Local History and Genealogy

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Fort St. Joseph: Train Ride to the 18th Century

On Saturday, August 14, a group of a dozen or so gathered at Amtrak’s Kalamazoo station for a “train ride to the 18th century” to visit the 2010 Fort St. Joseph Archaeology Open House in Niles. The trip, organized by retired Western Michigan University librarian Kay Chase, gave Kalamazoo residents a chance to visit the site of historic Fort St. Joseph, only recently discovered and being gradually unearthed as part of a WMU field school project.

The theme of this year’s open house was “Women of New France,” with demonstrations on cooking, basket weaving, musket firing, and other activities from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Student archaeologists operated an “Outdoor Museum” with details of their work and examples of what has been found.


The fort, active from 1671-1781, was established by the French as a trading post, but ultimately stood under English, Spanish and finally United States rule before being abandoned in 1781—hence the region’s designation as the “Four Flags Area.” The fort played a significant role in the colonial fur trade, and though its existence was known, its exact location remained a mystery until a short time ago.


Fort St. Joseph originally shared a great deal with its northern counterpart, Fort Michilimackinac, but don’t expect a similar reconstruction of the fort in Niles any time soon. The Fort St. Joseph project is still very much in its infancy, and unfortunately, due to the damming of the St. Joe River over the years, much of the site now lies beneath the current water table. Archaeologists must continuously pump water away from the site while they work, then allow the river to reclaim its territory at the end of each season.


What we found most impressive, however, was the enthusiasm displayed by each of the student archaeologists. They are to be commended for cheerfully and knowledgably—if not emphatically—describing their work and bringing their methods and their findings to light for us onlookers. And what they are finding is truly amazing… the remains of a blacksmith’s fire pit, apparent building footings, and a host of artifacts – animal bones, gun parts, tools, buttons, jewelry, and the like. It was a truly inspiring and rewarding experience.


Learn more about the history of Fort St. Joseph in Fort St. Joseph, 1691-1781: The Story of Berrien County’s Colonial Past by Joseph L. Peyser and Robert C. Myers, and be sure to visit the WMU Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project website.


Fort St. Joseph, 1691-1781 : the story of Berrien County's colonial past 
H 977.411 P517
http://www.catalog.kpl.gov/uhtbin/cgisirsi/x/0/0/5?searchdata1=H 977.411 P517

Cemeteries of Kalamazoo

While I attest to having a fascination with the art and park-like beauty of many cemeteries, working in the local history room has given me an even greater appreciation for them as a tool in genealogical and local history research. Many times, a tombstone provides just the clue needed to fill in a blank or push the research in a different direction. But with around 70 cemeteries and burial grounds in Kalamazoo County, tracking down a gravesite can sometimes be a challenge.

Over the years, individuals and groups like the DAR and the Kalamazoo Valley Genealogical Society have published books of cemetery records and tombstone inscriptions for various cemeteries and we have those in the local history collection. In more recent years there have also been some very ambitious projects launched on the Internet that provide burial/tombstone information - and many times even photos of individual stones. The problem is that no one set of books or single website has everything for all the cemeteries in the area.

In response to this issue, the Library has launched Cemeteries of Kalamazoo. This collection of web pages locates all the known cemeteries and burial grounds in Kalamazoo County and identifies all the sources – both print and online – for burial and tombstone data for each individual cemetery. You can search for the information by township or with the Cemeteries A-Z index.

As with many of our projects, this is a work in progress and we intend to update and expand as more information comes our way. So be sure to let us know if we’ve missed anything or you know of a new source and we’ll promise to keep this a tool that will be useful for years to come.


Cemeteries of Kalamazoo
Beth T