Archaeological digs at North Idaho College aim to unearth “invisible stories” of Fort Sherman

There was one point on Monday when student archaeologists came out of a hole several feet deep on the North Idaho College campus in Coeur d’Alene and looked like what looked like a broken piece of wood.

The find came at the end of a two-week historical excavation at sites that were once part of Fort Sherman, a US Army stronghold established in the late 19th century. As part of an archaeological field school at the University of Idaho, students from five colleges and universities took part in the excavation, which was organized in collaboration between UI, North Idaho College and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

“Fort Sherman is an ideal place to research identity constructions and negotiations in spaces of cultural encounter,” says Katrina Eichner, assistant professor for anthropology at the UI. “We hope that the materials discovered here enable a more diverse and differentiated understanding of the past.”

Upon completion of the excavation, UI researchers will work to determine what was found at the sites about half a mile from each other along College Drive and West River Avenue. The northern location was once home to the fort’s married men’s quarters, said Conner Weygint, a graduate student at UI. The non-commissioned officers’ quarters, however, were in the south.

Just the forest found in the northern location could be unspectacular from a historical archaeologist’s perspective, said Mark Warner, professor of anthropology at UI.

It can also be irrelevant. Weygint said the researchers believe the wood may have come from a sawmill in the area after the fort was closed.

That could change if it is evaluated along with other finds from the excavations, including bottle fragments, pottery shards and other bits of survival.

“An artifact doesn’t tell a story,” said Warner. “A hundred artifacts do.”

Since Eichner led the overall project, researchers from UI and North Idaho College worked closely with the Coeur d’Alene tribe to take into account the tribal history of the country.

“The fort’s history is complicated and traumatic for Coeur d’Alene members,” said Jennifer Fletcher, public relations director for the Coeur d’Alene tribe, in a statement. “The American military used the fort as part of a colonial campaign to drive the tribe from their ancestral homelands.”

Fletcher was unavailable for further comments.

The fort was originally founded in 1878 on a tribal land called Hnch’mqinkwe ‘which was used by Coeur d’Alene Indians. according to Spokane Historical. A year earlier, Civil War General William T. Sherman, who allegedly found the area beautiful, recommended the site as a fort to the Federal War Department.

Camp Coeur d’Alene was officially established on April 16, 1878. The name was changed to Fort Sherman in 1887, and the fort remained until it was abandoned shortly after the Spanish-American War in 1900, according to Spokane Historical.

A particular goal of the archaeological project is to highlight the history of the country’s indigenous community, coupled with the contributions of women, children, and black soldiers occupying the fort.

“Occupation stories in the West tend to focus on the role of elite white male military officers in hostile conflicts with Indian tribes,” Eichner said in a statement. “By focusing on this unique narrative, the stories and perspectives of a variety of historically marginalized groups are obscured in traditional interpretations of heritage.”

The black soldier unit known as the 24th Infantry occupied the fort for about three years before Fort Sherman was abandoned, Weygint said.

“I think if you look around and tell the people in Coeur d’Alene they are here, you get a lot of surprised looks and people who don’t know the army is here and an African American unit is here,” he said .

To tell these and other stories from Fort Sherman, the project leaders hired students from UI, North Idaho College, Sweet Briar College, Augustana University, and the University of California, Berkeley.

Warner said UI previously hosted similar projects to connect with the community. During the two-week period at North Idaho College, project organizers scheduled viewing appointments for the people to watch the archaeologists at work.

With the field school, students learned not only the history of their excavations but also the correct archaeological practices, said graduate student Katie Kitch.

“The big picture of historical archeology this project is about is telling the story of people of the past in ways that people don’t think of,” said Warner. “There are many recorded narrations and written records of life in the fortress and so on. What archeology is telling you are invisible stories that people don’t necessarily think of when trying to record the past. “

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