Michilimackinac Unreconstructed

All the of the buildings you see at Michilimackinac today are based on archaeological excavations, but not every structure that has been excavated has been reconstructed. Join Curator of Archaeology Dr. Lynn Evans for an evening tour to learn about these locations and what they tell us about life on the fur trade frontier.

Admission by donation. Entrance is off Straits Avenue. #thisismackinac

Underground Fort Mackinac

Fort Mackinac saw many changes over its 115-year history. All the buildings you see in the fort today were built by soldiers, but there were many other buildings that did not survive. Join Curator of Archaeology Lynn Evans for an evening walking tour to explore the archaeological side of Fort Mackinac history. This is a free event; donations welcome. Meet at the Fort Mackinac Avenue of Flags. #thisismackinac

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 Grange’s unpublished reports and Sheila Stewart’s USF master’s thesis on the third blacksmith shop.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.

Mackinaw City’s Petersen Center

While experiencing the cold of winter in Michigan, it’s easy to think of the Straits of Mackinac in warm weather and summer fun. However, you might not realize that there is still plenty happening during the off-season at Mackinac State Historic Parks (MSHP). During the summer and fall, many staff work out of the 1859 Post Hospital on Mackinac Island or elsewhere in the MSHP park system. In the winter, office staff return to Mackinaw City to the Dr. Eugene and Marian Petersen Center. This tradition has its own history that reflects the ever-changing needs of the state parks at Mackinac. 

The house purchased by the commission in the 1990s that served as a collections office.

The house at 207 W Sinclair which served as office for collections staff.

 Starting in 1958, the park began to work in a form much more recognizable to today. Much of the behind-the-scenes work was spread out, with the museum’s operations at various locations around the greater Lansing area during the winter. The park’s collections were split up, with the archaeological collections being housed in Lansing and the historic collection being kept in a series of buildings on Mackinac Island. The permanent staff was much smaller during those times. As the 1970s and ‘80s rolled in, the park had to make several expansions, most notably in the areas of historical conservation, education, and marketing. This required more office space. In 1988 the park constructed a housing unit on West Central Avenue in Mackinaw City for seasonal employee housing; this also doubled as winter offices for much of the staff. Despite having a building for winter offices, the park’s team were also spread out amongst the Colonial Michilimackinac Visitor’s Center and Mill Creek Service Center. In the mid-1990s, the park acquired a house and old motel behind Michilimackinac on West Sinclair Avenue, which would initially serve as an office for the collections staff of the park. 

A photo of the Petersen Center being expanded by adding the former housing unit from Central Avenue.

The Petersen Center during its initial expansion in 1998.

A picture of construction of an addition to the Petersen Center in Mackinaw City.

Expansion of the Petersen Center in 2001.

 This motel would be the beginning of a long-term project to centralize MSHP’s offices, library, and collections, as much of that was still located in Lansing. In 1998, the office/housing building on Central Avenue was moved to West Sinclair Avenue and attached to the house. A further renovation was completed in 2001, adding a two-story addition to the building. This expansion would create enough space for the archaeological collection, library, and conservation lab to be moved from Lansing to the new office building. These changes also allowed for new office spaces for the park’s interpretation, education, collections, and archaeological staff. This building was dedicated as the Dr. Eugene and Marian Petersen Center for Archaeology and History. Dr. Eugene Petersen was director of Historic Projects and later Park Director from 1958 to 1985. His wife, Marian, ran the office of the park. In May of 2019, the park renamed the research library after Dr. Keith Widder, in honor of his long service and contributions to MSHP. 

A board table and chairs in the Commission Meeting Room in the Petersen Center, Mackinaw City.

Commission Meeting Room, Petersen Center.

 The latest addition to the Petersen Center was in 2020, when the west side of the building was expanded to accommodate a new meeting room for the Mackinac Island State Park Commission. These changes allowed for a much more centralized, organized,

The Keith R. Widder Library at the Petersen Center.

The Keith R. Widder Library at the Petersen Center.

and professional running of Mackinac State Historic Parks. Now, staff could conveniently do much of their work from their main office, instead of having to travel to do essential research or care for the ever-growing collection. Different departments were able to communicate with each other much more clearly and quickly with the new meeting spaces. The Petersen Center has served, and will continue to serve, as a great tool for the Mackinac State Historic Parks staff in keeping the park up and running. 

A picture of the Petersen Center in Mackinaw City during winter.

The Petersen Center today.

 

Archaeology at Fort Mackinac – The British Well

The well is marked “C” on this plan of Fort Mackinac drawn in 1796 by Lieutenants James Sterrett and Ebenezer Massey.

 The earliest archaeological excavation at Fort Mackinac took place at one of its earliest structures, the well. When British soldiers began building Fort Mackinac in 1780, one of their first projects was to excavate a well within the fort’s walls. This required digging at least 80’ and possibly up to 150’ into the limestone bedrock. The well was still in use as late as 1800, but had failed by the beginning of the War of 1812. Over the next century and a half, the well and associated depression were filled with a variety of materials. In 1965 a team of archaeologists from the University of Michigan, led by Dr. David Brose, looked for the well, but they only had a week at the end of a project elsewhere on the island and the well proved to be further down than they expected.

Archaeologists standing in well by casing stones in 1981.

 In 1980, as part of the celebration of the bicentennial of Fort Mackinac, a major archaeological excavation was undertaken to search for the well. The project was carried out by a team from the University of South Florida under the direction of Dr. Roger T. Grange, Jr. He was assisted by Robin R. Wright. Her master’s thesis, The 1780 British Well Site, was the main source used in preparing this blog post. All of the filling had resulted in the remains of the well being located eight feet below grade at the end of the 1980 field season. It took another season of excavation, in 1981, to fully understand the construction and destruction series of events.

 The limestone shaft of the well, 14’ in diameter at the top, was topped by a dressed stone casing. The excavation also revealed a previously unknown revetment wall seven feet west of the well. It appears that the first major fill episode, including the removal of the well superstructure, took place around 1821. By this time the garrison was beginning to pump water into the fort.

 The second major episode of filling took place in 1878 when the original powder magazine, just north of the well, was demolished to make room for a new post commissary, which still stands today. This resulted in a layer of boulders which had to be removed by backhoe during the archaeology project!

Well casing stones visible today at Fort Mackinac.

 The final episode of filling was more-or-less continuous filling by MISPC operations personnel from 1934 until 1980 as the area continued to settle. Fill was brought in from the Early Farm across British Landing Road from Wawashkamo Golf Club and raked in from pea gravel paths throughout the fort. When the excavation was complete, the well was left exposed, so visitors to Fort Mackinac could view this remnant of the earliest construction. You can see the well to your right as you enter through the south sally port. Fort Mackinac opens for the season May 3, 2022.

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.

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. 

The Commanding Officer’s Privy: A New Addition at Michilimackinac

 When you visit Colonial Michilimackinac in 2022, if you look in the right place you’ll see a newly-reconstructed building. It’s small and very humble, and is located behind the Commanding Officer’s House. Up against the palisade, you’ll find a privy! While the privy is by no means the largest building at Michilimackinac, it’s the first reconstruction added to the site since 2013, when the South Southwest Rowhouse was completed. More importantly, our new privy helps us better recreate and interpret Michilimackinac as it appeared in the 1770s.

 Our reconstructed privy is located in the same spot as an original structure associated with the Commanding Officer’s House. Ruins of the original privy were discovered during work on the palisade wall in June 1985. Although not formally excavated, archaeologists noted the privy’s location and retrieved a few artifacts, some of which are currently on display inside the Commanding Officer’s House. The remains of the privy were reburied and remain largely undisturbed.

 In 2021, interpretive staff members decided to rebuild the privy as a season-long demonstration project. The wood for the privy was hewn and sawed at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, where millwright interpreters assembled the framing timbers. Dimensions and construction details were copied from another 18th century privy located near the powder magazine, which was fully excavated and documented by archaeologists in 1978-79. The framing timbers and lumber were brought to Michilimackinac in August and assembled onsite by staff and volunteers during our Askin’s Men and Women special event. Finishing touches, including the seat and cedar shingles, were added soon after, and our interpretive staff moved the completed structure to the location of the original privy behind the Commanding Officer’s House.

 Although it isn’t very large, the new privy helps us interpret 18th century health and hygiene at Michilimackinac. Archaeologists have discovered remains of other privies around the fort, including near the powder magazine and behind the Southwest Rowhouse, but only the military latrine in the northwest corner of the fort had been reconstructed prior to the addition of the new privy. While not every house had an associated privy in the 18th century, they would have been a common sight at Michilimackinac.

 The privy is just one part of our ongoing efforts to reconstruct Michilimackinac, which began over 60 years ago. In the next few years you will likely be able to visit a much larger reconstructed building. Mackinac Associates, our friends group, has generously funded design work for an additional house unit of the Southwest Rowhouse. Rebuilding the house will provide additional interpretive or exhibit space and will better represent the rowhouse at it appeared in the 1770s (this house unit was excavated archaeologically in the 1960s, but not rebuilt). If you would like to support future reconstruction efforts, please consider joining or making a donation to Mackinac Associates, and we hope you’ll visit us at Colonial Michilimackinac to see what’s happening next!