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by Ariel Terpstra

Children in the Archaeological Record: Where were the children on Beaver Island and how can we see them archaeologically?

             The fields of archaeology and anthropology have slowly been incorporating children since 1970 and have been using modern children as a model and reference for studying children from the past.  One of the strongest supporters for a special place for children was Margaret Mead , who emphasized how important socialization was in the lives and education of children, as well as the different kinds of socialization that exist in different cultures (Baxter 2005:4-5) .  Some of these are peer groups, schools, and churches. 

            The reason socialization is important is because “Human beings must be brought up among human beings who have learned from other human beings how to live in a particular way” (Mead 1984:4).  Therefore, in order to understand the children and their remains it is also important to understand what sort of culture they live in.  Since schoolhouses were often the center of communities in the 19th and early 20th centuries it is important to focus there to find out more about the children of an area.  The value that a community places on education is often reflected in how large the schoolhouse is.  In Michigan the law stated “wherever there were 7 children of school age a teacher and school must be provided” (Pike 1998: 181).

 Schools and Schoolhouses

            On Beaver Island there were eight different schools at one time or another.  The school’s locations varied from buildings set aside specifically for that reason to the parlors of people’s houses.  The locations also affected the demography of children. Lawrence McDonough recounted that at one time during the winter there were four other children living with his family so they could attend school.  He also recounted that when his siblings went to high school they lived in town with an aunt.  Yet even though education was so important that some children spent the winter with other families Lawrence himself was not able to attend high school.  A few weeks after his freshman year started his father hurt his back, requiring him to return home and take care of things on the farm. (McDonough 2011). 

            The schools on Beaver Island had an assorted history.  The old McKinley school overlaps the new high school (Journal of Beaver Island History 1976:182).  Roosevelt school was used as a dancehall before it burned down, and before that there was a little, red schoolhouse.  When that burned down, school was held at Pat McDonough’s until Roosevelt was built (Anonymous 1976: 203).  There was a school that was only mentioned as the 1880s school.  There was the schoolhouse on Sand Bay and the Sand Bay School (perhaps the same school).  Sunnyside school was also out in the country, and the last school was St. Ignatius Church, which was used as a school after blood was spilt in it (Anonymous 1976: 209).  The fact that Roosevelt was used as a dancehall shows how important it is to know the history of a school and the activities that were held there.  Knowing these things makes it easier to be a critical consumer of the artifacts recovered.

            Being a critical consumer of the artifacts is important because schools were not only a big part of children’s lives, but also of the community in general.  Gatherings of all sorts were commonly held within their walls.  That being the case, I looked at the locations of the schools in order to get a better feel for their placement within the community.  The school on Darkytown Road was in the middle of a large group of families by the 1870s.  Hugh Boyle, who lived on the lot adjoining the school had nine children, seven of whom were school age at the time on the census (U.S. Census 1870).  There were also several more families up and down Darkytown Road (Collar, ?).  Attendees remember the schools as being strict as quite a few of the teachers were nuns (Pike 1998: 183).  It is also claimed that Beaver Island schools consistently had the highest scores in the county (Pike 1998: 183).  This made me wonder who the teachers were and where were they educated?  One of the teachers was Morris Boyle, from Ireland (U.S. Census 1870), and another was Canadian born Patrick Boyle (U.S. Census 1880).

 Archaeological Evidence for Childhood in the Mormon Era

            But how do we find children in the archaeological record?  For the purpose of this paper ‘child’ is defined as “a young human being below the age of full physical development or below the legal age of majority.  A son or daughter of any age” (New Oxford American Dictionary).  In archaeology thus far, it is widely accepted that children exist in the record, but “people tend to focus on theoretical problems of children as cultural constructions, and upon the presence and absence of children within archaeology rather than upon material evidence” (Complutum 2010:16).  When are the artifacts found evidence of children and when are they just normal adult objects?  There is also a need to decenter the archaeology of children from a non-place perspective and reconsider them from a different position (Lillehammer 2010: 17). 

            Children often hold an in-between position in the house and are thus subordinate to the adults in their lives.  They held (and still hold) a place that has social constraints placed upon it.  In order to really understand this one must realize that childhood is not a single universal phenomenon (Lillehammer 2010: 22-24).  Therefore children may have been playing, but also gathering wood or taking care of the animals.  Natural objects and discarded objects can be manipulated in many ways.  Toys, which one would expect would show the presence of children, are a firmer category in the minds of adults then for children.  Toys “facilitate the ability of children to mimic adult’s actions with out real world consequences” ( Baxter 2005: 2).

            That does not mean there will not be toys and certain objects that were just for children.  Although children are rarely the only consumers of products there are certain objects that can, with out a doubt, be attributed to them.  So what would this mean for the archaeological remains of children for a group like the Mormons?  Beaver Island was a very rural community when Strang came and settled.  He wanted to be removed from the people who made life hard for the Mormons, and he wanted to be the sole voice of power (Weeks 1976: 9).  The Mormons created a new place very different from their life in Voree and lived according to Strang’s Book of the Law of the Land (Weeks 1976: 18-19).  Given the isolation and the structure in the Mormon lifestyle I wondered if there had ever been restrictions on toys.  I spoke to a Mormon minister about toys in the 1850s and was told that there had never been any Church mandated restrictions.   If there had ever been any they would have been placed by the parents as is the case in many families today.

            The site at which we dug (20CX201) has not had a lot of children present.  The first family to occupy the site had nine children.  The census manuscripts for 1850 listed them as Cordelia age 19, Benjamin age 14, Mary age 13, Electa (F) age 11, Orange (M) age 9, Caroline age 8, George            age 6, Enoch A. age 3, and Edward age 1(U.S. Census 1850).  Because of the isolation many of their toys may have been handmade or even objects which we would not necessarily associate as being toys. 

Archaeological Evidence for Irish Childhood

            So where were the Irish children?  The census records from 1870 and on actually say that they were “at home” or “students”, but does not say where they went to school.  Given the livelihoods of the family, the children were probably helping on the farms, boats, and with the family businesses.  Children often contribute to households and communities through labor so this would not be uncommon (Baxter 2005:50-51).  Miniature artifacts would help prove this theory (Baxter 2005:47).

            The Irish families had a great sense of community, so it would not be surprising to find that many families had the same experience as Mr. McDonough and boarding children during the winter months.  A good example of this community and what life was like for children on Beaver Island follows in this excerpt about box socials:

            “Rosemary: We used to have box socials. Did you ever hear of box social?

            Kasia: No, what are they?

            Rosemary: Oh! This is something they used to do in the olden days a lot. You know, like, Little House on the Prairie. You’d see that on there probably. The girls would make fancy boxes. Any shoebox or anything, and you’d decorate it all up, and then you’d all go to the hall, and then the boys would bid.

            Janet: With food.

            Rosemary: Yeah, with food in it, and fill it with food. And, the boys would bid on the boxes. And then, if they bought your box, then they got to eat with you.

            Janet: Sit with you. Yeah.

            Rosemary: They’d auction them off. Called it a box social. That was fun. We used to spend a lot of time decorating those boxes.

            Janet: And you wouldn’t let anybody know which one was yours either, you know, when you brought it down there to the hall.” (O’Donnell and Smith  2011).

             They also talked about skating on the frozen harbor, helping their parents build icehouses or fish and farm.  Both of them remember doing laundry by hand with a washboard and a wringer.  They went to school at McKinley and remember when the farm boys would come into the school.  At school they would have dances and dance lessons on fridays.  They spent a lot of time swimming and climbing trees.  Janet remembers how much she liked going to school because “I could come to where the kids were”.  If these were the things that children were doing for fun we know two things: first that their archaeological remains may not look like much of anything, and secondly that if they do exist, they are scattered over the Island.

            However, as times changed on the Island, toys may have begun to fall into the “store bought” category more often than the “homemade”.  The material culture of the children will likely change as the livelihoods of the parents’ change.  We know from conversations with people from Beaver Island that there were times where the fishermen were doing well.  Will we see a greater density of more expensive toys on the land belonging to fishermen? 

            Some of the other questions that remain unanswered are: Was there as great a restriction of segregation of education on Beaver Island?  How often were children sent to live with a neighbor in order to attend school?  Were older children sent off the Island to attend school on the mainland?

Works Cited

Baxter, Jane E.   

2005    The Archaeology of Childhood: Children, Gender, and Material Culture. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA.


Beaver Island Historical Society

1976    The Journal of Beaver Island History: 1976, Vol. 1. Beaver Island Historical Society, St. James, MI.


Frank, Florence C. (editor)

1998    The Journal of Beaver Island History: 1998, Vol. 4. Beaver Island Historical Society, St. James, MI.


Lillehammer, Grete

2010    Complutum, 2010, Vol. 21 (2).


Mead, Margaret

1984    Children’s Environments Quarterly: 1984, Vol. 1 (4).


Rotman, Deborah L.,  Japhia Burrell, Kristie Erickson, and Matt Musselman

2005    WEA View School No. 8: Historical Archaeologies of Education and Social Relations in Wabash Township, Tippecanoe County, Indiana: Vol. 20. Ohio Valley Historical Archaeology.


United States Bureau of the Census

1851    United States Census Enumeration: 1850, U.S. Center of Population, Washington, DC.


United States Bureau of the Census

1871    United States Census Enumeration: 1870, U.S. Center of Population, Washington, DC.


United States Bureau of the Census

1881    United States Census Enumeration: 1880, U.S. Center of Population, Washington, DC.




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