Thursday, October 3, 2013

Starting My Sabbatical Leave

Kaministiquia River from the observation deck at Fort William  
Historical Park
After a very successful field season at Fort St. Joseph (2013), I eagerly began my sabbatical leave research for the 2013-14 academic year. I have been invited by the University Press of Florida to write a comprehensive overview of the archaeology of the North American fur trade that will appear in my edited book series, The American Experience in Archaeological Perspective. Thus far, there have been 12 books published in the series (with two more in press). As you might guess, Fort St. Joseph will feature prominently in my book, which will explore the contributions of historical archaeology to the study of the fur trade and demonstrate how the fur trade contributes to a better understanding of the American experience.
Modern day "fur trader" in 
Hovland, Minnesota
I was approved for funding through a Support for Faculty Scholar Award from Western Michigan University for research travel to examine archaeological collections related to the fur trade in Minnesota. I am particularly interested in what we can learn about the fur trade from archaeology, including the types of goods that Natives acquired in the fur trade and how they were modified to reflect a Native worldview.

With those goals in mind, I spent a week visiting several sites and collections in Minnesota where there is ample evidence of the fur trade. Not only did French and English traders operate in this region of the western Great Lakes—fur trading continued well into the 19th century with the establishment of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company after their merger.
My trip began with a visit with two well-known fur trade archaeologists: Rob Mann, who is now teaching at St. Cloud State University and Doug Birk, a founder of the Minnesota Institute for Archaeology. Doug showed us around a site he had investigated in Little Falls in the Elk River Preserve that represented a wintering post occupied in the third quarter of the 18th century. I had read about Doug’s work, so it was great to get a guided tour of the actual site with the excavator. After being given full access to Doug’s library the following day, I made my way to Grand Portage along the northwest shore of Lake Superior.

The North West Company post along 
the Snake River, Pine City, Minnesota
Grand Portage is a 8.5 mile trail used by voyageurs to get around the 120 foot waterfalls on the Pigeon river, currently the boundary between the US and Canada. At the mouth of the river is the Grand Portage National Monument operated by the National Park Service. I met with the park historian and local archaeologist who gave me a tour of the reconstructed depot consisting of the Great Hall and attached kitchen. This was the place where the shareholders of the North West Company from Montreal would meet with their men in the field to insure smooth economic relations, quality furs, and a good profit. The interpretive center houses a wonderful collection of artifacts from the depot, as well as objects that have been recovered along the portage at posés, or resting places for voyageurs carrying heavy loads of furs and trade goods. At the end of the portage, trade goods would be loaded onto canoes in the Pigeon River to be taken further inland to Native villages and encampments. Of course, not all goods made it into the canoes, and some have been found lying at the bottom of the river. Doug Birk and his team recovered scores of 18th and 19th century objects through underwater archaeology in the 1970s. Image my astonishment when the park interpreter allowed me to inspect a perfectly preserved canoe paddle and fragments of a birch bark canoe that had been used by French voyageurs over 200 years ago!

The next day I went even further north into Canada to visit Fort William, billed as the world’s largest fur trading post. When the area of the Grand Portage became American territory in 1803, the North West Company decided to move its headquarters to the Kaministiquia River. Although the original site lies beneath a railroad yard, the Ontario Provincial government has reconstructed the fort and over 30 buildings some 9 miles upriver based on detailed maps and sketches. While somewhat controversial due to its placement, the Fort William Historical Park exposes thousands of tourists annually to the importance of the fur trade in Canadian history.
Reconstructed Great Hall at the Grand Portage Depot 
with the kitchen in the background.

The following day I made a foray into Wisconsin to the Yellow river, site of the 1802-05 Ojibway Indian/North West Company-XY Company fur-trading outpost known as the Forts Folle Avoine (French for “crazy oats” referring to the wild rice that was an important food resource in the region). The site is run by the Burnett County Historical Society and features a reconstruction, first-person interpretation, and a small museum with displays of materials from the 1970s excavations. John Sayer, a NWC partner who resided at the site, also established another post about 30 miles to the west along the Snake River now in Pine city, Minnesota. Archaeology had also been conducted there to expose a fortified settlement with a row house consisting of six rooms that housed voyageurs, a clerk, Sayer, and a storehouse. Interestingly, the rooms and associated materials show that Sayer, who was a share-holding representative of the NWC, was afforded different amenities than his subordinates. Information on the location, size, layout, and architecture of the fort were all derived from the archaeological remains and led to a reconstruction. Fur trade life and its role in the context of Native American and Euro-American interaction are currently being interpreted at the fort and in very modern, interactive, and comprehensive museum exhibits by the Minnesota Historical Society.
Reconstructed wigwam ay Forts Folle Avoine

All this travel and sight seeing invigorated me in preparation for continued research on the archaeology of the fur trade. If that was not enough, on September 27 I was given the Service-Learning Award from the WMU Office of Service-Learning in recognition of my work on Fort St. Joseph. Later that evening I accompanied Dorilee Schieble of the Fort St. Joseph Archaeology Advisory Committee to a banquet held by the Historical Society of Michigan (HSM) where we received an award for Fort St. Joseph’s archaeology education program. I’m thankful to Dorilee for preparing the nomination. The following day my colleagues José António Brandão, Tim Bober, and I discussed the history, public education, and archaeology of Fort St. Joseph to over 50 HSM members at their annual conference in Kalamazoo.

As you can see, the start of my sabbatical leave has been stupendous!

Michael S. Nassaney, Ph.D.
Professor of Anthropology
Principal Investigator
Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project

The 120' falls along the Pigeon River.

1 comment:

Bob Myers said...

Sounds wonderful! Congrats on the Historical Society of Michigan's State History Award for the FSJ project. I chaired the awards committee, but due to my involvement with FSJ left the room during the discussion and vote. The committee was very impressed with the nomination and entire project, so it sailed through for an award with absolutely no undue influence from me. Joe Brandao did a wonderful job with his keynote address at the State Conference, too. The whole FSJ project is receiving wonderful recognition, and it deserves every bit of it.