There is Something Fishy about this Privy

It’s official… the fish skeletal material recovered from the Saint’s Rest privy, the toilet associated with the first dormitory on campus contained walleye!

Walleye. Image source

Walleye. Image source.

Walleye are the largest member of the perch family and can be caught in shallow bays and inland lakes. As there are plenty of inland lakes surrounding East Lansing, it is possible that these fish were caught locally and served on campus. Also, walleye actively feed all year round, they can be caught during any season, however, it is easier to catch them during the early morning and evening, as that is their prime feeding times (MI DNR).

Walleye Teeth image source

Walleye Teeth. Image source.

When the privy was excavated, an immense amount of bone was recovered from the southwest corner. The bones were very densely packed, and excavators were under time constraints so the area was block lifted and screened back at the lab!

West Circle Privy after excavation.

West Circle Privy after excavation.

This privy was a permanent brick structure, a earth-closet type of privy, which means that it would have been cleaned out regularly, which may explain why the fish remains were packed tightly into the back corner, possibly out of reach as a result of the cleaning process.

So how do I know that they are walleye? To determine which species the fish remains were, I began at the MSU Museum, where in the collections is a small fish index. This has many different bone elements separated out and labeled by species. This allowed me to get a preliminary identification of walleye or sauger. However, as the index does not include every single fish bone, I wanted further verification. Luckily for me, Dr. Terrance Martin (Illinois State Museum, emeritus) was visiting MSU and was able to take a few minutes and look at the Saints Rest privy fish remains. He also agreed that they looked like walleye, but suggested that I verify the remainder of the materials against other walleye specimens. Unfortunately, the MSU Museum did not have any other walleye skeletal materials in the collections so I turned to another museum. This past week, a specimen loan from the Field Museum arrived, allowing me to take the material and confirm that it is in fact walleye! Below are some images of the fish remains, in comparison to the walleye specimen.

Walleye Dentary

Walleye Operculum

Walleye Operculum

Now that I have many of the previously identified elements confirmed as walleye, I am going to move forward on identifying the remainder of the fish remains, as I already have them sorted by side, counted, and weighed. In addition to focusing on the fish materials, I will begin looking through the mammal remains that have been uncovered on campus, including cow, pig, and sheep/goat with the goal of determining what type of meat cuts were present, and the proportions of species present within the archaeological contexts. Stay tuned for more updates on the Campus Archaeology animal bone identifications!

Resources:

DNR Walleye: http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10364_53405-216550–,00.html

Here Fishy Fishy: Fish Importation in the 1860s

As I have been going through the purchasing records for the Agricultural Boarding Hall at the MSU Archives, I’ve noticed some interesting purchases that I did not expect to run across. These are the purchasing notes for imported fish, including Lake Superior Whitefish and Halibut. I am particularly interested in the importation of the Lake Superior Whitefish because I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, right across the street from Lake Superior. Growing up in Marquette Michigan, Lake Superior Whitefish was a staple in our house and is very common at local restaurants in town. I was surprised to find it purchased by Michigan State during the Early Period! The archival records show that during the 1860s, not only was MSU was purchasing Lake Superior Whitefish, but that they were doing it throughout the year. During the Early Period of MSU (1855-1870), I was expecting that almost all food resources that MSU utilized would be local, because of the difficult nature of transporting more exotic/distant food. To be able to transport fish from Lake Superior to MSU, the fish would have to be either transported on ice (more difficult to do during the summer months) or they would have been salted to preserve them.

1861 Purchasing records for the boarding hall (Saint's Rest) - lake superior whitefish highlighted. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

1861 Purchasing records for the boarding hall (Saint’s Rest) – lake superior whitefish highlighted. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Before I dive into the history of fishing on Lake Superior, here is a quick background information on Lake Superior Whitefish. Lake Superior whitefish are a member of the trout/salmon family (Salmonidae). The reason whitefish were and still are such a popular fish is due to its tasty flavor, convenient size, and their habit of schooling that allows for easier mass catching (DNR). Whitefish hatch in the spring, and grow rapidly, allowing them to reach over 20 pounds and can live over 25 years (DNR).

Whitefish - Image Source: DNR

Whitefish – Image Source: DNR

Fishing for Lake Superior Whitefish has a long history in the state, and commercial fishing on Lake Superior has had some major changes throughout Michigan’s history (Goniea DNR; Minnesota Sea Grant). Small steamer ships are no longer required for transporting fish to the market (Holmquist 1955). Now it is possible to drive the fish catch downstate along the highways throughout Michigan, many of which follow the Great Lake shorelines. One part of commercial fishing that has not changed is the most common method of fishing: gill nets. However, there are now different laws that govern the size of the mesh used by fishermen as well as fishing seasons (Holmquist 1955).

The steamer "Hiram R Dixon" fished regularly along Lake Superiors North Shore. Image Source

The steamer “Hiram R Dixon” fished regularly along Lake Superiors North Shore. Image Source

Through the 1890s, whitefish were the most popular/mainstay within the Lake Superior commercial fishing, but through the early 1900s, the species almost became extinct. Now with the help of more restrictive fishing methods and artificial propagation, whitefish populations are at adequate levels for commercial fishing once again (Holmquist 1955). According to Holmquist (1955) a second attempt of large-scale fishing on Lake Superior occurring around 1860, when a commercial operation was opened at Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is possible that this push in commercial fishing during this time influenced Michigan State’s purchasing of imported fish in addition to the more typical local resources.

Fishermen in a Mackinaw boat raising their nets. Image Source

Fishermen in a Mackinaw boat raising their nets. Image Source

While MSU farms and local businesses provided the majority of the food resources consumed by campus residents during the Early Period, it has been exciting to learn about the non-local resources that are being purchased for the boarding halls. While the purchasing of Lake Superior whitefish does not appear to be a constant throughout the 1860s (archival records indicate sporadic purchasing during three separate years), it is interesting that there was an inclusion of food that would have been more difficult to acquire. Students and faculty were treated to a more varied diet than what their local surroundings could produce. The purchasing of Lake Superior whitefish during this time shows the appreciation of great resources and the wonder of the Upper Peninsula before the building of the Mackinaw Bridge!

 

Resources:

MSU Archives & Historical Collections: Kuhn Collection Volume 91. Agricultural boarding hall.

Commercial Fishing on Lake Superior in the 1890s by June Drenning Holmquist (1955): http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/34/v34i06p243-249.pdf

DNR: http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10364_18958-45680–,00.html

Tom Goniea (DNR) – The Story of State-licensed Commercial Fishing History on the Great Lakes: http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10364_52259-316019–,00.html

Minnesota Sea Grant – Lake Superior and Michigan Fisheries: A Closer Look: http://www.seagrant.umn.edu/fisheries/superior_michigan_fisheries