Rediscovering a Frontier Fort

New Elements to an Old Story: The Continuing Archaeological Findings at Michilimackinac

Waves crash onto a sandy beach laced with long grasses that bend and rustle in a strong lake wind as visitors pass along a packed earth path, making their way into the past. They come to see Colonial Michilimackinac, a reconstructed 18th century frontier fortress situated on the northernmost point of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, overlooking the Straits of Mackinac. Built by French soldiers in 1715 to secure the Straits, the fort stood at the center of the Great Lakes fur trade as both a strategic military installation and an important trading post. While long-abandoned by military forces, it is today home to an army of historical interpreters, museum exhibits, and the longest ongoing archaeological excavation in North America.

“They started 53 years ago,” explains Dr. Lynn Evans, the head of the excavation, as she stands above her team’s excavation units on a hot, sunny June day. The units lie in an open lot covered with patchy grass in the middle of the reconstructed fort. Columns of crimson-uniformed, musket-toting interpreters and masses of t-shirt-clad tourists wielding cameras and water bottles buzz along paths around her crew members as they scrape layers of light brown earth away from the wooden remnants of a building foundation. They pass the recovered soil through nearby water screens to sift out any artifacts it might conceal. Even the tiniest finds are important. “When they started, a lot of this wasn’t here,” she adds, speaking of the many buildings contained within the fort’s wooden palisade walls, “All of our reconstructions inside the walls are based on what historic maps we have and on our archaeological findings.”

Dr. Evans serves as the curator of archaeology for Mackinac State Historic Parks, the government organization responsible for maintaining, researching, and interpreting Michilimackinac and several other historic sites in the Straits region. She first came to the fort in 1989 as a seasonal archaeologist, much like those working under her supervision today. She was named curator in 1996. Since then, she has picked up the work of her predecessors and continued to excavate the fort, every year adding more details to its already-lengthy story. “We estimate that we’re about two-thirds of the way there,” she says, “When they first started back in 1959, they mapped out the whole site and marked out a grid system. That way we know exactly where we’ve been and what we need to do next.”

Currently, her team is working to uncover what remains of a structure known as the Southeast Rowhouse, a fur-traders’ residence near the southeast corner of the fort grounds. While nothing remains of the building above-ground, the story underneath is much more telling. Lines of dark wood and stained soil mark where walls and foundations were once anchored in the earth, and a variety of artifacts, including shoe buckles, buttons, a folding pocketknife, and a brass ring have come to light. “We’ve been finding a lot of bones, from their food, as well as nails, window glass, and broken pieces of ceramic,” she continues, “We find something almost every time we throw dirt on the screen. It’s really helping us piece together what the lives of the people who lived in this building would have looked like.”

Above and below: MSHP archaeologists excavate the Southeast Rowhouse. The rowhouse project is the latest step in the organization’s 53-year excavation at the site.

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Fort Michilimackinac was home to several rowhouses, both within and without its walls. These structures, long rectangular buildings divided by interior walls into multiple living quarters, were home to much of the fort’s civilian population, primarily French-Canadian fur traders. “They were a lot like modern condominiums,” she says, “The traders and their families each occupied one unit of the building. It was efficient housing.”

The Southeast Rowhouse has played host to archaeologists periodically for the last 35 years. “They started with the first sections in the 1970s, then we came back and did the middle section in the 1990s, and now we’re back to finish this last section.” Her team began work on the final partition of the rowhouse in 2007, and for five years now have been steadily descending through layers of historical material.

“Our methods have changed and improved over the years. It’s incredible how a change in technology can alter the way we look at our findings. When we switched from dry screens to the water screens you see them using here, we started to find much smaller, finer artifacts than we ever did before. We found very small bone fragments, for example, that really changed how we understood the diet of the people who lived here.”

“We know from our historical maps that a French-Canadian trader named Charles Gonneville lived in this section first, and that later an English trader moved in, though we don’t know what his name was. Beyond that, though, the historical record doesn’t tell us much about who lived here or what the building was like. We know it was very rare for an English trader to live inside the fort walls, so we’re curious to see how the material culture from his partition of the rowhouse differs from his French-Canadian neighbors.”

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View of reconstructed Fort Michilimackinac. Greg Grossmeier, Wikimedia Commons.

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It was these traders, regardless of their nationality, that represent the entire reason for the fort’s existence. From the passage of the first European, French explorer Jean Nicolet in 1634, through the entire colonial period, the Straits of Mackinac were a crossroads for the North American fur trade. As the meeting point between Lake Michigan in the west and Lake Huron in the east, the site that would later house Michilimackinac was used by the French to trade furs with Native Americans. As the North American fur trade grew into a lucrative international endeavor through the 17th century, control of this region became increasingly important to the continued prosperity of France’s New World colonies, leading to the founding of Fort de Buade in 1683. This fort, built on the north shore of the Straits of Mackinac near the present day city of St. Ignace, Michigan, was established to guard the region from incursions by British traders and military forces. It was abandoned in 1701 when French commander Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac determined that a more strategic point existed farther south which, if occupied, would close the whole of the upper Great Lakes to British expansion.

“This place, this region, is the whole reason Detroit exists,” explains Craig Wilson, a museum historian with Mackinac State Historic Parks. “Eventually, the fur trade was so profitable that another fort was necessary, so the French military came back to the Straits in 1715 and built this one on the south shore.” France controlled Michilimackinac and the Straits until 1761, when their defeat in the French and Indian War, and the global-scale Seven Years’ War from which it originated, resulted in the region being turned over to the control of the British crown. “The French traders were allowed to stay, so long as they swore loyalty to England, which most of them did,” Mr. Wilson said, “They were so far removed from the centers of power that many of them felt no real attachment to either government. They wanted to keep living here as they had been, trading with the Native Americans and selling their furs; it didn’t much matter to them which king controlled the land.”

British rule brought with it an influx of British traders to the region who primarily took up residence in rowhouses, built much like the Southeast Rowhouse, outside the fort walls. During its occupancy, the fort’s garrison provided troops to participate in campaigns against Native Americans in the Midwest. In 1763 it fell briefly to a Native American ambush connected with Pontiac’s Uprising, one of the last Native American conflicts against Great Britain. The British regained the fort and held it until 1781, when they abandoned it during the American Revolution to seek the more defensible position afforded by nearby Mackinac Island. Everything that could not be moved from the mainland was burned, and Michilimackinac would remain unoccupied until the middle of the twentieth century.

“Wherever possible, we try to incorporate the original remains into our reconstructions and showcase the artifacts we uncover,” Phil Porter, the Director of Mackinac State Historic Parks says, “It shows people that everything we have here is authentic, that it’s all based on archaeology. It’s more than just a reconstruction; this is where these people and buildings and events that we show them in our exhibits really were. It makes it real for them.”

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Above and below: Artifacts uncovered during MSHP’s excavation on display in one of the Michilimackinac exhibits.

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His words are being put into practice even now, as construction crews work to build a reconstruction of another rowhouse (see images below) across the path from Dr. Evans and her archaeologists. The South Southwest Rowhouse was first excavated from 1963 until 1968, with work being completed in another round of excavations from 1998 to 2007. Today it is being rebuilt according to the building dimensions and layout revealed through those excavations and will incorporate the fort’s most substantial ruin, a near-three hundred-year-old stone fireplace. “We believe the British tore this building down early on when they were making the move to Mackinac Island,” Dr. Evans says, lifting the tarp that shrouds the fireplace and revealing a grey stone feature. The tarp protects it from the elements while construction is under way. “They moved on to the other buildings, leaving this fireplace standing. During that time, it’s probable that the wind blew a sand dune over it, concealing it from the soldiers when they returned to burn and destroy everything they couldn’t take with them.”

“This new building will give our visitors a much better sense of what life was like here at Michilimackinac,” Dr. Evans continues, “This fort, when it was active, was a very busy, crowded place, and by adding this to our other buildings, we’ll be able to give our visitors a truer sense of how that felt. It will let us show them a more accurate picture of what the fort really was like.”

Beyond the aesthetic and physical improvements, the new building will afford the fort a new venue for exhibits. “We’ve done a good job with interpreting the British experience here at Michilimackinac,” Mr. Wilson says, “and now with our new building and the additional exhibit space it allows us, we’ll be able to tell the story of the French soldiers and traders who spent their lives here, as well.” The reconstructed rowhouse is to open by June 2, 2013, in time for the 250th anniversary of the Native American attack on the fort.

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Dr. Lynn Evans in front of the under-construction South Southwest Rowhouse. Set to be complete in June 2013, the building will be based on the archaeological evidence uncovered by Dr. Evans’s team. 

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53 years of continuous archaeology has led to the substantial historical center that Colonial Michilimackinac is today, interpreting the history of the Straits of Mackinac for thousands of visitors every year through exhibits, interpretive programs, and the sheer scale of the site. The experience of passing through a palisade wall and into a complex of hand-hewn wood buildings and watchtowers, the air heavy with the aroma of bread baking in an outdoor stone oven, the heavy tromp of marching feet, and the report of two hundred year-old firearms reaches visitors on a level beyond the intellectual. None of that would exist were it not for the long, slow, painstaking process of archaeological excavation. Archaeology allows places like Michilimackinac to tell their stories in unparalleled detail, detail that adds a level of historical reality to their structures and demonstrations that could be achieved by no other means.

“Archaeology is a process,” Dr. Evans explains as we close our interview, “It’s easy to look around at all these buildings and go through the exhibits in the fort and think of it all as set in stone. That this is Michilimackinac, this is exactly what it was like in the past. But really this is just what we know right now. As we continue to excavate and study this really rich site, our understanding changes, it evolves.”

“The past is like a giant jigsaw puzzle,” she goes on, “and we’ll never have all the pieces, but the more pieces we have, the more the puzzle fits together and the clearer the picture of what we’re studying becomes.” It is this process of continual discovery that allows for the creation of cultural and historical education centers like Michilimackinac, and as Dr. Evans kneels back down to join her crew members in the excavation units, trowel in hand, it becomes clear that even after a place like this has been studied for decades, it still has its share of details to add and new stories to tell.

For up-to-date information about the continuing archaeology at Fort Michilimackinac, visit www.mackinacparks.com.

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Cover Photo, Top Left: View of the reconstructed Fort Michilimackinac. Greg Grossmeier, Wikimedia Commons.

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James Dau received his undergraduate degree in anthropology from Michigan Technological University, and has worked on sites of industrial heritage in both Michigan and New York.  Now a writer, he seeks to raise public awareness of archaeological discoveries across the world.  When he’s not writing, he’s busy exploring wherever he happens to be.