There is a rich history on Lake Michigan’s Beaver Island, located a two-hour ferry ride from Charlevoix.
Its residents have included Native Americans, French fur trappers and traders, a Mormon sect called the Strangites whose leader declared himself king, and Irish immigrants.
There was even a “secretive émigré from Russia who dispensed medical help to the islanders without charge,” according to the Beaver Beacon.
Despite its unique and fascinating past, relatively little physical evidence of the island’s early history exists.
Northern Michigan University’s summer archaeological field school is helping to fill that void while giving students hands-on experience in excavation techniques and artifact analysis.
NMU Associate Professor Scott Demel, former head of anthropology collections management at Chicago’s Field Museum, directs the field school. He and 17 students wrapped up an investigation of the early historic fishing village of Cable Bay, where they discovered prehistoric pottery for the first time.
They also completed a third season of digging behind the Mormon Print Shop, erected in 1850 and now headquarters for the Beaver Island Historical Society.
The sides of the square pits offered a stratified view of historical occupations.
Transitioning from the deepest layer upward, students found artifacts from the Late Woodland period of the Ottawa (AD 900-1000); the protohistoric era (1600-early 1800s), when European goods and people arrived; and the historic period from the Mormons’ arrival through modern times.
Troweling and screening the soil filtered out pottery sherds, animal and fish bone, charred plant remains, stone tool fragments, debris from knapping flint and evidence of hearths.
Students also uncovered an intriguing linear wall feature with post holes.
Demel said it might have been a longhouse, a dwelling built and inhabited by Native Americans. An elk jaw and teeth were found along the wall.
At French Bay, on the island’s southwest side, the NMU group looked for the remains of three log cabins discovered during a 2012 survey in which students lined up and walked the entire property with compasses and GPS units.
“We’re doing shovel probe tests to determine what age these cabins are,” said Demel, shortly before the four-week program concluded. “Some of the diagnostic artifacts we’ve come across include ceramic sherds, a clay pipe stem, buttons and glass bottles. This was likely a logging camp because there are still cut logs near the shore with about six inches of moss growth on them. There’s even a signpost in the woods you can hardly read. It’s probably been here for 100 years.”
Demel added, “There’s no shortage of sites to investigate. We did the Burke’s Farm homestead. We still have to search for the earliest site from the archaic period, which would be on higher elevations inland because of the higher lake levels back then. It’s rewarding to be the first to confirm French trade goods on the island. We found glass beads, brass furniture tacks that were used to decorate gun stocks and cut brass rolled into hair tubes and tinkler cones for jingle dresses. There were also a couple iron projectile points. That’s unusual; those are normally made of stone.”
Demel said an oral tradition from the Indigenous people indicates that they built a fort for French soldiers who agreed to help defend the island against a threatened attack.
The soldiers reportedly stayed about a year, sealed their canoes in a cave marked with a special stone, then departed with whatever belongings they could carry across the ice.
In a feasible location, Demel and the students found a pillow-shaped chunk of limestone that clearly looks out of place, but they did not see signs of a cave during a brief walking survey.
A more thorough investigation will take place at the next field school and may be aided by lidar, a survey detection system that works on the principle of radar, but uses light from a laser.
The Beaver Island field school provides students with the necessary experience for a career in cultural resource management (CRM), documenting archaeological sites before they are potentially destroyed by construction or natural processes.
NMU students paused during their final day of field research to reflect on the experience.
“It’s been a lot of work, but also a lot of fun,” said Nicole Taylor of Pinckney, who is pursuing a degree in environmental studies and sustainability with a minor in anthropology. “It’s neat to live in the same place you’re doing an excavation. The locals are into the history of the island and curious about what we’re doing. They’ll stop by the site and ask what we’re finding. It’s cool that they express an interest and it’s fun sharing our progress with them.”
The field school was the last NMU class for Marleena McDaniels, a history major and anthropology major from Mulliken.
“I feel I’m more knowledgeable when it comes to identifying artifacts,” McDaniels said. “Before, something might have just looked like an ordinary rock. Now I have a better-trained eye to understand what it might be. The best way to understand the process is to apply the techniques in the field. We’ve learned how to survey, shovel probe, excavate, use GPS and compasses and map the location of artifacts. We also spend time in the lab each night analyzing and discussing what we found.”
Ryan Peterson, an anthropology major from Iron River, said the summer program was valuable preparation for graduate school.
“I’ve always loved learning about the past; not so much through documentation, but artifacts,” he said. “People can write anything down, but artifacts don’t lie. You find distinct things in layers and can figure out what they are and what period they come from.”
Artifact analysis can take two to three years.
As that is completed on campus, an NMU museum studies class—also taught by Demel—will collaborate with the Beaver Island Historical Society to incorporate the artifacts into new exhibits for the facility’s planned expansion.
The six-credit NMU archaeological field school has been offered alternating summers since 2010.
NMU rents cabins and lab space for the program from the Central Michigan University Biological Station on Beaver Island.
PICTURED: Students sift soil behind the Mormon print shop (in this courtesy photo) on Beaver Island during archaeological digging for their NMU class.