Forest Archaeology

Nov 20, 2020

If you live up here, you are familiar with the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. What you may not know is that these forests were inhabited for thousands of years and that there is a team of archaeologists who protect and manage these cultural resources.

Walking the trails of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest around Butternut and Franklin lakes, near Eagle River, you might never know that human history here goes back thousands of years. But the Forest helps tell the story.

Hidden Lakes Trail (Photo courtesy of Jim Skibo)

A sign along the Hidden Lakes Trail that goes through the Butternut and Franklin Lake Archaeological District offers part of the story.

“As you walk the Hidden Lakes Trail you walk in footprints of people who lived in these lands long before Europeans lived in the area.”

According to Assistant Forest Archaeologist, Chris Houlette, “The Butternut and Franklin Lakes archaeological district on the east side of the Forest is made up of a number of pre-contact sites that were found through survey and subsurface testing.  As a group they are a very important collection of resources.”

It is Houlette’s job, along with the other forest archaeologists, to manage and protect these cultural resources. Long-time Heritage Program Manager for the Forest, Mark Bruhy, was responsible for creating the Butternut and Franklin Lakes Archaeological District. He is now retired but he was part of a team that originally found these sites.

“We found resources that date back to the Paleo Indian period. The Late Paleo Indian Period. And we continued to find sites based on artifact types that represented the major cultural traditions. Paleo Indian, Archaic, Woodland, and even the most recent precontact Upper Mississippian.”

Bruhy and his team excavated two of the sites and began to find evidence of what life was like hundreds and in some cases thousands of years ago.

Excavation in progress (Photo courtesy of Mark Bruhy)

“We began to find through excavation that we conducted through two summers fishing related implements such as net sinkers—simple stones that have been notched. We found copper tools including a harpoon that was obviously a fishing implement. Fishing was very clearly defined at one or more of these sites along the shores of Butternut and Franklin Lakes.”

Fishing Harpoon Tip (Photo courtesy of Mark Bruhy)

Net Sinker (Photo courtesy of Mark Bruhy)

The 20 or so prehistoric sites in this area are part of the 2,700 recorded sites on the Forest that range from the first Native Americans through Euro-American homesteaders, loggers and settlers. It is Houlette’s job along with the other forest archaeologists to manage and protect these cultural resources.

“Basically, we navigate the compliance issues for the National Historic Preservation Act. That means we work to identify and investigate cultural resources on the forest.”

The National Historic Preservation Act, passed in 1966, requires all federal agencies to preserve and protect historic sites and assess how activities on federal lands affect the cultural resources.

“Working for the Forest Service in most places we are driven by the timber operations but there also fire operations, wildlife management issues. There are recreation concerns and we do a lot with engineering and watershed for bridges and culverts and road work. So essentially anything that is proposed to be done on the forest property requires a review.”

The job of Forest Archaeologists is to make sure these activities avoid disturbing or destroying cultural resources and especially those sites that have been nominated for or are currently listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The Chequamegon-Nicolet has many such sites. Some are open to the public as interpretive sites while others need their location and identity more closely guarded to protect them form looting and vandalism. Houlette suggests a couple of sites that are open to the public. https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/cnnf/about-forest/?cid=STELPRDB5425998

Fieldstone Masonary Cellar (Photo Courtesy of Chris Houlette)

“The Mountain Lookout Tower is a prominent site that people can go to. Its listed on the National Register. It is a unique structure that is tied to forest history and Civilian Conservation Corp. More towards the middle of the Forest toward the east side of the Park Falls district just west of Minocqua there is the Round Lake logging dam, which is the only one of its kind in the state.”

Houlette reminds us, however, that if you are at these sites or anywhere on the forest, visitors should not remove or disturb artifacts or features. But on the other hand, they rely on forest visitors to help them in their job. If you find something while on the Forest contact Houlette’s office and let them know.

Historic Era Artifact (Photo courtesy of Chris Houlette)

Although you cannot see direct evidence of occupation at the Butternut and Franklin Lakes Archaeological District, while walking the trails and reading the interpretive material, one can certainly get a feel for what life was like in the Northwoods thousands of years ago.

Luna Lake along the Hidden Lakes Trail (Photo courtesy of Jim Skibo)