Fred Dustin, who had big, broad workman’s hands and a thick shock of dark hair that whitened early in his long life, had only an eighth-grade education, but he was one of Saginaw’s greatest historians and an archaeologist of national repute.
He was a gentleman by instinct and a distinguished scholar by self-training, a man of simple wants who cared nothing for floss or flair, whose attire was always neat but subdued, and was more comfortable wearing a cap than a hat.
The greatest honor accorded him during a distinguished career came in 1935 when he received the University of Michigan’s Regents’ Citation of Honor, an infrequent and coveted award. It was conferred on him for his contributions in archaeological research.
Dustin was born October 12, 1866, in Glens Falls, New York, as Fred O’Donnell. He later adopted the surname of an uncle who cared for him after his mother died. As a boy of 15 he went to work in a sawmill in Gloversville, New York, doing a man’s work. He came to Saginaw in 1887 and worked in several sawmills before he embarked on a 10-year career as a carpenter. In 1900, he was one of Saginaw County’s first rural mail carriers. For two years, he worked as a weighman in a coal mine. In the early 1900s, he returned to building houses and followed this occupation until 1917 when he became employment manager for Saginaw Shipbuilding Company.
As a young man he began collecting traces of early Indian culture in Saginaw County. He personally investigated and studied more than half of the more than 100 Indian camp sites and villages in Saginaw County. He excavated approximately 35 Indian burial mounds in the county. Some of his most important and revealing finds were near the present Saginaw Water Works grounds on Ezra Rust Drive. His personal collection of Indian arrowheads, working tools and pottery consisted of about 6,000 pieces. Later, he presented these to the University of Michigan Museum. Dustin’s writings on certain facets of American history, Indian lore and on Michigan archaeology are considered authoritative.
Occasionally he accepted an invitation to lecture to adult groups. With far greater frequency he accepted requests to talk to school children about Saginaw Indian lore. Cap in hand, he would enter a schoolroom and instantly captivate boys and girls with his kindly manner—something of a blend of wise professor and understanding grandfather. His shock of white hair heightened the impression.
He could be gruff and blunt, as he thought the occasion warranted. This was especially true in his assessment of the inaccuracies and presumptions of amateur historians. He had nothing but scorn and impatience for those who copied earlier writings about Saginaw history and kept compounding the errors therein.
What Dustin wrote about in his fluid, readable style, were the facts as he knew them from careful, sometimes lengthy, research. As a boy he had been somewhat enamored with the military exploits of General George Custer of “Custer’s Last Stand” fame. Initially, he thought of him as a hero but later changed his mind after one of his investigative jaunts. In 1939, he wrote a book, The Custer Tragedy. It represented years of research for new facts about General George Armstrong Custer, massacred by Indians with all of his troops at the Little Big Horn in Montana in 1876. Dustin contended the massacre of Custer and his troops resulted from Custer’s failure to follow orders of a superior officer.
In 1929-30, Dustin was field agent for the University of Michigan in an archaeological survey of Isle Royale. In 1931, he performed similar duties in a study and report on prehistoric Indian earthworks in Ogemaw County.
Dustin’s wife, the former Mary A. Stoker, died in 1927. They had three children. He never remarried, being content to live as a widower in his modest home at 709 S. Fayette. Two of its rooms were lined with floor-to¬ceiling shelves of books in his personal collection.
He was interested in and devoted to the principles of Masonry and was a member of its highest orders. In 1957 he was awarded or honored with the Masonic Distinguished Service Medal. He was a charter member of the State Archaeological Society, the Society for American Archaeology, the State Historical Society, the American Military Institute and the Saginaw Valley Historical Society and a fellow of Cranbrook Institute.
His death in 1957 at the age of 90 was mourned by a wide strata of Saginaw society. Tributes to him were many. None seemed more eloquent or appropriate than the words of Dr. Harlan Hatcher, then president of the University of Michigan. Said Dr. Hatcher: “The University of Michigan mourns the passing of Fred Dustin, who by his own effort became a distinguished scholar. His work on the archaeological atlas of Michigan, his collection of Indian artifacts and his book on General Custer, mark him as an original mind.”