DIGGING DOWN

Amateur archaeologist’s discoveries put Paleo-Indians in U.P. during Ice Age

(Center) A scene showing archaeology efforts in 1987 in what was the temporarily dried-up bed of Deer Lake, located north of Ishpeming. Known as the Gorto Site, it is where amateur archaeologist partners Jim Paquette and John Gorto discovered artifacts from people who lived in the area around 10,000 B.C.E. Paquette is shown with a screening box while volunteer John Franzen is in the background conducting the site mapping survey. (Left) A spearpoint that was made 11,000 years ago was among artifacts discovered at Silver Lake near Ishpeming in 1988. (Top Right) A closeup of a ring Jesuit priests gave to Native Americans they encountered during their missionary efforts through the late 1600s and early 1700s (Photo by Katherine Larson). (Right) Jim Paquette holds a variety of arrowheads and Jesuit rings he discovered at a site in the Sand Plains area in Marquette County in 1996. (Photos courtesy of Jim Paquette unless otherwise indicated.)

By Katherine Larson
The word “amateur” has its root in the Latin word “amare,” meaning to love. It is particularly appropriate to describe Jim Paquette of Negaunee as an amateur archaeologist, for he is steeped in profound love for the subject. But the word is inappropriate if it carries any negative connotation, for Paquette’s approach to archaeology is that of a consummate professional.
It is an approach that put him squarely at the center of two of the most significant archaeological finds in the U.P.
Back in the 1980s, Paquette—who worked at Cleveland Cliffs, focusing on mine safety and advocating for employee rights—had already done a great deal of reading and studying about Paleo-Indians, the Native peoples who inhabited the American continents for millennia before Europeans arrived. He had studied ancient stone artifacts, and he knew from conversations with NMU archaeologist Marla Buckmaster that if and when artifacts were found it was important to leave them in place so that the site could be properly mapped, recorded, and analyzed.
Paquette was convinced that there were ancient archaeological sites to be found in Marquette County but, he said, “Nothing had been found because people didn’t look. I decided to look. And on the very first day, within the first hour, at Teal Lake, just blocks from my home, there were sites.” Eventually, he found “hundreds of sites. These were amazing ‘holy wah!’ moments.”
One of the most notable emerged when the Deer Lake reservoir was partially drained to deal with mercury contamination. Paquette and his buddy, John Gorto, embarked on a survey around the uncovered parts of the basin. “And we found artifacts ringing that lake. Not just one but a lot—over 30 of them.”
Obeying the imperative to “do things right,” they left the artifacts—mostly ancient stone spear points—in place and phoned Buckmaster. The next day she joined them in the icy mud along with Paquette’s father, a photographer. The story of this find is detailed in Paquette’s book The Find of a Thousand Lifetimes, which is available locally.
The most amazing aspect of these discoveries, he said, was “not just the fact that they were here, but the fact of their age. They looked to be eight to 10,000 years old. No one had expected to find traces of human life here that long ago. But there they were. It was a paradigm shift, forcing people to try to rethink what we thought we knew.”
Energized, Paquette redoubled his searches. “I hunted for artifacts that were even older, at Silver Lake and elsewhere. Everywhere I looked I found Paleo-Indian artifacts.” How could he tell? The spear points he was finding were “very characteristic. They were made of Hixton silicified sandstone, a quartzite, with a very specific manufacturing technique. It’s a beautiful stone, and the spear points were beautifully made.”
He caressed one lovingly and said, “When you look at this one you see a slight asymmetry. This happened when a point got dulled sliding along a caribou rib, and then the point-maker resharpened it. This stone point was mounted on a thrusting-type spear, then used and resharpened. A person did that. He was one of a group of nomadic people, moving from Wisconsin to Marquette County and back, chasing caribou herds as the glaciers slowly retreated.”
That stone point was made 11,000 to 12,000 years ago. There were indeed people here back then, even while the glaciers lingered. As Paquette continued his fieldwork, he spent years finding out about these people “and learning from them. I also had the great opportunity to co-author articles with professionals in professional journals, especially with Marla [Buckmaster] and John Anderton from NMU as well as other professional archaeologists in the area.”
Even more important to him, however, was the human connection. Paquette said, “The things we found are beautiful things, truly gifts from the people of the past. Their gifts were not books or letters, but these beautiful stone tools. Their tents and sleds and other objects did not survive over the thousands of years, but their stone tools did. These people were real people, families like us with parents and children and friends and relations. We must give respect to their things. Their objects are precious because of their humanity, not because of some financial measure.”
Most of Paquette’s ancient finds are now in museums or under study by professionals. “They don’t belong to me, they belong to us.”
Similarly, Paquette is “very respectful towards the possibility of human remains. The Deer Lake finds were from a cremation site, with no human remains found. But I believe, out of respect, that after the artifacts are fully studied they should be returned to the lake where they were found.” He is proud that he has been certified as a paraprofessional Native archaeologist through the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, and he works closely with the tribal preservation officer.
Even if artifacts are not returned to their original sites, Paquette said, “I think they should at least be back in the U.P. I gave them to NMU with the stipulation that they would never cross the bridge, but they’re in Lansing” with the Office of the State Archaeologist. “I hope that NMU and people who care about the U.P. will work to get them back here.”
He was “having so much fun” doing archaeological fieldwork “that I felt guilty. But then when I started sharing, I realized my most important role was to relate information to the community. When I saw people, especially schoolchildren, expressing joy in learning, it was deeply meaningful. We all yearn to learn more about our history and our common heritage here. When we learn about Paleo-Indians, we learn about ourselves. They were the first ones to tough it out up here.”
To this point, Paquette had focused his studies on Paleo-Indians. Then, however, his archaeological life underwent a major and unexpected shift.
He said, “It was 1996. I was out in the Sands Plains area, just for a walk. For fun, I’d brought my metal detector along. And then I got a feeling, as if I were being called to. I got a reading on the detector: brass. I assumed it was a shell casing—there are thousands in the U.P. woods—but for some reason I decided just to pop it out,” using a trowel to pop out the plug of soil containing the object while leaving the object in the soil it was embedded in.
Far from being a shell casing, the object turned out to be an old ring, “perfectly preserved except for the patina of age. This one bore the mark IHS plus a cross.” It was a Jesuit ring of the type given out as gifts in Canada in the 1600s and early 1700s. Nor was it alone, Paquette said; “I swept around and found readings for three more of those rings right in that area.”
Paquette knew that archaeologists and historians had not expected to find rings of that type in the U.P., and he also knew the importance of doing excavation right. So “I called every archaeologist I knew. But years passed. My archaeologist friends were all busy, and the site just sat there.” This worried him. “All sites are susceptible to looting or destruction—you just never know who will come along and do what. So it’s important to get it properly and professionally excavated. I knew that with each day that passed the site was in danger. Then one day I was walking in that area again, worrying, and I saw other people using metal detectors. That scared me. So first I did a more systematic search myself, and found another signal just like the first ring. I thought, ‘I bet it’s another ring.’ So I got a whole bunch of logs and brush and covered up the whole area, hoping to deter other people from looking there.”
He badgered his friends again, but still no one had time. “I went to Goose Lake and worried. What should I do? And then four adult bald eagles came soaring in, one after the other, and all settled to roost in a big tree right in front of me. That’s unheard of. And then came a fifth bald eagle, and it flew around for a while and then settled in that same tree. Eagles just don’t do that. These eagles did. I said, ‘Here’s the message. That’s the fifth ring.’ I was done waiting. So I got back home and called my archaeologist friends and told them, ‘I’m going in. You can join me or not.’ They joined me.”
The site is still being analyzed, but the broad outlines are now clear. The place was a winter encampment, probably Ojibwe, that included a dwelling structure, a cooking area, and a butchering site. Artifacts included the rings—indeed five of them—along with 46 trade beads, thousands of pieces of animal bone, a broken knife, arrowheads, and stoneware. The animals that had been butchered there included at least three adult moose along with porcupine, beaver, and otter.
Paquette found the excavation process to be deeply personal. He said, “Every day, arriving at the site, I would say ‘Boozhoo,’ which means hello. Every day I’d offer a bit of tobacco at a big rock there. Every day when I was leaving, I’d say ‘Miigwech,’ which means thank you. You have to have respect for these people. Their artifacts are the only way the past can talk to us.”
How far past? Decoding the date of this encampment required focus on the rings and the beads, each of which provided important evidence. The rings were of three types: IHS-plus-cross, L-heart, and Markham, all found in Canada from the early 1630s; they ceased to be made after the 1660s. French Jesuits used them as friendship rings, handing them out to indigenous peoples, especially children, as a token of amity. Because the French are not known to have visited the U.P. that early, Paquette said, these rings likely came here through trades and gift exchanges.
As for the beads, he said, “There’s a lot of variation in trade beads, and you can date them just like you can determine the date of modern jewelry based on changing fashions and styles. I studied, read, reread, analyzed the classic methodologies in professional journals. When I did, I learned that these specific beads dated from the very early 1600s, with a few from the 1630s and many older ones from 1600-1625. One bead actually dated from the 1500s. So I concluded, from bead dating, that the site likely dated to the 1630s.”
This was, Paquette said, “at least a hundred years earlier than anyone had ever found anywhere in Michigan, and completely unexpected in the U.P. I said, ‘People will think I’m nuts.’ So I sent my work out to as many archaeologists as I could, and asked them to please look at it and tell me what’s wrong.
“But they all agreed that I’d done it right. We asked Dr. Heather Walker, who had just completed her dissertation on chemical processes of dating beads, to analyze these beads. She dug in, and she agreed. We ended up writing an article together, which was published in the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology” in 2017 after rigorous peer review.
Paquette said this means that archaeologists have “accepted” the 1630s as the site’s date. “It’s rewritten the history of the timing of two cultures: the Native Americans in the Great Lakes and the Europeans just coming in.”
Walker is now undertaking the process of pulling together a multi-authored paper which will provide a complete analysis of the site and its many artifacts.
As for Paquette himself, “This lit a fire in me to learn more about who I was, and I was able to trace my own French Canadian and Ojibwe ancestry. My ancestors were among the first of the French traders who came here to the Great Lakes. Old French church records are still available, and I could trace back to where the original Native American names appeared. A French great-grandfather of mine was born in Quebec and moved here in the 1690s, marrying into an Anishinaabe family. To me, the people of this site are not just unknown people. Their objects are like family heirlooms to me. It’s personal to me.”
He added, “I’ve been so fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. But it wasn’t just luck. I’ve felt connections to the past, felt that I could see what I would find before I found it. Like at the island on Silver Lake: something was there, something called me. I somehow know I’d find an 11,000-year-old spear point, and there it was. When stuff like this happens, I don’t know why. But it puts the responsibility on me to tell the story right. I’m the storyteller.”

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