John Askin’s Garden: Potatoes

Potato Flower

Although most food was purchased and shipped to Michilimackinac, local gardens provided an important source of fresh produce for the community’s 18th century residents. We currently maintain over 5,000 square feet of gardens at Colonial Michilimackinac, guided by a variety of historic sources. One of the most interesting 18th century documents at our disposal is the journal of the Michilimackinac merchant John Askin, who recorded his garden activities in 1774 and 1775. In this semi-regular series, we’ll examine some of the plants Askin (or more likely the free and enslaved employees working for him) was cultivating at Michilimackinac in the 1770s.

Askin really liked growing potatoes. They are the most-mentioned vegetable in his journal. If he wrote about his farm or garden, it was highly likely that he was writing about potatoes.

They are first mentioned on April 27, 1774 when he “Sett potatoes at the farm” and once more the next day “sett potatoes at the farm.”  The next month he planted more potatoes on four different occasions. It appears they grew well over the summer, and he was able to dig most of them on the 8th of November just a couple of days after a 4-inch snowfall. We finally see the last mention of in 1774 on November 14 when he “dug the last of my potatoes.”

With one season of cultivation under his belt, Askin decided that he could perhaps get a better potato crop if he changed the ways in which he was planting them. In 1775 he decided to try some experiments. Experimenting in the garden or on the farm is something that growers love, no matter the time period. In the 18th century there was a huge interest in how things grew and the various ways of improving crops. Gardeners around the world were developing new methods for growing plants and it is no surprise that it was happening at Michilimackinac as well.

On August 29, 1775, Askin wrote that the potatoes were put into the ground “with a little dung in the holes.” This is different from his previous entries where he does not mention planting with any sort of manure at all. Gardeners like Philip Miller wrote pages and pages about the worth of various sorts of animal and vegetable manure in the 18th century. Even George Washington experimented with various types of muck to see which would grow the best beans, etc. While Askin does not tell us the sort that he used, he did have a small number of cows and horses. Both animals produce excellent dung with superb growing qualities.

Digging up potatoes at Colonial Michilimackinac.

He also “Set three hills of potatoes near the pease” on October 28. In each of these hills he employed a different method of planting. In the first hill he put “one potatoe cut in 3,” and in the second and third hills he put “3 whole potatoes” about “4 inches deep.” Modern gardeners still debate over the necessity and results of planting potatoes whole versus cutting them into pieces. It seems like cutting the potatoes can potentially leave the pieces more vulnerable to disease. However, if you have a small amount available to plant you will get more by dividing the tubers that you do have. Unfortunately, John himself did not tell us which side of the debate he stood on after his experiments.

No matter how you plant them, potatoes are a welcome addition to any garden. They are an easy and reliable vegetable to grow whether it is 1774, 1775 or 2020. The next time you come to Colonial Michilimackinac see if you can spot the potatoes growing in our gardens in the same way they were being grown nearly 250 years ago. Check back for future entries about other parts of John Askin’s garden, and consider contributing to Mackinac Associates, which makes our gardens and many other activities possible.

18th Century Elections

With Election Day 2020 upon us, let’s take a look at British elections over two centuries ago.

In most of Great Britain and its growing empire, as well as in the rebel American colonies, the franchise, or right to vote, was very limited. In general, only white men over age 21 who also owned a specific amount of land (upon which they paid taxes) were allowed to vote. As a result, with few exceptions women, Native Americans, free and enslaved Black people, and the poor or anyone who did not own enough property were all excluded from voting. Catholics were also generally denied the right to vote. Election practices and timing also varied between Britain and the various American colonies.

William Hogarth, The Polling, 1758. William Hogarth cynically satirized the voting process in this view of a rural British election in 1758. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs, New York Public Library

Despite the limits of the franchise, British citizens at home and abroad were well aware of the civil rights theoretically extended to all Britons, and acted accordingly to protect what they felt were their inalienable rights and privileges. These feelings were especially pronounced when dealing with the British army on election days. Many Britons viewed the small standing army with suspicion, believing it to be a potential agent of tyranny. As a result, in Britain and the American colonies, troops were usually sent away from polling locations, or out of towns and cities entirely, on election days. In some ways this was a merely practical matter, as voting often took place at roadside inns. In Britain, troops were also quartered in these inns, so sending them away during an election freed up space for voters. However, stationing troops near polling locations could quickly inflame the local population with accusations of voter intimidation, especially in the American colonies. In New York City in 1768, for instance, General Thomas Gage, who commanded all British forces in America, confined troops to their barracks and prohibited them from having “entirely any intercourse with the inhabitants during the said election.” A year later in Boston, troops were again restricted to their barracks during the May 1769 election, but voters still complained. They requested that the British commander completely remove his troops from the city so that voters “should be in the full enjoyment of their rights of British subjects upon this important occasion.” When the officer refused, colonial authorities claimed that “armed men, sent under the pretense indeed of aiding the civil authority” had in fact meddled with the election.[1]

People at Michilimackinac regularly discussed politics, even if their newspapers were out of date.

In Quebec, which included Michilimackinac after the colony was significantly expanded via the Quebec Act of 1774, there was no elected legislature as there was in other American colonies. Instead, a royally-appointed council comprised of civil, military, and church officials assisted the governor with colonial administration. However, that did not prevent Michilimackinac residents from remaining engaged with colonial and national politics, even following Parliamentary races in Britain. Although sometimes months out of date, newspapers and letters carried updates on developments in the Atlantic colonies and Great Britain. The political world in which Michilimackinac existed in the late 18th century was complex and evolving, reflecting the combined political and civil traditions of Britain and French Canada (many of which were carried over into the political theories and framework of the new United States). Although elections likely did not take place here, politics were just as much a part of daily life at Michilimackinac as they are today. Ask about 18th century politics next time you visit Colonial Michilimackinac, and consider joining Mackinac Associates, which makes many of our programs and exhibits possible.

[1] John McCurdy, Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution, (Cornell University Press, 2019), 171, 185-86

2020 Archaeology Wrap-Up

Lead seal stamed with the mark of the Compagnie des Indes.

The second half of the archaeological field season had similar themes to the first half (see the first half recap here). Again, the most interesting artifact came from the central root cellar. It was a lead seal stamped with the mark of the Compagnie des Indes. The CDI was a French colonial enterprise chartered by the king. The seal would have been attached to a bolt of cloth or other textile imported by the company. It dates to between 1717 and 1769. This, combined with the stratigraphy (layers of soil) surrounding it, indicates that this cellar was in use during the French occupation of the house (mid-1730s to early 1760s) as well as during the later British occupation.

Possible French wall trench.

During the final week of the field season, we saw the first possible evidence of the north wall of the house. It is a strip of gray sand cutting through gold sand. In other units of the southeast rowhouse, the French house is a few feet narrower along the north wall than the British house, but has a porch, which the British house does not. The square the possible trench appeared in is the deepest in its east-west row (the row 210 feet south of the water gate), so it remains to be seen if it extends to the east and west. We do not expect to find the British wall trench and French porch joists until we open the row of squares to the north (the row 205 feet south of the water gate). After the excitement of removing the deep post in the first half of the season, we did not find the bottom of any more squares this summer. We opened the final two squares in the 210 row in the second half of the season. The easternmost is currently at the modern/colonial interface. The westernmost is in the layer of rubble created during the 1781 demolition of the fort. As was the case elsewhere in the house, there were a variety of ceramic sherds present. These included a fragment of a creamware handle, possibly from a pitcher, and a fragment of a polychrome tin-glazed earthenware teacup, similar to one found late last season.

Site packed for the winter.

We have now packed the site for winter and returned to the lab. Watch for a blog post in late winter to see what we learn as we clean and research this season’s finds.  

Michilimackinac’s Artillery

Over the past few years the staff at Mackinac State Historic Parks has diligently been adding reproductions of Michilimackinac’s artillery throughout the site to provide visitors an accurate representation of what the site looked like in the 1770s. Join Curator of History Craig Wilson as he takes us for a tour of Michilimackinac and its artillery.
 

Archaeology Update

Trade ring with what can be interpreted as a “V.”

Halfway through the archaeology season we have found some interesting artifacts, the end of some features, and more questions.

Cufflink, or sleeve button, with an image that could be a classical or religious figure. 

The root cellar in the southeast corner of the house has yielded exciting artifacts for several seasons. This summer began the same way, with a button and part of the bone handle from a knife. Now some horizontal planks are appearing, possibly evidence of a wood floor. We tentatively identified a second root cellar in the center of the house late last season. This still seems to be the case. Several interesting artifacts have come from this area. The first was an intact engraved brass “Jesuit” trade ring.

Iron breech plug from a flintlock muzzleloader. 

The design can be interpreted as the letter “V,” the Roman numeral “V,” or something more abstract. The second part was part of a cufflink, which would have been called a sleeve button by its eighteenth-century owner. It has a glass or rock crystal set with an intaglio bust. The bearded man could be a classical or religious figure. More research will be done on this piece over the winter. The final artifact, so far, was an iron breech plug from a flintlock muzzleloader. It blocked the end of the barrel where it connected to the wood stock. It was discarded because the tang broke off. It is only the fifth gun part found in the house. We are eager to see what else this area has in store for us.

Interior post, located about five feet below the colonial surface. 

For six seasons, we have been excavating around a post in the interior of the house. We have finally reached the bottom, six and a half feet below our datum, probably about five feet below the colonial surface. It is sitting on a flat rock. Located near the southeast root cellar, it could have been a structural support for the rowhouse unit. Given its depth, it could also be a remnant of the first (1715) fort. We are exploring both possibilities. What will the second half of the season hold? Stay tuned to this blog and the MSHP social media channels to find out. If visiting Mackinac is in your plans for the summer, come out and visit the site in person. We are excavating in the middle of Colonial Michilimackinac, and work will continue daily (weather permitting) through August 22.

What’s Growing in the Garden? Lovage!

   While lovage is not seen much in gardens today, our ancestors would have likely been familiar with this useful plant. It appears in gardening books, cookbooks, and medicinal recipes dating as far back as the Roman Empire. Today, we grow it in the gardens at Colonial Michilimackinac.

Lovage sprout in April.

   Lovage tastes something like a cross between parsley and celery, with a very strong flavor. All parts of the plant can be used for a variety of recipes. The dried seeds are delicious when they are used like caraway in breads or cakes. The roots can be chopped up and added to soups, the stalks are delicious when candied, and the leaves are great in soups and salads or with cheese and eggs. In addition to being used as a food, medicinal recipes claimed that lovage could help with hysteria, reduce freckles, cure stomach aches, and even help with bladder issues.

   This perennial just started to make its way out of the earth in April. Those little sprouts are now 5-7 feet tall and tower over every other plant in the garden. The flowers draw pollinators, which are incredibly beneficial to the garden. We are using lovage in our foodways programs, so stop by and see this interesting and valuable plant. Visit our website for more information, and be sure to check out Mackinac Associates, a friends group which makes many of our activities, including the gardens, possible.

At Last…

The site being prepared for the field season. The plastic containers protected wood posts under the plastic sheeting and straw over the winter.

   After a very long wait, MSHP archaeologists were excited to remove the straw and plastic sheeting from the archaeological site and begin preparing the site for excavation. Unfortunately, there was a lot of slump, especially along the north wall, so there is a lot of clean up ahead. The next step is to re-establish the grid strings used to record where features and artifacts are found relative to the overall master map.

   This will be our fourteenth season of excavation at House E of the Southeast Rowhouse. The rowhouse was constructed in the 1730s and this unit was owned by Charles Gonneville for most of the French era at Michilimackinac. By 1765 the house was owned by an as-yet-unknown English trader. Our initial research question for the project was how does an English trader’s house look different from a French-Canadian trader’s house? The early answer is that there is more trade silver and ceramics. This trader not only had fashionable furnishings, but dressed stylishly as well, based on the sleeve buttons and other adornment items we have recovered.

   Our main goals for this summer relate to the deep features previously exposed. We think we are nearing the bottom of the root cellar in the southeast corner of the building and hope to complete its excavation this season. There are two more deep features, which intersect, in the west and south-central areas of the house. We hope to better define them this season.

   As with any archaeological excavation there will be surprises that raise new questions. You can come watch history being uncovered at Colonial Michilimackinac every day from June 12 – August 22, from 9 am until 5 pm, weather permitting. You can also follow along all season on the MSHP blog and social media channels.

A Tool for the Colonial Kitchen: The Tourtière

If you love a good kitchen gadget, you are not alone. Cooks throughout history have always looked for the most efficient, reliable, and useful tools to help them manage food preparation. We think the tourtière fits this description perfectly.

   The 18th century tourtière is a cooking dish, and also the name of a double-crust meat pie. Tourtière dishes are made of heavy copper or brass and used in open-hearth cooking. Legs or a trivet allowed the dish to have hot coals shoveled underneath it to supply a slow and steady heat from the bottom. The flat-shaped lid has a shallow lip to catch hot coals to push heat down from above. As a result, the tourtière functions as a miniature oven.

   As you might imagine, most historic recipes specific to this dish are for meat pies. Those pies usually had top and bottom crusts and were filled with meat, seafood, or sometimes vegetables. Pie or tourte recipes varied from region to region based on the local specialties, and some place still have their own unique style of pie. At Michilimackinac, we know from archaeological and documentary evidence that mutton, pork, passenger pigeon, beef and especially fish were all available for use in pies cooked in a tourtière.

   Historical cooks loved a well-equipped and efficient workspace. Modern cooks still look for the tools that make it easiest to efficiently prepare delicious food. Whether it is a hearth, or a 21st century microwave oven, preparing food wouldn’t be possible without those reliable and favorite kitchen gadgets. We hope you’ll join us at Colonial Michilimackinac in the future to see our tourtière in action for our food programs. Visit our website for more information, and don’t forget to check out Mackinac Associates, which helps make food programs and so much more possible at all of our site.

The Wall Gun

If you’ve visited Colonial Michilimackinac, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen the interpreters demonstrating a cannon or musket during our daily programs. There is another 18th century weapon that gets fired occasionally, and it’s an interesting cross between a cannon and a musket. Let’s take a look at our wall gun.  

Wall Gun vs. Musket


A wall gun is essentially just a supersized musket. As the name implies, wall guns were intended to be fired resting on a wall or the railing of a ship, and many original weapons were fitted with a yoke or swivel similar to an oarlock to facilitate easy mounting. Such a rest was necessary given the weight and size of the weapon. Wall pieces were typically .91 caliber, had four and a half foot-long barrel (although some were as long as six feet), measured over six feet long in total, and weighed between 35 and 40 pounds. Constructed in only limited quantities, primarily in the 1740s and again in the 1770s, wall pieces were intended to function as artillery pieces in situations were even the smallest and lightest of cannons were impractical. Although unwieldy, a wall gun could be positioned and fired by just one soldier. Firing a 2¼-ounce ball, they could apparently hit targets 500 to 600 yards away, and were ideal for use during sieges, when they could be moved around to fire on enemy engineers and sappers. During the American Revolution, Captain William Congreve of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, a noted artillery innovator, suggested employing wall guns as a secondary weapon alongside field guns. Under Congreve’s plan, wall guns mounted on two-wheeled carts accompanied artillery detachments and were deployed alongside the cannons. A vertical wooden mantlet, or shield, attached to the cart protected the two soldiers serving the guns. Despite their size, wall guns remained a muzzle-loading flintlock weapon, and as such were loaded and fired in much the same way as a normal sized musket.


Although the British military only produced wall guns in limited numbers, two of them found their way to Michilimackinac in the 1770s. Classified as ordnance along with the garrison’s cannons and mortar, the walls guns were apparently intended to serve in detached positions outside the main palisade wall. In 1768, Captain-lieutenant Frederick Spiesmacher of the 60th Regiment requested permission to build a blockhouse on a sandy hill outside the fort. He wanted a blockhouse large enough for six men and two wall guns. Spiesmacher probably never built the blockhouse, as a decade later Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair ordered a blockhouse built overlook and command hollow ground behind a sand hill which the troops could not reduce,” which would also flank the trader’s houses in the suburbs outside the palisade. When the blockhouse was finished in early 1780, Sinclair noted that it contained positions for three artillery pieces, but the wall guns could also have been used there. The guns were moved to Mackinac Island with the rest of the fort by 1781, but disappear from the Fort Mackinac ordnance returns soon after. Whether they were sent away or merely no longer recorded with the larger artillery pieces is unclear.

Today, our reproduction wall gun is occasionally fired for demonstrations, sometimes taking the place of the cannon or mortar for an artillery firing. An original wall gun is also on display in the underground powder magazine and Firearms on the Frontier exhibit. Be sure to see the original piece next time you visit Colonial Michilimackinac, and you might be lucky enough to see the reproduction fired on the parade ground!

 

What’s Growing the Garden? Cabbage!

Cabbages are attractive vegetables. They come in a variety of shapes, textures, sizes and colors. Many gardeners in the 18th century, including Michilimackinac resident John Askin, considered cabbages to be an essential vegetable in the garden. They keep well, are versatile in the kitchen and generally low maintenance. They can be placed out in the garden earlier than crops like beans, cucumbers and melons and are quite cold hardy. This winter, we even had one cabbage winter over in our King’s Garden. It was quite a surprise, especially since it was covered in snow for a few months with no protection at all.

The downside to these vegetables is that they are incredibly tasty to slugs. The gray beasts like to get inside the cabbage heads and munch away. Just when it seems like all the slugs have been picked from the leaves, there are five more that pop out. In the 18th century, gardeners had many solutions to deal with slugs, but most come down to manual removal. At Michilimackinac, we have found that encouraging toads in the garden has also proven useful.

Right now, our cabbage seedlings for 2020 are started and doing well. The transplants will be planted out in early to mid-May and when they are big enough, they will find their way to our daily food programs at Colonial Michilimackinac. If you have never grown cabbage, take a cue from history and give this beautiful and useful vegetable a chance. Be sure to visit our website for more updates, and check out Mackinac Associates, a friends group which makes many of our programs and exhibits (including the gardens) possible at all of our historic sites.