This paper is part of the Proceedings of the Maritime Cultural Landscape Symposium, October 14-15, 2015, University of Wisconsin-Madison

John Odin Jensen, Ph.D.
University of West Florida

The overall goal of the Maritime Cultural Landscape symposium held in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2015, was “to suggest standard definitions and best practices through the preparation of preliminary guidance materials for incorporating Maritime Cultural Landscapes into National Register evaluations.” Determining clear standards for including marine cultural landscapes with the National Register program represents a vital step toward bringing order, and I hope more quality and consistency, to the management of cultural heritage in the coastal zone and continental shelf.

The symposium objective was “to provide a platform for an exploration of the Maritime Cultural Landscape (MCL) concept and its role in the investigation, evaluation, and management of terrestrial and submerged maritime cultural resources.”   This objective is, I believe, even more important than the goal.   For the objective, with a little imagination, emphasizes increasing our understanding of complex historical and contemporary human relationships and policy issues.  This is critical, given the intensity of human uses on coast, the impacts of climate change, and rapid expansion of human economic activities offshore.

Thanks in large part to the visionary work of David Cooper, the first state underwater archaeologist, Wisconsin has long been at the forefront of submerged cultural heritage preservation in the U.S.  With Cooper and Paul Kriesa’s 1991 Multiple Property Nomination Great Lakes Shipwrecks of Wisconsin as a foundation, generations of Wisconsin Historical Society affiliated archaeologists, historians, partners and volunteers have added more than fifty shipwrecks to National Register.

The late 1980s and 1990s represented the pioneering days of public underwater archaeology in Wisconsin and across the nation.  Perhaps we came across as brash and maybe a little righteous, but we also had a zeal that extended beyond just technical preservation of shipwrecks; we wanted to make them accessible and meaningful to the public.  We were trying to preserve and recover—not just things—but ideas and those forgotten relationships between the people of Wisconsin and the Great Lakes and Rivers that formed her borders.   In order to preserve shipwrecks, we needed to find their broader meanings—not just their official historical significance.

Although we began documenting individual shipwrecks, we organized our field work and inventories regionally—Door County, the Apostle Islands, Mid-Lake Michigan, and the Mississippi.   This spread into outreach and the influential Wisconsin Maritime Trails Program.    Looking back more than two decades, I see that we were thinking in Cultural Landscape well before we began to use the term.  We naturally began used cultural landscape approaches to looking critically at the coastal and maritime world and embrace outreach.

The first attempt to explicitly use cultural landscape in underwater archaeological preservation in Wisconsin began in the wake of a closely watched a legal dispute over the wreck of the Rosinco, a yacht found, looted, and claimed in Admiralty Court by well-known wreck hunter and salvage diver Paul Ehorn.  The United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit decision in Ehorn v. Sunken Vessel Known as the Rosinco reaffirmed the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 proviso that wrecks in state waters determined eligible for or listed in the National Register belonged to the state.  The decision elevated the importance of the National Register as a maritime preservation tool and added some teeth to the National Register, at least in the states within the Seventh Circuit district.

At the time, the logical conclusion was that securing National Register eligibility or better yet listing, now offered tangible legal protection to historic shipwrecks. Getting DOEs or listings for more wrecks in a cost and time efficient manner seemed the logical next step. Working first with then Wisconsin State Underwater Archaeologist Russ Green and his successor Keith Meverden, I took on an ultimately unfinished effort to nominate a large section of Wisconsin’s Mid-Lake Michigan Waters as an archaeological district. I chose to develop this nomination around the idea of cultural landscape.

Ultimately I synthesized my research and developed an unpublished technical report Pieces, Patterns and Pasts:  Toward Cultural Landscape Approach to Maritime Cultural Resource Management and Study in Western Lake Michigan. The report evaluated western Lake Michigan and its shipwreck-related cultural resources as defining features in a rural historic landscape I called the “Western Lake Michigan Transportation Corridor.”

After laying out the theoretical foundations for a cultural landscape and Atlantic cultural context for the corridor, the report described in some detail how each the four processes and seven component categories in National Register Bulletin 30, Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Rural Historic Landscapes, applied or may apply to the region and its submerged resources. The report recommended integrating emergent cultural landscape-based archaeological and preservation theory with the new analytical and mapping capacities of GIS through a cultural landscape framework.  Embracing the results I argued, would improve the analytical content of Wisconsin’s maritime historic preservation documentation work, while expanding National Register coverage over a much larger number Wisconsin shipwrecks in a fast and efficient manner.

I pushed things too far and too fast for the time.  Technical issues associated with defining boundaries stopped the draft nomination in its tracks. However, the intellectual content was solid and the technical report became one of the foundations for a more developed applied cultural landscape approach framework we called CLA. The discussion of Mid-Lake Michigan as an MCL that follows is adapted from the report and the draft nomination.

The Wisconsin flag contains powerful examples of the maritime imprint on the state’s culture.  The emblazoned anchor, caulking-mallet in grasp of a powerful hand and arm, and blue-jacketed mariner can be read as cultural and historical symbols that represent the introduction of Atlantic World technology and culture to the freshwater frontier during the nineteenth century.  Sharing iconic space with images of a miner, bars of lead, a cornucopia, pick, shovel, and plow, the flag depicts in graphic terms the implicit and explicit interplay between the natural environment and Wisconsin’s pioneers.  To move “Forward” as instructed by the text at the top of the seal on the flag, one had to break up the soil to unleash its fertility, delve into earthen depths to release trapped mineral resources, and tame the tempestuous Great Lakes by converting stands of virgin forest into good ships manned by strong and able mariners.[1]

The complex interplay between culture and nature, whose signature is written boldly across the Wisconsin flag, is a hallmark of the cultural landscape; an important way of organizing our understanding of the historically evolving and continuing relationships between society and the environment. The cultural landscape is increasingly recognized by historic preservation and cultural heritage professionals and agencies worldwide as both heritage resources and as an important concept for preserving and interpreting the material remains of the past.

Cultural landscapes recognize cultural pluralism, incorporate complex cultural, environmental and historical processes, and value the participation and competing interests of a heterogeneous public.  Put differently, cultural landscapes reveal much about the interplay between places and process, which leaves ample room for multiple cultural groups to derive or to impose meaning upon a geographic space.[2]

With roots extending to Europe in the nineteenth century, American ideas of the cultural landscape first blossomed in the 1920s with the work of Carl Sauer.  Sauer’s seminal idea, that “the cultural landscape is fashioned from the natural landscape by a cultural group.  Culture is the agent, the natural area is the medium, the cultural landscape is the result,” remains central to more recent conceptions espoused by a variety of disciplines.[3]   In the 90 years that have followed Sauer’s formulation, scholars have developed a variety of schema for defining and evaluating cultural landscapes.  The interplay between nature and culture, however, remains essential.  For anthropologically-focused archaeologists, the cultural landscape contains both material and symbolic elements, but key for archaeologists, historians, and preservationists is that cultural landscapes reflect patterned human behavior.

In the Great Lakes region (among other places), the shipwrecks and other cultural materials deposited on the bottomlands and along the shore can be evaluated as single resources or as a series of nested cultural landscapes that reflect distinct (though often related) historical contexts and cultural orientations.[4]

The study of maritime cultural landscapes has great potential for yielding archaeological, historical, and cultural information about Wisconsin’s past.  This potential is especially great for the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries.  Depending upon the question being visited, applying the landscape framework to western Lake Michigan’s submerged cultural resources has the capacity to shed light on historical and anthropological questions that both encompass and transcend state and local boundaries and will allow Wisconsin’s maritime past to be read in the light of national and international processes.[5]

Although tied to quantifiable material culture such as shipwrecks, marine-related objects, and patterns of geographical dispersion, the cultural landscape framework encourages asking broader theoretical questions.  For example, how did the early mariners of the pioneer period “see” these lakes, and how did their perceptions influence the design of the vessels they built and the ways in which they operated them?  Did the nineteenth century American spirit of frontier enterprise affect the relationship between commercial mariners and the natural environment?  In what ways did the confluence of agricultural, lumbering, and urban frontiers on the Great Lakes encourage innovations in transportation technologies?  Did specific ethnic-oriented maritime strategies practiced by mariners on the Atlantic Ocean transfer to the Great Lakes?   Carefully designed archaeological projects examining Wisconsin’s shipwrecks and associated cultural materials can help to answer these and other broad questions, when isolated events and individual sites are approached through an integrating paradigm such as the cultural landscape approach.[6]

Wisconsin’s maritime cultural resources are especially rich for the years between about 1830 and 1930.  During this period, the western Great Lakes evolved from a distant frontier served by a few small sailing vessels associated with the fur trade into a segment of the world’s busiest and most efficient industrial waterway.[7]  Adopting the cultural landscape approach means recognizing that this system and its evolution are historically important, as are the economic, technological, geographical, and cultural objects and structures that helped to define it.  It suggests that the whole of Wisconsin’s collection of maritime heritage resources is more valuable than the sum of its individual sites and objects.

The West Central Lake Michigan Maritime Heritage Archaeological District is a long, linear, rural historic cultural landscape that qualifies for listing on the National Register of Historic Places under criterion A and D.  A watery highway of national importance, the Transportation Corridor is intimately associated with transportation, settlement, and industry in Wisconsin.  The natural environment and related collection and spatial organization of objects, sites, and structures associated with historic maritime transportation on Lake Michigan offer a rich tapestry for exploring human responses to the problems and opportunities associated with frontier shipbuilding, settlement, commerce, and the advent of large scale agricultural and industrial development.

The West Central Lake Michigan Maritime Heritage Archaeological District consists of a section of the navigation corridor that constituted the principle route down the western side of Lake Michigan during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  A regional highway, the corridor also provided critical points of access, connection and exchange between maritime communities, both large and small.  During the mid-nineteenth century hundreds of thousands of Americans and immigrants followed this maritime pathway to new lives and lands in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states. As these settlers developed the landscape, the corridor provided a critical avenue for carrying surplus products to market and for bringing in goods from other regions and other nations.  In the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the corridor became an essential component in the circulation networks for the rapidly industrializing Midwest.  Included in district are the lake’s surface waters, weather patterns, and subsurface natural and cultural features.  When analyzed using current archaeological theories and methods, these elements come together to form an important and coherent segment of Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan maritime cultural landscape.  This landscape has documented associations with three of the historic contexts identified and well developed in the multiple property documentation Great Lakes Shipwrecks of Wisconsin:  The Early Industries: Fishing, Lumber, Mining, and Agriculture 1800-1930; Settlement, 1800-1930; and Package Freight, 1830-1940  (Cooper and Kriesa 1991).  Further research could well identify additional historic contexts.

In 2013-2014, working with ECU graduate student Phil Hartmeyer, I developed what we called a cultural landscape source book for Wisconsin’s Mid-Lake Region.  The intent was to provide cultural landscape approach-based interpretive and management insights and data to assist with the possible establishment of a new National Marine Sanctuary.   Embracing interdisciplinary perspectives and combining historic and contemporary coastal data in a Cultural Landscape Approach analysis, the source book included general observations to help the future managers and interpreters of cultural resources in the proposed Sanctuary.

General Observations on Shipwrecks and Environment in the Mid-Lake Region

  1. The Mid-Lake Michigan Region’s coastal and marine cultural landscapes embody the intertwined histories of harbor engineering, shoreline change, regional maritime commerce, and local economics.
  1. “Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan shoreline is generally vulnerable to shore erosion from the Illinois state line to the Sturgeon Bay Canal, a distance of 185 miles. From the Sturgeon Bay Canal around the northern tip of Door County to Green Bay, shore erosion is largely limited to bays and clay banks. Erosion rates are particularly high along sand plains and high bluffs composed of till. Short-term erosion rates of 3 to 15 feet per year have been recorded along sand plains and 2 to 6 feet per year along high bluff lines” (Wisconsin Coastal Management Program 2008).
  1. From a maritime perspective, the physical coast lacks natural harbors or sheltered waters, has unstable sediments including sandy patches that make poor holding ground for anchoring, and offers few distinctive visual or submerged landmarks.
  1. The location, shape, and composition of the contemporary shoreline and near coastal area are the product of long-term geological and geographical factors and the intensive human modifications that began with the early U.S. settlement of western Wisconsin.
  1. The Mid-Lake Michigan Maritime Heritage Trail follows a long linear 92.4-mile shoreline dominated by sand dunes and bluffs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has classified 30% of the present shoreline as artificial and 20.5% as industrial.  The dominant shoreline vegetation (51%) is classified as manicured lawn.
  1. The large pier and breakwater structures detailed in USACE Table 7 and the artificial shoreline in Table 5 are a product nearly 180 years of planned human engineering of the Mid-Lake Michigan Region’s shoreline.
  1. The Mid-Lake Michigan region’s coastal geomorphology has affected the composition and likely the condition of the historic shipwreck population.
  1. Nineteenth century coastal engineers viewed the natural Great Lakes as a static environment and attributed changes observed after 1836 to human agency: e.g. harbor structures.
  1. Harbor locations and engineering characteristics contributed significantly to the patterns of shipwrecks occurring in the Mid-Lake Michigan Region.
  1. Engineers designed Mid-Lake Michigan piers to create protected transportation lanes from harbor fronts along the rivers out to safe deep water navigation.
  1. From 1836 into the early twentieth century, federal engineers and local leaders engaged in a leapfrogging war with coastal sedimentation. While an extensive pier expansion and dredge usually brought temporary improvements to harbor access—the engineering brought unintended consequences, including the shoaling of the waters approaching the harbors, the creation of sand bars dangerous to navigation, and damaging wave conditions inside harbor areas.
  1. The standard development of East – West parallel piers created narrow and sometimes dangerous or even deadly entrances to harbors.
  1. Highly detailed records exist of harbor surveys, construction projects, and waterfront areas that can allow for a comprehensive historical reconstruction of shorelines and the build environment of harbors in Manitowoc, Sheboygan, Two Rivers, and Port Washington.

Observations on Coastal Geomorphology and Shipwrecks

In the Mid-Lake Michigan Region, a combination of softer, geologically-unstable shorelines and unconsolidated, near-coastal sediments—principally sand—have resulted in a lack of natural harbors or good anchorages.  This explains several things about historic shipwreck resources of the region including:

  1. Temporal patterns and a physical concentration of wrecks near the principal harbors;
  1. The high number of “wrecked” vessels returned to service;
  1. The presence of well-preserved but undiscovered shipwrecks in shallow water.

Early work recommending the establishment of a National Marine Sanctuary in Mid-Lake Michigan/Wisconsin focused almost exclusively on well-preserved deeper shipwrecks.  What has been largely overlooked is the potential presence of dozens of shallow water wrecks that have received natural protection from the coast’s shifting sands.  A stronger understanding of historical and contemporary coastal geology and development provided through a CLA study will provide knowledge critical in protecting and interpreting the full range of underwater and coastal historic resources located within the boundaries and along the shores of the proposed Sanctuary, and has clear implications in applying sections 106 and 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

The designation process for mid-Lake Michigan Sanctuary seems to be going forward quite rapidly now, and I’d like to think that when area does become a Sanctuary, that it will benefit from a holistic Cultural Landscape Approach that had has its early roots in the Wisconsin State Underwater Archaeology and Maritime Preservation Program.

One thing that my colleagues and I have learned through studies in marine area across North America is that applying a cultural landscape approach as a way of looking at the world and structuring your research genuinely expands and can substantially alter how we understand the history of a maritime region and, by extension, the significance and meaning of its cultural heritage resources.

Circling back to the symposium’s goal of considering potential National Register standards for Maritime Cultural Landscapes, based on two projects in the Mid-Lake Region, several others in the Mid-Atlantic, New England, and Alaska regions, and through committee work in Marine Protected Areas, I suggest that in most instances the most effective approach would be to develop specific maritime additions and adaptations for existing National Register cultural landscape categories.  While maritime space, time, and integrity can be quite different than what historic preservation professionals typically encounter on land, the human elements that underpin the history and landscape are largely the same.

Ten years ago I tried to convince Wisconsin’s Historic Preservation staff that adopting a cultural landscape paradigm would help the state remain at the forefront of maritime cultural heritage management in the United States.  Lacking an accepted professional language to merge the technical requirements of the National Register with the environmental, historical, and policy realities of maritime heritage, I could not make the case for the radical change a maritime cultural landscape approach represented.  Since that time, many people, including several attending the symposium, have done tremendous work over the past decade to expand our understanding and refine the use of cultural landscape concepts in coastal and maritime contexts.  It is time to develop the language needed to bring the National Register into alignment with these efforts.

[1] On the history of the flag’s images see John O. Holzhueter, “Wisconsin’s Flag,” in Wisconsin Magazine of History, 63 (1980).

[2]V. Coleman, Cultural Landscapes Charette Background Paper, New South Wales Heritage Office, 2003. R.W. Stoffle, D.B. Halmo, D.E. Austin, “Cultural Landscapes and Traditional Cultural Properties:  A Southern Paiute View of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River,” American Indian Quarterly 21 (1997); K.F. Anschuetz, R.H. Wilshusen,  C.L. Scheick, “An Archaeology of Landscapes: Perspectives and Directions,” Journal of Archaeological Research 9 (2001).

[3] C. Wilson and P. Groth, eds., Everyday America:  Cultural Landscape Studies after J.B. Jackson, Berkeley: University of California Press (2003), p. 5.

[4] (Anschuetz et. al., citing Binford, 1983, 380).

[5]C. Cameron and M. Rossler, “Global Strategy: Canals and Cultural Routes,” World Heritage Newsletter 8 (1995).

[6] G. Fry, “From Objects to Landscapes In Natural and Cultural Heritage Management: A Role for Landscape Interfaces,” in H. Palang and G. Fry, eds., Landscape Interfaces: Cultural Heritage in Changing Landscapes (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001), 240.

[7] “The Great Lakes” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History, (London: Oxford University Press, in press).

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