SAGINAW VALLEY ARCHAEOLOGISTS: CONTRIBUTORS TO THE FIELD

The Saginaw Valley has more documented archaeological sites (over 1400 sites recorded in Saginaw County alone) than any other comparable region in Michigan. For over a century, the richness of the archaeological resources in this area has drawn considerable attention from avocational and professional archaeologists alike. Those who enjoy learning about the past, and perhaps even endeavor to add something new to the growing body of knowledge, owe a debt of gratitude for the sturdy foundation built by our archaeological predecessors. This post will be the first of a planned series highlighting individuals who have made substantial contributions to our understanding of the archaeology of the Saginaw Valley.

The base of this region’s archaeological foundation can be traced back to waning decades of the 19th century. Although he was not the only, or even the first, of his generation to take an interest in the archaeological record, the duration, breadth, and lasting impact of his contributions leave little doubt that Fred E. Dustin deserves the mantle “Founder of Saginaw Valley Archaeology.”

Portrait of Fred Dustin Castle Museum of Saginaw County History Cat. # 1987.008.129

Portrait of Fred Dustin
Castle Museum of Saginaw County History
Cat. # 1987.008.129

Details about Dustin’s life and accomplishments are described in a volume published by the Saginaw County Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 1965 (Miller and Beach 2000). Many of his archaeological contributions are detailed in an article published in the Michigan Archaeologist (Peebles 1978). Much of the information that follows is derived from these two sources.

He was born Fred O’Donnell on October 12, 1866 in Glens Falls, New York. He adopted the surname “Dustin” after the uncle who raised him following his mother’s early death. After moving to Saginaw in 1887, he earned his living at a number of jobs including carpentry, coal mining and serving as one of the first rural mail carriers. His avocational interests were just as wide ranging and included geology, history, natural history, and, of course, archaeology.

Dustin began to amass a substantial collection of artifacts from the Saginaw region. Significantly, he realized the importance of recording site locations and keeping artifacts from different sites separate. In the 1920s Dustin developed a system for numbering archaeological sites in the Saginaw area. In Dustin’s system, each river in the valley was assigned a number – the Saginaw River was 1, the Tittabawassee River was 2, etc. Archaeological sites were then given the number of the river by which they were located and, following a dash, a second sequential number in the order they were discovered. For example, site 2-1 (the Green Point Site) is the number for the first site Dustin located along the Tittabawassee River. This system was widely shared among local avocational archaeologists and it encouraged and provided a method for keeping archaeological material from different sites separate.

In subsequent years the state adopted a site numbering system developed by archaeologists at the Smithsonian Institution in which all Michigan sites were designated by the number 20 followed by a two-letter county abbreviation and then a sequential number. Dustin’s Green Point Site (2-1) became 20SA1 in the new system. However, many avocational archaeologists continued to refer to and use the Dustin system. A hybrid system was also implemented in which the Dustin number was used in place of the final sequential number in the new system (e.g. 20SA 2-1, or sometimes 20-SA-2-1). A testament to the efficacy of Dustin’s system is the fact that many of the artifacts in the Castle Museum’s archaeology collection are labeled with Dustin site numbers. Now, decades later, their provenience information and their archaeological value remains intact.

Dustin’s own collection, carefully marked with the site numbers he devised, was by and large donated to the University of Michigan’s Museum of Anthropology in the years between 1929 and 1957. However, at least one artifact in the Castle Museum’s collection appears to have been found by Dustin. A large celt with pitting on both faces and each lateral edge is labeled “Dustin (1930)” along with the site number 20-SA- 6-9. Presumably this item was actually collected by Dustin in 1930. The pitting indicates that this celt was also used as an anvil stone.

This celt may be the only artifact in the HSSC Archaeology Collection found by Dustin. Note the inscription "Dustin (1930)" on the edge. Pitting on each face and lateral edge indicates use as an anvil stone.

This celt may be the only artifact in the HSSC Archaeology Collection found by Dustin. Note the inscription “Dustin (1930)” on the edge.

Dustin was not just a collector of artifacts. He was truly a “citizen scientist” and an exemplar of the best of avocational archaeology. He read widely, took meticulous notes, corresponded regularly with others in the field, and published numerous papers. Fourteen of his most important works relevant to Saginaw Valley archaeology have been compiled into a single volume of the Michigan Archaeologist edited by James E. Fitting (1968).

Throughout his long and productive life, Dustin did much to promote the study of archaeology and history through excavations, publications, and programs for adults and children. He was a charter member of the Michigan Archaeological Society, a member of the Society for American Archaeology, the Michigan Historical Society, the American Military Institute, and the Saginaw Valley Historical Society, and he was a fellow of the Cranbrook Institute. He received a Citation of Honor from the Regents of the University of Michigan in recognition of his work as an historian and archaeologist. Dustin was an inspiration and a model for other avocational archaeologists and historians of his and later generations. It is largely through his efforts and influence that much of the early history and archaeology of the Saginaw Valley has been preserved. Dustin died in 1957 at the age of ninety.

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