Month: January 2016

Saginaw Valley Archaeologists: Contributors to the Field II – Harlan I. Smith

This post is the second in a planned series highlighting individuals who have made substantial contributions to our understanding of the archaeology of the Saginaw Valley. The first installment, on Fred Dustin, can be seen here.

Harlan I. Smith


Celebrated for his archaeological and ethnographic work in the Pacific Northwest, Harlan Ingersoll Smith cut his archaeological teeth in the Saginaw Valley, Michigan. Smith was born in Saginaw on 17 February 1872, to Alice E. (Ingersoll) Smith and Harlan P. Smith. He spent his formative years in Saginaw and attended the East Side High School. It was during those years that he developed a keen interest in local prehistory – an interest he shared with his schoolmate and close friend, Edward Golson.

Following in his father’s footsteps (an attorney and real estate investor), Smith enrolled at the University of Michigan to continue his education. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in 1893. Either before he enrolled at U of M, or shortly thereafter, Smith’s chosen career path quickly moved in the direction of archaeology. In the three years between 1891 and 1893 Smith served as a curator of the anthropological collections at the University of Michigan Museum and an assistant curator at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. He also served as an assistant to the Department of Anthropology for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where he exhibited a cache of bifaces and other artifacts found near the Green Point area of Saginaw by Edward Golson and his mother, Eliza Golson.

This image is a copy of Harlan I. Smith's photo of the Golson Cache #2, found in Saginaw in 1890 by Edward Golson and exhibited by Smith at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.

This image is a copy of Harlan I. Smith’s photo of the Golson Cache #2, found in Saginaw in 1892 by Edward Golson. It is not the same cache exhibited by Smith at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. [edit – Eliza Golson’s diary indicates that this is in fact the cache exhibited at the WCE in 1893.]

During this period he also conducted fieldwork at several sites in Ohio and Wisconsin and he continued his explorations in the Saginaw valley.

Notes associated with this photo suggest it depicts work on a site along the Cass River while home from college. P. R. Bush, Will Melchers, and Harlan I. Smith are listed - presumably Smith is shown reclining at right.

Notes associated with this photo suggest it depicts work he conducted on a site along the Cass River while home from college. P. R. Bush, Will Melchers, and Harlan I. Smith are listed – presumably Smith is shown reclining at right.

In 1895, he joined the staff at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  During his tenure at the AMNH he served as the lead archaeologist for the Jesup North Pacific Expedition to the Northwest Coast, under the direction of Franz Boas. Much more about Smith’s role in the Jesup North Pacific Expedition can be found here.

In 1911, he accepted a position with the Geological Survey of Canada (later the National Museum of Canada), retiring as Chief Archaeologist in 1937. During his years with the Geological Survey, Smith investigated a number of archaeological sites in Canada and in 1920 began several years of ethnographic work in the Bella Coola Valley of British Columbia. More information about Harlan I. Smith and examples of some documentary photographs taken by Smith in the Bella Coola Valley can be found here.

During the course of his career, Smith wrote dozens of scholarly papers, including several about the archaeology of Michigan and the Saginaw Valley. A few of his publications related to the Saginaw Valley are listed in the References page. Though his career in Michigan was short, his early influence was great. As noted by Fred Dustin, Harlan I. Smith was the first to make a systematic study of the archaeology of the Lower Peninsula and he, more than anyone else of his day, helped put Michigan archaeology on the map (Dustin 1936).


Michigan Archaeological Society Meeting Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Saginaw Valley Chapter of the Michigan Archaeological Society will be holding their February meeting next Thursday, the 4th, at the Castle Museum. Tim Bennett will be presenting on the process and results of the dendrochronological testing (tree-ring dating) done at the Warner Homestead in Brighton, Michigan. This promises to be a fascinating talk on a topic not often discussed in relation to Michigan archaeological sites. I am certainly looking forward to it! As always these meetings are open to the public and all who may be interested are encouraged to attend. The “official” meeting announcement is copied below. The accompanying photos were provided by Tim Bennett.

Warner House. Photo by Tim Bennett.

Warner House. Photo by Tim Bennett.

Photo by Tim Bennett

Photo by Tim Bennett

Date: Thursday, February 4, 2016
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Location: Castle Museum of Saginaw County History, 500 Federal Ave,. Saginaw, MI 48607


Last year, the NRHP listed Warner Homestead located in Brighton, MI received much needed restoration to the exterior.  During the restoration process ten wood samples were collected specifically for dendrochronological analysis.  The samples, including three from a previously destroyed barn, were sent to the laboratory of tree-ring science at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.  Dendrochronological testing was needed to clarify ambiguity particularly from family stories and previously tested samples surrounding the construction date of the house and barns located on property first settled in 1841.  It also had the potential to shed light on the construction chronology of the house, particularly to determine dates of expansion.  Tim Bennett will present on the process/caveats of tree-ring analysis sampling as well the final results especially as it relates to significant archaeological research at the site.  His presentation will also include several interesting discoveries made during the restoration not typically found in an archaeological context.  A co-authored paper detailing the final analysis will appear in the peer-reviewed journal “Tree-Ring Research” slated to be published in 2017.  A sample set from the tens of thousands of 19th century artifacts recovered at the site will be made available for viewing.

Random Artifact from the Collection – An 18th Century Buttplate Tang from Saginaw

The archaeology collections curated at the Castle Museum contain relatively few artifacts from the 17th and 18th centuries. A gunflint or two, the odd glass bead, and, perhaps, an iron pot hook and two axes described by Spencer (2006) make up the bulk of the pre-19th century Historic period material at the museum. This buttplate tang, which is missing the finial, can be added to the list. Donated to the Historical Society of Saginaw County (HSSC) in 2006, this artifact was found on the surface near the confluence of the Shiawassee and Tittabawassee rivers in Saginaw County.

Buttplate Tang from 20SA600.

Buttplate Tang from 20SA600.

So, what exactly is a buttplate? It is a gun part, brass in this case, that covers the (butt) end of the wooden stock. The tang is the portion of the buttplate that bends over the top of the stock, adding a decorative element, as well as helping to secure the buttplate to the stock. The finial, which is broken off on this specimen, is the end of the tang (the top end in the photograph). The design elements on this buttplate tang from Saginaw include a shell motif and a crossed bow, arrow, and, perhaps, a quiver. A similarly decorated buttplate was excavated in 1975 at Fort Michilimackinac from the bottom of a latrine used by the British ca. 1775-1781 (Hamilton 1976). Other similar examples have been found in a 1730-1775 context at the Little Osage Site (23SA3) in Missouri and in a 1763-1783 context at Spaulding’s Lower Store (Pu23) in Florida (Hamilton 1980, 1982). Hamilton (1980:77) suggests that these buttplates are derived from late 18th century English guns that were imitating the French Type D Trade Gun pattern.