Archaeology at Fort Mackinac – Three Blacksmith Shops

The third blacksmith shop is the building on the front left of the photo.

One of the “missing” buildings at Fort Mackinac is the blacksmith shop. Military records, maps, and even a photograph indicate that a series of three blacksmith shops was present just inside the north sally port for most of the fort’s military service.

 An archaeological project to search for their remains was undertaken as part of the centennial celebration of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission in 1995 and the bicentennial of the arrival of American troops in 1996. The excavations were carried out as University of South Florida [USF] field schools under the direction of Dr. Roger T. Grange, Jr. Ford Motor Company sponsored the project. Information for this post was drawn from Dr. Grange’s unpublished reports and Sheila Stewart’s USF master’s thesis on the third blacksmith shop.

 Although the services of a blacksmith would have been required during the construction of Fort Mackinac, the location of his shop is not known. Based on the dates and nationalities of the military buttons excavated during this project, it appears that the first shop near the sally port was built by the Americans in the late 1790s. The remains of the first shop, especially the forge base, were preserved well enough to determine the basic layout of the shop. In addition to making and repairing tools and hardware for the construction and maintenance of fort buildings, and keeping arms in good repair, the blacksmith would have provided services to the Indian Department. The services of a blacksmith were commonly included in treaties with Native American nations.

USF field school students excavate around the stone foundation of the second blacksmith shop.

 By 1828 the blacksmith shop was in poor condition, so it was dismantled and rebuilt in approximately the same location. Of the three shops, the second had the most substantial foundation, stone walls which are preserved below the fort’s sod today.

 The second blacksmith shop was destroyed by a major fire, which started in the nearby bakehouse, in 1858. The clearing of the fire rubble removed most of the artifacts and features from this era.

 Almost immediately after the fire, a third blacksmith shop was built in the same area. It sat on cornerstones, two of which survived, and its dimensions were partially determined archaeologically by the dripline in the gravel indicating the roofline. By analyzing artifact distribution and soil chemistry, Stewart was able to determine the shop layout, including the forge area, anvil mold, work area, and coal and metal storage areas. The artifacts from the third shop also reflect how the role of the blacksmith changed with the Industrial Revolution. By the 1870s the U.S. Army was using mass-produced weapons with interchangeable parts, so gun repair was no longer a major component of a military smith’s work. Hand-forged tools and hardware were replaced by cast iron and steel. Across the continent, not just in military garrisons, farrier work (shoeing horses) became the main task of blacksmiths. In 1875, this change led to a new blacksmith shop being built near the fort stables, which were located in what is now Marquette Park. The shop in the fort was used for storage for a few years but was dismantled by 1879.

Although this “spread eagle with shield” button design was used from 1854-1902, its back mark of HORSTMANN BROS & CO/PHILA dates it to 1859-1863, within the date range of the third shop.]

 Today there are no visible remains of the blacksmith shops within the walls of Fort Mackinac, but the stone foundations lie below the grass just outside the barracks restrooms. Stop and imagine the sights, sounds, and smells of the blacksmith the next time you visit. Fort Mackinac opens for the season on May 3, 2022.

A Closer Look at the Collections: Brass Saw

It’s time for another deep dive into the collection! Today Dr. Lynn Evans, Curator of Archaeology for Mackinac State Historic Parks, shows us a brass saw that would have possibly used by fur traders making stone items such as stone smoking pipes or other small items.

 This brass saw was originally recovered from the Southwest Rowhouse. Mackinac State Historic Parks will, in the near future, reconstruct a unit of the Southwest Rowhouse. For more information on archaeology at Mackinac State Historic Parks, click here. 

An image from the 1980s showing archaeological work at the Wood Quarters

Archaeology at Fort Mackinac – Officers’ Wood Quarters

An image from the 1980s showing archaeological work at the Wood Quarters

Archaeological excavation under the Officers’ Wood Quarters in 1986. 

One of the more unusual archaeological projects to take place at Fort Mackinac was an excavation that took place under a standing structure. When the Officers’ Wood Quarters was restored in 1986, the floorboards of the west room were removed and an archaeological excavation took place. Some excavation also took place outside the building during the restoration of the south porch that same summer. The excavation was carried out by a University of South Florida field school directed by Dr. Roger T. Grange, Jr. The resulting data was analyzed by Laura Dee Clifford for her master’s thesis, Excavations at the Officers’ Wooden Quarters at Fort Mackinac, Michigan. This blog post is based on her work.

Plan of Fort Mackinac drawn by Major Charles Gratiot in 1817. Credit: National Archives

 The main question the project was designed to answer was when and by whom was the Wood Quarters built? It first appears on a plan of the fort drawn in 1817 by Major Charles Gratiot.

 In addition to serving as an officers’ barracks, with three apartments, the building later housed the post hospital, a sutler’s store, laundresses’ quarters, a reading room and library, general storeroom, billiard room, and canteen. After the military period it was remodeled into an artist’s studio in the 1920s. It was restored back to its military appearance in 1933-34 and housed museum exhibits.

A button dating between 1812 and 1815 recovered at the Officers' Wood Quarters.

U.S. Infantry button that dated the construction of the Wood Quarters. 

 Clifford was able to answer the puzzle of the building’s origin through the presence of a United States Infantry button in the construction layer. The button dates from between 1812 and 1815. Since the British occupied Fort Mackinac throughout the War of 1812, this button could not have arrived at the fort until the Americans returned July 18, 1815. The Wood Quarters were present by the time Gratiot drew his map in 1817. Therefore, the building must have been built in 1816 by the Americans.

The Wood Quarters today. 

 After the 1986 restoration was complete, the west room was furnished as the 1880s billiard room. Like all the buildings inside Fort Mackinac it, is open to the public from early May through late October. In 2022, Fort Mackinac will open for the season on May 3.

A Closer Look at the Collections: Orvietan Lid

It’s time for another deep dive into the collection! Today Dr. Lynn Evans, Curator of Archaeology for Mackinac State Historic Parks, shows us an Orviétan Lid, which was a “cure-all” type concoction popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. The only other known archaeological example we know about is from Illinois.

 This orviétan lid was originally found during work in the Southwest Rowhouse, which was reconstructed in the early 1960s. The house was originally built in the 1730s and demolished in 1781 during the move to Mackinac Island. Mackinac State Historic Parks is currently in the planning stages to complete the reconstruction of that building in the space that is today occupied by the bread oven. You can learn more about archaeology at Mackinac State Historic Parks by clicking here.

What’s new for ’22?

As the calendar flips to the new year, Mackinac State Historic Parks staff are busy readying new tours, exhibits, publications, and more.

 2022 marks an important anniversary on Mackinac Island: 200 years since the accident that led to Dr. William Beaumont’s famous experiments. It was in 1822 that a young man named Alexis St. Martin was shot. Dr. Beaumont, the post surgeon at Fort Mackinac, saved his life. This terrible accident set Beaumont and St. Martin on a course of experimentation and discovery that remains crucial to medical science today. At the cost of St. Martin’s permanent injury, Beaumont unlocked the secrets of human digestion. To celebrate this anniversary, the Dr. Beaumont Museum inside the American Fur Co. Store has been completely remodeled, with a new exhibit detailing Beaumont’s experiments and the scientific process.

 “We are excited to update this exhibit as part of our bicentennial celebration of this important event in medical history,” said Steve Brisson, Mackinac State Historic Parks Director.

 As part of the bicentennial, the American Fur Co. Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum will receive an updated logo, and a special event will be held to thank those who helped support the new exhibit, especially Mackinac Associates. The American Fur Co. Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum will open for the 2022 season on June 4.

Up at Fort Mackinac, the Schoolhouse will be completely remodeled and reimagined into the Reading Room, as it would have been known in the 1880s. This immersive space will allow you to explore popular titles of the 1880s, read the latest newspaper or periodical, and get a better understanding of what it was like to be a soldier in the 1880s and why the U.S. Army felt it was a good idea to have reading rooms within its forts. The Reading Room is scheduled to open with the rest of Fort Mackinac, May 3. This exhibit has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom.

 “This exhibit will introduce our visitors to the immigrant experience in the U.S. Army of the late 19th century, army reforms, and education at Fort Mackinac,” Brisson said.

 Additionally at Fort Mackinac, daily programs and tours will highlight the changing face of Fort Mackinac, the role women played at the fort, Mackinac’s time as a national park, and a look at who exactly made up the army of the 1880s. The popular drill and rifle firing program, which has been removed from the schedule due to Covid concerns the past two years, will return, and guests can expect rifle and cannon firing demonstrations throughout the day. The Tea Room at Fort Mackinac, operated by Grand Hotel, will feature new menu items for the 2022 season, and, as always, will feature one of the most stunning views in Michigan. One way to make a visit to Fort Mackinac the most memorable is to fire the opening cannon salute.

 Elsewhere on Mackinac Island, the McGulpin House, which has been shuttered the past two seasons due to the Covid-19 pandemic, will reopen for the 2022 season from June 4-August 21. The McGulpin House is one of the oldest residential structures on the island, and an excellent and rare example of early French Canadian domestic architecture. Admission is included with a Fort Mackinac or Historic Downtown Mackinac ticket.

 At The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum, located in front of Fort Mackinac in Marquette Park, a new juried art exhibition will debut on the second floor – “Mackinac Journeys.” Every Mackinac journey is unique. From lifelong residents to the novice first-timer, the journey to, around, and from Mackinac is always memorable. The gallery will be on display from May 3 – October 9. Additionally, seven artists-in-residence will stay on Mackinac Island throughout the summer. Each artist will host a special, free workshop on the second Wednesday of their residency. Finally, the Kids’ Art Studio at The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum is scheduled to return for 2022.

 Special events at Fort Mackinac and Mackinac Island include the Fort2Fort Five Mile Challenge May 14, the annual Vintage Base Ball game July 23, special activities for July 4, special history evening programs including a guided tour of Historic Downtown Mackinac, a “Then and Now” program at Fort Mackinac, an evening exploring Fort Mackinac archaeological history, special nature and birdwatching tours, and meteor and full moon evenings at Fort Holmes. More information can be found at mackinacparks.com/events.

 Every year at Colonial Michilimackinac, in Mackinaw City, we take a deeper look into a year of the American Revolution. For 2022 we’re looking at 1779, as the revolution continued on. Special tours and programs will take place throughout the summer highlighting the year.

 One guest, every day, has the opportunity to fire all four black powder weapon Colonial Michilimackinac: the Short Land Musket, Wall Gun (a BIG musket), Coehorn Mortar, and, as the finale, the cannon. This program is available every evening after the fort closes for regular business May 4 -October 6.

Archaeology at Colonial Michilimackinac Mackinac State Historic Parks’ archaeology program will enter its 64th season in 2022. Work will continue in House E of the Southeast Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac. Archaeologists will be out daily (weather permitting) during the summer months. Guests will have the opportunity to see the most recent finds at Colonial Michilimackinac with a new “Recent Excavations” display inside the Colonial Michilimackinac Visitor’s Center.

 Special events at Colonial Michilimackinac include exhilarating “Fire at Night” programs, deep dives into Michilimackinac’s maritime history, a look at the unreconstructed buildings of Michilimackinac, a celebration of the King’s Birth-day on June 4, Movies by the Bridge, the ever-popular Fort Fright, and A Colonial Christmas.

 The ongoing restoration of Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse continues in 2022, as an oil house will be reconstructed on the property. The last few years have seen several gallery openings at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse – the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum, the Science and Technology Exhibit, and the Marshall Gallery on the extensively renovated second floor. Throughout the day guides will sound the Fog Signal Whistle and provide tours of the lighthouse tower.

 Over at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, the Adventure Tour will return to full operation for the 2022 season, including the climbing wall. Demonstrations of the sawpit and sawmill will take place throughout the day, in addition to a new “Farming at Mill Creek” program. This new program will explore 19th century farming at Mill Creek. Sowing, flailing, and grinding grain, cutting firewood, growing gardens, and tending livestock are just some of the activities that took place there from 1790-1840. Guests are encouraged to roll up their sleeves and take part in life beyond the sawmill at Mill Creek.

 New nature programs will also be added to the daily schedule, allowing guests to meet a naturalist at the picnic area for a 30-minute program that will feature something for all ages. Topics will vary and may include a guided nature walk, stories, and fun activities focused on plants and animals living at Historic Mill Creek.

 Four new publications will be released in 2022. A new souvenir book about Arch Rock, by park naturalist Kyle Bagnall, will be released to coincide with a new nature center slated to be constructed at Arch Rock. An addition to the Archaeological Completion Report Series, by James Dunnigan concerning the Michilimackinac suburbs, will be available later in 2022. Two new vignettes will also be published: one focusing on the Grenadiers’ Mutiny of 1780, by Chief Curator Craig Wilson; and the other on Mackinac Island’s historic base ball team, the Never Sweats, by former director Phil Porter.

 “We are grateful to be able to move forward with numerous new initiatives and upgrades this year,” Brisson said.

 Every museum store will feature new items inspired by the site they represent. The Official Mackinac Island State Park Store, inside the Mackinac Island State Park Visitor’s Center, will continue to have new items inspired by the historic and natural elements of Mackinac Island.

 Most major projects were funded, in part, by Mackinac Associates. Visit mackinacparks.com for a complete listing of updates and projects at Mackinac State Historic Parks. Fort Mackinac, the Biddle House, featuring the Mackinac Island Native American Museum, Benjamin Blacksmith Shop, and The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum open May 3, Colonial Michilimackinac May 4, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse May 5, and Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park May 6.

For the Reading Room exhibit at Fort Mackinac: “Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibit, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.”

A photo of a British halfpenny recovered during an archaeological dig at Colonial Michilimackinac

A Closer Look at the Collections: British Halfpenny

It’s time for another dive into our collections! An exciting project for Mackinac State Historic Parks in the coming years will be an addition to the Southwest Rowhouse inside Colonial Michilimackinac. An archaeological excavation was done of the site in the 1960s, and a number of interesting artifacts were recovered. In this video Dr. Lynn Evans, Curator of Archaeology for Mackinac State Historic Parks, gives us a little history on the site and shows us a British Halfpenny. Click this link for additional videos in the “A Closer Look at the Collections” series. 

Michilimackinac Archaeology 2021 Wrap-Up

Southeast root cellar. This image shows the cellar shortly before completion. Only a gray circular area of cultural deposit, probably a postmold, and remnants of the south wall remain. 

  The 2021 Michilimackinac field season came to a satisfying end in late August. After seven seasons of excavation, we have finally reached the bottom of the southeast root cellar! The cellar was first tentatively identified in 2015. Since that time remnants of the north, west and south walls have been exposed and excavated along with a wide variety of interesting artifacts. More cellar deposit and the east wall are still present in the east profile and extending into the area of the House D excavation where the cellar was identified, but not excavated.

Central cellar. The dark soil surrounded by lighter sand is the central cellar. Six posts are now visible along the eastern edge of the cellar, two on the south, three on the west, and one on the north.

  The central cellar, on the other hand, became better defined and shows no sign of ending. It continued to yield trade goods, such as hawk bells, and structural artifacts, such as a hinge.

  A second new square was opened in the north row of squares where we eventually expect to find evidence of the north wall of the house. Both squares opened this summer are now down to the rubble layer created by the 1781 demolition of the fort.

  The newest square yielded the most interesting artifact of the second half of the season, a clear, circular intaglio set with Masonic symbols on it. The square and compass surrounding the letter G are easy to see. The surrounding symbols are not as legible but appear to include a trowel on the left. The set is .42” in diameter and could be from a linked button or a ring.

  While the lodge at Mackinac (St. John’s #15) was not established until 1784 on Mackinac Island, many of the soldiers and traders at Michilimackinac were members of lodges in Detroit or further east. Known Masons at Michilimackinac include: Major Robert Rogers, Lt. John Christie, Captain John Vattas, Lt. Robert Brooks, Lt. George Clowes, Surgeon’s Mate David Mitchell, Felix Graham, Benjamin Lyon, Forrest Oakes, David Rankin, and Ezekiel Solomon.

Masonic intaglio from a linked button or ring.

  This list is a starting point for possible owners of the intaglio. It could be a clue to the “British trader” who owned the house or could have been lost by a guest of his. It is particularly interesting to note that three other residents of the southeast rowhouse were Masons, Lt. Clowes (House A/B), Ezekiel Solomon (House C), and David Mitchell (House D).

The site is packed and waiting for spring.

  The 2021 field season was sponsored by Mackinac Associates, and we thank them for their generous support.

Michilimackinac Archaeology 2021 Mid-Season Update

We have reached the halfway point of the 2021 archaeological field season at Michilimackinac and there is progress to report.

Door latch

  The southeast cellar seems to be showing signs of bottoming out. The soil in the southern portion is becoming very sandy with pebbles, like the glacial beach which lies under all of the fort. Some of the wood wall fragments have disappeared. Part of a door latch was found in this area. The northern part of the cellar is becoming somewhat sandier, but the wood planks continue, and it recently yielded a small, plain pewter button and a musket ball.

Pocketknife

  The east wall of the central cellar has become better defined with the burned tops of eight wood posts now exposed. The most interesting artifact of the summer (so far) came from the north edge of this cellar, an intact pocketknife. We hope that future research will help us date it or at least identify it as French or British in order to better understand the construction sequence of the cellars.

  Excavation of 1781 demolition continues further north. We expect to find remnants of the north wall of the house in this area. We have opened the first quad in what we expect to be the final row of squares for this project.

New Quad Opened Up

  The 2021 field season is sponsored by the Mackinac Associates, and we are grateful for their support. Follow MSHP’s social channels and this blog for updates on the rest of the season, or, better yet, come visit the site. We will be excavating every day, weather permitting, through August 21.

Michilimackinac Archaeology 2021 Has Begun

The archaeology crew at work on opening day.

  The 63rd archaeological field season at Michilimackinac got underway on June 1. This will be our 14th season on our current project, the excavation of House E of the Southeast Rowhouse. The rowhouse was built in the 1730s, rebuilt in the 1760s, and demolished in 1781 when the community moved to Mackinac Island. The house was always occupied by fur trading households, first the household of French Canadian trader Charles Gonneville, and later the household of an as-yet-unknown English trader.

  Despite not knowing his name, we have learned quite a bit about the English trader through the artifacts we have recovered. He supplemented the fish diet everyone ate with pigs and other domestic animals. He owned up-to-date ceramics, including styles developed in the 1770s. He was a snazzy dresser, with ornate buttons, buckles, and linked button fasteners. His trade goods likely included hawk bells and fishhooks.

  Although only half of the houses at Michilimackinac had a cellar, this house had two. We will excavate both of them this summer. At the very end of last season, we got a glimpse of the north wall trench of the house, and we hope to expose more of it this season.

  This house has had many surprises and we are excited to see what this season has in store. Interesting discoveries will be posted on MSHP’s social channels and this blog. Better yet, come visit us in person. We will be excavating every day through August 21 (weather permitting). This year the archaeological field season is sponsored by Mackinac Associates and we are grateful for their support.

Gun Parts from the South Southwest Rowhouse at Michilimackinac

Between 1998 and 2007 Mackinac State Historic Parks excavated the east end unit of the South Southwest Rowhouse, now the site of Hearthside Museum Store in the reconstructed rowhouse. From its construction in the 1730s through the time of the 1763 attack it was lived in by French Canadian fur traders, mostly members of the Desriviere family. When the British returned with more soldiers in 1764, this was one of the houses they rented for foot soldiers to live in before the barracks was built in 1769. It appears to have reverted to a French Canadian trading household in the 1770s, before being moved to Mackinac Island in 1780.

One of the most interesting categories of artifacts excavated at the house was gun parts. In part this was because of the quantity present. A total of sixty-one were recovered, thirty-one (whole or fragmentary) gun worms and thirty other gun parts. By way of comparison, House D of the Southeast Rowhouse, the Bolon-Mitchell house excavated from 1989 to 1997, yielded thirty-five total gun parts, ten of which were gun worms. We have found eleven gun parts, six gun worms and five other parts, in the first thirteen seasons of excavation at House E of the Southeast Rowhouse.

Two-eared gun worm.

Of the sixty-one gun parts from the South Southwest Rowhouse end unit, just over half (thirty-four, twenty-two gun worms and a dozen other parts) came from in and around the cellar, suggesting the parts were stored there.

1st model Long Land buttplate.

Two gun parts from British military weapons came from the cellar. The first was an unusual two-eared gun worm, the only one found during the project. The second was a buttplate from a first model Long Land Service Pattern musket. Both of these could have been used by foot soldiers of the 60th Regiment living in the house in the late 1760s.

Two other parts suggest that one of the traders living in the house was stockpiling gun parts, possibly for sale. The first is an unused wrist escutcheon from a c.1740 Type D fusil fin, a high quality French civilian gun. A wrist escutcheon serves as an anchor for the screw attaching the triggerguard to the stock of the gun. We can tell this one was never used because it was never drilled through. It is currently on display in the Treasures from the Sand exhibit at Colonial Michilimackinac. The second is a buttplate which cannot be further identified because it was deliberately wrapped in birchbark to protect it. It was found near the bottom of the cellar.

Wrist escutcheon from a c.1740.

Buttplate wrapped in birch bark.

Gun parts are just one artifact category that tells us more about what the inhabitants of the South Southwest Rowhouse were doing and where they were doing it. If you are interested in learning more, the final report on the project will be published later in 2021. In the meantime, there is more information on the project in the Archaeology pages of the Explore at Home section of mackinacparks.com.