Saginaw Valley

People are often surprised to learn that Michigan has a rich archaeological record of more than 11,000 years of human occupation. The Saginaw Valley is an important source of information about these early residents who left an extensive and varied record of their presence.


The archaeological record in Michigan is revealed through careful excavation of archaeological sites–places where people lived, worked, rested or conducted activity that left some observable trace.  The archaeological record consists of fragments of tools and pottery, animal bones and seeds and patterns in the soil marking the location of fire hearths, storage pits and post molds. These bits of data may have a humble appearance but they are a treasure trove of real information. Archaeologists use this information to reconstruct the life ways of Michigan’s early inhabitants and reveal how they adapted to a changing environment.

Click on a period below to learn more 

Paleo-Indian Period (ca. 10,000-8,000 B.C.)

The initial human colonization of the Great Lakes region occurred during the Paleo-Indian period when small groups of nomadic hunters and gathers began moving into Michigan from the south. Evidence suggests that these people lived in small bands and hunted large game animals such as caribou and mastodon. Several mastodon skeletons have been found in Michigan. Based on the presence of cutmarks on several of the bones, the animals appear to have been butchered In addition to large mammal hunting, Paleo-Indians probably utilized a variety of smaller animals and plants for food. The Gainey site, in Genesee County, is the best-known archaeological site in the region from this early time period. Paleo-Indian sites are recognized by the presence of diagnostic flaked stone tools (especially fluted projectile points and knives) and their manufacturing debris. Most Paleo-Indian sites consist only of isolated finds or small, low density scatters of tools and lithic (stone) debris. The styles of artifacts made by Paleo-Indians changed through time. Based on stratigraphic relationships and radiocarbon dates from other parts of North America, the progression of projectile point/knife types in Michigan is thought to be Gainey, Barnes then Holcombe. Lanceolate-shaped Agate Basin points are uncommon in Michigan, but they may be considered to date from the latest part of the Paleo-Indian or the earliest part of the Archaic period. Not only did artifact styles change through time, the pattern of raw material use also changed. During the early part of the Paleo-Indian period lithic materials from Ohio such as Upper Mercer chert and Flint Ridge chalcedony were most common. Later in the Paleo-Indian period, Bayport chert from the Saginaw Bay area dominates tool assemblages.

Archaic Period (8,000-500 B.C)

Archaeological sites of the Archaic period are identified by diagnostic copper, shell, flaked stone and ground stone artifacts. Ground stone artifacts include gorgets, banner- stones, birdstones, celts, axes and other objects. Flaked stone tools include a variety of notched and stemmed knives, atlatl dart/spear points and other cutting and scraping tools. Archaeologists usually divide the Archaic period into Early, Middle, and Late subperiods. Patterns of raw material use changed throughout the Archaic period. Exotic (non-local) materials such as Kettle Point chert from Ontario, Flint Ridge chalcedony from Ohio, and Upper Mercer chert from Ohio are frequently found at Early Archaic sites in the Saginaw Valley. During the Middle Archaic period, the use of exotic materials declined and Bayport chert was used almost exclusively. Local materials such as Bayport chert continue to dominate assemblages until near the end of the Late Archaic period when exotic materials including Wyandotte chert from southern Indiana, Onondaga chert from the Ontario/New York area and Pipe Creek chert from northern Ohio became common in assemblages.

Early Archaic (8,000-6,000 B.C.)

No intact Early Archaic sites have been excavated in the Saginaw Valley. Evidence for the Early Archaic inhabitants of the region consists almost entirely of small numbers of scattered stone tools found on the surface of multi-component sites. Identification of these tools as Early Archaic is based on typological similarities with artifacts from dated sites elsewhere in eastern North America and the Midwest. Early Archaic projectile point styles found in the Saginaw Valley include HiLo, Kirk, Thebes and a variety of bifurcate-based points. Like their Paleo-Indian predecessors, Early Archaic people probably continued a highly mobile hunting and gathering way of life. Early Archaic sites are present in low numbers throughout the Saginaw Valley but are more plentiful in the moraines and dune fields on the valley margins.

Middle Archaic (6,000-3,000 B.C.)

Only a few Middle Archaic period sites have been excavated in the Saginaw Valley. The Weber I site, located on the Cass River near Frankenmuth, has been interpreted as a residential base camp for a small family group. Other sites are interpreted as “logistic camps” where a small number of people camped for a short time while using specific resources available in the area. The limited data suggest residential base camps were located so that smaller task groups, sent out from the base, would have maximum access to both upland and lowland resources in the Saginaw Valley. Large, side-notched Raddatz and other, smaller, side-notched points are the most typical diagnostic Middle Archaic artifacts found in the Saginaw Valley. The distinctive Michigan Barbed Ax may also have originated in the Middle Archaic period.

Late Archaic (3,000-500 B.C.)

Archaeologists have found and documented a large number and variety of Late Archaic sites in the Saginaw Valley. Based on the number and size of sites, it appears the Late Archaic period in the Saginaw Valley was marked by a substantial increase in population. However, due to drastically changing levels of the Great Lakes, many Early and Middle Archaic sites may be either deeply buried or under water, so it is possible that a substantial population increase may be more apparent than real. The Late Archaic period inhabitants of the Saginaw Valley utilized a wide variety of plants and animals for food and raw materials, focusing especially on wetland adapted species. By 1,000 B.C., Late Archaic people in the Saginaw Valley were growing domesticated squash to supplement wild foods and, perhaps, to use as containers. Current evidence suggests that this earliest farming was practiced only to a limited extent. Our first glimpses of the ceremonial or ritual practices of the inhabitants of the Saginaw Valley appear in the Late Archaic period. Across much of Michigan and the Midwest, Late Archaic people engaged in ceremonial and mortuary practices that have traditionally been described as a series of “cultures.“ These have beenlabeled Old Copper, Glacial Kame and Red Ocher. Relatively few Old Copper or Glacial Kame artifacts have been found in the Saginaw Valley, but there is ample evidence that near the end of the Late Archaic period and continuing into the Early Woodland Period, the inhabitants of the Saginaw Valley engaged in ceremonial or ritual activities associated with the Red Ocher Complex. The Red Ocher Complex describes burial and ceremonial practices in use over a wide area of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. It is characterized by the placement of liberal amounts of red ocher, a red pigment derived from iron oxide, with caches of various exotic artifacts including “Turkey Tail” bifaces, triangular cache blades, stone and copper celts and adzes, copper beads, birdstones and other artifacts. The red ocher and artifact caches were often included with human burials, but this was not always the case. Several caches of Red Ocher Complex artifacts are known from non-mortuary contexts. Heavily used examples of Red Ocher Complex artifacts are sometimes found mixed with other discarded domestic debris. In addition to Red Ocher Complex artifacts, Late Archaic sites in the Saginaw Valley often produce a variety of flaked stone tools including several types of notched and stemmed projectile points and knives.

Woodland Period (600 B.C. – A.D. 1600s)

The first use of fired-clay ceramics marks the beginning of the Woodland period in the Great Lakes region. Woodland period sites are also identified by the presence of diagnostic flaked and ground stone tools including a variety of notched, stemmed and triangular projectile points and cultivated plant remains. A variety of native seed plants and cultivated domestic plants such as squash and maize became more important in the diet. Throughout the Woodland period, mobility continued to decrease. By the latter part of the Late Woodland period permanent agricultural villages were established in many parts of the Great Lakes region. In the Saginaw Valley no large villages have been found. Here, people continued to be quite mobile, perhaps living part of the year in dispersed farmsteads. The raw materials used for flaked stone tools varied considerably throughout the Woodland period. The use of Onondaga and Pipe Creek chert carried over from the transitional Late Archaic/Early Woodland Meadowood Phase, which began at approximately 700 B.C. Later in the Early Woodland period, Flint Ridge chalcedony began to be used to manufacture distinctive stemmed Adena points. The use of exotic materials, including Flint Ridge chalcedony and Upper Mercer chert from east central Ohio, Wyandotte chert from southern Indiana and Burlington chert from Illinois, increased during the Middle Woodland period. In the early part of the Late Woodland period, most of the exotic materials drop out of the stone tool assemblages. The exception is Upper Mercer chert, which actually increases in frequency. Later, even Upper Mercer drops out of use and Bayport chert and local pebble cherts are found almost exclusively. Even in times of increased use of exotic materials, local Bayport chert dominates nearly all Woodland assemblages

Early Woodland (600-100 B.C.)

The Early Woodland is viewed as a transitional period. People began the shift from being highly mobile hunters and gatherers to being more stable farmers and cultivators. In the Saginaw Valley, the start of the Early Woodland period is marked by the first use of fired-clay ceramics. The earliest ceramics in the Saginaw Valley are referred to as “Schultz Thick” ceramics, named after the Schultz site in Saginaw, which is one of the best known Early Woodland sites in the region. As the name implies, these vessels were thick (sometimes up to 2 cm thick) and heavy. Schultz thick ceramics are characteristically textured on both the exterior and interior surfaces with impressions made with a cord-wrapped paddle. These vessels were often fitted with “lug” handles near the rim. Initially at least, these new innovations did not cause great change in the overall lifeways of the local population. The transition from hunting and gathering to farming was gradual, over hundreds of years. In the Saginaw Valley, the hunting and gathering way of life was not replaced fully until the Historic period. Artifacts associated with the Red Ocher Complex and a few styles of projectile points and knives carry over from the Late Archaic into the beginning of the Early Woodland. Although they overlap in time, these carry-overs have not been found on sites producing Early Woodland ceramics in the Saginaw Valley. Distinctive stemmed Adena and Kramer points are also characteristic of the Early Woodland period.

Middle Woodland (100 B.C.- A.D. 500)

Across much of eastern North America and the Midwest, the Hopewellian “Mound Builders” of the Middle Woodland period adopted similar religious and ceremonial practices, engaged in the construction of massive burial mounds and earthworks, participated in far-flung networks of trade and exchange and cultivated a variety of native plants. The inhabitants of the Saginaw Valley actively participated in this widespread cultural phenomenon as indicated by the presence of exotic stone materials such as Flint Ridge chalcedony from Ohio, Burlington chert from Illinois and Wyandotte chert from Indiana; the occurrence of conch and other marine shells from the Gulf Coast; the construction of burial mounds and the inclusion of exotic grave goods with the burials; and the use of classic Hopewellian styles to decorate their ceramics. Despite clear Hopewellian ties, the Middle Woodland inhabitants of the Saginaw Valley maintained a distinctive local identity. They made use of some of the same starchy-seeded plants, but unlike their southern counterparts, they did not become farmers dependent upon horticulture. They maintained and intensified their centuries-old system of hunting, fishing and collecting wild resources. As with the Early Woodland period, the Schultz site in Saginaw is also one of the best-known Middle Woodland period sites in the region. Artifacts typically found at Middle Woodland sites in the Saginaw Valley include large corner-notched Snyders or Norton points; a variety of smaller corner-notched and expanding-stemmed points; engraved turtle shell bowls; various awls, weaving or matting needles, beamers, harpoons, and other items made from bone or antler; and several varieties of often highly decorated ceramics.

Late Woodland (A.D. 500-1600s)

Major developments during the Late Woodland period included the introduction of the bow and arrow, as well as changes in subsistence practices, settlement patterns and social organization. The collapse of the Hopewell phenomenon at the end of the Middle \ Woodland period seems to have had only a minimal impact on the early Late Woodland residents of the Saginaw Valley. The variety of exotic trade goods brought into the Saginaw Valley decreased at the end of the Middle Woodland period, but marine shell from the Gulf Coast continued to be available and the amount of Upper Mercer chert brought in from east central Ohio, usually in the form of corner-notched Jack’s Reef points, actually increased for a time. However, these extensive trade networks did not persist. Evidence indicates trade and exchange were limited by around A.D. 1,000. The cultivation of squash and sunflowers and the processing and storage of these species and wild plants such as nuts, wild rice and other starchy seeds began in the Late Archaic period and continued and intensified throughout the Early and Middle Woodland periods. This created the conditions that allowed a shift to intensified horticulture in the Late Woodland period. Maize did not become a significant part of the diet until after A.D. 800-1,000. By A.D. 1,100 there is strong evidence for the deliberate cultivation, harvesting, processing and storage of maize, squash, tobacco and sunflowers. The shift to more intensified farming and cultivation was accompanied by a change in the settlement pattern. By the latter portion of the Late Woodland period, there is archaeological evidence of small, dispersed farmsteads located on arable land and small campsites located to collect wild resources. Large agricultural village sites are typical of the Late Woodland period in other parts of the Midwest and Great Lakes region, but no such sites are known in the Saginaw Valley.

Historic Period

The initial contact between Native Americans and Europeans marks the end of the Late Woodland period and the beginning of the Historic period. It is during the Historic period that we can first speak of actual named Native American groups living in the Great Lakes region. In the 17th through 19th centuries, Native American groups reported living in and traveling through this region included the Ojibwa, Fox, Potawatami, Miami, Ottawa and various Iroquoian groups including the Huron and Seneca. Additionally, traditional accounts derived from oral histories of the Ojibwa collected in the 19th and early 20th centuries indicate the Sauk resided in the Saginaw Valley. France claimed much of the Great Lakes region in the 17th century. As a result of the French and Indian War, the area fell under British rule in 1763. The British period was relatively short-lived; by the end of the 18th century, the United States had established control of the Great Lakes region. The 1819 Treaty of Saginaw opened the Saginaw region to Euro-American settlement. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, settlement proceeded at a slow pace and was primarily agrarian in nature. In 1822, lingering discontent among the local Ojibwa about the terms of the treaty and a wish to encourage further white settlement prompted the Federal Government to construct Fort Saginaw, a short-lived settlement that was abandoned in 1824. The lumber industry got its start in the 1830s but the few sawmills built in the 1830s and 1840s produced lumber only for local consumption. The main lumbering period in the Saginaw Valley is generally dated between 1851 and 1897. By 1870, there were more than 80 lumber mills in operation in the Saginaw area. By the close of the century, nearly 23 billion board feet of lumber were processed through these mills. In addition to the lumber mills, various log booming companies were set up to collect and sort logs rafted down the rivers. Remnants of these boom companies, their sorting pens and associated boarding houses can still be found in Saginaw today. Although some artifacts are present in museums and private collections, archaeological sites from the French and British periods are not well known in the Saginaw Valley. An 18th century Native American cemetery at the Fletcher site in Bay County is a notable exception. The Cater site, in Midland County, is a good example of an excavated early 19th century Native American and mid-19th century Euro-American habitation site.

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