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!

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

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.

It Will All Come Out in the Wash

According to some sources, the average American family washes 300 loads of laundry ever year. People are inherently dirty, and sweat, dirt, food, and many other things come into contact with our clothing every day. We clean our clothes to stay healthy and keep them looking good. Modern laundry machines and detergents can efficiently and effectively remove all that smelly nastiness from our clothes. But how did people clean their clothes before detergents and washing machines?

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Greatcoats: Another Cold Winter Garment

With winter descending on the Straits of Mackinac, it can be difficult to image what life was like here in centuries past. When guests visit Colonial Michilimackinac during the summer months, they see historical interpreters dressed for pleasant weather in the 1770s, but people often wonder: what did they do they when it got cold? (more…)