Friday, May 25, 2018
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Searching for artifacts centuries old

The 30-year-old archaeologist from Milan was standing waist deep in a 20-foot-long trench in a former parking lot on the site of the old Jefferson Smurfit plant.

She dropped to her hands and knees and, expertly wielding a small trowel, began to peel away the layers of hard-packed tan-colored earth from atop the circle and from a foot-wide black line that soon became visible just a few inches away.

“Mike,” she called from the bottom of the pit. “I think I've got something.”

She had indeed. For beneath her trowel emerged what was believed to be a remnant of the northern puncheon wall from the original and ill-fated Frenchtown Settlement, the 18th-century encampment that was the mother of modern day Monroe.

For several days last week, archaeologists from Mannick & Smith, as well as experts from Heidelburg College in Tiffin, Ohio, and Eastern Michigan University got their first peek at what may lie under the former 1910 Jefferson Smurfit paper plant at East Elm and North Dixie Highway.

Working with a $30,000 grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program, the professional and volunteer archaeologists dug a series of trenches in an effort to locate the missing northeastern corner of the Frenchtown Settlement.

“We want to come in and assess the site before the demolition, so that if there are artifacts or other historically significant items, we can try to protect them,” said Jeff Green, historic preservation planner for Monroe.

Founded in 1789, the Frenchtown Settlement along the north shore of the River Raisin was the scene of one of the bloodiest land battles of the War of 1812, the River Raisin Massacre. More than 300 died on or near the land on Jan. 18 and 22, 1813.

The day after the final battle in Monroe, Shawnee and Potawatomi warriors returned to the battle site, killing those who remained on the field, including 52 British soldiers. Of 623 American soldiers in the battle, 33 made it back to Fort Meigs in what is now Perrysburg.

The Frenchtown Settlement was burned and lost to history until archaeologists discovered the remains of its eastern and northern puncheon walls during digs in 1998 and 2000.

In 2002, the city received a $1.4 million grant from the Clean Michigan Initiative to demolish the former Jefferson Smurfit East Mill plant.

Demolition hasn't begun in part because the city, county, and site owner Roger Homrich are still in discussions to transfer the land to the city's ownership. Those talks, which also include the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, revolve around Mr. Homrich's desire to trade the plant and several dozen acres to the east for the Otter Creek Access site near his home in LaSalle Township.

Dr. G. Michael Pratt, the archaeologist from Heidelburg College who discovered the true site of the Battle of Fallen Timbers in Maumee several years ago, said the Smurfit site is of particular interest because it's been largely protected by the plant above it.

We don't know exactly what we'll find, but there were stories from the people that worked at the plant that they had found artifacts [from the Frenchtown Settlement] over the years,” Dr. Pratt said as he marked out areas to dig.

Mr. Green said the rediscovery and reclamation of the site, which was a dairy farm and orchard before the plant was built, has been of great interest to national historians.

“We're one of the only battlefield sites in the nation where the public is actually trying to take back a battlefield and recreate it, rather than like Gettysburg where they're just trying to protect what they already have,” Mr. Green said.

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