Exploring Fort Saint Joseph

Aug 4, 2016

Students and volunteers excavating Fort St. Joseph
Credit Andy Robins / WMUK

The exact location of Fort Saint Joseph in Niles was lost for more than a century. The French built the fur trading post in the 1680’s as one of the first European settlements in the western Great Lakes. But people forgot about it soon after the fort was abandoned in the 1790’s. It remained that way until archeologists from Western Michigan University rediscovered the fort in 1998. Since then they've been learning how people lived there more than 300 years ago.


There isn't an actual fort standing on the banks of the Saint Joseph River anymore. There isn't even one log or stick of wood above ground. At the site where it once stood, there’s now the hum of pumps and a maze of white PVC pipes keeping the river at bay as archaeologists dig very carefully to find what’s left in shallow, rectangular pits.

WMU archaeology student at a spray screen looking for artifacts
Credit Andy Robins / WMUK

Not far away is a wooden trestle that looks like a kid’s swing set. Suspended from it are wooden frames with screen bottoms, and a lot of running water. Students from WMU's 2016 Archaeological Field School dump dirt into the "wet screen" boxes and spray them with water. Liz Mantyck, the public outreach coordinator for the Fort Saint Joseph project, says that's how they recover even tiny artifacts left behind by the people who lived in and around the fort.

"They're looking for anything like seed beads to buttons. And different native trinkets such as tinkling cones, which would have been some sort of decoration piece - anything from the 18th century is what we look for."

Some of those little bits of the past may not look very impressive. But the lead archaeologist on the project says that’s deceiving. Western anthropology professor Michael Nassaney says written records can only take you so far into the past. "What was really happening on the ground is not recorded in the documents. And this really emerges from the archaeology. Something as mundane as what people were eating."

In fact, Nassaney says it isn't even clear what Fort Saint Joseph really looked like because there are no detailed written descriptions or drawings. But it probably wasn't like the forts in movies and TV shows with high log pallisades and blockhouses. Liz Mantyck says archaeologists must reconstruct the fort using the little that remains today.

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Not all of those working at the site are faculty or students. Mary Ellen Drolet's family has three generations that have volunteered to help recover the fort's heritage. At one time or another, the flags of France, Britain, Spain, and the United States flew over the fort, giving Niles its motto "City of Four Flags." Kneeling next to one of the carefully dug pits (called "units" by archaeologists), Drolet describes some of the artifacts found there this summer.

"They did find a metal bullet here, a muzzle-loader bullet. A few years ago, I found a very unique crucifix intact, and that was pretty cool. I found a really nice trade ring doing that. I worked in one where we had a metal cache. I mean, there's something good every year!"

Drolet says Fort Saint Joseph is an important part of the region's history that needs to be discovered and preserved. As she puts it, "It is something different than having a two-headed lamb in the museum." And, yes, Niles does have a two-headed lamb in its museum.

The Fort Saint Joseph Archaeological Project holds its annual public open house Saturday and Sunday, August 6-7, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Niles. It will include tours of the excavation and a “living history” village.

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