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Bringing Fort St. Joseph to LIFE
Fort St. Joseph served as a hub of commercial, military and religious activity for local Native Americans and European colonial powers in the late 1600s and for most of the following century. What was everyday life like at this frontier outpost on the banks of the St. Joseph River? In 2023, we recognize 25 years of archaeology and research on the site, where with each new find we have a better understanding of who lived here and what they did.Download the 2023 Archaeology Poster
Archaeology is the study of human history by investigating the material remains, objects, and buildings we create and use.
Archaeology can make the history of a place and community tangible and connect us to people who once walked in the same places we step today. Traces of the past may often quite literally be buried beneath our feet, even in places where no evidence remains on the surface. While the landscape may transform and change, there can still be archaeological deposits intact, revealing the stories of those who lived there before us.
This poster features the stories of Fort St. Joseph, a vibrant hub of colonial and Native American activity that brought together settlers, soldiers and fur trappers, who interacted and traded with Potawatomi and Miami settlements in the region. Peace was not assured. Over 100 years, the French, British, supporters of Pontiac’s Rebellion and even the Spanish controlled the fort throughout its occupation until the United States claimed the territory and the fort was abandoned.
Neglected, nature slowly obscured any evidence of the once-lively trading post until it was nothing more than a shared memory. That is, until local efforts grew into a regional initiative to document this history.
The Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project developed as a community-based research organization determined to investigate the fort, train future archaeologists and promote local cultural heritage.
The Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project
Although the memory of the fort was shared among those in the Niles vicinity, the exact location was lost in the 200+ years since the fort was occupied. Dr. Joseph L. Peyser, an eminent scholar of New France, helped begin the present-day search by examining and translating French documents relating to the fort to find its location. In 1998, Western Michigan University (WMU) archaeologists were invited to conduct a survey in search of the fort. Shovel test pits yielded glass trade beads, hand-wrought nails, pottery made in France, numerous animal bones, and knives stamped with the names of French cutlers.
Now, WMU’s archaeological field school students gain hands-on experience at the site, learning surveying and excavation techniques, artifact processing, analysis and interpretation. Since no detailed diagram of the fort exists, these students are creating a map of Fort St. Joseph with each discovery. The students then share their work with the community through public archaeology programming. Site tours, summer camps, lectures and an annual Archaeology Open House event bring cultural tourism to Southwest Michigan and a sense of place to local residents.
The Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project is an ongoing partnership between the City of Niles, WMU, the local heritage group Support the Fort, Inc. and numerous other community groups who have led discovery efforts over the last 25 years.
With few records intact, our understanding of the lives of those in the community is led by what and where artifacts are found underground. Excavations have revealed thousands of religious, military and domestic artifacts and evidence of housing, including:
• Six stone fireplaces
• A deep pit feature (possibly a well) filled with baked clay
• Middens containing an array of artifacts & animal bone
• Two metal caches, one with more than 125 gun parts
• Thousands of glass trade beads
• Hand-wrought nails
• Knives stamped with the names of French cutlers
• Pottery made in France and England
• Numerous animal bones
Fort St. Joseph History Timeline
Native Americans occupy the Great Lakes region for thousands of years.
Potawatomi ancestors live in the St. Joseph River valley and, more broadly, western Great Lakes region. The river serves as an important travel corridor for tribes in the region.
Some Potawatomi communities relocate to northern Illinois and the Green Bay area of Wisconsin.
The Miami return to the St. Joseph River valley area with the Jesuit priest Father Jean Claude Allouez.
French King Louis XIV grants land along the River of the Miamis (St. Joseph River), indigenous territory, to Jesuit priests to encourage trade and missionary activities.
The French send soldiers to the area of the mission to expand the fur trade and solidify local relations, establishing Fort St. Joseph.
Members of the Potawatomi return to the Fort St. Joseph area and settle along the river.
The post consists of a small garrison, a blacksmith, an interpreter, a priest and up to fifteen households.
Buildings which occupy the post at this time may have resembled the sketch below, based on historical research.
The French and Indian War begins between the French and British-controlled colonies, both with support from various Native American Tribes.
The British gain control of Fort St. Joseph and garrison it with a small contingent of soldiers.
Pontiac’s Rebellion begins between a confederation of Native Americans and the British. Supporters of the Odawa leader Pontiac attack British posts in the Great Lakes region. They capture Fort St. Joseph and remove the British garrison. French traders continue to occupy the fort.
The French and Indian War ends, and peace negotiations begin.
The Revolutionary War begins between Britain and the American colonies.
The British briefly re-garrison the fort to supply allies in the Revolutionary War.
French traders occupying the post’s households are deported to Fort Michilimackinac in now-Northern Michigan.
A group backed by the Spanish raid the fort and claim it for Spain, then leave the site after one day. This marks the official end of the fort occupation.
The Revolutionary War ends, and the United States claims ownership of the region with the Treaty of Paris.
Artifact collectors search plowed fields in the area for evidence of the post and collect artifacts.
A commemorative boulder is dedicated at the fort’s approximate location.
The Women’s Progressive League erects a granite cross to replace a wooden cross at the assumed burial site of Father Allouez, the settlement’s founding Jesuit priest.
Western Michigan University (WMU) archaeologists are invited to conduct an archaeological survey, and the site of the fort is found after more than a century of searching!
Celebration of 25 years of archaeology and research at the site!
The Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project project has established two firm goals: Educate Students, and Public Outreach.
Educate Students (6th Grade --- Post-Graduate Level):
New archaeologists are trained at Fort St. Joseph. Enrolled in WMU's summer archaeology field school program, students receive instruction in research design, current methods and theories of historical archaeology, and the practical skills of excavation, recording, and laboratory procedures. Archaeological
training will specifically include an introduction into survey techniques and tools, excavation methods, as well as the processing, cataloging, and analysis of artifacts and feature data.
In addition, week-long Summer Camp programs are offered every summer geared for students in middle school and high school grades, and lifelong-learners. Campers learn and contribute by performing lab activities and excavations at the site alongside WMU archaeologists and field school students.
Making archaeology accessible to the public is a major goal of the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project. It is the community’s history that is being unearthed and interpreted by project researchers, and it is very important that they have the opportunity to learn about the project’s findings and even take part in the archaeological process. This culminates with the annual Archaeology Open House weekend each August. The general public is invited to explore the site and view recently discovered artifacts, see living history interpreters, ride in a replica birchbark canoe, see archaeologists in action, and more!
See a more in-depth timeline and study of human interactions in and around Fort St. Joseph, explore "People of the Post," booklet number 4 in the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project series.
To Curate means to select and organize objects, artifacts or artistic works for presentation in something, such as an exhibit, and to care for such items.
Carefully documenting and excavating artifacts is only the first step in a successful archaeology project. Artifact collection at Fort St. Joseph began when thousands of objects from the vicinity of the fort gathered by local historians were donated to the area museum, now part of the Niles History Center (NHC). Those items and the artifacts recovered in recent excavations are curated and exhibited at the NHC.
The Project and the NHC created the Fort St. Joseph Curatorial Fellowship to prepare and preserve this collection for future research, interpretation, and education. The goals of the fellowship are to identify common preservation challenges and best curation practices; address problems with the collection; create a sustainable collection management plan; perform collection-based research; and work towards making the collection more accessible to scholars and the public. Currently, the curatorial fellow is rehousing and reorganizing materials while performing an extensive inventory of the collection with the aim to preserve the past for the future.
Artifacts give us clues about how people lived, and what they valued
Finds from the Fort
Excavators have uncovered hundreds of ceramic fragments (called sherds), from plates, platters, cups and bowls made in France, England and elsewhere. These faience sherds are refined, tinglazed earthenware, generally used for tableware and are evidence of consumer choice in the eighteenth century.
Mouth Harp and Game Pieces
Humans living on the frontier, engaging in battle or just passing through the area liked to have fun, too. To pass the time, occupants played mouth harps (left), small iron or brass musical instruments. They placed the instrument against their teeth and strummed the thin reed. They also made gaming pieces with small bone or antler discs. These two pieces (right) are smooth on one side and decorated on the other, resembling a die or domino.
Small lead seals marked European merchandise, especially textiles, with information about the origins, producers, and distributors of goods in the fur trade. Those recovered from Fort St. Joseph indicate that most of the cloth came from France, with lesser amounts from England. This lead seal is stamped “B Foraine de Lille,” meaning that the cloth that this seal was attached to was inspected and taxed in Lille, France, before it was shipped to the New World.
Musket Butt Plate
Several gun parts have been found at the fort, including this copper alloy butt plate, a mideighteenth century design that would fasten to an English trade gun. The tang features a bow, arrow and quiver design, and the plate has 119 hash marks.
More than a dozen complete religious medallions are attributed to Fort St. Joseph, including two that have been recovered in excavations. These medallions were often casts of Catholic saints and religious symbols, reflecting the owner’s personality and patron saint. This religious medallion is a reproduction of one found at the fort. It is used to raise funds to support the investigation and interpretation of Fort St. Joseph.
Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project
Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project educational resources
Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project student blog
Michigan Archaeology Month
Michigan State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO)
Michigan SHPO, Archaeology Program
National Park Service, Archaeology Laws
National Historic Preservation Act of 1966
Niles History Center
Support the Fort, Inc.
The French and Indian War in Michigan
Western Michigan University Institute for Intercultural and Anthropological Studies
Fort St. Joseph was considered "lost" until just a few years ago. Every year, new information is shared about how people lived, worked, cared for themselves, and traded with one another. The Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project continues as a community-based research organization determined to investigate the fort, train future archaeologists and promote local cultural heritage.