Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Plans and Profiles: Ryan Howell Researching Fur Trade Era Sites in Wisconsin

Ryan Howell at Roman baths in England
Ryan Howell is a professional archaeologist with Southern Minnesota Archaeological Consulting, Inc (SMAC) who makes his living in Cultural Resource Management.  Laws can vary between different countries, states, and provinces, but generally if a development is going to take place that impacts the land, then an archaeological assessment is required to determine what cultural resources may lie in its path.  Consulting archaeologists like Ryan find ways to lessen the impact on the sites by advising the developers to avoid or protect archaeological resources where possible and by scientifically recording or excavating them if they can't be avoided.  Sometimes you choose the research project and sometimes the research project chooses you.

Plans and Profiles #16. Ryan Howell, Multi-cultural Fur Trade Era Sites of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin

1) Tell me a little bit about your project.

Ryan exploring an early 1810 French
cabin foundation
Well, as a CRM (cultural resource management) or "salvage" archaeologist I work throughout the United States on projects of almost every archaeological period, description and region. I then take research questions that I encounter in the field an make them my own particular research interests. Probably my favorite research project currently is working on the 1680-1820 Fur Trade era sites of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin USA. I find the social dynamics of this period fascinating, as it was a period of great cultural admixing and socio-cultural diversity. You had a mix of French Creoles, Metis, Scots, English, Spanish, Yankee-Americans, Free African Americans, and Native Americans (who then still held significant to dominant military, economic and political power in the region) all living and working together in relative harmony.

French-Fox 18th Century Composite Map (Click to Enlarge)

2) How did you become interested in this particular problem?

Fur Trade Goods
I was aware of the Prairie du Chien area's rich history and its general lack of Early Historic-era archaeological research previous to working in the field and had began to make contacts with local historians, artifact collectors and advocational archaeologists while working for the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center (MVAC) out of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. My interest grew as I worked on several projects in the area, including a large highway survey for MVAC that went close to several important Fur Trade era sites including a lost 1750's stockaded French-era "fort" in 2002-2003.

3) Has your project changed since you originally began working on it? How?

Yes, the work is on-going and like most research topics has branched out in many tangents. Prairie du Chien played a part in the War of 1812 and many of the Fur Trade era sights saw use during a battle of that war in the area, the history of Native American settlement and eventual abandonment of the area is also a fascinating topic. Right now I am focused more on protecting the remaining period sites than I am in digging them professionally. I am also focused on trying to involve local school groups and other local citizens in learning about and protecting the history that exists under their homes and sidewalks.

Prairie du Chien 1830. Lewis colour litho-edited

4) If you could ask the people who lived at your site(s) one question what would it be?

Fur Trade. Indians Bartering Coke Smyth 1842
What was it like to live in such a multi-cultural society in an era when stereo-types, a strict social-hierarchy and racism were not only common place, but almost universally excepted and encouraged? Was the relative peace and harmony of the area merely a result of the need for economic cooperation or was there a level of tolerance and mutual respect that developed between the local people(s) themselves? These are questions and problems we still grapple with in the 21st century, maybe the people of the 17th-19th centuries have lessons to teach us....

5) Why did you choose a career in Cultural Resource Management?

I always enjoyed the fieldwork side of archaeology, and wanted a career where I would be digging more that I would be teaching or working in a museum. I also enjoy the challenge of needing to adapt to new sites, periods and regional research issues "on the fly". Never knowing what kind of sites you might encounter from week to week keeps the work ever challenging and exciting. There was also the reality (and I became aware of this very early in my undergraduate years) that in the US about 90-95% of the available archaeological jobs are CRM-related and if you want to get paid to do what you love in the US, CRM is the place you are going to do it.

1825 Treaty at Prairie du Chien

6) If you could give your younger self advice at the start of your career, what would it be?

I was very focused on working constantly, year-round and always seeking management opportunities and achieving advancement goals in my early CRM career. I passed up a lot of great volunteer opportunities to work abroad and thereby get to work with a more diverse group of archaeologists with very different methodological and theoretical perspectives. I do this as much as I can now, but it is a lot more difficult to do so the later you get on in life and your career. If I could do it over again I would spend less focus and energy on "climbing the ladder" and more on broadening my perspective.

7) How do you unwind when you need to get away from your research?

Fox - French Portraits
I like to hunt and fish, since most of the people I study were hunter/gathers I think a knowledge of how to live and subsist on the landscape my "study group" lived in/on is essential and has made me a better archaeologist. I also flintknapp, but again it makes me better at understanding and "reading" stone tools. I also enjoy reading, but what do I read for fun- archaeology and history books of course. The reality of it is that if you really enjoy archaeology it can become a bit obsessive. Like the old saying goes "If you love what you do for a living, you never "work" a day in your life". 

Prairie du Chien French Areas
8) What is one thing that you can’t imagine doing fieldwork without?

A map. Or nowadays a GPS overlay. When I started, projects were often planned out on bar napkins, sadly those days are long gone....probably for the best.

9) What books or websites would you recommend if people want to learn more about your area of interest in general? Or your project in particular?

The Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center has a great regional archaeological website and offers a bunch of educational, field and lab opportunities for both non-professional adults and students. (

Grignons: Green Bay Fur Traders
As for Prairie du Chien history, the Fort Crawford Museum ( has a nice series of displays on historic sites in the area and on recent archaeological excavations in the city. Its a great starting place for those with local historical interest and the staff there are always friendly and willing to help anyone interested in the area learn more.
As for books "Prairie du Chien: French, British, American" from 1937 by Dr. Peter Scanlan remains the seminal, if dated, text for a sub-regional focus. A new book on Prairie du Chien history and archaeology is sorely needed, but is probably not quite possible at this time.

"The Middle Ground; Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815" ca. 1991 by Richard White is a highly accessible and thorough study of the cultural and historical dynamics of the period and region and is one of my favorites.


Would you like to see your work profiled here? Or perhaps you know a deserving student or colleague whose research deserves some attention.  Please get in touch

Photo Credits:
Ryan Howell or Open Source
Plans and Profiles Banner, Tim Rast based on a linocut by Lori White

1 comment:

  1. I had no idea that Wisconsin was so ethnically diverse in the 17th-19th centuries. Cool work.


Related Posts with Thumbnails