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Scientists seek native dwellings at Fort Ouiatenon

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Since the revelation of the actual Fort Ouiatenon site in the late 1960s, archaeologists have focused mostly on the fort itself, excavating the mound upon which it sat and combing for artifacts, such as kettles, gun flints and domestic items.

Michael Strezewski, an archaeologist from University of Southern Indiana, is looking outside the box.

Several years ago, after doing some work for Prophetstown State Park, he conducted a magnetometric reading at the original fort site off South River Road.

The instrument used is a magnetometer that Scott Hipskin, Strezewski's team member, called a "high-end metal detector" that reads soil, too.

Strezewski and a team of 11 archaeologists, professionals and graduate students, came back to finish what he began four years ago with a $60,000 grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program.

But if the fort has been excavated, researched and written about, why return to the area?

"To say something about the Native American habitation," Strezewski told the Journal & Courier (http://on.jconline.com/12pAVTL ), surrounded by assistants carefully carving soil out of the ground to make a perfect, foot-deep box.

"Excavations were done mostly in the '70s, but nobody really looked much outside of the fort ... there were lots of Indian villages all surrounding this here," he said, pointing to the expansive property with a thick strip of trees between the site and the Wabash River.

Here, Strezewski and his crew found about 15 circles underground that they speculate were Native American villages burned in 1791 when about 900 Kentucky militia destroyed the site.

The magnetometer was able to detect the remnants of wooden structures, which spanned about 21 feet in diameter, because of the charcoal from when it was burned in 1791.

Archaeologist Robert "Dr. Bob" McCullough said the instrument is able to pick up the remnants because the organic soil is different, relative to the soil around it, and it is magnetic.

The team began the project by surveying the land then digging up the top foot of soil, which is disturbed from more than a century of being plowed, to expose the undisturbed soil.

Within the first week they found a musket ball and gun flint — markings of a colonial-era fort site.

Strezewski will relay his findings in a public presentation Tuesday with artifacts and the story behind the circular structures he believes were wigwams built by the Kickapoo or Mascouten tribes.

That Native Americans and French fur traders coexisted and did business peacefully is what makes this particular site so striking to Strezewski.

"You have cultures coming together, to some extent, for mutual benefit," he said.

"The French wanted furs and the Native Americans wanted trade goods — they wanted copper kettles, axes, knives and things they couldn't produce on their own, useful goods."

While relations between Native Americans and the French were seemingly respectful, things changed once Americans tried to settle near the water after the American Revolution and pacify the natives, Strezewski said.

"The Indians could see the writing on the wall," Strezewski said, referencing the hordes of Americans coming down the river that eventually overtook the Native Americans and their villages.

As most stories of early America go, the fort's power along with its rich Native American presence along the Wabash River dried up.

But this seems to have only spurred archaeologist interest in the area.

McCullough enjoyed imagining hustle and bustle of the fort's 74-year reign.

"It just seemed to be a real hub of activity for a long time," McCullough said. "Part of it is you have the woodlands and the plains intersecting."

McCullough, a 57-year-old white-bearded and ponytailed explorer, said the most exciting part of excavation is the discovery.

"To try and understand how people worked . the past is the same as they are now," he said. "The same wants and desires."

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Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Journal & Courier.

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