300 Years of Fort Ouiatenon: A Q&A with editors Misty M. Jackson, H. Kory Cooper, and David M. Hovde

Purdue University Press spoke with editors Misty M. Jackson, H. Kory Cooper, and David M. Hovde about their new book The History and Archaeology of Fort Ouiatenon: 300 Years in the Making.

Q: Could you give a brief description of your book?

(Jackson) As the title suggests, the book summarizes the history of Fort Ouiatenon and the archaeology conducted there. It includes contributions mostly by archaeologists but also has a broader community-based approach. We are privileged to have a chapter by a member of the Myaamiaki (Miami) Nation, given the fort’s place within theirs and the Wea’s homeland, another that looks at the place of the Feast of the Hunters’ Moon within the site’s history, and also one that describes how the site has now become part of the Ouiatenon Preserve and a National Historic Landmark. While the focus is on Fort Ouiatenon, the book is strengthened by inclusion of chapters that address other French forts within the system, thereby contextualizing it. There is probably something for most everyone presented in this volume.

Q: What is the goal of your book? What motivated you to write it?

(Hovde) In 2016 I approached Craig Hadley, the Executive Director of the Tippecanoe County Historical Association (TCHA), about creating a series of monthly programs concerning Fort Ouiatenon and the Feast of the Hunters’ Moon. I was appointed chair of the 50/300 Committee to accomplish this. The 2017 Feast was going to be a very special event for TCHA since it would be the 300th anniversary of the founding of Fort Ouiatenon and the 50th anniversary of the Feast. One of these programs I envisioned would be a conference about the fort and a book based on the papers delivered at the conference. To accomplish this I met with Dr. Kory Cooper of the Purdue University Anthropology Department who told me about the Midwest Historical Archaeology Conference, and he contacted the Conference and organized the event.  

The book is the first time that the history, archaeology, and contemporary interpretations have been compiled into one volume. It is comprised of the work of scholars who have worked on the site and analyzed the archaeological remains. It is not comprehensive. Much more work has yet to be undertaken in analyzing the material that has been excavated since the 1960s. This book is the first step in the process. It more firmly places Fort Ouiatenon’s material culture in context with other French Colonial sites in North America.

Q: What are a few things that are being studied for the first time in this book?

(Hovde) For the first time a thorough study of the history of the site has been completed from its establishment, its use, its destruction, disappearance, and the many attempts to locate it and place it in the modern American historical narrative.

(Jackson) Five dissertations have come out of the archaeology of the fort, but this is the first time much of those results have been presented in an accessible way. For example, a thorough summation and synthesis of the several excavations in the 1960s by Indiana University and the 1970s by Michigan State University is presented. Also, previously none of the artifacts had been analyzed using such scientific techniques as X-ray fluorescence or laser ablation inductively coupled plasma, which combined with archival documents help us understand more about the site. Similarly, the faunal remains are presented and give a picture of life and foodways among the French on the Wabash in the eighteenth century. 

Q: Is there anything that shocked or surprised you while working on this project?

(Jackson) One of the most surprising things is that there is so much that remains to be studied. The collections are huge, existing at both the Tippecanoe County Historical Association and at Indiana University. The notion that this is just another French fort is not supported by the documents or the artifacts. There are similarities with other places throughout North America where the French and British endeavored to plant their systems, but each place has its differences, and we are only really beginning to see that. Some of that difference is occasioned by the place itself and some also by the Indigenous people who are only more recently being recognized by non-Indigenous researchers. They were always there, and they were the reason in large measure for the presence of the fort.

Q: Have you done field work at Fort Ouiatenon? What was the most interesting item you found? Why?

(Cooper) Dr. Michael Strezewski (USI), one of the contributors to this volume, has been conducting archaeological fieldwork in the Ouiatenon Preserve intermittently since 2009. In the summer of 2022, he and I co-directed a PU & USI joint field school in the preserve. We did not work within the fort palisade, but instead investigated a feature that was probably an Indigenous or Metis habitation and another area where in addition to fur trade-related material we found a 3,000-year-old midden consisting of shell and some bone and stone tools. While we found a number of fur-trade related artifacts including gun parts, the stone and bone tools were interesting because of the reminder they provide of a long Native American presence here.  

Q: What is the most interesting item found at Fort Ouiatenon overall? Why?

(Cooper) This gets to the heart of what archaeological research is all about because what is “most interesting” is potentially a matter of taste, or research interests. For example, the signet ring depicting a man riding a fish or dolphin, which is the subject of an entire chapter of the volume is a singularly interesting object showing connections to the French occupants of the fort. And there are of course numerous other distinctive artifacts or groups of artifacts such as the many cuff or button links, silver crosses, and other religious objects and jewelry. But what archaeologists are most interested in is the story all of these things together tell us about the lives of the Indigenous, French, and Mètis participants in the fur trade. For example, Dr. Martin’s contribution to this volume uses animal bones from the site to talk about the diet, economy, and natural environment of the 18th century fur trade, and I am currently working with a graduate student, Cassie Apuzzo, who is investigating blacksmithing and other metallurgical debris from the site. This is not the sort of thing people ooh and aaah over, but it is helping us reconstruct important technological activities at the fort.

Q: Can the public see items from Fort Ouiatenon on display?

(Cooper) Unfortunately, there is currently no permanent display of this collection, but Ouiatenon artifacts are periodically on display at TCHA-sponsored events and properties and there are always artifacts on display at the archaeology booth at the blockhouse during the Feast of the Hunters’ Moon. Additionally, Leslie Martin Conwell, recently retired Event Manager for the Feast of the Hunters’ Moon and contributor to this volume, manages a Facebook page where images of Fort Ouiatenon artifacts excavated in the 1970s are regularly posted. Research on the Fort Ouiatenon collection is ongoing and there is hope that at some point in the future there will be an opportunity to have a permanent display, possibly at the Ouiatenon Preserve. But you have to keep in mind that the TCHA is tasked with curating a large amount of material culture and texts related to the history of the county and the creation of permanent displays requires space, money, and thoughtful long-term planning.

You can get 30% off The History and Archaeology of Fort Ouiatenon: 300 Years in the Making or any other Purdue University Press book by ordering from our website and using the code PURDUE30 at checkout.