dependent on finding funding.

"Fort St. Joseph is potentially as archaeologically and historically significant as Fort Michilimackinac," says Nassaney. "While there are similarities, information from Fort St. Joseph would not duplicate what we've already learned elsewhere. It can give us an insight into the daily lives of the occupants of a fort that was on the frontier of the fur trade in early America."

Media contact: Marie Lee, 269 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

Office of University Relations
Western Michigan University
1903 W Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5433 USA
269 387-8400