Fort Wilkins dig adds to historical record

Broken pieces of a 19th century wash basin, shown above, were recovered from the Copper Harbor Lighthouse keeper’s privy earlier this month. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo)

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. The extensive amount of surviving, intact material culture within park boundaries offers visitors an interpretive physical history of the industrialization and residential settling of a mineral district in America’s mid-19th century northwest frontier wilderness.

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 Pittsburgh 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 discoveries archaeologists hope to find in places of previous human occupation are privies. A privy hole presented an excellent place to deposit broken household goods, bottles and other refuse.

This is why locating privy holes was one of the focuses during an archaeological field school conducted at the Copper Harbor range light and nearby Astor House hotel site.

Michigan Technological University professor LouAnne Wurst, with the 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 MTU, 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, a doctoral 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.