Sunday, April 12, 2015

Fortifications in New France

For me, the most visually striking feature of any fort is its fortifications. When looking at the architecture of Fort St. Joseph I found myself drawn to this topic because of that. Fort St. Joseph didn't have cannons, there was a garrison that was stationed there but it’s not primarily a military fort. What then might these fortifications have looked like? I find myself more and more intrigued by this question over the semester because I have been finding links between fortifications and the functions of forts.

The design of French fortifications in the colony of New France we influenced heavily and modified from Sebastien Le Preste de Vauban, a French military engineer who designed fortifications in France and Europe. The designs was taken to the New World by French settlers and adapted by using local resources and landscapes such as the abundant lumber supply and proximity to rivers. One aspect his design was the bastion which are on the corners of fortifications and used for either artillery or for troops to fire upon the outside of the palisade or stockade wall. This defensive focus allows the fort to be easily defended by a smaller number of soldiers.

Part of the Plan for a Vauban Bastioned fortification. Notice the hexagonal shape.

In New France fortifications are constructed for a variety of reasons. Forts had the ability to be places of trade, religion, communication and government. These functions are not mutually exclusive, as we know Fort St. Joseph was a place of trade, military, as well as also being a mission. The French built their fortifications all around North America as a way to prevent land claims by the English. Once built these forts would have supported themselves through trade networks.

Perhaps the largest symbol of a fortification is the palisade wall. These are typically constructed around the perimeter of the fort. Evidence from sites like Fort Massac in Illinois and Fort Michilimackinac in Michigan help us get an idea of how palisades were constructed. Evidence supports palisades being made of wooden materials like cedar, and having two doors on opposite ends (North and South) of the palisade. The walls at Massac are said to be 20 feet high while Michilimackinac’s are 12 feet. These forts are also built more resembling a square showing another modification to Vauban’s design. This could have made it easier to build with fewer resources and time.
Detail map by a military engineer of Fort Massac in Illinois.

Since we have not found any evidence archaeologically about the fortifications of Fort St. Joseph we only have historical sources to use. While the account from Charlevoix detailing the ‘poor’ quality of the palisade at Fort St. Joseph has been challenged, there are other stories that support this idea. One of these is an Iroquois raid where their guns were able to be placed between gaps in the palisade wall. The lack of defense in this situation can support the idea that perhaps there were no bastions at Fort St. Joseph, and that individual logs in the palisade wall are actually spread apart.

I would love to leave the post with a detail map of the Fort or a picture, but it would be wrong. It is not that we can’t know what the Fort looked like, but archaeological evidence will really help us understand the fortifications of Fort St. Joseph. It most likely wasn’t pristine and picturesque like an artists’ rendition, but it would have had character just like the people who lived and traded there.

Joe Puntasecca

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Hands on history

For an anthropology minor such as myself, every anthropology class I have taken has been really insightful and very interesting. But this class, Anthropology in the Community, has really kicked my interest in anthropology into high gear. This class has presented a real hands on learning opportunity for me to learn more about a site that I had never heard of before: Fort St. Joseph. Even though I've taken Michigan history courses and anthropology classes that focused on this region, I can honestly say I had never come across this fort in my studies. Hearing that this site is trying to take its place in the history of the French traders as well as the state of Michigan itself and being able to be apart of that is an amazing opportunity.   
As my partner, Kyle has previously stated, our focus in the storehouses and the powder magazine and we have found evidence of documented goods that would have seemed  traveled through . Due to the fact that the site has little remains of any of the physical buildings that we believe once stood there, we have based much of our research on what we have seen at other forts around the state and its neighbors. These storehouses would have been very important considering the large volume of French traders and missionaries transporting trading goods such as food or even weaponry throughout the state(s). This sort of revenue not only could have benefited the fort but the travelers and small towns that were either nearby or were part of the fort.
By focusing on the other forts, we can hope to find patterns that hopefully paint a better picture of what this mysterious fort would have looked like and how it functioned. Also by hopefully finding these clues, we want to better educate others on how significant Fort St. Joseph could/would have been. Taking what we discover and displaying that information for people from all to see, will and has been a really fun experience. I hope to see a large turnout for when we contribute our project to the exhibit, and to hopefully give Fort St. Joseph a better shoutout.

            Jenna Combs

Monday, March 23, 2015

Native Architecture Near Fort St. Joseph

        Across the river from Ft St. Joseph in the 18th Century, there lived many members of the Potawatomi tribe in a large village. Unlike the French who occupied Fort St. Joseph, the Potawatomi did not construct their homes with intentions of permanence. To best exploit the abundant natural resources around them, the Potawatomi and their homes moved with the changing of seasons.
        My name is Kaitlin Burton and I am an undergraduate at Western Michigan University and I am studying Anthropology. I chose to research the architecture of the Potawatomi’s homes, as I am very interested how the raw materials of the region were ingeniously used by indigenous peoples to thrive in the Great Lakes region.
        When I initiated my research on the architecture of Potawatomi wigwams, I was overjoyed to discover a wealth of resources. I was excited, as in the archeological record, evidence of Great Lakes Native American structures is quite scarce. This scarcity exists as the structures were constructed to last temporarily for a season, in accordance with a seasonal lifestyle. Further, the moist climate of the Great Lakes region, with its frequent freezing and thawing, quickly rotted building materials. In addition to examining the archeological data, I have been studying historical accounts, literature, and consulting a member of the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi Tribe.
        I have learned that the Potawatomi constructed three general living structures: summer homes, winter homes, and harvesting camp homes. In my research, I am exploring the architecture of the summer and winter homes, and my classmate Lakenia is researching architecture of the harvesting camp homes.
        The homes constructed by the Potawatomi were easily portable and quite durable against the weather. To construct the framework of the homes, bent saplings were fastened together in accordance with the architecture of a summer or winter home. Variant on the season, different materials shielded the home from the weather. In the centers of the homes were large fireplaces, and the outskirts of the home consisted of areas designated for storage, sleeping, and many other uses.  When resources were abundant in the summer, multiple families would occupy a single house. In the winter, the homes were smaller as families separated into their immediate organizations, conserving resources. Assembling these structures took very little time, yet they provided exceptional protection from the wide gamut of weather patterns of West Michigan.
A wigwam in Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Michael Nassaney

        With my classmate Erika, I will continue exploring the materials used in homes at Ft St. Joseph and the surrounding Potawatomi villages, construction techniques, designated areas of the homes, as well as many more fascinating aspects of life in the home during the 18th century in Niles, MI.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Places of Rituals and Every Day Practices

            Before this semester, I didn’t even know that Fort St. Joseph existed, let alone that it had such a rich history filled with many cultures. This history has come to include the Niles community, WMU’s archaeological field school and now, Dr. Nassaney’s  Anthropology in the Community class, even if our impact is a small (but mighty) one.
            This semester, my partner, Lakenia Payne, and I have been focusing our research efforts towards uncovering the unknown world of the special purpose architecture of Fort St. Joseph. While this includes buildings like barns and churches, to name a few, we’ve also expanded it to include temporary structures like tents and smoking huts, even the sweat lodges of the local Native Americans.
            While Lakenia is tackling temporary structures, my particular area of study is focused on the special purpose building that were permanent. One of my main interests within this is to uncover more about the church that may or may not have been at Fort St. Joseph, which was founded originally as a Jesuit mission. Because there has been little evidence of a church, besides a few religious artifacts and vague references in texts, examples of architecture from neighboring forts, such as Fort Pontchartrain and Fort Michilimackinac, have been very helpful.
            Our goal is to obtain a better understanding about the rituals and every day practices of those who inhabited Fort St. Joseph. What places did these people inhabit when not in their homes?  What distinguished these special buildings from the other architecture in the fort? Did anything distinguish them?
              If you would like to know answers to these questions and those posed by classmates, well, I guess that you’re just going to have to come to this year’s open house to find out.

Adrienne Andrus

Friday, February 27, 2015

Storing an Empire: Commercial and Military Storage at Colonial New France Forts

            What is the primary purpose for establishing a fort? Most people would think that a fort’s major function is to serve as a launch point for military operations or a defensive structure to protect colonists from Native attacks. While the military and strategic value of eighteenth-century French forts cannot be denied, another important role that they served was as a trading post. The trading that took place in and around French forts in the western Great Lakes was critical for maintaining their alliances with Native peoples. Fort St. Joseph was no exception, and the trading that went on there was so important that during the 1690’s beaver glut it was one of only three forts that was kept open. As military commanders and governmental officials explained to the king, if Fort St. Joseph was closed the Miamis and Potawatomis might begin to trade with the British and leave the French alliance network.
            Key then to preserving the French’s foothold in the western Great Lakes was the storage facilities at forts. Keeping a well maintained storehouse for highly desirable trade goods kept Native peoples happy as they became ever increasingly savvy traders. My research so far has shown that these commercial storehouses were important buildings. The storehouse at Fort Pontchartrain (near present day Detroit) was constructed out of high quality oak in the piéce-sur-piéce (piece on piece) style. These buildings were also quite large, 37.5 feet long by 22 feet wide with walls being 8 feet tall; this at a time when most residential cabins were no larger than a medium sized bedroom. The sources I have consulted thus far have made it seem this was normal for these types of buildings. I have also begun to get an idea about the volume of goods that came through Fort St. Joseph. Consulting some of the documentary evidence has shown that Fort St. Joseph was a key commercial post, and that many goods passed through its storehouse.
Example of piéce-sur-piéce (

            In the upcoming weeks, my partner and I will continue to explore the storehouses at other forts in an effort to hypothesize about what the storehouse at Fort St. Joseph may have looked like. We will also examine what the powder magazine may have looked like at Fort St. Joseph by comparing it to other forts. I look forward to continuing this research. I am enjoying learning about Fort St. Joseph. I study Native-French interactions during the seventeenth and eighteenth-century, but this is my first time learning about Fort St. Joseph.

Kyle Moerchen

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Museum Explorers’ Night a Go!

            On Thursday, February 12, we celebrated the opening of the exhibit Evidence Found! at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum with a reception entitled Museum Explorers’ Night. Joseph Hines of Project Arts and Ideas did a fantastic job creating the display in collaboration with Dr. Michael Nassaney and the Museum. Dozens of curious spectators joined us that evening to discover the new displays. There were a number of events that night including a special children’s event, a lecture given by Dr. Michael Nassaney, and a really nice reception sponsored by the Michigan Society for Colonial Wars. Aaron Howard, my fellow Fort St. Joseph intern, and I were also in attendance promoting the Project, the Niles History Center, the Historic Chapin Mansion in Niles, and our annual summer camp program.
Attendees gaze at the many exciting aspects of the new exhibit.
            The exhibit, which officially opened Saturday February 14 and runs until August 31, highlights the importance of archaeology through various displays covering a number of different sites from all over the globe, including Fort St. Joseph. The exhibit looks great and turnout was better than expected with a wide variety of interested spectators. Artifacts from a wide range of time periods were on display as well as some of the tools used by archaeologists when conducting field excavations and laboratory work. There were also hands-on activities that explain key concepts of the discipline in ways relatable to people who might not have any prior knowledge of what archaeology is and how it works.
            There was also a children’s gameshow put together by the Kalamazoo Valley Museum staff which was  held in the auditorium. The audience had to choose who the real archaeologist was and who was fictional and made their choices based off of several factors including the archaeologists’ clothing, introductory statements from the four candidates, and questions from the audience.

Can you tell the difference between a real and fake archaeologist?

            The highlight of the evening was a lecture given by Dr. Michael Nassaney to a full audience in the auditorium of the museum. During the lecture, Dr.Nassaney explained to an eager audiencethe development of the new exhibit, the  goals of archaeology, what archaeologists have learned from some sites in southwest Michigan, and the important work at Fort St. Joseph that highlighted inferences about 18th century life at the fort.

            Overall it was a great event hosted by the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. Many people enjoyed the event which could not have been made possible without the hard work of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum staff, Joseph Hines, Dr. Michael Nassaney, the Michigan Society for Colonial Wars, and various others who contributed.

Dr. Michael Nassaney gives a talk on archaeology "in our own backyards."

John Cardinal
Fort St. Joseph Museum Intern

Friday, February 20, 2015

Architecture in 18th Century New France

Have you ever wondered what type of buildings were constructed in New France? What about the possible structures built at and around Fort St. Joseph? What construction techniques were used? How big were the buildings? What kinds of materials were used and where did they come from? And what types of artifacts are associated with architecture? Each of these questions are being explored right now by me and my classmates in Western Michigan University’s Anthropology in the Community class under the supervision of Dr. Michael Nassaney. My name is Erika Loveland. I am a first year graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at Western Michigan University. I first became interested in Fort St. Joseph when I attended its Archaeology Open House a few years ago and am excited that I have the opportunity to further my curiosity in Fort St. Joseph and New France.

Throughout this semester, our class will research different architectural topics related to the structures found in New France. These topics include fortifications and military architecture, Native American and French-styles of domestic structures, storage facilities, architectural artifacts, temporary structures, and special purpose buildings. My partner, Kaitlin Burton, and I will be focusing on Native American and French styles of domestic structures during the 18th century. Our research will aim to answer many of the questions that I posed above. Recently, I have been examining two common construction techniques that the French used to build domestic houses. In the poteaux en terre (posts in the ground) technique, posts are placed in the ground to anchor the structure. The poteaux sur sole (posts on sill) technique employs posts resting on a heavy squared piece of wood acting as the sill which is placed on a stone foundation. These two styles of construction are important because they represent elements of an older, traditional style of house originating in France.

Examples of the poteaux sur sole and poteaux en terre construction techniques, respectively. This figure is from Thurman, Melburn D. (1984). Building a House in 18th Century Ste. Genevieve. Ste. Genevieve, MO: Pendragon’s Press.

While our class has just began investigating, please stay tuned for more updates on the architecture of New France!


Erika Loveland