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Access Type

WSU Access

Date of Award

January 2020

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Thomas W. Killion


The St. Clair system—a river, delta and lake between Lake Huron and the Detroit River—offers significant opportunities to study long-term maritime landscape formation, and to preserve a unique resource. Few maritime landscapes in the Great Lakes remain so deeply and clearly inscribed by successive cultures. This permits both focused and comprehensive analyses and comparisons of the ideologies, technologies and practices of indigenous, colonial, and modern societies as each created its unique place in the environment through four processes: cognition, dwelling, movement, and representation. The socially-conditioned perception of environmental resources and constraints, and resulting strategies to exploit the former while minimizing the latter, manifested in multiple forms. The diachronic anthropological study of maritime landscapes requires an interdisciplinary approach to such diverse evidence as place names, eyewitness accounts, maps, nautical practices, and material culture. Historical ecology offers the landscape anthropologist a flexible and inclusive theoretical and methodological toolkit, including multiple temporal frameworks, and the dialectical interaction of complex assemblages of agents.

Five periods are posited: indigenous, French colonial, British colonial, post-colonial and modern. In each, culturally-driven placemaking occurred through the interaction of the dominant society with its environment, and with predecessor societies. Resulting patterns of settlement, subsistence, movement, and representation produced a distinctive maritime landscape unique to each society and its period of dominance. Throughout the study period, however, a long-term pattern of maritime connectivity emerged, as the preponderance of agency gradually shifted from Nature, to an industrial maritime society capable of creating a built environment optimized for global waterborne transport. The once-convoluted channels of the St. Clair delta became a recreational mecca to nearby Detroit, earning it the nickname “America’s Venice.” The evolving material culture of maritime societies is quantitatively examined through choices made in local shipbuilding, while risk and failure is evidenced in the archaeological patterning of shipwrecks and their causes. Through “evidence-based storytelling,” the material culture of seafaring is reunited with local and national narratives, with the goal of recovering, interpreting and performing maritime heritage and identity through today’s descendant communities.

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