Press "Enter" to skip to content

Fort St. Joseph Archaeology

Rock sign outside Fort St. Joseph
(from Wikipedia)

                Archaeology is a useful tool for researching the past. Archaeological digs can uncover hidden things about the past, resulting in changes to our perception of the past. For years Fort St. Joseph’s location evaded historians, as there was no accurate documentation of its location. This led to the Niles Community and Western Michigan University’s archaeological group, currently led by Dr. Michael Nassaney, to do some research to write the history of Fort St. Joseph and its military and Native American presence and how the fort helped shape the relations and trades between the two cultures.

The Locating of Fort St. Joseph

                Fort St. Joseph is located near Niles, Michigan and historians have leaned heavily on archaeology to uncover this Forts past. Founded in 1691, the outpost quickly became a center point for the French fur trade in Michigan. Although Fort St. Joseph was a very important point of the fur trade, there were no maps or descriptions detailed enough to help determine the location of the fort. Western Michigan University’s archaeology program made it a goal to locate the exact location of Fort St. Joseph’s remains. Given a rough starting piece of land approximately 15 acres large and overgrown located along the St. Joseph River and the Kankakee River, an important water junction at the time [7]. The largest piece of evidence for the archaeology group to go off was 2 hand-drawn maps from the late 1700s that mark the possible location of Fort St. Joseph with some inaccuracies. Western Michigan University utilized a series of trenches and shovel pits to look for possible artifacts within the search area. These tests resulted in the findings of artifacts from as far back as the 18th century. With 3 apparent groupings of 18th-century artifacts, there were some possible locations for the Fort discovered. One grouping was located along the riverside, another near the southwestern corner of the surveyed land, and a third toward the east. Looking at the found concentrations of animal remains, they determined a prime location was the northern clump of artifacts along the river. Looking into the artifacts, found by the archaeological dig, most items were household items at the time (kettles, buttons, etc.), but some artifacts related closer to the military presence. Many gun parts were located at the initial dig of Fort St. Joseph, from buttstocks to musket balls. There was also a large number of arrow tips and knives from Native Americans. This initial dig had located the best possible location for where Fort ST. Joseph lies, sparking more and more excavation by the Western Michigan Archaeology Group [1].

Fort St. Joseph Archaeology Site
(from Western Michigan University)

Military Presence

                As time went on more and more digs were conducted, and the pieces of Fort St. Joseph’s history started to fall into place.  The apparent French military presence within Fort St. Joseph didn’t appear to be a prominent part of every day. The fort did house a local gunsmith, as evidence from multiple caches of gun parts being uncovered, totaling over one hundred gun parts were found. However, it appears only a small command of soldiers were housed within the fort at any given time [2][8]. There is a much larger colonial presence than anything, with the archaeological digs uncovering approximately 15 common households within the fort [3]. Now although the military was present to protect any threats to the French economic trade interests, there has yet to be the discovery of any military buildings within the fort, suggesting that military presence wasn’t extremely heavy. Even though the military wasn’t present in numbers, Fort St. Joseph still appears to have had good fortifications. Each of the for corners seems to have bastions, designed by Sebastien Le Preste de Vauban, they were protrusions on each corner of the fort that were typically elevated to allow cannons to be positioned for defense. Fort St. Joseph’s bastions seem to have not been raised due to British reports of native Americans approaching the fort and firing muskets directly through the holes for the cannons to shoot out of [4]. Even with these fortifications placed by the military, the fort’s lack of standing manpower made it less defended even though it was a crucial point for the French fur trade. Little information is available about the construction of the fort; however, some resources suggest that there should be a, “small commandant’s house, a building that could accommodate 20 soldiers, [and] a military storehouse”, however, this is yet to be located by any digs [3][4]. All these discoveries and lack thereof demonstrating the idea that Fort St. Joseph wasn’t a heavily fortified. Although it did offer income via fur trades and Native alliances, the fort appeared to not need much protection. Perhaps this lack of military presence was a possibility because of the local tribes. Good relations with local tribes may have facilitated the very relaxed military that was located at the fort during the French occupation as the French didn’t need to fear Native attacks.

Trading at the Fort

                Non-military related archaeological finds may suggest why there was only one attack on the fort during most of its time under French rule even with the low military presence. Heavy trading between the French and Native Americans is probably a large reason why the two groups were often on such good terms. Some household French artifacts like, “copper and brass tinkling cones, beads, and triangular pendants” [5] were found both in the fort, but also near suspected local Native American tribal locations. Some appeared to be modified as if the Natives were repurposing them into raw materials and incorporating these objects into their lives. Instead of just one culture attempting to assimilate another, both the French fort and the Native tribes appeared the mutually incorporate parts of one another culture through goods that were traded. One of the produced goods that were produced and traded at the fort were tinkling cones, “decorative objects formed into a cone shape with an open apex by rolling a flat trapezoidal or square metal blank” [5]. These tinkling cones were often produced from old kettles, a way of recycling the materials in order to get a new life in the trade. Other goods the French introduced include other forms of jewelry, tools, and different clothing. One of the most common artifacts found were buttons from clothing, both from the soldier’s uniforms and for the colonist’s clothes that were being produced and traded [6]. Some other materials found useful by the Native Americans were weapons from the French, as they allowed them superiority over other tribes while using European metal products [11]. There were other materials that were found during excavation that support how the French and Native cultures affected one another. Items like Native American jewelry was found within the fort, perhaps traded for the French goods unavailable to the Natives. The introduction of tobacco into the French fort can be seen in the way of pipes used to smoke. Although the number of goods the Natives introduced to the French was less than how many items the French introduced, it was still a mix of cultures that led to good relations and the safety for Fort St. Joseph against the Natives during French rule [6].  These trades also involved many pelts, mainly the American Beaver [6]. The beaver pelt was highly desired and profitable within Europe, resulting in the fur trading being such a large part of the French colonies. The new American furs are debatably one of the main reasons that the French even continued to colonize North America, especially seeing as there wasn’t much else to profit on. This desire for fur also led to increased trades and interactions as the French both hunted and bought pelts from the Natives. This basic “economy” between the Natives and the French was just another reason for them to keep peaceful relations [9]. These peaceful relations even later expanded to be a full alliance as the Native Americans sided and assisted the French during the French and Indian War against the British.

Life in the Fort

While assembling the history of how Fort St. Joseph relied heavily on trade, the Western Michigan University archaeology group was able to piece together how the new French settlers survived, making it an “excellent context to examine the role of craft specialization and the organization of labor on the colonial frontier” [5]. Many fishbone remains were found in fire pits within the fort, suggesting that fish from the St. Joseph river used to be a large part of the French settlers’ diets. This means that the life of the French colonists at Fort St. Joseph relied heavily on the local St. Joseph River for food. Local Native Fisherman could also make larger profits trading fresh fish to the French in exchange for new European goods previously never heard of to them. The archaeological group also has uncovered some domestic mammal bones, marking around the time that the French had legalized the trades of such animals [6]. During these early colonial periods at the fort, the French monarch was very strict on the trades being conducted. The French often controlled who was allowed to venture into the Upper Great Lakes area, oftentimes wanting the Natives to bring the furs only to French forts to be sold under set prices [10].

This French occupation was held until the British took over in 1691, resulting in Native conflict as they protested demanding the return of the French trades. After so many years of French occupation, the Native Americans disliked the British (who they had battled during the French and Indian War prior) and attempted to push them out in hopes of French return. In 1717 the French returned to the fort, until abandoning it again in 1761. The British return was again opposed, resulting in the Ottawa tribe attacking the fort. The Ottawa temporarily occupied the fort, and the British and French never reclaimed the fort [2].

Fort St. Joseph Museum
(from Niles MI)

The on-going Project

Currently, the on-going archaeology program at Fort St. Joseph is being led by Professor of Anthropology Michael Nassaney, a current researcher in archaeological theory, political economy and colonialism, and regional analysis with critical theory. Nassaney has directed the archaeological field school since 1994 and has been elected as secretary of the Society for Historical Archaeology and is the editor of Le Journal [12].

All these new discoveries at Fort St. Joseph wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for Western Michigan University and the Niles community. The college continues to offer courses to help new students learn about archaeology, allowing new people to uncover more information about the past. Now although all this information may be only at Fort St. Joseph, archaeology can be useful elsewhere. When it comes to uncovering history, archaeology can be used to determine how people lived and can paint a vivid image of life back in the day, including in the military. Archaeology can be very useful in uncovering the past, making it a vital tool for historians.

Primary Sources

  1. Cremin, William, et. al, ” 22-An Archaeological Reconnaissance Survey to Locate Remains of Fort St. Joseph (20BE23) in Niles, Michigan “, 1999, Western Michigan University
  2. Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project, “ 6: Military Presence at Fort St. Joseph“, 2016, Western Michigan University
  3. Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project, ” Archaeology, History and Activities at Fort St. Joseph 2: Fort History“, 2008, Western Michigan University
  4. Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project, ” Military Fortifications “, 2015, Western Michigan University
  5. Brock A. Giordano, “Crafting Culture at Fort St. Joseph: An Archaeological Investigation of Labor Organization on the Colonial Frontier“, 2005, Western Michigan University
  6. Juen, Rachel and Nassaney, Michael, “The Fur Trade“, 2012, Western Michigan University

Secondary Sources:

  1. Nassaney, Michael, et al. “The Identification of Colonial Fort St. Joseph, Michigan.” Journal of Field Archaeology, vol. 29, no. 3/4, 2002, pp. 309–321
  2. Nassaney, Michael, “Reclaiming French Heritage at Fort St. Joseph in Niles, Michigan“, Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America
  3. Foran, Timothy, “Economic Activities Fur Trade“, Virtual Museum of New France
  4. Milwaukee Public Museum, “The Fur Trade“, Milwaukee Public Museum
  5. Foster, John and Eccles, William, “Fur Trade in Canada“, 2013, The Canadian Encyclopedia
  6. Western Michigan University, “Michael Nassaney“, Western Michigan University

For Further Reading:

Wikipedia, “Fort St. Joseph (Niles, Michigan)“, 20 September 2019.