Fort Wilkins dig adds bits of knowledge to historical record

Graham Jaehnig/Daily Mining Gazette An excellent example of material culture that can be found in privy holes: broken pieces of a 19th century wash basin that was recovered from the Copper Harbor range lighthouse keeper’s privy earlier this month.

COPPER HARBOR — While most visitors to the Fort Wilkins State Park are probably unaware of it, the park is actually of national historical significance for several reasons.

The Lake Superior copper district is where America’s first mineral rush occurred, six years before the California Gold Rush began. Because of the extent of surviving material culture that remains intact within the park boundaries, the park offers an interpretive physical history of the opening of a mineral district to industry and settlement in a wilderness on the northwest of the mid-19th century American frontier.

According to a 2016 report by Eric T. Pomber entitled “Archaeological Investigations and Historical Survey, Fort Wilkins State Park, Keweenaw County, Michigan,” there are 14 archaeological sites between Fort Wilkins, the Copper Harbor Lighthouse and range light, as well as features associated with the Pittsburg and Boston Copper Harbor Mining Company, and three historic mining-related sites that were identified in 2013.

Combining the findings of these various sites allows archaeologists and historians to recreate an accurate description of industrial and military activity, as well as human settlement and activity.

One of the most valuable places archaeologists hope to find in places of previous human occupation is former privies, because a privy hole presented an excellent place to deposit broken household goods, bottles, and other refuse. This is why during the archaeological field school conducted at the Copper Harbor range light and nearby Astor House hotel site, one of the focuses was on locating privy holes.

LouAnne Wurst, professor with the MTU Social Sciences Archaeological program discussed field school activities at the range light keeper’s house, across the road from the fort.

“What we’ve done so far this year… is we’ve excavated the privy associated with the range lighthouse keep,” Wurst said. “We found some very, very neat stuff.” Once processed at the archaeological lab at Michigan Tech, archaeologists will be able to piece together a story of activity from the items taken from the hole.

This is the same reason James Schwaderer, Ph.D. student in the program, was searching for a privy hole at the Astor House site. Placing small trenches around a berm believed to be one of the sills for the building, Schwaderer said they found small bits and pieces of ceramics, window glass, and other evidence of activity, but nothing in significant amounts. He said the team had not located a privy hole.

As more and more pieces of the puzzle emerge from archaeological field work, and are combined with historical maps and documents, a clearer picture continually emerges of industry and life in a 19th century frontier.

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