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Kettle Falls Archeology, Part 2

By Drew LaBounty, National Park Service

Read part 1 here.

The second year of archeological inventory has been completed at Kettle Falls, and with it, the physical exploration of soils and artifacts. Now it is up to written history (and often living memory) to fill in the gaps.

In 2015 visitors might have seen a team of archeologists operating geological survey equipment. This equipment measures the magnetism of buried objects and the compaction of soils. In the construction world, such a survey might locate buried utilities. For archeologists, it helps locate historical buildings and activity areas. At Kettle Falls, geophysical survey was used to search for the original Monson’s Trading Post in the front lawn of the iconic 1940s Dam Tender’s House (the red-roofed white building on the Namakan side).

In 2016, investigations ramped up to more physical exploration. National Park Service archeologists from a regional center in Lincoln, Nebraska traveled to Voyageurs to establish one meter by one meter Test Units that exposed the “anomalies” identified in the geophysics. Led by Voyageurs National Park staff, the NPS team completed two formal Test Units and an additional 22 smaller quick tests in the front lawn of the Dam Tender’s House.

The results of these excavations were surprising. Very little evidence remains of Chris Monson’s trading post, and the exact location of the building itself has been wiped away by years of use and re-use of the front lawn. Archeologists targeted two of the geophysical anomalies (see photos). When the sod layer was stripped away, there was no evidence of a formal foundation. Instead, buildings sat directly atop the soil, which caused it to compact and leave behind harder layers of soil. Surprisingly however, virtually no artifacts remain in the lawn to confirm the presence of the trading post. On top of that, historic photographs seem to depict Monson’s trading post in an entirely different location closer to shore, where no physical evidence of a building was found.

What does it all mean? The compacted soils in the yard of the Dam Tender’s House might not represent a structure at all. Changing water levels might also give the appearance of a different shoreline in historic photographs. The same changing water levels might also have flooded the former trading post location, making identification more difficult. All of these possibilities will be examined and teased out this year, mostly using written accounts, photographs, and local memory.

Our ongoing attempt to pinpoint the location of Chris Monson’s original trading post, and to tell its story more completely through physical remains, highlights the importance of tracing several lines of evidence in archeological work. And this holds true throughout the rest of the Kettle Falls area. Other activity areas besides the lawn were investigated over the past two years, and multiple other structures were located, often through trash and debris from the same time period. For example: did you know there were up to six other buildings near the Kettle Falls dam overlook, inhabited by come of the most colorful residents of the Northwoods in the 1910s and 20s? It will take another year of careful research and assembling evidence in order to tell these stories accurately and completely.

The park looks forward to assembling this information, to sharing the stories of Kettle Falls in more color and clarity, and to learning even more about the area in years to come.

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