Land of Four Flags: An Archeological Dig in Southwestern Michigan Uncovers a Multinational Past. (Research in Michigan)

By Nassaney, Michael S.; Cremin, William | Michigan Academician, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Land of Four Flags: An Archeological Dig in Southwestern Michigan Uncovers a Multinational Past. (Research in Michigan)


Nassaney, Michael S., Cremin, William, Michigan Academician


In the southwest corner of Michigan is an area that was claimed first by France, then England, and finally Spain, before it came under American control in the early nineteenth century. The area earned the nickname "Land of Four Flags," the only such place in Michigan.

For almost a century, Fort St. Joseph served as a trading post, mission, and garrison for scores of people. On the banks of what was then called the River of the Miamis, possibly named for an Indian village located where Niles stands today, the Jesuits established a mission in about 1684. The river was later renamed the St. Joseph sometime after Louis XIV confirmed a grant of land for this Jesuit establishment in 1689. The mission soon became a trading post and garrison as well, serving as the center of the French and Indian fur trade in the region.

A visit to the settlement by Father Charlevoix in 1721 provides one of the few descriptions of the community, mentioning that the commandant's house was surrounded by a modest stockade. It is likely that the term "fort" became attached to the name of the settlement because of its appearance rather than forceful military activity. Miami and Potawatomi villages were located nearby, and Native Americans frequently visited the post.

Around 1761, the British military occupied the fort and English traders took over briefly. After Pontiac's Rebellion of 1763, vigorous commerce resumed at Fort St. Joseph between the French and English traders and the Indians. By the l770s the fort had fallen into a state of disrepair and in 1781 it fell to a looting raid of Spanish from St. Louis. Although the raid destroyed the post, French and English traders and American military personnel remained in the area for many years.

Local historians and collectors have gathered enough artifacts and documentation about this settlement to inspire some related activities. One is the annual rendezvous held near the fort site, where re-enactors take on the costumes and personas of historical figures associated with the fur trade in New France. In 1992, a nonprofit organization called Support the Fort (STF, Inc.) , and more recently the city of Niles, garnered resources with the goal of reconstructing the fort complex. But this was hampered by the fact that there were few physical descriptions of the fort and no map that detailed the size of the construction or the configuration and number of structures located within the fortifications. Even the precise location of the fort was unknown.

In 1997, STF, Inc. approached Western Michigan University for help. Professor Michael Nassaney and his students from the Department of Anthropology were called in, and thus began the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project.

Complicating the task of locating the fort site were two intervening historical developments: (1) the river was dammed in the late 19th century, partially flooding the suspected site; and (2) part of the site had been used as a sanitary landfill from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Thinking that the fort was likely on higher ground away from the river, Nassaney and coworkers used several techniques, including backhoe trenching and hand excavating of small shovel test pits, to evaluate the area. While the researchers were engaged in this activity, they were approached by an amateur collector who showed them some French and English artifacts that he had found using a metal detector along the river bank during a dry period earlier in the year when the river was lower. They included musket balls, gun parts (e.g. butt plates, trigger guards, flints), knife blades, cuff links, a lead bail seal, thimbles, and copper kettle fragments. The collector's finds led Nassaney straight to the site of the fort!

Test pits subsequently excavated in this locality resulted in the recovery of more colonial artifacts, including flints and other gun parts, a small knife blade, molten lead from the production of musket balls, glass trade beads, hand-wrought nails, window and bottle glass fragments, a yellow ceramic mug handle, and a lot of well preserved animal bones representing food scraps from colonial meals. …

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Land of Four Flags: An Archeological Dig in Southwestern Michigan Uncovers a Multinational Past. (Research in Michigan)
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