Ryan first contact me in the spring of 2019. He told me they were looking for a host for a video series for an excavation project at the Portage Indian Agency House. He told me he felt like I was undiscovered talent, or something to that effect. He probably saw one of my copper videos. The truth is, it's easy to look like talent when you're talking about something you know a lot about and are passionate about. I knew very little about the Indian Agency House. But I was willing to find out.
As I thought about it, I was perfect -- a historian with a background in archaeology who was making her own documentary series, proven comfortable in front of a camera and lifelong actress. Who better to act as host? And I knew a little something about the area already. In my work on Pensaukee, I discovered that J.P. Arndt was on the first committee that tried to get the portage built between the Wisconsin and Fox rivers back in 1844. The goal was to ship lead from the southern Wisconsin area, up the Wisconsin, to the Fox via this canal, through Green Bay, to the Great Lakes and up into the Erie Canal to New York. You see, the Fox River is unusual, in that it flows from south to north, so they thought that route would be easier than down the Missisippi to the Gulf and around Florida.
I'm not sure why they didn't have the right technology to build the canal at that time. After all, the Erie Canal was build in 1825. But the Portage Canal, though Arndt gave up on it early, wasn't built until the 1870s, by which time the railroad made it ineffective.
I've also done a ton of research on Red Bird's War. Red Bird surrendered in 1827 at what would later be the site of Fort Winnebago. I knew that the whole Red Bird War was staged by the Europeans as a way to get their hands on the lead mining lands in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. The problem was, I couldn't get any history magazine or journal to publish my article. But maybe this involvement would help. For that and for Ryan's belief in me, I said, sure! I'd do my best.
I've been a member of Wisconsin Archeological Society for a number of years now. I was even their membership committee one year, and no, I don't know why they didn't keep me at it -- I was pretty darned good! But I also tend to rub some of the members the wrong way because I am not an archaeologist. To be fair, a lot of them are not, either. We all have a similar interest -- finding what's under ground.
For me, it's copper. Anything pre-contact copper. I make the Wittry copper typology with my updates free to anyone at my website. I have to. I never asked for permission to update it. I will say I'm sure I know more about copper artifacts in the Americas than anyone else in the world.
But this video series wouldn't be about copper, or anything pre-contact, or even about Red Bird. It would cover the excavation to find the location of the first blacksmith shop on the grounds of the Indian Agency, first operated by John and Juliette Kinzie. Much of what they know about it comes from her book, Wau-Bun.
Only one weekend in 2019 was all that they needed me for that year. We had to first determine where to dig using ground penetrating radar (GPR).
I was given a lot of people to interview, but Ryan could also be seen interviewing people. I think that was his assurance that we would cover all our bases. At one point I got bored and helped another archaeologist, John Wackman, with a metal detector flag his hits. I never heard if any of those hits made a difference in locating the excavation.
I also interviewed Dan with the GPR. That machine was a bitch to use. The ground was so rough that the buckets seen on the bottom started getting torn up. We all took turns pushing the darned thing across the ground because it was so hot that weekend. Most of that area in sand and lighter green is what was tested. This was supposed to give us a good indication of where the 2020 excavations would be situated. I think the machine broke down and they had to go back again, but I wasn't needed.
I was in for a surprise in 2020. Yes, even with the pandemic we went ahead with the planned excavations, and invited the public in to help. If you think excavating in hot weather is hard, try excavating in hot weather while wearing masks. This time I had to be there for two weekends, and I had a different cameraman. He seemed unwilling to follow me around. I often had to hunt him down. Ryan wasn't with us that summer either, fighting Lyme disease, not COVID.
If I can blame anyone for the lack of organization, I suppose it would have to be me, because I was the only common factor. Museum curator Adam took control of most of the filming so I leaned on him a lot.
They had four different excavation grids that summer, based on what the GPR turned up. I was to talk to the volunteers about what they were finding, and be wherever an exciting find turned up. I got interviews with all the archaeologists, including Connie from La Crosse, who was in charge. I taped Adam giving a tour of the agency house; I even helped with a drone video of that area of the portage, the canal between the Wisconsin and Fox rivers.
What I didn't tape -- because there wasn't any -- was the exciting find of the first blacksmith foundation. Four days of excavations turned up a lot of nails, and rocks and some house debris like broken glass and pottery. But no signs of a foundation. What went wrong? Why had the GPR failed?
I did a closing video of the archaeologists to talk about results and were do we go from here, and I don't think they took too kindly to my question about why didn't we find what we were looking for.
I found out the hard way in 2021 that they were doing yet another excavation this summer. Last summer they said they would try moving up closer to the house. They were talking about an area the GPR hadn't traversed. This summer they wanted no video host. I saw no videos being shot at all, no cameraman hired. So I asked for permission and shot a couple of my own.
Sure enough, the excavations were closer to the agency house, and all I saw before people started packing up at 4 p.m. was that the ground in one area was more compacted than in another area, indicating a kind of burning process went on there. More nails, more pottery, about the same level of excitement.
This was a very low-key endeavor, not open to the public to dig but only to those who were members of the Agency House. They were going to finish the next day, but Saturday was my closure. I did not expect, even after all my involvement, that anyone was going to tell me how this year's excavation concluded.
My favorite part of the day was Adam's demonstration how the natives made a dugout canoe.
To be honest, I think that European history is becoming the only kind of excavation work we'll see much of in the future, as more and more native tribes demand control of their ancient history. And that's great.I cover this topic in my new novel, "Archaeology of the Dead: A murder mystery in two parts." And though I was paid minimal for my assistance for two summers, I got valuable material from this excavation for the novel.
My takeaways on this three-year "experience" is that I'm glad I'm not an archaeologist. As a historian, I feel much more rewarded by digging in primary and other records to find little noted materials and see how they fit the bigger picture. Things like nails and glassware just don't interest me. Copper, however, does, because it's looking more and more like the oldest metal industry in the world was right here in my back yard. And that's exciting. Plus, I discovered this past Saturday that I tend to suffer from sun exposure, and dehydrate quickly.
No experience is ever wasted. I don't I did the kind of job at video hosting as they would have liked. Someone else might have been more sincere and maybe more intuitive than I was.
I wish them the best with these excavations, but quite frankly, if they don't talk about Red Bird's surrender there, it's all a little dull to me. I would love to give a Red Bird's War talk there, but Adam knows how to reach me, if interested.