Colonial Michilimackinac Artifacts - Mackinac State Historic Parks | Mackinac State Historic Parks

Colonial Michilimackinac Artifacts

Active archaeology has been taking place at Colonial Michilimackinac every year since 1959, making it one of the longest ongoing archaeological digs in the nation. Over a million artifacts have been recovered, covering all walks of life. Click on the images for a larger version.

A Tale of Two Diets

Food remains, especially animal bones, are the most common item found while excavating at Michilimackinac. Everyone ate fish – it was plentiful, readily available and delicious! Beyond that the French and British had different diets. The French, many whom had married into nearby Indian families, ate locally available foods, such as deer, waterfowl and berries. The British tried to maintain their traditional diet as best they could. They ate a lot of imported salted meat and raised some farm animals.

This whitefish skeleton was found at the bottom of a refuse pit in the southwest corner of the fort. MS.2.10451.11





This chicken egg was found in a privy used by Lieutenant George Clowes and other officers living in the southeast rowhouse to guard the powder magazine in the 1770s. MS2.7358.18




Crosses in the Sand

Missionaries were the first Europeans to live in the Straits of Mackinac region. The Roman Catholic faith was an integral part of daily life for French inhabitants of Michilimackinac throughout its history.

Jesuit missionaries encouraged Native Americans to learn Bible verses and sections of catechism with rewards of beads, rings and other tokens. Early Jesuit rings were cast and had religious symbols. Over the course of the eighteenth century these brass rings lost their religious symbolism and became cheaply made trade items. The ring faces shown are examples of these later designs. The heart with arrows probably comes from Sacred Heart designs. The “LV” may come from an early L-heart design representing devotion to Louis, king of France or Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order. The “IXXI” design appears to have evolved from a double M design, for Mater Misericordia, Mother of Mercy. MS2.58.9, MS2.1217.2, MS2.1655.19

Brass religious medallions had a personal, rather than trade meaning. Medals depicting many saints have been found at Michilimackinac. This medal shows Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits. Jesuit missionaries were a vital part of the community. The letters surrounding Ignatius are “S IGAC FVI DA SOC” for “Saint Ignatius founder of the Society.” Saint Ignatius is shown holding a tablet with the letters “AD MAIO.” These are the first letters of “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, which means to the greater glory of God, a Jesuit motto. The Virgin Mary is pictured on the reverse side. MS2.1


Trade Goods

Lead seals were fastened onto bolts of cloth to indicate quality, taxes paid, origin or ownership. The rooster with three fleurs-de-lis was the symbol for cloth inspectors in Mazamet, France. The crocodile chained to the palm tree with letters “COL NE” was the symbol for Nice, France; the letters are the abbreviation for the Latin name for Nice. The other side of this seal is stamped “3 FILS” for triple-ply stockings. “CDI stamped between two leafy branches was the mark of the Compagnie des Indes, a maritime trade association. MS2.2247.2, MS2.12805.9, MS2.11396.26


“1 Bunch blue Beeds…20 Bunches Mock Garnetts…2 Bunches Beads…1 Bunch long blk beads…17 Bunches Barley Corn beads…1 Bunch Small white Beads…1 Bunch long white Beads…1 Bunch Small round Beads” – David McCrae accounts, Goods for one canoe for M. Landoise

Colorful glass beads of all kinds were popular trade items.  Most were manufactured in Venice. MS2.8765.38, MS2.9390.4, MS2.8474.4, MS2.10333.2


These rings, with glass stones, could have been used in the fur trade or worn by inhabitants of the fort. MS2.2588.02, MS2.3873.1, MS2.8916.17




Firearms on the Frontier

Guns were critical for survival on the Great Lakes frontier for hunting food and furs as well as defense. Gun parts are useful to archaeologists because they can help identify an area as French or British and military or civilian.

Eighteenth-century firearms operated with a flintlock firing mechanism, shown here. A small amount of powder was placed in the pan. A sharpened flint was held in the jaws of the cock. When the trigger was pulled, the cock flew forward and the flint hit the frizzen, a hardened piece of steel, creating sparks, which ignited the gunpowder. Some of the fire from the resulting explosion went through a small touchhole and into the barrel to the main powder charge and ammunition. MS2.3026.2, MS2.2980.3


French and British guns fired the same way, but were fitted with different styles of furnishings. The serpent sideplate was used on British trade guns for over one hundred years beginning around 1775. Sideplates function as washers securing the lockplate screws to the gun. MS2.4204.2



Some of the gun furniture was elaborately decorated, such as these escutcheons. The crowned escutcheon is from a French trade gun. The escutcheon with the human bust is probably English. MS2.885.9, MS2.2499.11




Military Buttons

The Clothing Warrant of 1768 specified that the buttons on British army coats bear the regimental number. Since we know when various regiments were stationed at Michilimackinac, their regimental buttons serve as excellent time markers.

The 60th regiment served from 1761-1763 and 1766 to 1772. The 10th served from 1772 to 1774. Styles varied between regiments and also within regiments, with officers’ buttons being more elaborate than those of enlisted men. MS2.1244.20, MS2.2457.6, MS2.2781.4




The 8th or King’s Regiment was the final regiment to serve at Michilimackinac, arriving in 1774 and moving the garrison to Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island between 1779 and 1781. These are some of the 8th button types found at the fort. Enlisted men’s buttons were pewter and either plain or had a rope or leafy border. Officers’ buttons had brass crowns. The most elaborate one shows the badge granted to the regiment by the King, as the King’s Regiment of Foot. In addition to the required 8, it shows the white horse of the Royal House of Hanover and the Crown and Garter with the Latin motto, “HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE,” which means “evil to him who thinks evil.” MS2.5755.1, MS2.11410.23, MS2.2007.5

A World of Ceramics

Ceramics are a favorite artifact type of archaeologists because their changing materials and styles can be dated.

Tin-glazed earthenware was produced across Western Europe and known as faience, delft or majolica, depending on its country of origin. The glaze contains lead and tin oxide, which creates an opaque white surface that can be painted. Tin-glazed earthenware is the most common type of ceramic excavated at Michilimackinac. MS2.1.0.567



The Chinese invented porcelain before 900 A.D. Porcelain was brought to Michilimackinac from China by way of France or England. In the eighteenth-century it occupied a status between tin-glazed earthenware and some of the specialty wares. Most of the Chinese porcelain at Michilimackinac is from tea services. MS2.2253.15



Creamware, a thin bodied, lead-glazed cream-colored earthenware was one of the major achievements in eighteenth-century English ceramic technology. It was developed by 1760 and was a major export item by 1770, making it an excellent time marker for the British period at Michilimackinac. MS2.2865, MS2.2869.6, MS2.3004.20



This teapot is the most unusual ceramic item recovered from Michilimackinac. A distinctive, unglazed, fine grained, red stoneware was developed in England in the late seventeenth century and produced in limited quantities for over one hundred years. The elaborate chinoiserie (a style imitating Chinese motifs) design was stamped onto the pot. It probably was manufactured in Leeds. MS2.2253.25



Coarse earthenware, fired at a low temperature and having little decoration, was the most utilitarian ceramic type at Michilimackinac. It was the cheapest ceramic and used in everyone’s kitchen for food preparation. The green glaze on this bowl is typical of French-Canadian pottery. MS2.2080.11



Anishnabeg Presence at Michilimackinac

The Anishnabeg (the Odawa and Ojibwe) continued to live at the Straits of Mackinac in the eighteenth century and continue to live there today.

Most fishing was done with nets, because that is the most efficient way to get a large catch. Lines and spears were sometimes used as well. This bone harpoon would have been on the end of a spear. Native Americans made most bone tools. Many French-Canadian traders married local native women. Their children, the métis people, learned skills (such as bone technology), languages and cultural traditions from both heritages. The métis became the backbone of the fur trade. MS2.11028.39


Bone artifacts such as this indicate the presence of Native American and métis women as wives, lovers, servants and slaves at Michilimackinac. The knowledge to make and use such a tool came from Anishnabeg culture. Native people were not allowed to live inside the fort without some connection to a French, Canadian or British inhabitant. MS2.10922.19



This cute little creature is either an otter or a beaver. Its tail, which would tell us, is broken off. Catlinite beaver effigies have been found at nearby Native American sites, but they are flat and much more stylized. MS2.6702.25




Making Do

Michilimackinac was cut off from the world by snow and ice for almost six months every year. When things broke, residents had to make do with what they had. The missing half of this cufflink was replaced with a hawk bell. MS2.120.4




Most bottles came to Michilimackinac containing wine, ale, rum, gin, brandy or other alcoholic beverages. Once there, however, they were reused to hold many kinds of liquids until they broke. The olive green bottles are British in origin, while the blue-green bottles came from the Continent. MS2.2891.11, MS2.4076.2, MS2.4627.8



“All the tobacco pipe heads, which the common people in Canada use, are made of this stone, and ornamented in different ways. A great part of the gentry likewise use them, especially when they are on a journey. The Indians have employed this stone for the same purpose for several ages past, and have taught it to the Europeans.”” – Peter Kalm, Swedish naturalist traveling through Quebec in 1749. The three-part form of bowl, neck and base is called a Micmac pipe, after the Micmac people, an Algonquin group in the Canadian Maritime provinces, who were using these pipes at the time of European contact. They are smoked by inserting a reed stem into the base. A second hole in the base is used to hang the pipe around the neck when not in use. MS2.2153.4, MS2.2273

The Modern World at Michilimackinac

New ideas flowed into Michilimackinac along with British and European fashions and trade goods.

The eighteenth century was the Age of Enlightenment, and the spirit of scientific inquiry was common among the educated class. A telescope also had practical uses for navigation and watching for approaching canoe brigades and other vessels. MS2.1556.10




Although elegant watches existed in the eighteenth century, a pocket sundial was more practical for the traveler in the days before standardized time zones. MS2.2846.3




Surgeon’s mates Daniel Morison and David Mitchell were the best-trained medical professionals at Michilimackinac. Most healing would have been done by women relying on herbal knowledge passed down through generations. This bone syringe is a sign of the increasingly scientific treatment of medical problems. MS2.6143.1



By The Kings Royal Patent Granted To Robt. Turlington For His Invented Balsom of Life.  London  Jany. 26, 1754 – molded inscription on bottle

Robert Turlington patented a formula to cure “stone, gravel, cholick, and inward weakness” in 1744. The ingredients were: “storax, coriander seeds, aloes, fennell, mastick, cardamums, frankinsence, aniseeds, benjamin, angilica, gum elemy, cinnamon, guiacum, cloves, myrrh, nuttmeggs, araback, winter bark, perue, nettle seeds, tolue, juniper, safron, mace, oyle, Saint john wort, marsh mallows and rectifying spirits.” Despite his patent, Turlington was frequently imitated and this may be a counterfeit bottle. MS2.2704.2

Penknives, originally used to sharpen quill pens, suggest a literate owner. In addition to the fancy floral design, tiny traces of red and gold paint are visible on the handle of this one. It must have been a very showy accessory for someone at Michilimackinac. MS2.69.6




This seal was used with sealing wax to close correspondence to ensure confidentiality before gummed envelopes. Seals also were used on official documents. Because literacy was rare, artifacts that indicate the ability to write, such as this letter seal, signify high status residents of the houses where they are found. The handle is brass and the intaglio is glass. MS2.11441.36



This letter seal may have been discarded because the glass intaglio is cracked. This seal pivots in its holder, unlike the fixed seal shown previously. MS2.4893.5




MS2.5109.3This is part of a wax seal that once closed a letter. It was found in the military latrine.  We don’t know who “JG” was. MS2.5034.30




At least one person at Michilimackinac did metal engraving for decoration and personalization. In addition to the letters you can see on this practice scrap, there are a “G” and an “a” on the reverse side. MS2.5109.3




This silver cufflink was personalized with the initial “T.” Not a very expert job, uneven and not centered, the engraving appears to have been done on the frontier. MS2.751.4




Some artifacts raise more questions than they answer. Who was Jane? No Janes are listed in the Saint Anne’s parish register. Women rarely appear in other records of the fort except as someone’s wife or daughter, without their own first name. MS2.4266.1




Recreation at Michilimackinac

Life at Michilimackinac wasn’t all work; there was time for fun and relaxation too.

“Pierre à Calumet…All the tobacco pipe heads, which the common people in Canada use, are made of this stone, and ornamented in different ways. A great part of the gentry likewise use them, especially when they are on a journey. The Indians have employed this stone for the same purposes for several ages past, and have taught it to the Europeans.” Peter Kalm, Swedish naturalist traveling through Quebec in 1749

This pipe shows the great influence of the Roman Catholic church on the fur trade frontier. “IHS” is the first three letters of Jesus in Greek and, along with the cross, is a common Christian symbol. The British at Michilimackinac, nominally Anglican, greatly preferred to smoke clay pipes, so this stone pipe almost certainly is French-Canadian. MS2.11448.2

This funny-looking contraption is called a smoker’s companion or fire tongs. The tongs were used to pick up a coal from the fire and hold it in a pipe bowl to light the pipe. MS2. 2308.2




Catlinite occurs in southwestern Minnesota and was traded across the continent. It is easily carved. This gaming piece could have been made and used by anyone at Michilimackinac -British, French, métis or Native American- for a board game or game of chance. MS2.12096.27




A whizzer is a disc strung on thread, twisted and looped in the manner of a cat’s cradle, then pulled between the two hands to make a whizzing sound. Today they usually are made with buttons. Either children or bored soldiers may have used whizzers at Michilimackinac. Lead is easily worked; it is soft and has a low melting point. Lead balls, shot and cloth seals would have provided the raw material. MS2.2356.2



Structural Remains

In addition to artifacts used in daily life, we find pieces of the buildings in which they were used.

Although glass had to be imported from Europe, first by ship, then by canoe, the high number of windowpane fragments excavated shows that glass windows were common at Michilimackinac. MS2.3345.




 Blacksmiths at Michilimackinac could have made utilitarian hardware, such as this door handle and latch.  However, records indicate that most hardware was imported, since it was so expensive to import raw material.  The blacksmith spent most of his time repairing metal objects, especially guns. MS2.1



Every key was individually made in the eighteenth century. MS2.6703.33





House D of the Southeast Rowhouse

From 1989 through 1997 Mackinac State Historic Parks’ archaeologists excavated the site of the third unit of the Southeast Rowhouse, adjacent to the Solomon-Levy house.

The Southeast rowhouse was built in the 1730s. The family of Gabriel and Suzanne Bolon lived in this unit during the summer trading season in the 1730s and 1740s. The structure was rebuilt slightly larger in the 1760s and occupied by British foot soldiers until the completion of the soldiers’ barracks. Analysis of the artifacts and food remains suggest that Surgeon’s Mate David Mitchell and his wife, Elizabeth, lived here in the 1770’s. The house was demolished when the garrison moved to Fort Mackinac.

In a diary entry for February 8, 1771, Surgeon’s mate Daniel Morison recorded a fight “in the Billiard Room” that several officers witnessed. This billiard ball fragment probably was used at the same billiard table. MS2.11834.25




This medallion shows Jesus and his mother Mary. No other clay medallions have been found. Archaeologists found this medallion on the edge of the yard, so it may have belonged to someone who lived next door. MS2.11664.25




These Native American pot fragments came from the bottom layer of the site. The Anishnabeg have come to the Straits to fish every summer for hundreds of years. The pot was made and broken before the fort was built. MS2.11874.1




House 7 of the South Southwest Rowhouse

From 1998 to 2007 Mackinac State Historic Parks’ archaeologists excavated the easternmost unit of the South Southwest Rowhouse. The remainder of the rowhouse was excavated in the 1960s.

The original structure was built in the 1730s. A map drawn in 1749 indicates that a person named Des Riviere lived in this unit. This probably was Jean Noel Desrivieres, who held trade licenses for Michilimackinac from 1747 through 1750. The structure was rebuilt in the 1760s. This house was occupied by British foot soldiers for a time prior to completion of the soldiers’ barracks. Early analysis of the artifacts discovered suggests that French Canadian traders lived here in the late British era. The house appears to have been dismantled and moved to Mackinac Island around 1780.

 Almost anything still whole and useful was taken during the move to the island. A few almost intact items were found in the root cellar, such as this fork. MS2.13306.9





This large section of rosary has 57 small and four medium beads on the main circlet, plus five additional beads leading to the crucifix. A standard Dominican rosary has only 50 of the small beads. There are special rosaries which have additional beads, but we do not know what kind this is. MS2.12767.8



Several French trade gun parts, including these escutcheons, provide clues to this being a French trader’s house. MS2.12365.6, MS2.14494.2




This square bone gaming piece was found near the hearth. MS2.14327.10