Douglas Birk grew up at a northern Minnesota resort and fell in love with the area’s history and archaeology at an early age. While still in high school, he found evidence of old logging camps and pre-European Indian villages, and followed his passion to make a career for himself as an archaeologist and historian.
Birk died in Pine River, Minn., on March 8. He was 73.
“He had an incredible knack of being able to look at a piece of land and tell you what might have happened there,” said Birk’s goddaughter Bobbi Hillen. “He understood how people moved across this state before there were actual roads. He cared deeply and loved this state, and truly Minnesota has lost one of its own.”
Former state archaeologist Scott Anfinson said Birk was a national expert on fur trade history, which included the early French explorers and the British and Americans who followed. “Because fur traders had to integrate so much with Indian communities, Doug kind of became an expert on the Ojibwe, too,” Anfinson said. “He was one of the giants of Minnesota archaeology, that’s for sure.”
Birk was born in Evanston, Ill., and grew up in Pine River at a resort on Norway Lake. He attended Brainerd Junior College and the University of Minnesota before graduating with a degree in anthropology in 1966. He was drafted into the Army, and served three tours in Vietnam that ended with an honorable discharge in 1970.
Birk was hired by the Minnesota Historical Society and spent the next decade traveling the state and exploring properties that are part of the state’s historic sites network.
“He was a consummate researcher,” said MHS director of archaeology Pat Emerson. “When he got interested in a particular question, he would research the hell out of it.”
One of those questions concerned a British fur trading post named after trader Thomas Connor. Birk discovered that it was built and run by John Sayer, and the historical society changed the name to the North West Company Fur Post. It is located near Pine City about 65 miles north of Minneapolis.
In 1981, Birk left the Historical Society and co-founded the Institute of Minnesota Archaeology, a nonprofit group that raised money, sought volunteers and worked under contracts exploring archaeological sites for the next 20 years. One of its most important projects was the discovery, purchase and excavation of the remains of Fort Duquesne, one of only two known French trading posts in the state that was built around 1752. The site, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Little Elk rivers just north of Little Falls, also was near a subsequent village and Indian mission. It is now managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as a heritage preserve.
Birk also studied the Grand Portage area in northeastern Minnesota, both as a young man doing underwater studies with homemade diving equipment and toward the end of his career. The area was a major hub for voyageur camps and fur trading during much of the 1700s, and Birk was the first archaeologist to survey the nine-mile portage trail there that links Lake Superior with interior lakes and rivers.
He wrote numerous articles throughout his career, received a master’s degree in anthropology and was named as Minnesota’s Independent Scholar of the Year in 1986.
Longtime companion Lynda Weiss said archaeology was the love of Birk’s life and that he never stopped exploring. “He had writing projects that could have lasted him 40 or 50 years yet because he always asked more questions,” she said. “He always said that people thought archaeology was someplace else far away, and it was actually in your own backyard.”
In addition to Weiss, Birk is survived by his brother, Delbert, of Eagle, Colo., and numerous nieces and nephews. Services have been held.