Ice Fishing at Michilimackinac

Archaeologists excavated this nearly-completed whitefish skeleton from a trash pit in the southwest corner of the fort. It is now on display in the Treasures from the Sand exhibit.

Right now, it’s cold at the Straits of Mackinac. The straits are almost completely iced over, apart from slim shipping tracks kept open by Coast Guard icebreakers. While today those of us who live here can drive our cars to the store for food regardless of the ice conditions in the straits, the 18th century residents of Michilimackinac were much more limited in their choices of food. For the most part, during the winter they relied upon foods that had been shipped in and stockpiled before snow and ice closed trade routes on the lakes and rivers of the Great Lakes watershed. Fortunately, there remained a ready supply of fresh food just under the ice covering the Straits of Mackinac: fish.

View of the Straits today from Colonial Michilimackinac.

Fish were a year-round staple for everyone who lived at Michilimackinac. In the summer, sturgeon, lake trout, whitefish, and other species could be caught with a hook and line, harpooned with spears, or caught in large locally-woven nets weighed down with stones. Autumn was a particularly good time to fish, as some species moved into shallower waters nearer the shoreline community to spawn. Fishing continued during the winter in much the same fashion. Fishermen might cut several holes in the ice, through which they lowered their nets. Others might lay on the ice, protected by a small structure like a modern ice shanty, peering through a hole and waiting to spear fish attracted by a decoy. Once the fish were caught, it was easy to preserve them. Michel Chartier de Lotbinière, a French military engineer who visited Michilimackinac in 1749, reported that the French Canadian residents’ “winter supply of fish” was either smoked or “put in the snow to preserve it.” Similar methods remained in use after British soldiers and traders arrived in 1761. Alexander Henry, one of the first British traders to reach Michilimackinac, noted in 1762 that “the fish are frozen the first night after they are taken; and by the aid of the severe cold of the winter they are thus preserved in a state perfectly fit for use even till the month of April.”

Although preserving the fish was easy, going onto the ice to catch them could be dangerous. One day in the mid-1770s, Captain Arent DePeyster, the fort’s commanding officer, walked out on the ice to observe the fishermen at work. An amateur poet, DePeyster later recounted how shifting winds “sent me whirling, in a trice,/Upon a crumbling cake of ice.” Fortunately for DePeyster, some Native men on shore noticed his plight: “Indian friends, expert and brave,/Their lives exposed my life to save,/While threatened with watery grave.” These men quickly paddled a canoe out to DePeyster’s floe “And laid her quivering along-side;/Where through the means of heavenly grace,/The parting ice left water space,/Through which with force they plied the oar,/To where shouts echoed from the shore,/Thence bore me home, with hearts elate.” Thanks to the efforts of these men, DePeyster returned safely to shore.

View of Colonial Michilimackinac in February, 2019.

Although Colonial Michilimackinac is currently closed for the winter, we hope you’ll join us this summer beginning on May 1, when things are a bit warmer. As you stand on the shores of the Straits of Mackinac, imagine what it was like during winters 250 years ago, when fish caught under the ice helped the community survive until fresh supplies arrived by canoe in the spring.




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