WMU News

WMU is new home for 18th-century Michigan history collection

Jan. 9, 2003

KALAMAZOO -- An indefinite loan from Mackinac State Historic Parks has made Western Michigan University home for the largest collection in the nation of French documents relating to 18th-century Michigan history.

According to Dr. Marion Gray, professor and chairperson of WMU's Department of History, access to the collection will enhance understanding of the history of European settlement in the Great Lakes region by offering scholars an in-depth look at the history of the French in North America, the fur trade and the importance of what is now Mackinaw City, Mich., during the 18th century.

"This collection will bring scholars and potential graduate students to WMU," says Gray. "It will also help our current students, because they will be able to do research here, rather than having to go to Mackinaw City, Quebec or even Paris to find these primary resources."

The documents were acquired by the French-Michilimackinac Research and Translation Project, a group created by Mackinac State Historic Parks, which uses the materials to help archeologists identify discoveries made at Mackinaw City's Fort Michilimackinac.

"Fort Michilimackinac is the longest ongoing archeological site in the United States. Excavation work has been carried out there since 1959," says Dr. Jose Antonio Brandao, WMU associate professor of history and co-director of the FMRTP. The fort served as a vital center for fur trade during the 18th-century period of French settlement in what is now Michigan. Goods would be taken from Montreal, up the St. Lawrence River, and around the shores of the Great Lakes to Michilimackinac. Those goods would then be exchanged for furs coming from trading posts in the upper-Midwest region of the United States and Central Canada.

The archives in the collection include more than 470 reels of microfilm, dozens of microfiche materials, and over 1,000 pages of photocopies of documents dealing with the political, social and economical developments of the period.

"Much of the material deals with communication between post commanders at Michilimackinac and officials of the French Crown. It also includes discussions of strategies to deal with native peoples, native cultural practices, comments about the environment of the Great Lakes and what it was like living on the frontier," says Brandao.

Thus far, Dr. Joseph Peyser, professor of French at the University of Indiana-South Bend, who also serves as co-director for the FMRTP, has used the vast collection to publish two volumes of translations chronicling the history of the region and some of its most important figures. Brandao and Peyser are now working on the third volume of translations in the FMRTP series, which is being published by Mackinac State Historic Parks and the Michigan State University Press.

Last June, Fort St. Joseph, another trading post of the same time period, was discovered by a WMU team led by Dr. Michael Nassaney of WMU's Department of Anthropology. That discovery makes the arrival of the FMRTP Collection even more significant. "It's really a coincidence that the collection came at the same time the Fort Joseph discovery was made, but these same materials will also help the Fort St. Joseph researchers interpret their findings," says Brandao.

The FMRTP Collection expands on WMU's holdings to become the largest collection of documents from this era of any in the country. "It will draw international appeal and bring researchers from universities throughout the United States and Canada," say s Dr. Sharon Carlson, director of the WMU Archives and Regional History Collection.

Media contact: Matt Gerard, 269 387-8400, matthew.gerard@wmich.edu


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