Autumn Berries of the North Woods

“On the 20th of September [1835] the snow fell one inch, with quite a severe frost. The bushes were still loaded with whortleberries.”   – Benjamin O. Williams

In late September 1835, Lieutenant Benjamin Poole was completing an arduous months-long survey for the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. His crew’s mission was to survey a proposed military road from Saginaw to Mackinac, with a terminus at Dousman’s Saw Mill (now Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park).

Lowbush Blueberry

Poole’s survey crew was guided by brothers Benjamin O. and Alpheus F. Williams on a route “through a trackless wilderness nearly two hundred miles in extent, about which nothing was known, but that it presented obstacles of an unusually formidable character.” In short, the crew encountered long stretches of cedar swamps, shaking bogs, and alder thickets, ran out of provisions, and nearly starved. In his official report, written at Detroit on September 30, 1835, Poole admitted, “The assistants were frequently employed for days, and even weeks, in creeping through thickets and windfalls, where walking was quite out of the question.”

Much of what isn’t included in the official report was later recalled by B.O. Williams in a vivid account read before the Michigan Pioneer Society in February 1878. He wrote, “The density of some portions of the spruce, fir, and cedar lands exceeded any tropical forest I have ever seen…” His account follows their crew as they trek through the wilderness in moccasined feet, enduring swarms of gnats and mosquitoes, suffering illness and injury, and were saved from near starvation after stumbling upon “whortleberries [bilberries or blueberries] in great abundance.” Thankfully, shaking bogs and cedar swamps are excellent places to find many species of wild berries. Yet too much of a good thing caused a different digestive dilemma, as Williams noted, “eating whortleberries had affected some of the men unfavorably.”

As flowering plants bear fruit in early autumn, many species of wild berries ripen, each containing seeds to perpetuate a new generation of plants. While some berries are edible by people, others are inedible or even toxic to humans. Instead, most are best enjoyed with a photograph and left to the birds, squirrels, and other creatures of the north woods as they prepare to migrate south or endure the long, cold months of winter. The berries that follow were all photographed along the trails at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.

Common Chokecherry

Bluebead Lily

Western Poison Ivy

Starry False Solomon’s Seal

Hawthorn

Staghorn Sumac

Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Riverbank Grape

Wild Rose

Common False Solomon’s Seal

Canada Mayflower

White Baneberry (Doll’s Eyes)

What’s in the basement?

For more than 20 years, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse has been restored to its 1910s glory. In that time numerous exhibits, galleries, and tours have been added to the experience, and, just last year, the second floor of the house was opened for the first time in its history. However, we still get one question more than the others: what’s in the basement? Chief Curator Craig Wilson takes us into the basement to show us what’s there:

Chief Wawatam 110th Launching Anniversary

Frank Kirby

  Due to increased railroad traffic across the Straits of Mackinac, the Mackinac Transportation Company decided in 1910 that a new ferry needed to be built. The company had two ferries at the time, the St. Ignace, built in 1888, and the revolutionary Sainte Marie, completed in 1893. These vessels had been designed by noted Great Lakes naval architect Frank Kirby and he was asked to plan the new ship. The keel was laid on June 1, 1911 at the Toledo Shipbuilding Company of Toledo, Ohio as hull number 119. The ship was christened Chief Wawatam after an Ojibway Indian who befriended British fur trader Alexander Henry in the 1760s.

Captain Louis Boynton

  At 9:10 a.m. on August 26, 1911, the Chief Wawatam was side launched with no ceremony or traditional breaking of champagne on her bow. Charles Calder, part owner of the shipyard, recorded that it was a clear day and the launching proceeded with “not a scratch on her hull.” The ship was 338 feet long, 62 feet wide and had a draft of 20.7 feet. Built with a steel hull, she would be the largest and most powerful railroad ferry to serve the straits. She could carry 28 to 32 railroad cars depending on their size. The hull was taken to a fit-out dock where work was completed. The ship set sail for the straits on October 16, 1911 with Commodore Louis Boynton in command.

   The Chief was constructed with many unique features including three engines, two in the stern for propulsion and one in the bow for ice breaking. The bow propellor first appeared on the St. Ignace after Boynton successfully used two vessels tied bow to bow to break ice. The ship was one of the first to have electricity for lighting although lanterns continued to be carried as backup. In order to protect the open bow, the anchor was placed on the stern. Thus, the vessel could anchor stern-to during a storm preventing water from entering through the sea gate. For many years, the ship bore the words “U.S. Mail” on her bow as she carried letters and packages between the two peninsulas.

  The Chief Wawatam operated at the Straits of Mackinac until August of 1984 when the railroad pier in St. Ignace collapsed. The ship remained tied to the dock until 1988 when the State of Michigan, which owned the vessel, sold it to Purvis Marine Limited of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Prior to her departure, numerous objects, paper material and other items were selected and removed by Mackinac State Historic Parks staff. The plan was for the state park to store the collection until a transportation museum in St. Ignace could be built. Funding for the museum fell through and the state park continues to be the home for the collection. Objects including the ship’s steering wheel and engine room telegraph are on display in the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse.

Mackinac Island’s Field of Dreams

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.  –Terrence Mann – “Field of Dreams”

  The large, grassy field behind Fort Mackinac has served many purposes since the end of the Civil War. It has been a drill field for soldiers, a playground for scouts, and a great place to canter a horse. But the one constant on that field for nearly a century and a half has been baseball. Fort Mackinac soldiers established the first ball field on this site in the 1870s and continued to develop and improve the field until the fort closed in 1895. Local residents and summer workers played baseball at the “fort ball grounds” in the early 20th century. Since 1934, when Civilian Conservation Corps workers built the nearby scout barracks, boy and girl scout troops from across Michigan have played ball on the same field during the summer months.

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Michilimackinac Archaeology 2021 Mid-Season Update

We have reached the halfway point of the 2021 archaeological field season at Michilimackinac and there is progress to report.

Door latch

  The southeast cellar seems to be showing signs of bottoming out. The soil in the southern portion is becoming very sandy with pebbles, like the glacial beach which lies under all of the fort. Some of the wood wall fragments have disappeared. Part of a door latch was found in this area. The northern part of the cellar is becoming somewhat sandier, but the wood planks continue, and it recently yielded a small, plain pewter button and a musket ball.

Pocketknife

  The east wall of the central cellar has become better defined with the burned tops of eight wood posts now exposed. The most interesting artifact of the summer (so far) came from the north edge of this cellar, an intact pocketknife. We hope that future research will help us date it or at least identify it as French or British in order to better understand the construction sequence of the cellars.

  Excavation of 1781 demolition continues further north. We expect to find remnants of the north wall of the house in this area. We have opened the first quad in what we expect to be the final row of squares for this project.

New Quad Opened Up

  The 2021 field season is sponsored by the Mackinac Associates, and we are grateful for their support. Follow MSHP’s social channels and this blog for updates on the rest of the season, or, better yet, come visit the site. We will be excavating every day, weather permitting, through August 21.

Mackinac Indian Agency

Mackinac Island Community Hall, formerly an American Fur Company building.

  Modern visitors to Mackinac Island still have a chance to see numerous reminders of the community’s heyday as a center of the Great Lakes fur trade. Walking down Market Street, it’s hard to miss the large cream-colored buildings that once belonged to the American Fur Company (today the Community Hall and Stuart House Museum) or the original Michilimackinac County Courthouse, built in the late 1830s. Fort Mackinac still looms over the town and harbor. However, just below and east of the fort, there once stood another complex of buildings which reflected Mackinac’s key role in not only the regional economy, about also in the federal government’s relationship with the Anishnaabek and other indigenous people of Michigan. Although largely gone today, the Mackinac Indian Agency was a critical part of the island community for much of the early 19th century.

  In the 1780s and 1790s, after a series of stinging defeats at the hands of the tribes of the Great Lakes, the new United States government adopted a broad policy of conciliation and treaty-making with indigenous groups. Rather than automatically attempting to subjugate the tribes with military force, the government embarked on a program to “civilize” Native people and transform them into white American citizens. Treaties with the Anishnaabek and other indigenous groups, in which the tribes ceded land to the federal government in return for goods and services, were a key feature of the civilization program, which continued in some form well into the 20th century. To carry out treaty provisions and distribute the goods and annuity payments promised in negotiations with the tribes, Indian agencies were established around to the country to act as the primary point of contact between indigenous people and the federal government.

View of the Agency House with the Indian Dormitory beyond it.

  The first agency in Michigan opened on Mackinac Island in 1815, shortly after the island returned to American control following the War of 1812. The first agent, William Puthuff, concentrated on diminishing British influence among the tribes of northern Michigan, many of whom fought against the United States during the war, and enforcing trade regulations, which drew the ire of the powerful American Fur Company. Puthuff was soon replaced, but subsequent agents continued the work of providing government goods and services to the regional Anishnaabek, thousands of whom visited Mackinac every summer. The Mackinac Agency was centered around the agent’s house, which served as a residence for the agent as well as a warehouse for government goods. A sprawling structure with two wings, it was surrounded by well-tended gardens. Writing in 1835, a traveler described it as a “very comfortable house,” which presented a “conspicuous figure, being well situated at the fort of the hill, with a good garden in front.”

Henry Schoolcraft

  In 1833 perhaps the most consequential (and controversial) of the Mackinac Indian agents arrived on the island: Henry Schoolcraft. Schoolcraft previously served as agent at the Sault Ste. Marie Agency, where he married into a prominent Ojibwa family. He used his position to ensure that his wife Jane’s extended Anishnaabek family reaped federal benefits, and wrote extensively about Anishnaabek history and culture. As the Mackinac agent, which also served as Michigan’s superintendent of Indian affairs after 1836, Schoolcraft oversaw negotiations for the 1836 Treaty of Washington. This agreement saw the Anishnaabek of northern Michigan cede 14 million acres of their land in return for annuity payments, regular distribution of food and supplies, payment of debts, and other provisions. The treaty helped clear Michigan’s path to statehood, but left the Anishnaabek unsure of their future in northern Michigan.

The Treaty of Washington ceded nearly 14 million acres to the federal government. This territory, which makes up just under 40% of the state of Michigan today, is colored yellow on this map.

  With the new treaty grudgingly ratified by the Anishnaabek on Mackinac Island in the summer of 1836, the agency continued to serve as a critical point of contact with the federal government. In 1838 Schoolcraft supervised the construction of a dormitory building to house visiting Native people (the building went largely unused, as they preferred to camp on the beach). By 1839 the agency employed several people: a dormitory keeper, a physician, two interpreters, four blacksmiths, a gunsmith, two carpenters, three farmers, and Schoolcraft himself. Workshops lined the base of the bluff behind the dorm. In keeping with federal policy, these employees were to provide services and education in an effort to force the Anishnaabek to abandon their traditional culture and adopt the lifestyle of white American farmers.

  Despite its importance in the 1830s, the Mackinac Agency gradually fell into obsolescence as federal policies changed and the government focused more on tribes of the far west. Since the agents were always political appointees, they came and went as presidential administrations changed (Schoolcraft lost his post in 1841). Indian affairs were consolidated at the Mackinac Agency through the 1850s, and the Michigan superintendent’s office moved to Detroit in 1851. Agents only returned to Mackinac to distribute summer annuity payments, and the old agent’s house was rented out and gradually fell into disrepair. The house was described in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s 1880 novel, Anne, and several of her other writings, which were partially set on Mackinac Island. The dormitory served as the island’s public school beginning in the late 1860s.

The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum.

  Today, the Mackinac Agency is largely invisible on the landscape. The site of the old agency house and gardens is now occupied by summer cottages. A playground and the Mackinac Island Peace Garden sit where blacksmiths and gunsmiths once worked. Only the 1838 dormitory, now open to the public as The Richard and Jane Mannogian Mackinac Art Museum, remains standing. Next time you visit Mackinac, stop by the art museum and consider the building’s previous life as part of the agency. If you would like to learn more about the agency, join Chief Curator Craig Wilson outside the art museum at 5:00 PM on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 for a free walking tour describing Mackinac Island’s bustling community of the 1830s.

Michilimackinac Archaeology 2021 Has Begun

The archaeology crew at work on opening day.

  The 63rd archaeological field season at Michilimackinac got underway on June 1. This will be our 14th season on our current project, the excavation of House E of the Southeast Rowhouse. The rowhouse was built in the 1730s, rebuilt in the 1760s, and demolished in 1781 when the community moved to Mackinac Island. The house was always occupied by fur trading households, first the household of French Canadian trader Charles Gonneville, and later the household of an as-yet-unknown English trader.

  Despite not knowing his name, we have learned quite a bit about the English trader through the artifacts we have recovered. He supplemented the fish diet everyone ate with pigs and other domestic animals. He owned up-to-date ceramics, including styles developed in the 1770s. He was a snazzy dresser, with ornate buttons, buckles, and linked button fasteners. His trade goods likely included hawk bells and fishhooks.

  Although only half of the houses at Michilimackinac had a cellar, this house had two. We will excavate both of them this summer. At the very end of last season, we got a glimpse of the north wall trench of the house, and we hope to expose more of it this season.

  This house has had many surprises and we are excited to see what this season has in store. Interesting discoveries will be posted on MSHP’s social channels and this blog. Better yet, come visit us in person. We will be excavating every day through August 21 (weather permitting). This year the archaeological field season is sponsored by Mackinac Associates and we are grateful for their support.

Memorial Day at Fort Mackinac

  It’s a crisp morning in late May. Members of the 23rd Regiment at Fort Mackinac assemble on the parade ground in their dress uniforms and begin the slow, somber march out of the North Sally Port at Fort Mackinac and head toward the Post Cemetery. Soldiers muffle their drums as they would for a funeral, and play a cadence. They’re joined by civilians for the walk to the ceremony.

  Upon arrival at the Post Cemetery, short remarks are made, the soldiers fire a salute, and “Taps” is played. If you didn’t know any better, you might have thought you’ve stepped back in time to the 1880s, but this exact scenario will play out at Fort Mackinac and the Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery this Memorial Day, May 31, as a way to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers who served at Fort Mackinac. 

  It is a tradition Mackinac State Historic Parks has done for more than 20 years – recreating the Decoration Day, or Memorial Day, ceremony that soldiers had historically done at Fort Mackinac. In 1883, Captain Edwin Sellers suspended duty at Fort Mackinac and held the first Decoration Day ceremony.

Captain Edwin Sellers

  Some additional background on Sellers: he was commissioned second lieutenant, 10th infantry, in October 1861 during the Civil War. He was engaged in multiple battles, including Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, and received three brevet promotions for “gallant and meritorious service” during the war. He took command of Fort Mackinac in 1879, and lived with his wife, Olive, and four sons in the commanding officer’s house west of the fort.

  While he instituted Decoration Day at Fort Mackinac in 1883, it was, unfortunately, the only one he lived to see. One year later he was buried at the Post Cemetery after a brief and sudden bout of pneumonia.

  On this Memorial Day, costumed interpreters will lead attendees from Fort Mackinac to the Post Cemetery and perform a short ceremony and salute, just as the soldiers did in 1883. Mackinac State Historic Parks Director Steve Brisson will speak at the ceremony while interpreters lay a wreath on Sellers’ grave. Afterwards, soldiers will fire a rifle salute followed by “Taps” played by a bugler. Afterwards, the procession will march back to Fort Mackinac.

  The program begins at 8:30 a.m. and will conclude by 9:00 a.m. It’s a free event. Events such as this are sponsored, in part, by Mackinac Associates, friends preserving and sharing Mackinac’s history. More information on the event can be found here.

Shifting Sands

Remains of the lighthouse dock in April 2021.

The high water levels of the Great Lakes in recent years have caused significant erosion along the shoreline, exposing many long-buried landscape features. This year, water levels have fallen slightly, revealing previously-buried or submerged pieces of the past. The dock remains currently visible in front of the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse are but one example of how the power of the Great Lakes can alternately hide and reveal reminders of our maritime history.

The dock may have been the first element of the light station to be built, as it would have been necessary to receive materials for the construction of the original fog signal building in 1890. According to the 1894 Annual Report, “the landing crib was carried away by ice.” A replacement was completed the following year. It is depicted on a 1907 map as extending 198 feet out into the straits.

Keeper George Marshall greets a lighthouse inspector on the station dock. 

The dock was gone by 1921, when the District Superintendent explained in letter to the Commissioner of Lighthouses that it was not necessary to construct a new dock because “supplies and fuel can be unloaded at a city dock and transported to the Station.”

The remains of the dock you see today are over one hundred years old and fragile. Please do not disturb them. Archaeological remains such as the dock, whether located on land within Michilimackinac State Park or submerged in the waters of the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve, are protected by state law.

More information about the Old Mackinac Point Light Station can be found in Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse: A History and Pictorial Souvenir by MSHP Director Steve Brisson, available at MSHP museum stores. Visit our website to order a copy, or for more information about visiting Old Mackinac Point.