The following transcript was taken in part from a home video shot on November 5, 1998 during a press conference regarding the rediscovery of the location of Fort St. Joseph in Niles, Michigan in October of 1998.
Dr. Michael Nassaney, associate professor of anthropology at Western Michigan University.
Thank you all for coming. It is with great pleasure today that I get to announce one of our discoveries, a very important discovery of a french occupation here in Niles. Our investigations in October allowed us to pinpoint its location. Let me provide you with a little bit of background, tell you how we got involve with the project and tell you a little bit about the significance of this find.
Over 300 years ago this looked like a pretty different place. It was traversed by Native people who were hunters and gathers and part time agriculturist. Their lives were about to change very radically in the 17th century. When the expanding European nations came into the Great Lake region, particularly the french. What motivated them was a number of different factors. But believe it or not even some 200 years after Columbus there was still a search for a Northwest passage. Indeed trying to cross this great landmass to provide access to resources in Asia and China was still a very important factor that motivatied this exploration. In doing so settlement also became a concern. And, in fact the fur bearing animals that were teaming in this part of the world became very, very important in a virgining fur trade. So this is not only what led the french into this area for their explorations but, in fact attracted them to settle here.
Why this specefic location? This is a very, very strategic location. As it turns out between the Saint Joseph River here and the Kankakee river just five miles away or so; that five mile stretch of land, a portage that was used frequently in the 17th and 18th century, is the only spit of land that actually connects Montreal to New Orleans. So there is a continuous waterway transpiration network between Montreal and New Orleans that's only separated at this spot by five miles of land. This is the reason that this location was selected to collect these various furs that were coming in from the Illinois Country. This is the place where trade goods were going out and where furs being collected to be shipped ultimately to Montreal and then on to France where wearing fur hats was the rage in the 17th and the 18th century throughout all of Europe.
People have known about this fort for a long time because there is information written in the documents about this fort. The French left numerous letters and other accounts about the fort. What hasn't been known is the precise location. The very early pioneers in this region in the 1820's and the 1830's knew about the approximate location of the fort. They also knew as late as the 19th century that if you walked the plowed fields here you could find lots of archaeological evidence , lots of material evidence, lots of objects that were associated with this occupation. And indeed the Fort Saint Joseph Museum has literally hundreds if not thousands of the objects that were collected at the turn of the century. But over the last hundred years or so the precise location of the fort became lost, it became forgotten. And when the dam was constructed on the river and the water level was raised it was thought that in fact the river had inundated the site. When this site was used, parts of this 15 acre site was used as a landfill, it was thought that the landfill had in fact covered the site. And maybe both of these things are partly true. It may be that the river has washed away part of the site, it may be that the landfill has covered part of the site. But in fact there is part of the site that is still intact and accessible for investigations. And I'll talk a little bit more about the significance.
But let me tell you a little bit about our involvement. There is a local group here who I thank very much for getting Western Michigan University involved, and they call themselves Support The Fort. Against all odds they believed that in fact there were archaeological remains available here that should be investigated. As it turns out they were right.
They called me and I assembled a team of investigators and we spent three weeks in October searching this entire parcel for evidence of the occupation that occurred here over three hundred years ago. Part of the team was Dr. Joseph L. Peyser. Dr. Peyser is a Professor Emeritus of French at the University of Indiana at South Bend who has devoted the last 30 years of his life to investigate the documents that are related to this fort. He is an expert in French Colonial history, he has left no stone un-turned in seeking out evidence for this fort, having researched in the Newberry Library in Montreal and all the way to Paris. But the documents haven't provided the precise information for the location.
We have also been working with Dr. Bill Cremin professor of anthropology at Western Michigan University, who is quiet knowledgeable about the native peoples who occupied this part of southwest Michigan at the very latest so called prehistoric period, the people who essentially encountered and met the French when they came here in the 17th Century.
We have been lucky to have Renee Lutes-Kurtsweil one of our graduate students who spent the last few field seasons directing the investigations at Fort Michilimackinac, arguably the most important regional center of french transport throughout all of the midwest. She was the field supervisor for the investigation that took place here.
What is the significants of this kind of find? Well at this point we have merely identified the precise location. But we are heartened by the fact that there is contextual information that these objects are intact. And some of the finds here, I can comment on later, are laid out on the table.
We have information about french ways of life in the 17th and 18th century from the documents. But essentially they are about the great men, about events and battles. What we really lack is information on the texture of everyday life. And this is what the archaeological record can provide. The objects that were discarded, the broken gun parts, gun flints, scraps of metal and the animal bones that were the remains of meals, provide us a very different since of what day to day lives of the people who lived and struggled in what was then a wilderness here on the edge of the frontier is all about. This what the archaeological record can provide.
We know when the french and native people encountered each other they began to transform each others lives tremendously. The native peoples were increasingly drawn into the mercantile economy where they shifted their attention from merely hunting fur bearing animals for their own subsidence concerns to hunting them in much larger quantities where they were delivering these up to the Europeans. As they spent more and more time doing this they were spending less time in their subsidence pursuits. As a result they became very dependent on many of the objects that the Europeans were providing them. Including food, including other raw materials, including finished products and various commodities.
The french peoples were also transformed by this encounter. Here, living on the edge of the French colonial frontier. Thousands of miles from France, hundreds of miles from Montreal where they had established a secure base, their day to day lives were very tenuous. They weren't able to, for example, reproduce their lives precisely as it had been in the old world. Instead of various cuts of meat that might derive from domesticated animals they were forced to hunt much as the native peoples were. So we can begin to learn about how they coped with subsidization with day to day struggles by examining the archaeological records.
So it is these small things forgotten, as one archaeologist is prone to say. Like the discarded objects, the rusty nails, the architectural remains that we can get really different insight about this period, this important period in frontier history than the documents can provide. So I try to point out that the site clearly has scholarly significance, it has academic significance. But I think it also has local and regional significance. It has significance in educating all Americans on what the period was about. I think it has a potentially enormous significance for even the local economy, as interest increases in trying to recover more information. We know that a tremendous industry here in Michigan is tourism. Interpreting historical sites is part of that larger, logical tourist enterprise. In fact this can contribute to that in the long term.
Of course further work is needed. At this point we have only recovered what might be the tip of the iceberg. We're really not sure what's beneath, so to speak. But there is every indication that having located these remains, they do appear to be intact. Now we are very curious to expand our investigations to see what the horizontal spacial expanse as well as the vertical spacial expanse of these remains are. We are very interested in trying to locate evidence of architectural remains. Right now we have recovered a little bit of chinking that may have been used between logs for example. We've recovered some stones with this chinking on them that might be the remains of foundation or fireplaces.
A larger scale excavation would allow us to actually find, if they exist, evidence of architectural remains. Again, the artifacts we have found, which consist of gun flints, brass kettle fragments and European ceramics that indisputably date to the late 17th and 18th century, and bits of window glass, and hand wrought nails. The context of them is not entirely clear to us. Does this represent a refuse heap for example. Does this represent domestic debris within a household. Does this represent material that was on the inside of the palisade or the outside of the palisade. These are questions that we can not answer at this point. These are questions that are critical to answer so that we can better interpret these remains.
This is where further work is needed, and this is where further support is needed. I think that a site of this importance is going to engender, not only local interest, but also interests much wider. I think this is the kind of project that the National Endowment for the Humanities will want to get behind. I think this is the kind of project that local individuals in the community are also going to want to get behind, because it can only benefit all of us both scholarly as well as at a local level.
So in the future we hope to conduct further investigation into the site. We are currently seeking out future funding to be able to support this work. I should close by saying that the site is extremely sensitive at this point. These remains are literally within feet's of the grounds surface and are subject to destruction through a variety of different means. Not the least of which is looting. Currently the site has been posted for no trespassing, not because we don't want the public to be interested in what we are interested in. Indeed, when further investigation takes place we fully intend to invite the public in to see exactly what it is that we are doing. To see exactly what it is we are finding. There are numerous objects available on display at the Fort Saint Joseph Museum here in Niles, MI. In fact this is the kind of project that will involve public involvement in the long term. After all the purpose of our investigation is to preserve this past, this part of the past for the future, and I think all of us are interested in doing just that.
Well, thank you for your interest. Let me please introduce to you the president of Support The Fort, Hal Springer, who will provide some commentary from Support The Forts perspective.
Thank you Dr. Nessany for addressing the significant milestone in the efforts of Support The Fort, Inc. For those of you who are not familiar with our organization. Support The Fort, Inc. is a non-profit organization in the local area (Niles, Michigan) that's been in the area since 1992. Our mission is to spread the word about the history of Fort Saint Joseph in the surrounding area. And to eventually to rebuild the fort on the original site.
Since 1992 we have been doing basically three things. (1)We have been talking to whoever will listen about the history of the fort, and trying to generate interest in our project. (2)We have participated in literally dozens of fund raisers over the years to try to acquire funds for this type of operation. (3) Third and most important, we have spent a lot of time collecting information and talking to advisers about how to go about a historic project like rebuilding Fort Saint Joseph.
Talking to our advisers, they suggested we should not build a fort unless we have one of two things. Either a detailed drawing of what the fort looked like or detailed archaeological information on where it was. Up until now we did not have either one of those things.
One of our advisers recommended that we contact the state archaeology office in Lansing, Michigan. Here I talked to John Halsey. He recommended Dr. Nessany and I called him last summer and we have been putting together this project ever since. As far as where do we go from here, I don't know yet. We have to talk to Dr. Nassaney and he has to talk to his colleagues about what the next phase of archaeology will be, and we will certainly jump behind that. One of the foremost we'll need is to develop other funding sources. We will be pursuing other grants as well.
Speaking of funding I would like to make one other announcement. It was recently announced that Support The Fort was awarded a $11.500.00 grant from the Michigan Humanities Council. That grant was described as a collaborative effort and communities grant. It's a joint effort between the City of Niles, Western Michigan University, Niles Community School system, the Fort Saint Joseph Museum and Support The Fort, Inc. to put on this project.
There are three phases of this project. One was the archaeology that was completed last month. (2) The Niles Community Schools has created a new curriculum committee to develop new curriculum relative to the history of the fort and the archaeological process. We will also be funding some of the money from the grant to the Fort Saint Joseph Museum for new displays on the Fort Saint Joseph history.
That's about all I have.
I would like to thank everybody in the community, Western Michigan and everyone that has supported our project over the years to get us to this point. I would like to enlist your continued support as we continue on.
Next up: Carol Bainbridge, director of the Fort Saint Joseph Museum.
I would like to talk to you a little more specifically on the part of the museum in this project and my part as project director. As Dr. Nassaney has already mentioned the museum has a wonderful fort artifact collection. I don't know the exact number, they have not all been inventoried or cataloged, but I'm sure that there is several thousand artifacts. They are not all whole and wonderful but never the less pieces that did come from this area and the fort.
They came to us in the early 1930's and 40's from primarily amateur collectors or farmers that were plowing in their fields and would come up with things. That is how we've gotten them over the years.
This is the first opportunity that we have had to get artifacts that are well documented, cataloged and professionally identified. And that means a lot when you go after funding grants because you need more than hearsay from many years ago. So we are so glad to have these wonderful things.
As far as the museums part in this project we will be, as Dr. Nassaney and Hal said, setting up an area for a fort exhibit. A special area talking about this ongoing project, keeping the public informed that way. I do write monthly articles in the area papers and we will keep people informed that way as well. I feel the museums part is keeping the public informed on what is going on with this project.
Hal also mentioned the curriculum development committee with the Niles Community Schools. I am a member of that committee. I'm very pleased about that. It ( curriculum ) will dovetail very nicely with the education program at the museum. We anticipate it will be a three year project to get the curriculum written and implemented in the schools. I think it will be hard work but, I also think it will be fun and something that will allow me to adapt the education program at the museum to fit in with what the school teachers will be teaching. It will be good for everybody.
I guess that's about all I have right now. Thank you very much.
Dr. Nassaney will now take additional comments from the media.
Dr. Nassaney: Are there any questions?
Dr. Nassaney when you mentioned part of the site still being intact where you talking about the palisades possibly still being intact yet? Could you elaborate on that.
It very well could be. The reason I say that is the remains we recovered are buried. And so this is hearting to us because they may be protected. The palisades that would of been constructed here would consist of large posts that may of been placed in the ground two or three feet or more. And there is a good possibility that remains, or traces of them would still exists. So ideally we would be able to trace the out-line of the palisades as well as any other architectural evidence of houses and the jail that was once here as well as any out buildings that were once here.
Are you putting to rest the whole idea that any of it is under water?
Well, based on the maps we've been looking at it appears that the river channel has not changed that much over the last three hundred years. It true the dam has raised the level of the river and may of inundated some activity that took place on the river bank. We're confident at this point there is a significant part of the site that is accessible to us on land.
Dr. Nassaney in terms of funds how much more money do you think you'll need for further investigation?
That's always a difficult question. I would think that a project of this significance, to explore it further in a field season, I think a fund in the order of $50.000.00 to $60.000.00 would be appropriate. We are talking about hiring crew, we talking about hiring experts to conduct analysis of objects and preparing comprehensive reports. That would be just a ball park figure.
What about the time frame of it? How long?
Again, the time frame is very much dependent upon what it is we actually find. What we have conducted at this point is essentially an initial phase, a phase to allow us to identify the location of the resource. The next phase we would want to go into would be a phase evaluation. And this could be done over a six, eight or ten week period. And in fact that proves to be positive, well let me give you an example. At a place like Fort Michilimackinac they will be beginning their 40th annual season of investigation. These investigations at Fort Michilimackinac are the longest continuous excavation in North America. I mention that because, part in parcel of this project would be teaching the public how the information is actually recovered. It's actually doing the archaeology and having the public observe that is part and parcel of the larger of experiencing history.
Right now why is it so important to keep the location so secret.
There are a number of people who are interested in this site. Some people are interested in it for academic and scholarly reasons. Others are interested in a way to preserve this information for the public. Our concern in disclosing the precise location that people may want to investigate the site, people who are unauthorized, and essentially investigate the site for personal gain. And that's not what we are about here. We are interested in investigating the site and making the information available to the public and doing it in a systematic and professional way.
Eventually you will reveal the entire site to the public?
From what I understand the Support The Fort people may be interested in the fact reconstructing the fort on the site. So the information we obtain from the architectural remains would go a long way towards rebuilding french houses, rebuilding the palisades. This would be a wonderful back drop for the kinds of reenactments so many people in the local community are so interested in doing. I mean this could be a real draw.
Other questions or questions for other members of the team?
Is there anything planed in the future?
Nothing planed at this point but stay tuned!
Donations for future digs can be sent to:
The Fort, Inc.
Niles, Michigan 49120
For more information about the Fort
St. Joseph Museum:
Fort St. Joseph Museum
508 East Main Street
Niles, Michigan 49120