©South Bend Tribune -- November 6, 1998


Fort St. Joseph believed located

Tribune Staff Writer

NILES -- History came alive Thursday as archaeologists presented evidence that led them to the long-lost site of Fort St. Joseph.

Gun parts, knife blades and even a pair of cuff links still held together by a tiny brass wire, were among the 300-year-old artifacts unveiled at a news conference at the Bond Street boulder that marks the approximate fort site.

Discovery of the artifacts led an archaeological team from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo to conclude it now knows where the fort stood, solving a century-old mystery.

"For the first time ... we've pinpointed its location,'' said Michael Nassaney, associate professor of anthropology at WMU and the principle investigator in the fort search.

The search, requested by the Niles-based Support the Fort organization that hopes to erect a fort replica on the original foundation, was conducted last month on city-owned property between the boulder and St. Joseph River. The search was successful, thanks to the input of a local collector.

Nassaney said the original search site was shifted based on evidence presented to the search team by Niles' resident Tom Kelley.

"This led us to look in a different location and that's where we found" the fort site, Nassaney said.

Kelley wasn't in attendance Thursday. But his girlfriend, Pam Nichols, said he used a metal detector to find such artifacts as knife blades, musket balls and a belt buckle.

"He told them where to go,'' she told The Tribune. "He spent many hours doing that. He had a shoebox full of stuff.''

She said he found the artifacts last summer, when the river was unusually low, on the river's edge just south of the French Paper Co. dam. Nassaney, however, declined to disclose the precise location, fearing it might be "looted'' by people hoping to capitalize on the discovery.

Niles City Administrator Terry Eull said city officials will meet with Support the Fort representatives to attempt to come up with a plan for securing the area.

Support the Fort President Hal Springer said the organization will now focus on obtaining grants and raising other funds to continue the dig. Nassaney said $50,000 or $60,000 would allow for a full-scale excavation that, hopefully, would reveal evidence of the fort's palisades.

"Logs were probably driven two or three feet into the ground, or more. Some traces might still exist,'' he said. "Ideally, we'll be able to trace the outline of the palisades.''

Many in Niles had believed the fort site was flooded when the dam was built or buried by garbage when the area was used as a city dump. While Nassaney agreed parts of the fort might have been lost, he said the recently-unearthed artifacts indicate other parts remain intact.

Among the discoveries were deer bones, apparently discarded after a meal, and "chinking'' possibly used in a fireplace or to fill cracks between the logs of one of several buildings inside the fort. A seal used to stamp goods for tax purposes also was unearthed.

The artifacts will be displayed at the Fort St. Joseph Museum, next to City Hall, said Carol Bainbridge, museum curator. Also, she said the Niles schools are developing a new curriculum that will include information on the fort and its history.

The fort, built by the French and Indians in 1691, stood for 90 years and was the only site in Michigan to be ruled by four different countries. The French occupied it for the first 60 years, deeming it indispensable for its burgeoning fur trade.

Nassaney said furs, obtained from the Indians in exchange for food and other goods, were shipped from the fort to Montreal and later France. At that time, fur hats were "all the rage'' in Europe, he said.

Nassaney said the fort holds "enormous potential'' for fueling the local economy even today. Interpretive historical sites, if marketed properly, can be highly popular, he said, indicating tourism might flourish should a fort replica be built.

The replica likely won't be forthcoming for several years but further excavation could take place as soon as next spring.

"Nothing is planned at this point but stay tuned,'' Nassaney said.

Getting into Fort St. Joseph

If you're interested in Fort St. Joseph, you can join the Fort St. Joseph Historical Association or the Support the Fort group:

* The Fort St. Joseph Historical Association's next meeting is Tuesday at 7:15 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church, 13 S. 4th St., Niles. Robert Jackson of Buchanan is speaking about his experiences serving in World War II, having fought in the Battle of the Bulge and just written a book about that and his service titled "Kriegie." For more information about the association, call Margaret Evick at (616) 683-6913.

* The Support the Fort group was formed six years ago to promote Fort St. Joseph, its history and to raise funds to build a replica of the 17th century French fort. For more information on the group, call Hal Springer at (616) 471-7441.

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