May 05, 2011

Uncovering the Past on the Wabash

“It’s great working with the community. They were all very interested in the project that we were doing, and it’s great to see the community come together and get involved in such important work.” - Stefan Woehlke, Graduate Student, Anthropology

It’s 1791 and the U.S. infantry are surrounded by opposing Native American forces near the banks of the Wabash River. Pinned down and outnumbered, soldiers are forced to fall back, surrendering the land to the Native American warriors.

Three years later, American forces are again forced to defend their territory, this time at a fort built near the Wabash. A fierce battle ensues that results in several casualties, but this time the U.S. soldiers are victorious, not only securing the fort, but gaining control of land that would become one of America’s earliest settlements.

Military assaults like the Battle on the Wabash (1791) and the Battle of Fort Recovery (1794) are often forgotten in the annals of history. However, a team of Ball State researchers have embarked on a journey to uncover the remnants of wars more than two centuries old.

Mark Hill
Awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Interior National Park Service, Dr. Mark Hill, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Director of Applied Archaeology Laboratories, and his colleagues, Dr. Colleen Boyd and Dr. Mark Groover of the Department of Anthropology and Ms. Beth McCord formerly of the department, began working together on the development of the American Battlefield Protection Project (ABPP). Based in Ohio, the project’s primary goals are to: (a) pinpoint the exact location of the Battle on the Wabash and the Battle of Fort Recovery and (b) provide Ohio residents with the information needed to protect and preserve the surrounding sites of the battlefields.

With no set boundaries currently delineating the 97 acres of land on which both historical battles took place, extensive background research was first needed to understand the geographic layout of the area. To accomplish this task, student researchers from the department of history and anthropology were recruited to assist the ABPP team. Historic sources, including maps and texts derived from primary and secondary sources, were examined to identify key features and events associated with the two battles. Local historians and collectors were also interviewed to determine the location of previously identified battle-related artifacts. Newspaper articles and town records were reviewed to determine past construction and development activities within the battlefield area.

Additionally, Native American communities were also contacted for any documents and stories passed down orally that were related to the battles. However, acquiring this information can sometimes pose a challenge as history graduate student Eliot Reed points out, “It’s always difficult when you do Native American research. There are very few resources because you are usually using British and American sources.”

Once all the data from the written and oral resources were collected, they were used to help develop the research design. Using geographic information systems (GIS) digital mapping software, students were then able to better identify key battlefield features and terrain. Anthropology graduate student Stefan Woehlke explains: “I combine historical maps with modern maps of the battle area; sort of laying maps on top of one another to get an understanding of the battlefield layout. Some of what I’m trying to do is predict where the Native American Indian’s were and the paths they took when they were surrounding the American military.”

Now that the research phase is complete, students have focused their attention on excavating the battlefield sites for war remnants. Prior to entering the field, a team of approximately 10 students participated in a field school—an archaeological “boot camp”—to equip them with the training and knowledge needed to effectively locate and identify artifacts. “It’s a really good opportunity for students to get the opportunity to learn archeology,” said field school operator Dr. Mark Groover.

In addition to metal detector training, students are taught a number of other advanced techniques such as magnetometer, resistivity, and ground penetrating radar survey methods. “The research and fieldwork is great,” said Jessie Moore, a second year anthropology graduate student who is using this project for her thesis. “I want to be an archeological technician or archeologist, [but] without this I would have no clue how to do basic methodology in the field. A lot of positions out there require you to have that kind of experience.”

A majority of the excavations are being conducted on private property so landowner permission was crucial in beginning excavations. However, even more important was building relationships with the land owners. For this, Dr. Hill credits the assistance of Christine Keller, an archeologist on the team and native of the community being excavated. “Christine is our primary liaison with the community,” explains Hill. “She’s very active in the community and represents us well with the Fort Recovery Historical Society. Having these connections allows us to be more involved and to provide us the opportunity to really be a part of the community, rather than being an outsider.”

In addition, Hill values the partnerships formed with the Archeological Society of Ohio and Fort Recovery Museum that will be providing volunteers during the course of the project. Any artifacts found as a result of the field excavations will be donated to the museum to be on display for the public.

If you would like more information on this project contact Dr. Mark Hill or Christine Keller in the Department of Anthropology.

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