What was life like in a colonial fort in southwest Michigan 300 years ago? Archaeologists from Western Michigan University are trying to find out. They and local volunteers have been digging at the site of Fort Saint Joseph in Niles since 2002.
The fort was built along the banks of the Saint Joseph River by traders and Catholic missionaries from France in the 1680’s. Soldiers and Native American tribes also lived at and near the fort before in was abandoned after about a century. Over the years, the fort's exact location became something of a mystery. But in the late 1990's, members of the group Support the Fort asked WMU to help find it. That they did in 1998, although not in the place where many Niles residents thought it was.
Western Michigan University professor Michael Nassaney leads the work exploring the fort’s heritage and history.
"We've spent about 15 field seasons there now. We've identified the locations of houses and trash deposits, getting a sense of who lived in the houses. And this year is exciting. We're actually expanding out from the location we've been working to reveal even a larger evidence of the fort."
Fort Saint Joseph today can look unimpressive to the untrained eye. It's a low, swampy area along the river. Part of it was covered by a 20th century landfill. But Nassaney says there's evidence of life in the fort, if you know where to look.
"It is now an archaeological site, so there are no standing structures, there is nothing above ground that we can see. But beneath the ground, the signature of their daily activities is buried just beneath a thin layer of soil."
That "signature" includes buttons, lead musket balls, fragments of glass bottles and pottery, and countless glass beads. Nassaney says those artifacts reveal where and how people lived at the fort, and what their likely occupations were.
"We often say, between the water and the dump and the conditions there sometimes, Fort St. Joseph has not easily yielded its secrets. But they are being revealed."
Many of those secrets are covered in the new book Fort St. Joseph Revealed: The Historical Archaeology of a Fur Trading Post (University Press of Florida, 2019) edited and co-written by Nassaney. Although archaeological work at Fort Saint Joseph has been going on for nearly two decades, Nassaney says it's really just getting started.
"People ask me how much longer will it go on. There's easily another 50 years of work there. We have this year expanded into a new area of the site."
Fort Saint Joseph is known locally in Niles as the "Fort of Four Flags." That's because, at various times, the flags of France, Britain, the United States, and Spain flew there. But Nassaney says the "Spanish" didn't hang around long.
"There was actually a group of French and natives under the Spanish flag from Saint Louis who came up and claimed all of Michigan for Spain. That was short-lived. They were there for about 24 hours."
Nassaney says a new focus of the project is making sure that all of the recovered artifacts are preserved in a way that will make them useful to scholars in the future.