A wooden maple sugar mold.

Maple Taps at Mackinac

A wooden maple sugar mold.

Maple Sugar Mold
(Canadian Museum of History, 71-359)

For countless generations, Anishinaabek residents have gathered sap from sugar maple trees each spring, boiling it into pure maple sugar. Near the Straits of Mackinac, historical accounts show maple sugaring was especially common at nearby Bois Blanc Island and at L’Arbre Croche, along the Lake Michigan shore. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, which can make about 8 pounds of sugar. Typically, granulated sugar was packed into containers (mokoks), fashioned of birch bark, sewn together with spruce roots. Maple treats were also packed into wooden molds and decorative bark containers, sold for the local tourist trade. Mind-boggling amounts of maple sugar were produced annually at the straits, with records of more than 200,000 pounds (100 tons) being shipped by Mackinac traders at in a single season.

 As the month of April 2023 winds down, Michigan’s maple sugaring season has already come to a close. When maple buds start to open, sap turns cloudy and assumes a bitter taste. As temperatures remain above freezing both day and night, pressure also drops inside trees, causing sap to slow and taps to dry up completely. Historically at Mackinac, colder weather usually persisted later into spring. Most seasons, the straits would not be ice free until mid-April, when ship traffic could finally resume. In the woods, maple sugaring season would often last through April, or even into early May.

A large sugar maple near the Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery on Mackinac Island.

Sugar Maple near Mackinac Island’s Post Cemetery

 While most sugaring was done nearby, at least a few maples were tapped on Mackinac Island in the early 1880s. On April 28, 1883, Fort Mackinac’s post surgeon, Dr. William H. Corbusier, instructed his four young sons (along with those of Captain Edwin Sellers) in the age-old practice. Their mother, Fanny Dunbar Corbusier, later recorded the special memory. She wrote, “Father instructed the boys how to tap the sugar maple in the woods, collect the sap, boil it down over an open fire, and test it to learn when it was ready to crystalize into sugar. The pleasure derived by father and sons was very great. One day they tapped eleven trees and caught four gallons of sap.”

 The perspective recorded by their 10-year-old son, Harold, was somewhat more candid. He wrote, “The Sellers boys and we went into the woods at the foot of the hill on the west side of Fort Holmes to gather maple sap. We ate our lunch out here. We taped eleven trees and brought home four galons of sap and would of had more but we wasted a great deal.” One can easily imagine the sticky adventure as eight boys, the oldest just 12 years of age, attempted to collect sap and perform the slow practice of transforming it into sugar. Today, large sugar maples still grow on the west side of Fort Holmes hill, not far from the Post Cemetery.

The headstone of Captain Edwin Sellers at the Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery on Mackinac Island.

Capt. Edwin Sellers headstone

 Less than one year later, on April 12, 1884, Captain Edwin Sellers was laid to rest under the shade of Mackinac’s maples. In early April, Fort Mackinac’s beloved commandant fell ill, suffering a sudden and severe bout of pneumonia. “We all loved him,” wrote Captain Charles Davis, “and there will ever remain in the hearts of his friends a recollection of his manly worth, earnest devotion to duty, fidelity in friendship and generous sympathies that will serve to keep his memory cherished so long as one remains.”

 During your next visit to Mackinac, stop at the Post Cemetery and look for the final resting place of Edwin Sellers. Perhaps the maples growing nearby were tapped 140 years ago by eight rambunctious boys. Listen closely, and you just might hear faint echoes of sweet laughter amidst the rustle of sugar maple leaves.

Preserving History and the Natural Beauty of the Straits

Enchanting. Relaxing. Magical. Mackinac evokes so many memories and images of a special place that has allowed individuals and families to create memories and unique experiences. In managing more than 80% of Mackinac Island and the properties at Michilimackinac State Park and Mill Creek State Park, Mackinac State Historic Parks has the unique ability to protect and preserve our most treasured natural and historical resources in the Straits of Mackinac. And through the park’s friends’ group, Mackinac Associates, you can be a part of preserving these wonderful resources for generations to come, too.

 Since 1982, Mackinac Associates has provided over $3 million of support for Mackinac State Historic Parks with funds raised through membership fees, sponsorships, and fundraising campaigns. These funds have supported an expansive and remarkable list of projects both large and small in every area of Mackinac State Historic Parks operation. Gifts made through Mackinac Associates make possible the interpretive programs, publications, new and renovated exhibits, natural history education, and park improvements that visitors enjoy every year.

 How can you be a part of preserving and sharing Mackinac’s heritage?

  1. A cannon firing demonstration at Fort Mackinac. Become A Member

 Mackinac Associates members are passionate about preserving the rich history and natural beauty of the Straits of Mackinac and can treasure the fact that they have a direct hand in helping to protect, preserve, and present Mackinac’s rich historic and natural resources.  There are two branches of membership – Annual Members and Heritage Season Pass holders.

 Annual members receive a wide range of social and education benefits, including:

  •  Unlimited admission to all Mackinac State Historic Parks sites during the operating season
  • 15% discount at all MSHP museum stores and on the Forest Adventure Experience at Mill Creek
  • Guest admission passes at a reduced rate
  • One-year subscription to Curiosities, our newsletter
  • Invitations to Mackinac Associates member-only events and free admission for annual members to special MSHP events and programs such as Fort Fright and A Colonial Christmas

 Heritage Season Pass holders enjoy free admission at all Mackinac State Historic Park sites for two adults and children or grandchildren under age 18 during the current season. Heritage Season Passes expire October 31 of each year and do not include the additional benefits available to annual members.

 Learn more about available member benefits and how to become a Mackinac Associates member today: https://mackinacassociates.com/benefits

  1. Make a Donation

 Every dollar has an impact. Mackinac Associates helps fund projects both large and small and this past year was no exception with nearly $200,000 in projects sponsored across Mackinac State Historic Parks sites and operations, including:

  • -Continuation of the McGulpin House Dendroarchaeology Study
  • -Purchasing of supplies for the blacksmith shop at Colonial Michilimackinac and the repurposing of a barn building to move the blacksmith shop outside fort walls to a more historically correct location
  • -Updates to the Dr. Beaumont Museum exhibition in the American Fur Company building
  • -Colonial Michilimackinac Southwest Rowhouse addition design plan
  • -Sign upgrades and replacements for Mackinac State Historic Parks
  • -Electrical upgrades for Schoolhouse building in Fort Mackinac
  • -Replacement circuit panel in Hill Quarters
  • -Touchscreens within exhibits at Fort Mackinac and Colonial Michilimackinac
  • -New projector for Fort Mackinac Post Hospital
  • -Funding for The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum annual art contest prize money
  • -Support for Mackinac State Historic Parks’ education outreach programs
A trail at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.The dendroarchaeology study at the McGulpin House.

Entrance to the Dr. Beaumont exhibit at the American Fur Co. Store. A blacksmith at work at Colonial Michilimackinac. With your help, we can continue to support the programs, projects, and park improvements throughout all Mackinac State Historic Parks that will be impactful for many years to come. To make a donation and see other projects we have funded, visit https://mackinacassociates.squarespace.com/current-completed-projects.

  1. Leave A Legacy

 In managing more than 80% of Mackinac Island and the properties at Michilimackinac State Park and Mill Creek State Park in Mackinaw City, Mackinac State Historic Parks has the unique ability to protect and preserve the most treasured natural and historical resources in the Straits of Mackinac. Through the Mackinac Associates Legacy Society, you can help us preserve these wonderful resources for generations to come. Common considerations when thinking about planned giving include remembering Mackinac Associates in your will, designating our organization as a beneficiary, or the gift of retirement assets or stocks. If you have already remembered us in your estate planning, please let us know so that we can extend our gratitude and provide the recognition you deserve.

 Join us in this partnership to ensure future generations will be able to visit and enjoy our special place: https://mackinacassociates.squarespace.com/current-completed-projects.

  1. Support Our Wish List

A view of Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse.  If you enjoy the interpretation and programs at Mackinac State Historic Parks, we support an ongoing wish list of items requested by staff for the Parks’ gardens such as plants, seeds and tools, period-appropriate clothing and accessories for our hard-working interpreters, equipment for our blacksmiths, carpenters, and fort soldiers, and publications for the Keith Widder Library. Items on our wish list usually range between $50 and $300 and represent supplies that we can always use more of as we continue our interpretive programs and demonstrations throughout our sites.

A historic interpreter watering flowers at Colonial Michilimackinac.  A gift of any size can fulfill a tangible and essential need, to help us fulfil our current needs, visit https://mackinacassociates.squarespace.com/fund-a-need.

 Mackinac State Historic Parks has the unique ability to protect and preserve our most treasured historic and natural resources in the Straits of Mackinac. Thanks to the generosity of members, donors and sponsors, Mackinac Associates has provided over $3,000,000 in support of programs, projects and park improvements since its inception. Through Mackinac Associates you too can be part of preserving these wonderful resources for generations to come. To learn more, visit https://mackinacassociates.com/.

A Closer Look at the Collections: Cameos

One of the next major projects for Mackinac State Historic Parks will be the reconstruction of a unit on the Southwest Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac. To prepare, MSHP staff have been going over the archaeological records and artifacts from the 1960s, when the unit was originally excavated. Today, our Curator of Archaeology, Dr. Lynn Evans, is looking at a cameo ring recovered in 1962.

Archaeology in Review: Brass Scale Weights

Weight found in the central cellar.

Among the unusual finds from the 2022 Michilimackinac archaeological field season were two brass scale weights. They were found in the cellars of the trader’s house.

Nested cups found in the vicinity of the church/blacksmith shop in 1959

 The weight from the central cellar was a cup from a set of nesting weights. Of the fourteen brass scale weights ever found at Michilimackinac, all but two are from nesting weights. These are a series of nested cups plus a small solid trapezoidal disc which nests in the smallest cup. The best example of this is three nested cups found in the vicinity of the church/blacksmith shop in 1959. They were fused together in a fire. Over the years four other cup weights have been found. Based on differences in the angle of the sides at least two sets of weights are represented. The recovery of four of the small disc weights indicates a minimum of four sets. The weights are scattered around the fort, with an additional weight from the church, three from the barracks, three from the south southwest rowhouse, one from the southwest rowhouse and one from the Rue de la Babillarde in the southeast quarter of the fort.

 The cup found in 2022 weighs approximately half of an apothecary dram. It fits into a larger cup weight found in the nearby Rue de la Babillarde. Discs from the barracks, southwest rowhouse and south southwest rowhouse fit into it. We initially interpreted the symbol stamped in the cup as a fleur-de-lis, but further investigation reveals that it is more likely the crossed arrow and key of Nuremberg. Nuremberg was a center of scale making in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

 The weight from the southeast cellar is unique so far. It is trapezoidal, but much larger and heavier. It weighs an ounce and is stamped “GR” surmounted by a crown. This is almost certainly a reference to King George and indicates British use.

 The other unique brass scale weight found at Michilimackinac is a small square stamped ½ dram. It was found near the barracks wall in 1959 and is on display in the “Treasures from the Sand” exhibit at Colonial Michilimackinac.

 What were brass scale weights used for? The small weights are commonly referred to as apothecary weights. It is possible that the weights found in 2022, and the one found in the Rue de la Babillarde were used by Surgeon’s Mate David Mitchell who lived in House D of the Southeast Rowhouse. That would not explain the other scale weights found throughout the fort. It is possible that some of the others were used by merchants to weigh coins or other small but valuable items.

 In his December 31, 1778 inventory of his personal possessions, John Askin listed:

a Weighing Beam

a smaller Ditto

a Comn Weighing Beam old at ye Bakers

a Sett of Cast Weights

Baking at Colonial Michilimackinac.

 The first two weighing beams may have been small balances that would use small weights like this. The last one would have been larger in keeping with the larger measures used by bakers.

 You can see a large weighing beam in action during the special Askin’s Men and Women at Michilimackinac weekend August 5-6, 2023. The two scale weights recovered in 2022 will be on display in the “Current Archaeology at Michilimackinac” case in the Visitor’s Center when Colonial Michilimackinac opens May 10, 2023.

Irish Ingenuity at Mackinac

“There is a clear suggestion of a Celtic origin in the name that heads this sketch,

and some experiences in the early life of Mr. Doherty show him possessed of a large

 percentage of the spirit of independence and self-reliance that is characteristic of the Irish people.”

 Men of Progress: Embracing Biographical Sketches of Representative Michigan Men. Detroit (1900)

 Alfred James Doherty was born May 1, 1856, in New York City. His grandfather captained an ocean liner, immigrating to America from the north of Ireland. A.J.’s father, Michael, worked as a lumber dealer along New York’s East River, specializing in cutting and marketing ship timbers. The Doherty family eventually settled in western New York state, where they operated a profitable farm and raised many children.

Portrait from Men of Progress (1900)

 In 1876, Alfred married Alice Gleason, and the young couple set off to make a life in the west. In 1878, they settled in Clare, Michigan, in the midst of the state’s booming lumber industry. Of modest means, A.J. first found employment in a sawmill, working in every department, from piling lumber to scaling logs. Their four children, Floyd, Frank, Lyda, and Alfred Jr., were raised in Clare and would grow up to love Mackinac Island.

 With seemingly endless energy, Alfred held many positions over the next decade, including store clerk, teacher, insurance agent,  stock farmer, and owner of a hardware store, selling supplies to lumber companies. In 1892, he became general manager of the Clare Woodenware Co., and by 1900 ran the Clare Electric Light Company. He also served as local manager of Michigan Bell Telephone.

 Renowned for his “business hustle and ever present smile,” nearly every Michigander would eventually hear of Mr. Doherty. From 1901–1906, “Bellwether Doherty” served three notable terms as State Senator, being a leading member of the Michigan Republican party. He later served on the State Board of Agriculture, the Public Domain Commission, as superintendent of the Michigan State Fair, and as a long-standing trustee of the Michigan State Agricultural College (now Michigan State University).

Mackinac Island’s Municipal Water, Light and Power Company, by William H. Gardiner (bef. 1915)

 In 1911, A.J. Doherty became owner of the Municipal Water, Light and Power Company on Mackinac Island. It was a family business, with sons Fred, Frank, and Alfred Jr. each serving various roles for nearly two decades. Originally constructed in 1901, the main building was located along the island’s eastern shore. From there, water was pumped from Lake Huron to a reservoir at Fort Holmes, where gravity-fed pipes distributed it to island locations. In his 1916 report, Names of Places of Interest on Mackinac Island, Michigan, Rev. Frank A. O’Brien boasted, “Mackinac has a fine sewer system, as pure a water supply, and as perfect lighting and electrical service as any place in the country.”

Mackinac Specialty Co.

 In 1916, A.J. Doherty combined his boundless energy, agricultural knowledge, and forestry skills in the Mackinac Specialty Company. His signature product was “Mackinac Balsam Balm,” designed for medicinal use. Made from the clear resin of Balsam Fir trees, various balms, decoctions, and tinctures have been made from this fragrant liquid for centuries. Balsam Fir is one of Mackinac Island’s most abundant evergreens, especially common along the shoreline.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Other products, including a “fumigated nest egg” and an eight piece kitchen set, were intended to make life easier on the farm and in the household. With Doherty’s many other business interests, the Mackinac Specialty Company was a short-lived venture, only lasting a few years. Their family legacy, however, would continue to be felt by the Mackinac Island community.

The Doherty Cottage (Geary House), on Mackinac Island’s Market Street, as it appeared in 1970.

 For many years, the Doherty family lived seasonally on Market Street, next to today’s Beaumont Memorial. Now known as the Geary House, the structure was originally built about 1846 by Irish immigrant Matthew Geary, a prominent citizen of 19th century Mackinac Island. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, the structure was restored by Mackinac State Historic Parks, but is not open for public tours.

 The 1920s were a busy time for the entire family. Alfred Doherty Sr. served a term as mayor of Clare and built the impressive Doherty Hotel, which opened in April 1924. The hotel featured a banquet hall, ballroom, automatic elevator, billiard room, laundry, display rooms for traveling salesman, barber shop, and even a public library. The local paper boasted, “Residents of Clare are free in their assertions that for its size, there is no better hotel in the state.” Nearly 100 years later, the business is still owned by the Doherty family and is a defining feature of the Clare community.

 Near the end of the decade, the Dohertys sold their interests in the Municipal Power Company to a New York City firm and brothers Alfred Jr. and Frank helped form the Mackinac Island State Bank. The bank opened October 25, 1928, with Alfred serving as vice president and Frank working as cashier. Frank also became a beloved member of the Mackinac Island Civic Association, a forerunner to the current Chamber of Commerce. The association published an island guide book in 1927, and purchased the large American Fur Company buildings on Market Street in 1930. Frank’s wife, Sarah, served as custodian of the city-owned museum for many years.

 Senator Alfred J. Doherty died in Clare on September 27, 1929. The following year, Frank B. Doherty passed away, on October 23, 1930, at his home on Mackinac Island. The island community mourned his passing, lowering flags to half-mast as tribute. A special note in his obituary reads, “Mr. Doherty was a genial and attractive personality and popular with all classes. The island surely mourns the death of one who has eagerly and conscientiously promoted the interests and material progress of Mackinac Island.”

 

 

Herbert Benjamin examining a horse and carriage in the 1950s.

Herbert Benjamin and Blacksmithing on a Changing Island

Since Europeans settled on the Straits of Mackinac, a few distinct economic eras have affected people’s lives. Aside from the fur trade, tourism has had the most significant impact on Mackinac Island. Tourism affected the entire island, not just the hospitality industry. Islanders adapted to change as the busts and booms of the tourism industry affected their daily lives, and newcomers to the island would bring their skills to improve the community.

A portrait of Robert H. Benjamin.

Robert Benjamin, the founder of the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop.

 After buying the Star Blacksmith in 1885, Robert Benjamin brought his young family to the island for the first time—those first two seasons on the island were very difficult, with little financial gains. Blacksmithing was still a common occupation in the 1880s. Still, it was slowly beginning to decline with industrialization and cheaper, ready-made metal products. What saved Robert’s shop was one of the most ambitious construction projects on Mackinac Island to this day, the construction of Grand Hotel in 1887. Grand Hotel provided Robert with the work he needed to get his struggling shop off the ground and establish his family as a part of the wider island community.

Herbert Benjamin working at the blacksmith forge, taken in the 1950s.

Herbert at the forge, ca. 1950s.

 Robert’s son Herbert would take over the shop in 1900 after Robert was elected Sheriff of Mackinac County. Working in the blacksmith shop for the next 65 years, Herbert witnessed significant changes not only on the island he lived on but also in the kinds of work he did. A blacksmith in the 19th century could count on a steady stream of horses and farming equipment coming through their shop to make money. Working as a farrier, shoeing horses, or creating and repairing tools for everyday work, blacksmiths were common in any city or town. By the early 20th century, cars rapidly replaced horses, and mass-produced tools became the norm. Herbert remained one of the few full-time blacksmiths in the United States thanks to the auto ban on Mackinac Island in the late 1890s. Even on an island with an abundant supply of horses to shoe, it would not be enough to keep Herbert in business; he had to expand his range of work as new technologies and businesses came to the island.

Herbert Benjamin examining a horse and carriage in the 1950s.

Herbert examining a horse and carriage, ca. 1950s.

 Tourism on the island grew significantly following World War Two. The 1950s and ’60s brought even more people visiting the island every summer. New businesses and institutions became a part of the fabric of Mackinac Island, and Herbert would do business with nearly everyone. Herbert shoed horses from Carriage Tours, Gough Stables, the MRA, and many summer cottagers and islanders. He expanded his work to do carriage repair, patent leather work, small engine repair, and even sharpening lawn mower blades. When Mackinac State Historic Parks set about restoring the Biddle House in 1959, Herbert provided $95.00 worth of restoration work.

 Herbert occupied a rare position as a village blacksmith well into the 1960s, long after most blacksmiths had closed their doors and retired. He finally retired in 1965 at the age of 82. His retirement marked the end of a regular village blacksmith on Mackinac Island, though farriers still work there. Following his death in 1967, Herbert’s family donated the shop and its contents to Mackinac State Historic Parks. In addition, the shop was moved from its former location on Benjamin Hill, on the west end of Market Street, to its current location, next to the Biddle House.

A costumed interpreter working as a blacksmith talks with guests at the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop.

A Blacksmith Interpreter in the shop today.

 A blacksmith still works in the shop during the tourist season, from May to October. Though they aren’t shoeing horses, you can often see them working as Herbert did in the 1950s and ’60s on many projects. They use these projects to talk about the changing environment of blacksmithing in the mid-20th century and how Mackinac Island preserved an industry that had once been ubiquitous worldwide for thousands of years. So, on your next visit to Mackinac Island, be sure to stop in at the blacksmith shop, take in the sights and sounds, and learn even more about the changes in blacksmithing and the uniqueness of Mackinac Island. The Benjamin Blacksmith Shop is open from May 12 – October 8.

Mackinac at the Museum (1798)

On February 28, 1798, an article in the Greenfield Gazette detailed plans for an exciting new museum. A veritable “cabinet of curiosities,” the institution would be housed at Deerfield Academy, in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Today, the organization is one of the oldest preparatory schools in the United States. Their eclectic collection included donations from Dartmouth College, Boston area museums, and “many curious articles from many private gentlemen and ladies.”

A portrait of Joseph Priestley by Rembrandt Peale

Joseph Priestley, by Rembrandt Peale (c.1801)

 The late 18th century was a pivotal time in the development of scientific understanding. The “tree of knowledge” flourished during the Age of Enlightenment, with new discoveries by curious scientists, including Benjamin Franklin, William Bartram, and Joseph Priestley. Science also became more accessible as everyday citizens attended popular lectures, read printed works, roamed public gardens, and patronized museums.

 Joseph Priestly, an influential chemist, wide-ranging educator, natural philosopher, and radical theologian, epitomized this spirit of discovery. Priestly published and lectured often, becoming a close friend and collaborator with Benjamin Franklin. Deerfield Museum founders were  influenced by his advice, writing, “Dr. Priestley, in his lectures, shows the importance of such collections, as they respect history; and as the natural history of America is yet very imperfect, gentleman may be of essential service to it, by depositing specimens of minerals the skins of peculiar animals, or whatever may appear to them uncommon…”

 Which Mackinac wonders would you pick to display in this “infant museum” of early America? A unique specimen of Mackinac limestone? Animal pelts from the world-renowned fur trade? The delectable whitefish, or a 70-pound Mackinac trout? A closer look at this fascinating assemblage reveals the following curiosities:

  • Petrifications [fossils] from different parts of the country
  • Stone tools, clay pots, pipes, a bow and a number of arrows
  • Crystals and ores
  • Several fish hooks and lines
  • A spoon and a comb, made by Pacific Island inhabitants, visited by Captain Cook
  • The saw of a sawfish
  • A tooth of the spermaceti whale and jaw of a mackerel whale
  • The jaws of a Shark, with the teeth
  • Bills of a toucan and a pelican
  • The head and egg of an ostrich
  • A puffing fish, a coney, and sea wolf
  • A centipede of the West Indies
  • A young alligator and the egg of the albatross
  • Rare insects and reptiles, including a two-headed snake
  • “Nuts from Michilimackinac, called by the natives Pickens – and Indian rice from the same place”
A beaked hazelnut growing along the trail at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.

Beaked hazelnut growing along the trail at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park

 “Nuts from Michilimackinac, called by the natives Pickens,” likely refers to fruits of the hazelnut tree. The word pecan originates from the word pakan, meaning “hard shelled nut” in the Algonquian language family. Spelled with many variations over eastern North America, the word translates as bagaan in Anishinaabemowin, spoken by Ojibwe and Odawa people in the Mackinac region. A member of the birch family, there are 15 species of hazels in North America. Beaked hazelnut (Corylus rostrata) grows in the North Woods at Mackinac. In his 1912 botanical report, Charles K. Dodge noted they were common in “rich open ground from Bay County to St. Ignace and on Mackinac Island.”

A painting of people gathering wild rice from 1853.

Gathering Wild Rice, by Seth Eastman (1853)

 Wild Rice is one of the few staple grains native to North America. It belongs to a genus of tall, aquatic grasses of the genus Zizania, which thrived in marshes throughout the upper Great Lakes. Anishinaabek call the plant manoomin. In Ojibwe culture, its importance rises beyond a rich food source, with many related stories, symbols, and ceremonies associated with its use and harvest. While wild rice grew in the eastern Upper Peninsula it was never overly abundant here, often being traded from Green Bay. Draining of marshes and impaired water quality greatly reduced its range in the 20th century.

 In 1800, a large birchbark canoe made its way from Lake Huron to Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia. Founded in 1786 by artist Charles Willson Peale, the institution is considered the most important museum of early America. Peale’s expansive collection featured portraits of prominent individuals, natural history specimens, and cultural artifacts from around the world. The canoe was donated by Dr. Charles Brown, U.S. army surgeon at Detroit, who paddled it to New York. Constructed at Saginaw Bay by “an Indian woman,” the lightweight craft measured 23 feet long, 4 feet in breadth and 26 inches deep. Canoes were indispensable for transportation on the Great Lakes, plying rivers and lakes throughout the U.S. and Canada, including the Straits of Mackinac. It was said the donated craft “carried six persons and 1,200 weight of baggage across the Lakes.”

 The next time you visit the straits, consider which items might be fit for a museum of the 22nd century. Would your futuristic exhibit feature a slab of petrified fudge? A bicycle with pedals? Or fragrant blossoms of a lilac tree? Whatever change may come over the next century, we can rest assured that Lake Huron waters will lap against the rocky shore, welcoming visitors to Mackinac as they have since time immemorial.

From the Collection: Artifacts of Literacy

One of the next major projects for Mackinac State Historic Parks will be the reconstruction of a unit on the Southwest Rowhouse. To prepare, MSHP staff have been going over the archaeological records and artifacts from the 1960s, when the unit was originally excavated. Today we’re taking a look at various artifacts of literacy, including pencils and a pen knife. Curator of Archaeology Dr. Lynn Evans takes us through this peek at the collection.

The Sea Serpent at Mackinac

HMS Daedalus crew sees a serpent
Illustrated London News (Oct. 28, 1848)

 On August 6, 1848, the captain and crew of the British frigate, HMS Daedalus had a freak encounter with a “sea-serpent of extraordinary dimensions” off the west coast of Africa. When an official report reached England that October, a virtual firestorm of wild speculation, other sightings, and denouements circulated in the press for months. The Illustrated London News printed several fabulous illustrations of the beast, capturing details described by Captain Peter M’Quhae and his men. Watching the creature for twenty minutes, they estimated at least 60 feet of the creature was visible, with another 30 or 40 feet below the surface. The animal had the head of a snake, with “something like the mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of seaweed washed about its back.” Its cylindrical body measured about 16 inches in diameter, being dark brown, with yellowish-white about the throat. It had no fins, and traveled by undulating at a speed of 15 miles per hour. The British paper included examples of many additional sightings, including some of the Great American Sea-Serpent, Scoliophis Atlanticus.

Head of the serpent (left) and view of the Great American species. Illustrated London News (Oct. 28, 1848)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

American Monsters

Advertisement for the Missouri Leviathan (ca.1845)

 In the United States, news of the Daedalus’ encounter spread like wildfire. While many derided the claim as fantastical, others, including Dr. Albert C. Koch, reveled in the discovery. A German-born naturalist, showman and entrepreneur, Koch first came to the U.S. in 1827, settling in St. Louis. With a flamboyant style akin to P.T. Barnum, the good doctor opened the Saint Louis Museum in 1836. Displaying both cultural and natural history specimens, exhibits included much of William Clark’s collection (of Lewis & Clark fame), acquired after his death in 1838.

 Koch’s star began to shine in 1840, when he claimed to have found the complete fossilized skeleton of the “Missouri Leviathan,” a previously unknown elephantine behemoth which dwarfed the extinct American mastodon. To increase his audience (and profits), Koch closed his museum and carted the Leviathan across the Atlantic for a European tour. The massive skeleton was particularly popular in England, where it was displayed at Egyptian Hall, in Piccadilly, London. Ultimately, Koch sold the skeleton to a British scientist before returning to America in May 1844. Only later was it discovered the Leviathan was a fabrication, composed of several mastodon skeletons, including added vertebrae and other bones to exaggerate its size.

Hydrarchos exhibition advertisement,
New York City (1845)

 Back in the states, Dr. Koch searched for new fossilized wonders for display. In March 1845, he announced the discovery of a new monster, excavated from the rocky prairies of southern Alabama. On May 30, 1845, the Vicksburg Tri-Weekly Sentinel reported, “It is of the amphibious species, supposed to have been fiercely carnivorous, and is some thing of the alligator form except that it had fins instead of feet.” Measuring 114 feet long, Hydrarchos Harlani was displayed in New York and Boston, drawing fierce supporters and critics alike. The giant “Sea Snake” was a sensation. In 1846, Koch started another European tour, eventually selling his “specimen” to the Royal Museum in Berlin. It eventually proved to be an elaborate hoax, composed of parts from several fossilized Basilosaurus skeletons, a type of extinct whale.

The Sea Serpent at Mackinac

 In June 1847, in the very midst of sea serpent mania, Horace Greeley and Lewis G. Clark boarded a steamboat at Detroit, bound for Mackinac Island. While the ship provided comfort, their Lake Huron journey was shrouded in fog and mist the entire length of the lake. Greeley, the noted editor and publisher of the New-York Tribune, was on a tour of the Great Lakes, to conclude at a Rivers and Harbors Convention in Chicago. ­­During the pair’s brief stop at Mackinac, Greeley noted it was “among the coldest spots within the limits of our Union.”

 Greeley’s companion, Lewis G. Clark, served as editor of his own publication, The Knickerbocker: or, New-York Monthly Magazine. When news of the Daedalus sighting hit the U.S. (more than a year after their Mackinac visit), Clark shared a unique perspective based on personal experience.

Horace Greeley (left) and Lewis G. Clark spotted a “sea serpent” while guests at the Mission House in July 1847.

 “Toward the twilight of a still day, near the end of July, 1847, Horace Greeley .. and ‘Old Knick’ hereof, were seated on the broad piazza of the dark-yellow ‘Mission-House’ at Michilimackinac, looking out upon the deep, deep blue waters of the Huron, when an object, apparently near the shore, suddenly attracted our attention. We both examined it through a good glass, and came to the mutual conclusion that it was an enormous sea-serpent, elevating its head, undulating its humps, and ‘floating many a rood’ upon the translucent Strait. Such was the opinion of the proprietor of the ‘Mission House,’ who in a ten years’ residence at Mackinac had never seen the like before.”

 Clark delightfully describes Horace Greeley’s “tremendous kangaroo bounds” as the pair dashed for a closer look, himself getting slightly stuck in marsh mud near the shore. Reaching the beach, he continued:

 “When we had arrived, lo! The object which had so excited our curiosity was nothing more than the dark side of a long undulating, unbroken wave, brought into clear relief by the level western light which the sun had left in his track as he dropped away over Lake Michigan. We felt rather ‘cheap’ as we came back together, and ‘allowed’ that if they’d seen at Nahant what we had at Mackinac, they’d have sworn that it was the sea-serpent. Catch us doing any thing o’ that kind!’”

 Was Mackinac’s sea serpent nothing more than illusion, or did a mysterious creature deftly vanish beneath a convenient wave? As Lewis Clark noted, “We have been led to believe, from our own experience, that one may very easily deceived by these water reptiles.” During your next visit to Mackinac Island, keep an eye on the watery horizon. You might be surprised at what you find!

2022 Mackinac State Historic Parks Collections Acquisitions

In 2022, the collections committee accessioned 176 objects into the Mackinac Island State Park Commission collection and archives. In addition to several purchases, over 90 items were donated to the collection. The summer collections internship program was restarted and Kendra Ellis, from the Maritime Studies Program at East Carolina University, was hired. She assisted Curator of Collections Brian Jaeschke with the inventory of Fort Mackinac buildings and Special Storage inside the Heritage Center.

 In 2010, five pen and ink drawings of Mackinac Island were loaned to the park for exhibit in The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum. The loan was changed to a donation early in the year. The five drawings were done in the early 1840s by Francis Melick Cayley who moved to Canada in 1836. The views are some of the most precise pre-photographic images of the island known to exist. They are so well proportioned that it is believed he may have employed artificial means to prepare the sketches, such as a “camera obscura,” which permitted projection of a scene onto paper for tracing. The drawings continue to be displayed in the main gallery of the art museum.

 During the course of procuring images for the new Dr. William Beaumont Museum exhibit this winter, the park purchased four paintings of the doctor and his wife from the Wayne County Medical Society of Southeast Michigan. Two of the paintings are miniature portraits of Dr. Beaumont and his wife Deborah. It is believed they were done around the time of their marriage in 1821. The other two paintings are reproductions of images showing Beaumont later in life. The portraits need conservation work and will eventually be placed on display.

 The park purchased two black and white panoramic photographs showing Mackinac Island scenes. The first image, by island photographer William Gardiner, was taken from a naval vessel, quite possibly the USS Michigan. The ship is entering the harbor with downtown, Fort Mackinac and Grand Hotel visible. The second image was taken by H.J. Rossiter from the fort pasture and shows the officers’ and commanding officer’s quarters, Fort Mackinac and Trinity Episcopal Church. The images were taken around 1900 and give us a unique historic glimpse of the island.

 Donated to the park collection this summer was a painting with a unique perspective from a path behind Trinity Episcopal Church looking toward Fort Mackinac. The oil on canvas by German-born Curt Bielefeldt was done sometime between 1940 and 1960. He lived in Buffalo before moving to Detroit in the early 1930s. He worked in oils and watercolors and was also known for murals. He was a cousin of German boxer Max Schmeling. Bielefeldt won the grand prize in the 1930 Buffalo Society of Artists in the Albright Gallery. His work was displayed in many locations including the Detroit Institute of Art and the J.L. Hudson Company Gallery.

 This is only a small sample of the type of objects Mackinac State Historic Parks collects during a given year.  We are always looking for donations and items to purchase which will help the commission to continue its mission of educating the public about the history of the region.