The Incredibly Cool Excavation of Colonial Michilimackinac

The summer of 2019 marked the 60th anniversary of the archeological excavation of Fort Michilimackinac, now called Colonial Michilimackinac. Six decades later, the site continues to reveal tantalizing treasures that offer glimpses of the dramas—both personal and global—that swirled around this once-upon-a-time hub of the North American fur trade.

A bone-numbing wind whistled across Lake Michigan’s icy surface, bulleted through the slats in the palisade walls of Fort Michilimackinac, then scattered like grapeshot through the chinks in the rowhouse of an affluent British trader. We don’t know the trader’s name, but we do know from a map made in 1765 of the fort, located near what is now Mackinaw City, that a British trader lived in this home that year, and there is enough other evidence to assume he continued in the home until 1780-81. We also don’t know for certain if the wind indeed blew hard as the following events unfolded. But if you’ve ever visited the Straits of Mackinac in late winter or early spring, you will agree that it is safe to say the wind howled across this wild and beautiful waterway where lakes Michigan and Huron meet between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas.

Reconstructed rowhouses: one belonged to Ezekiel Solomon, a Jewish German fur trader. The other was rented by Lt. Clowes, a British officer.

The British trader pulled his heavy capote—the signature traders’ coat made from a wool trading blanket—tighter, threw another log on his fire and resumed the job at hand: packing his household items for a move seven miles across the water to the new, more defensible fort on Mackinac Island. Given recent events in the Revolutionary War, Fort Michilimackinac, built in 1715 by French fur traders but ceded to the British in 1761 after the French and Indian War, had become too vulnerable. The entire fort population—a number that ballooned in the summer to 2,000, and included British soldiers, French, British, Scottish and Irish traders, as well as Ottawa, Chippewa and other Native Americans—were hastily relocating to Mackinac Island.

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Danger swirled from the south. The Spanish had sent out bands from their territories along the Mississippi to skirmish with companies sent from the fort. But the more immediate threat came from a company of American revolutionaries led by George Rogers Clark and aided by French and Native Americans, who were setting their sights up the Lake Michigan shore after taking Fort Vincennes in what is now Indiana.

The Water Gate--the fort's main entrance

Did the trader pack alone or did members of his household help? Was he, or were they, nervous? We know for certain only that at some point in the packing, someone dropped a small blue and white porcelain vessel imported from China, and it shattered. The pieces were swept or tossed into the root cellar to dispose of them. Also, perhaps that same day, someone let slip a Wedgwood, feather-edged creamware plate from their grasp and it broke into seven pieces, a mishap that most assuredly stung the trader. Imported from England, Josiah Wedgwood had designed the tableware for the British Queen Charlotte just 15 years before. Into the cellar the broken plate went as well.

By 1783, the fort was completely abandoned. British soldiers knocked down the buildings, smashing their chimneys, windows and doors, and then set fire to the entire place, ensuring no enemies could reuse it.

All that was left—bits and pieces of the lives of the French, British and Native Americans who had lived and traded in and around it for almost 70 years—was gradually covered by dirt and sand, blown in from that ever-present Straits wind.

Knife blade

A knife blade

In 1959, archaeologists began excavating the old fort—the site of which had been a part of what is now known as Mackinac State Historic Parks since 1904. The dig, one of the longest ongoing in the country, continues every summer at the fort—now known as Colonial Michilimackinac. Excavation sites have included the powder magazine and a number of other rowhouses, including several outside the palisades, once located where Colonial Michilimackinac’s Visitors Center is now tucked in the shadow of the Mackinac Bridge. The people who once lived and worked at Fort Michilimackinac left much behind—to date, more than a million artifacts have been excavated, including bits and whole pieces of cutlery, buttons, dishware sherds, jewelry, knives, guns and swords. As the dig continues, there will be many more.

On a pleasantly windless day last August, Colonial Michilimackinac is brimming with kids and adults weaving in and out of the 16 reconstructed buildings: the old Sainte Anne church, the powder magazine, the soldiers’ barracks, guardhouse and several rowhouses—a kind of 18th-century condominium lived in at the fort by both military personnel and traders. Children clamber up the wooden steps to look out the watchtowers, and skip across the old parade ground waiting, in anticipation for a musket demonstration. But the show with the biggest bang is when, once a day in the summer, a company of the King’s soldiers push and pull a brass-barreled cannon out of the fort’s water gate, ram it with gunpowder and light it. As the boom echoes off the nearby Mackinac Bridge, the soldiers cry in unison, “God save the King!”

Dr. Lynn Evans, curator of archeology for Mackinac State Historic Parks since 1996.

Dr. Lynn Evans, curator of archaeology for Mackinac State Historic Parks since 1996.

In the midst of it all, Dr. Lynn Evans, curator of archaeology for Mackinac State Historic Parks since 1996, is overseeing her summer team of three archaeologists as they painstakingly unearth the remains of what is labeled House E of the Southeast Rowhouse—the house where the British trader in the aforementioned scenario once lived. Evans and her teams have been working on the house site since 2008, and she estimates it will be another six years before it’s completely excavated.

Admittedly, House E’s archaeological site doesn’t look like much and visitors tend to pass it by. It amounts to a 625-square-foot pit that runs from 1 foot to 5 feet deep. Today, crew member Caitlin Lobl is on her knees in one corner of the pit using a mason’s trowel to shave tiny scoops of soil, a tenth-of-an-inch deep at a time, from a gridded 5-by-5-foot square.

Meanwhile, crew member Elizabeth Kerton-Schmit and field supervisor Alexandra Conell are working outside the pit, bent over a pair of tables topped with screens. Dirt they’d gathered earlier is spread on the screens and sprayed with garden hoses so the fine silt is pushed through the screen to the ground, leaving larger items. “We find a lot of animal bones, beads and lead shot,” Evans says. Indeed, as I am standing there—Eureka!—a lead shot surfaces on Conell’s screen.

Alex Conell in the house E site.

Cool as it is to know that a lead shot that rolled into a floor crack 250 years ago has just resurfaced, House E has yielded much greater treasures. Among the 2018 finds were a part of a table knife, blue and white porcelain sherds from a vessel exported from China, the handle of a sword, pieces of a Wedgwood creamware plate and the part of a dinner fork that Kerton-Schmit partially uncovered last year and had to wait a tantalizing year to finish excavating. Earlier in the summer of 2019, the site yielded a brooch, and the seventh and largest piece of the Wedgwood plate that had been partially uncovered and left sticking out of the root cellar since last year.

Watching Dr. Evans talk about the artifacts, her animated face framed today by two thin braids, one can imagine her mind reeling in reverse motion—the fragments of the blue and white porcelain vessel from China, for instance, floating through time to fit itself back together. Likewise, the seven pieces of the Wedgwood plate twisting and turning through a time tunnel until they meet as neatly as a puzzle. But imagining an artifact whole is only part of a greater puzzle for Dr. Evans. Its context, both historically and where it was found physically in the site, reveals more.

For instance, although the British trader’s actual identity remains a mystery, the fact that he owned Wedgwood and Chinese porcelain tells Evans that he was well-to-do. “He is getting the latest and the best and the most expensive objects,” she says, speaking of the past in present tense as she often does. “[His possessions] are his way of demonstrating to the community, ‘I have fashionable creamware from London. China from China. I am successful, I have made it. I am a Jones, keep up with me.’”

Pieces of a Wedgwood creamware plate

A successful trader, yes, and also a man who had much to lose in terms of his freedom, his finances and maybe even his life if the Americans attacked. All of which may explain the hastiness that led to the broken dishware—and then to the sherds in the cellar. “They are just chucking things in the cellar before they leave,” Evans says in a way that makes you believe she can almost see the sweat under the trader’s collar.

Likewise, door hinges, broken glass and charred timbers unearthed at House E and other parts of the fort speak to its dramatic end—British soldiers laying fiery waste to the entire wooden complex before they slipped off to the protection of Fort Mackinac.

Year by year, the pieces of a 250-year-old puzzle are fitting together. Yet, the earth beneath the fort is still rich with finds and the riddles they pose. While the British trader remains anonymous (“I have no hunches about who he was,” Evans says), another map of the fort made earlier, in 1749, provides the name of an earlier inhabitant of House E: a Frenchman named Charles Henri Desjardins de Rupallay de Gonneville.

Intact rosary found at the House E site in 2015.

Hundreds of the million-plus artifacts archaeologists have unearthed at Colonial Michilimackinac are displayed in an exhibit beneath one of the reconstructed row-houses called Treasures in the Sand. Take time out from the hubbub of the reenactments above ground to walk down the steps to this trove of artifacts that give a real-life look at how the people who once inhabited this fort lived. Among the displayed artifacts? The ivory-beaded rosary found at House E of the Southeast Rowhouse.

Certainly, an intact rosary found at the House E site in 2015 belonged to the period when this was the house of a French family who was obviously Catholic. But how could something so precious—made as it is from ivory beads and silver alloy links—be lost in such a small house? Was it dropped there in haste? Was someone trying to hide it?

“To find something intact is very unusual,” Evans says. “There’s got to be an intriguing story behind that and we’ll try to figure out what it was.”

But for now, that story must wait until digging resumes next spring … As summer ends, so will Chapter 60 of the Fort Michilimackinac dig. In a few weeks, Evans and her team will prepare the site for winter, spreading it with plastic sheeting topped with bales of straw, safely tucking in the treasures still buried there—pieces of history yet to be revealed.

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