John Askin’s Garden: Onions

  John Askin’s journal, as mentioned in a previous post, is full of all sorts of notes about 18th century life at Michilimackinac. The document is especially useful for understanding the ways in which people were gardening. Today, let’s look at another of the vegetables Askin grew in his garden: onions.

Onions first appear in the journal on April 29, 1774, when Askin “planted onions for seed.” This is one of the only places in the historic record that we see someone at Michilimackinac specifically growing plants for seed. Growing your own seed is an investment in the future, and this entry reveals that Askin had no intention of stopping his gardening activities any time soon.

The actual practice of growing your own seed was well-known to 18th century gardeners. Many garden writers of the time believed that seed grown in North America would deteriorate after a few years and preferred to get their seeds from European sources. By the 1770s, seed companies were selling paper packets that most gardeners would be familiar with today. Customers wrote a letter to request seeds and they were sent along accordingly. Onion seed could be a little tricky to source from so far away. The seed itself is less likely to sprout after a year and transportation from Europe could be slow.

The next day, April 30, Askin noted that he “sowed onion seed.” These seeds may very well have come from a previous years’ stock or could possibly have been purchased. In any case, gardening manuals recommended that the seeds be planted with plenty of space between the rows in open soil. If he were following the common practice, Askin would have also been very, very careful about keeping the tiny onions weeded once they came up. Newly sprouted plants are very fragile, and onions have shallow roots that can easily be damaged by disturbing the soil around them. Because of this, most garden manuals dramatically warned against allowing weeds to get into the onion patch and recommended regular and diligent weeding.

We do not know how Askin’s 1774 crop turned out, but in early May of 1775 he “sowed parsley, beets, Onions, lettice and Barley seeds.” Surprisingly, the very next day brought “Cold Weather frost and Snow more than Common at this Season.” That sort of weather was obviously not ideal for a newly-planted spring garden. Onions are generally cold hardy plants and can be set out relatively early in the season, but do need warmer soil temperatures to germinate. The cold weather likely set the garden back a little.

Aside from John Askin, we know other people in Canada were also growing onions and liked eating them fairly often. Travelers like Pehr Kalm mention them being grown and eaten in 1740s Canada, so much so that he could smell the scent of onion clinging to the clothing of people as they passed him on the street. The vegetable was also commonly found in gardens in the English colonies, and onions were one of the first garden vegetables cultivated regularly by the British in North America.

Onions are valued for being easy to grow and having a wide range of uses in the kitchen. Today at Michilimackinac we are lucky to have sources like John Askin’s journal to inform us about the tasty vegetables that the fur traders and merchants were gardening with in the 18th century. Stop by and see how they are growing at Colonial Michilimackinac next summer. Our onions (and the rest of the Michilimackinac gardens) are made possible in part through the generosity of Mackinac Associates– if you’ve ever admired our historic gardens, consider joining the Associates!

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

Making Charcoal: A Blacksmith’s Experiment

Charcoal is one of the few things that we know for sure would have been produced at Michilimackinac in the 18th century. Join Michilimackinac blacksmith Justin Popa as he attempts to make charcoal the same way the historic residents of Michilimackinac would have. Enjoy!

The Project Goes On…

In 2004, Mackinac State Historic Parks began a long-term project to restore the original buildings at the Old Mackinac Point Light Station and reconstruct the missing elements. The station is well documented, but archaeology has played a role, too.

 The lighthouse in 1918. The privy can be seen to the right.

   The most recent archaeological effort involved the free-standing privy, originally located about six feet west of the warehouse which now houses the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum. The privy was demolished after the light station was connected to the Mackinaw City sewer system in 1929. The remains of the brick privy foundation were found through test excavations in 2013. At that time, the focus was on locating the privy ruins so they could be avoided during the reconstruction of the warehouse.

   A privy incorporated into the original “barn” was located during test excavations in 2004 prior to the structure being returned to its original location. Those excavations revealed that the privy had been cleaned out and filled with sand after it was abandoned.

Dr. Lynn Evans on site.

   Recent test excavation at the site of the free-standing privy was designed to determine if it had also been cleaned out after it was no longer in use. A 1’ x 1’ square was excavated in the interior of the privy area. The different soils encountered were removed and screened separately. The top three layers (a total of 13.5” deep) were deposited as part of MSHP’s restoration work and dated to the 2014 construction of the warehouse, the 2013 test excavation and landscaping carried out in 2006-07 respectively. Below that were two layers (a total of 6.5” thick) from mid- to late twentieth century parking lots and driveways. Below that was a thick (17”) layer of mottled clay. It has been seen in previous excavations at the light station capping pre-1929 features. Only a few artifacts were found during this test excavation, but most of them, three nails and some coal, came from this layer.

This image shows the soil layers in the testpit. From the top: rocky fill from 2014; gold sand from 2013; brown fill from 2006-07; rocky roadbed from mid-twentieth century; mottled pink and gray sand from 1929.

   What was below the clay layer would answer the question of if the privy had been cleaned out. We expected to find beach sand if it had been cleaned and rich, artifact-bearing soil if it had not. What we found was black sandy loam containing only one fragment of window glass. After only two inches, something very solid was encountered and the testpit was complete. Because the testpit was over three feet deep at this point, it was being excavated with posthole diggers and it was difficult to get a good look at the bottom of the pit.

   We still don’t know for sure that the privy was not cleaned out, but the results of this test indicate that it would be worthwhile to carry out a larger scale excavation. In the meantime, we know that the original foundation and privy deposit are deep enough that the privy can be reconstructed without damaging them. Check our website for further updates, but also consider making a donation to Mackinac Associates, which helps fund our ongoing archaeological programs.

 

 

 

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.

Agriculture at Mill Creek

Watching the sawmill operate is one of the highlights of a visit to Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park. Seeing the original grist mill stones reunited in the American Millwright’s House is the result of good historical detective work. However, milling was the not the only enterprise at Mill Creek.

   According to the original land claim by Robert Campbell’s heirs, the property was “commonly known by the name of Campbell’s farm.” Among the improvements listed on Private Claim 334 were a house, a grist and sawmill, at least 40 cultivated acres, a large orchard and valuable buildings.

   Michael Dousman purchased the property in 1819. He was a large landowner, with additional property on Mackinac and Bois Blanc islands. He held lucrative contracts to supply Fort Mackinac with beef and hay, which he supplied from these farms. The gristmill closed by 1839, and the sawmill was moved to Cheboygan in the mid-1840s.

Historic Mill Creek Archaeology Map

   After Dousman’s death in 1854, Jacob A.T. Wendell of Mackinac Island bought the property. In 1867 Putman’s Magazine published a story about an unsuccessful trout fishing expedition to Mill Creek. It stated, “there had formerly been a cleared spot of land about the mill, but it was fast growing up again.”

   Also shortly after the Civil War, a man named Young, a tenant of Wendell, built a house at the foot of the Mill Creek bluff and engaged in the manufacture of lime. After two years he moved on to other pursuits. At that point Wendell arranged with Charles Bennett to move into the house and see that no one trespassed on the private claim. In 1916 Angeline Bennett, Charles’s widow, testified in an affidavit that they had “lived upon and occupied said property for upwards of fifty years.” One of their descendants visited Historic Mill Creek in 1993 and remembered a farm on the bluff and apple trees.

   The Wendell family sold the property to the Petoskey Mackinaw Lime Company in about 1902, but apparently the Bennetts continued living there until the house, which Angeline described as “at the foot of the bluff where the quarry is now located,” burned down in 1911. The Petoskey Mackinaw Lime Company mined limestone and clay for road building into the 1920s before letting the land tax revert to the State of Michigan.

Barn Area at Mill Creek.

   Is there any evidence of this agricultural activity visible at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park today? Old apple trees are still scattered among the reconstructed buildings near the creek. Faint traces of two structures are visible across the path from the sawpit at the foot of the hill. They are most visible in the spring before the foliage comes out and in late fall when everything has died back again. Mapping and limited archaeological testing was carried out in 1988.

   The first foundation is a large rectangle, seventy-one feet long by twenty feet wide, with twenty-foot door gaps in the long north and south walls. This would seem most likely to be a barn. Nineteenth- century artifacts, including red transfer-printed ceramic sherds and a metal plate from an instrument case dated 1873, were found here.

Silo area.

   The second ruin is circular, and so has been interpreted as a silo. It is about thirteen feet in diameter. It did not contain as many artifacts, only some late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century bottles and tin cans. There was evidence for a thin wood floor about two feet below the ground surface.

   Larger scale excavation at both structures in the future may reveal more about this interesting facet of life at Mill Creek.

What Did Soldiers Wear Under Their Uniforms?

Soldiers of the 23rd Infantry using a net to catch fish in the Devil’s River in Texas in 1898. Most of the men are wearing their blue shirts, but the second soldier from the left appears to be wearing his undershirt. The men wearing light-colored pants could just be wearing their drawers into the river, but they might also be the white trousers authorized for summer wear in 1888.

   If you’ve visited Fort Mackinac, you’ve probably seen our historical interpreters performing demonstrations and leading tours while wearing the uniforms of the U.S. Army of the 1880s. We strive to have accurate reproductions, but what did the historic soldiers of Fort Mackinac wear under their uniforms?

Soldiers of Company K of the 23rd Infantry relax inside the barracks in the 1880s. The card-playing soldier at left, wearing the straw hat, may also be wearing his gray undershirt.

   The British and early American soldiers on Mackinac Island probably wore a single piece of underwear in the form of a long-sleeved linen shirt. The shirts usually reached almost to the knees, allowing the soldiers to wrap them around their upper legs and groin. Shirts were changed and laundered regularly, as having clean linen against the skin was considered essential to staying healthy. By the 1880s, the American army provided considerably more complex undergarments, which could be mixed and matched in layers depending on the climate and a soldier’s needs. By the mid-1870s, soldiers were regularly issued drawers to wear beneath their uniform trousers. Made of unbleached flannel, the drawers issued by the mid-1880s had a reinforced crotch and a full-cut seat, and closed with two metal buttons in front as well as buttons to close the ankle cuffs. Beginning in 1881, soldiers also received an undershirt to wear against their skin. Made of a 50/50 blend of fleece wool and cotton, the gray pullover shirts had knit cuffs to ensure a snug fit around the wrists. Soldiers received three undershirts as part of their yearly uniform allowance, but they often complained that the shirts were too hot and heavy, especially for men stationed in the south or the deserts of the southwest. Soldiers also began receiving blue flannel shirts, worn over the undershirt, in 1881. After receiving feedback (meaning complaints) from soldiers about the 1881 shirts, the Quartermaster Department issued a new design in 1882, and again in 1883. The 1883 model shirts were cut in much the same way as the undress blouse, with a falling collar and fitted cuffs. These shirts featured three black rubber buttons at the throat and down the front placket, which extended to mid-chest. The shirts also included two breast pockets, each with a single black rubber button for closure. The army always intended for these shirts to be worn as outerwear in hot climates, and soldiers were issued three every year.

Soldiers of the 23rd Infantry police the grounds near the East Blockhouse in the 1880s. The two men standing at right are wearing their blue flannel shirts. The
man standing at center, sideways to the camera, may also be wearing his gray undershirt- note his forearm.

   By layering these garments as needed, soldiers could somewhat adapt to changing weather and keep a ready supply of clean undergarments on hand. Although it’s not something that visitors to Fort Mackinac ever see (and would have only rarely seen back in the 1880s), these pieces of underwear were critical to creating the look of the U.S. Army in the late 19th century. Be sure to ask the interpreters about their uniforms next time you visit Fort Mackinac, and don’t forget to check out Mackinac Associates, which helps fund the purchase of uniforms and other supplies every year. Also, if you’re interested in seeing more images of army life in the 1880s, this summer Mackinac State Historic Parks is pleased to offer a new book featuring over 120 images collected by a Fort Mackinac officer: Through an Officer’s Eyes: The Photo Album of Edward B. Pratt, U.S. Army 1873-1902. The three images illustrating this post all come from the book, which will be available in our visitor’s centers and museum stores.