Showcasing the Michigan DNR: Archaeology students seek answers to Fort Wilkins’ mining past

The Fort Wilkins research team has found evidence of drill
holes along the Lake Superior shoreline, which indicate
testing activity from the copper exploration and mining
era. (DNR Photos; Photo courtesy Sean Gohman)
Before adventure-seekers went west during the Gold Rush, they had first come north to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula during the copper boom, hoping to strike it rich mining the rich veins of copper found in the western U.P.

In the 1840s, Michigan’s first state geologist, Douglass Houghton, identified the presence of these copper deposits, which brought a flood of prospectors to the Lake Superior wilderness and the U.P.’s northernmost point of Copper Harbor in the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Houghton’s report on the vast amounts of native copper found in the western U.P. was heavily circulated among East Coast businessmen willing to invest in mining operations. To handle the influx of equipment to build mining infrastructure and to ship product out, Copper Harbor and its natural deep-water port became the epicenter of the copper mining rush in the 1840s.

Fearing that lawlessness would take over the region, the U.S. government sent troops to Copper Harbor to keep the peace, which led to the establishment of Fort Wilkins in 1844.

Today, Fort Wilkins Historic State Park welcomes visitors who tour the restored fort and learn about life in the late 1860s on the Lake Superior frontier. While the story of the fort and its later military use is well-documented, the story of the early days of copper mining around the fort is not as well-known.

To better document the fort’s history related to copper mining, a group of Michigan Technological University students – led by doctoral candidate Sean Gohman and Patrick Martin, Michigan Tech professor of industrial archaeology and Department of Social Sciences Chair – is exploring land that is now part of the state park, looking specifically for evidence of mining activity by the Pittsburgh & Boston Mining Co., which operated in the region in 1844-48.

Michigan Tech doctoral candidate Sean Gohman
(kneeling left) reviews an excavation site with
State Archaeologist Dean Anderson (kneeling, right),
Michigan Tech professor of industrial archaeology
Patrick Martin (standing left) and DNR historian
Barry James. (Michigan DNR photo)
Gohman says Michigan’s Copper Country, roughly an area from the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula down to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, is a gold mine for archaeological exploration. Noting that some sites have been picked over by amateur collectors, professional archaeologists still see enormous potential in the region for excavations that shed more light on the early days of copper mining, including in the vicinity of Fort Wilkins.

Of the various sites that were included in Michigan Tech’s summer 2014 archaeological dig, one in particular was identified due to the observations of state park employees, who had noticed an earthen berm in a wooded area that appeared to form the footprint of a building’s foundation.

After digging some test holes in and around the site, the investigation turned up a mix of artifacts that, according to Gohman, originate from various periods during the site’s history – window glass, two different sizes of cut nails, old cans, an iron hook and one fragment of domestic ceramic.

The window glass is thicker and of a later period than glass used in the 1840s, he noted, leading him to suspect that it may have been from the 1930s, when a crew of workers employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) restored some structures and the stockade at Fort Wilkins. However, the cut nails are definitely from an earlier era. The iron hook, which looks handmade, may be as well, but Martin noted that oral histories from the WPA era at the park include information about a blacksmith shop the WPA used to replicate items for the fort buildings, so the hook could be a replica of an original.

Other sites the Michigan Tech team explored include several drill holes near the park’s Lake Superior shoreline, which were made during the early days of copper mining exploration and are about the diameter of a quarter. The holes were drilled into the basalt and conglomerate rock outcroppings as early miners tested the rock for the presence of copper.

A ceramic pipe bowl, marked “TD,”
discovered while exploring an old
sandstone formation on the grounds
of Fort Wilkins Historic State Park.
The pipe dates to the mid-19th century.
(Photo courtesy Sean Gohman)
At another site in a wooded location, the students excavated an area where a scattering of red sandstone pieces were found. Sandstone was a common building material in the region, and Gohman believes the pieces may indicate the presence of a small hearth, as small pieces of sandstone found in another area of the park during an earlier excavation revealed. In addition to the sandstone, this site has yielded some artifacts, including a clay pipe bowl and other items that are representative of those used during the 1840s.

This is not the first time Michigan Tech students have done field work at Fort Wilkins. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there were regular periods of field work at the park. In fact, during one of the last digs, in the early 2000s, Michigan Tech students discovered the remnants of a blacksmith shop from the 1840s mining days in a wooded area of the park. The site yielded plenty of artifacts – a miner’s pick, drill parts, rivets, slag and a charcoal deposit. Martin said a blacksmith shop would have been used by early miners to fix tools and fashion drill bits and parts.

Last summer, students surveyed nearly 500 acres of state-managed land adjacent to the park for historical significance prior to a bike trail being developed on the property. During that survey, they found an old mine shaft at the top of a hill overlooking Lake Fanny Hooe and the remnants of a settlement near Lake Manganese.

The Fort Wilkins park property contains other sites that have been explored by the archaeology students, including one that sparks debate to this day as to what its original purpose was.

One of the sites explored by the Michigan Tech Archaeology Field
School research team during the summer of 2014 included these
sandstone pieces and mortar concentration, which show evidence
of a masonry structure most likely related to copper mining
in the 1840s. (Photo courtesy Sean Gohman)
The site contained fire brick stamped “S&M” and other artifacts indicating it was previously an oven of some kind. Martin theorizes it was an experimental smelter for an early copper-mining operation. His students who discovered it thought it was some sort of oven site, because they could distinguish that its dimensions were about 2 feet wide and 5 feet deep; however they didn’t find any slag, indicating that the oven or smelter was never fired or used in the copper-mining process.

The partnership between Michigan Tech and the Michigan Historical Center for archaeological field work has been a fruitful one in the past, with plans for it to continue into the future. Students benefit by obtaining valuable field work experiences, while the MHC learns more about the history of Fort Wilkins and its environs. As a result of Michigan Tech’s field work, the MHC also has received artifacts for future historical exhibits at Fort Wilkins.

The handle of a spoon, marked “R. Beattie Sheffield,”
found by the team while excavating an old sandstone
formation. (Photo courtesy Sean Gohman)
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Michigan Historical Center have helped support this partnership through the use of revenue collected from the Recreation Passport, an $11 fee motorists pay to gain annual entrance to Michigan’s state parks, state forest campgrounds, boating access sites, nonmotorized trailheads and state historic sites.

A small portion of Recreation Passport revenue is earmarked on an annual basis to fund the preservation and management of historic and cultural resources found in state parks. The Fort Wilkins archaeological dig also was supported by a Keweenaw Heritage Grant from the Keweenaw National Historic Park Advisory Commission.

For more information about the history of Fort Wilkins Historic State Park, visit www.michigan.gov/historicfortwilkins.

More information about Michigan Tech’s Archaeology Field School can be found at http://www.mtu.edu/social-sciences/undergraduate/opportunities/field-school/.