Community archaeology uncovers history at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center

A man holds a shard of pottery.

In 1872, the De Swarte family, a group of Dutch settlers, built their home on a bluff near Lake Michigan. They had a house and a barn on several acres of land before they left the area in 1892.

David Pacifico knows about the family name, dates and buildings thanks to old surveyor’s maps and records he found with the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

He knows about their crockery, tools and nails thanks to the amateur archaeological dig at what is now Schlitz Audubon Nature Center.

Jacob De Swarte was a Dutch immigrant who lived on a farm on what is now the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center.

Pacifico is the director of the UWM Emile H. Mathis Art Gallery as well as the leader of MCAP, the Milwaukee Community Archaeology Project. The project aims to explore the long-term impacts of urbanism on the landscape of southeastern Wisconsin. Currently, Pacifico is doing that by excavating the remains of the De Swarte barn to learn more about the immigrants that helped build Milwaukee into the city it is today.

He’s doing it with help from an unusual quarter: local citizens turned amateur archaeologists, alongside experienced volunteers including undergraduate and graduate students and professional archaeologists.

“Archaeologists in general have been interested in this notion of community archaeology,” Pacifico said. “Doing these things together creates community in the present. We bring people together to create a network of social relationships among people who might not have otherwise gotten together, and we’re doing so around a project that tells us about the city and the area that we live in.”

Though Pacifico is responsible for running the Mathis gallery, his background is actually in archaeology. Much of his research and field work focuses on civilizations in Peru, but in 2017, his interests took a more local bent. Pacifico was hiking in the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center one day and began wondering, as archaeologists are wont to do, what lay beneath the surface of the land.

“Their name implies a historical connection because Schlitz refers the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company. You can see, walking around, some bits of the farm used to pasture the Schlitz horses that used to deliver the beer,” Pacifico said. “My thought was, what came before that?”

Old maps provide clues

So, he turned to UWM’s American Geographical Society Library and the Milwaukee County Historical Society for answers. He found some in maps dating back to the late 19th century.

“What’s really cool about them is they show property lines. They show ownership names, and they have dots where the buildings were,” Pacifico said. “That’s a big clue as to what was there beforehand. And when you have names, you can start asking, who are these people? You can find records of them and start chasing the trail a bit.”

He overlaid the historical maps with modern satellite imagery and found an approximate location for certain buildings, like the De Swarte barn. Then he approached Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, asking to explore.

He and the center’s director of conservation, Marc White, stumbled upon a pit relating to the farmhouse almost immediately when they began to search, and they found the remains of a barn in March of 2018 during a public lecture and hike at the Audubon Center. Reporter Susan Bence from WUWM, who was on the hike, captured and broadcast the barn discovery.

“Nobody at the Nature Center knew of this barn foundation,” Pacifico said. “They just didn’t know to look for it. There’s oftentimes lots of stuff in plain view that’s a clue, the tip of the proverbial iceberg.”

Plenty of help

Now Pacifico needed help to excavate his discovery. Luckily, Schlitz Audubon had a reliable membership network of people who were eager to get down in the dirt. Almost 100 attended an interest meeting when White asked for volunteers to participate in this archaeological dig.

The dig was set for November 2018. A veritable army showed up – everyone from UWM graduate students who work as archaeologists in the university’s Cultural Resource Management program to high school anthropology students to local retirees.

“We had a lot of people come, and they excavated in the worst conditions I think anyone has ever excavated in. It was the first weekend in November and we had a snowstorm,” Pacifico recalled with a laugh.

But among the dirt and mud, the diggers struck gold – or at least, they struck iron. The barn had plenty of forgotten nails that told a story. Some nails were pristine and had probably been dropped and lost before they were used; others were bent and hammered, with signs that they had been pulled out and re-used, which may mean that the Schlitz family, who bought the land after the De Swartes left the area, disassembled the barn at some point.

Lots of clues

Then there were the ceramic fragments. Someone found the rim of a crock made of stoneware that had both a salt glaze and albany slip as surface treatments or decorations. There were bits and pieces of vessels made from durable ironstone and fragments of finer porcelain – perhaps a cup that had been broken and now re-used in the barn for holding nails, Pacifico speculated.

Some finds seemed rather mysterious, but many of Pacifico’s volunteer archaeologists had surprisingly helpful skillsets.

“For example, we found a metal rivet that we weren’t sure if it was a button off a coat or a piece of metal horse tackle,” he said. “We also found flat little ‘nails’ that we weren’t sure of. It helped that we had someone who had a former career as an equestrian who … pointed out these actually might be the teeth from a mane comb.”

The dig drew an unexpected volunteer: David Sandmire, a direct descendant of the De Swarte family, saw the call for volunteers online and flew in from his home on the east coast to help the crew. Sandmire is interested in genealogy and had charted his family tree with incredible accuracy.

“He had things like photographs of the house and the barn with Bart De Swarte, one of the descendants of Jacob De Swarte who lived there,” Pacifico said.

Presenting findings

Sandmire later presented some of this genealogy work at an MCAP symposium. In fact, many of the amateur archaeologists and students who worked the dig attended to present their findings. Though they are not academics and have never written scholarly articles, some chose to write reports that Pacifico is hoping to compile for publication in an archaeology journal.

“Any time you can provide the opportunity for people to participate in authentic research, people find it to be a rewarding experience. I think it helps makes the process of research less mysterious,” Pacifico said. “To be able to create a social community, a sense of commonality … around an intellectual pursuit that tells about the history of the place we live is a really rewarding activity.”

Pacifico is planning another dig for this October, when he and his army of volunteers will excavate two more patches of ground near the barn. Anyone, he says, is welcome to sign up and join.

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