A black and white photo from 1890 showing the Fort Mackinac rifle range, with soldiers participating in a firing drill.

Army Marksmanship at Fort Mackinac

American history is full of stories and legends of soldiers and civilians skillfully using their muskets and rifles in the heat of battle or some other dramatic event. Tales of David Crocket, Daniel Boone, Annie Oakley, and the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord create an image that many people living on the North American continent in the 1800s would have been skilled with firearms. As far as these stories are true, they do not accurately represent most of the people living at that time. Most people in the United States had little to no experience with any long-range rifle shooting, and even basic skills with firearms were poor. Even amongst the United States Army ranks, very few soldiers participated in any significant target practice.

A black and white photograph of 1880s soldiers standing in a line with muskets and rifles in front of them.

Soldiers of the 23rd U.S. Infantry on the Parade ground at Fort Mackinac in the late 1880s.

 This lack of target practice was not neglectful. The technology and tactics at the time didn’t require soldiers to be skilled in long-range shooting. The army supplied soldiers with a smoothbore musket, which only had an effective range of 80 to 100 yards. As a result, armies had their soldiers lined up in big columns to create mass fire groups. While an individual soldier isn’t accurate, a large group of soldiers firing as a team is a much more effective force. These tactics were common around the world. Even after rifled muskets came into existence, which are more accurate than smoothbore muskets, many armies stuck to traditional battle line tactics. Firearms with “rifling” “have grooves inside the barrel, which make the projectile spin, making it more accurate and able to shoot farther.

 After the Civil War, the United States Army adopted the 1873 Springfield 45/70, often called the “trapdoor rifle.” The 45/70 was the first standard-issue breechloading rifle adopted by the army, meaning that the rifle was loaded from the rear of the rifle rather than from the muzzle. This rifle was far more accurate, allowing people to hit targets beyond 1,000 yards. Given the capabilities of this new weapon and the changing nature of warfare, the army began investigating ways to improve the marksmanship skills of their soldiers. While many officers developed different learning strategies, the army failed to provide any serious enforcement or supplies for training. Soldiers lacked ammunition for target practice, and commanding officers ultimately decided how much practice their soldiers would get. There was little pressure on commanding officers to restructure their soldiers to incorporate target practice.

A black and white photo of the Fort Mackinac rifle team from 1886. The soldiers are posed for the photo, holding rifles, with a trophy between them.

Fort Mackinac rifle team in 1886. Note target shaped collar buttons for marksmanship.

 The army started to improve its marksmanship efforts in 1884 by creating a new award system. Now, soldiers could earn various awards and compete against their fellow soldiers. A soldier who could hit targets 200 and 300 yards away at 80% accuracy and a 600-yard target at 70% would qualify as a marksman. Soldiers who could hit targets 200, 300, and 600 yards at 88% and targets at 800, 900, and 1000 yards at 76% earned the sharpshooter qualification. Aside from these awards, the army also created a special board to investigate ways to instruct soldiers in long-range marksmanship. Captain Stanhope E. Blunt was placed in charge of this board, and in March, Blunt’s “instruction for Rifle and Carbine Firing for the United States Army” would be officially approved and prescribed to the rest of the army.

 Soldiers were now required to conduct target practice at least six months out of the year, with considerations given to climate and operational duties. Post commanders would be held responsible for their practice, and those records would be published regularly in the reports. Each garrison went on the rifle range twice weekly over a four-month practice season. Post commanders could adjust the season better to fit the climate or duties of each post. The army gave more resources and funding to post commanders to improve equipment quality and follow through on plans that needed to be addressed.

A black and white photo from 1890 showing the Fort Mackinac rifle range, with soldiers participating in a firing drill.

Lt. Benjamin Morse (standing, center) supervises soldiers from the 23rd Regiment of Infantry as they practice on one of the Fort Mackinac rifle ranges in 1890.

 Fort Mackinac had a leg up in this new system compared to many other stations nationwide. While they initially lacked the proper ranges and suffered from the same lack of resources as many different stations, Fort Mackinac showed incredible success under the new training manual. This success is primarily attributed to the enthusiasm and skill of the officers stationed at Fort Mackinac. Both Captain George Brady and Captain Greenleaf Goodale qualified as Sharpshooters, as well as many other notable officers. A later addition to Fort Mackinac was Captain William Manning of Company E, who served as a member of the revision board for Blunt’s manual in 1885/4. In addition, Fort Mackinac quickly constructed a 1000-yard range, equipped with telegraph lines, in 1885 to accommodate the new expectations for target practice.

A black and white image of 600-yard rifle with target platform on foreground, looking towards Fort Mackinac.

Image of 600-yard rifle with target platform on foreground, looking towards Fort Mackinac.

 The 23rd Infantry stationed at Fort Mackinac boasted some of the best marksmen in the entire army. Between 1884 and 1889, sixteen soldiers from Fort Mackinac qualified as Sharpshooters. In 1885, 50 men qualified as Marksmen at Fort Mackinac. Innovations like this would help the army transform into an impressive military force. Over the next several decades, and after the many catastrophes during the Spanish-American War, the army would continue to improve and change. When the United States entered World War I, the United States had earned a reputation of being an “army of marksmen.”

Timber for Mission Church, April 1830

Looking up at a large white pine tree.

Huge white pine logs provided ample lumber for construction projects

In October 1796, Major Henry Burbeck, the first American commander of Fort Mackinac, estimated the lumber required for repairing and upgrading the fort’s palisades and buildings. Among the planks, boards, pickets, shingles, and scantling, his estimate included 1,420 logs measuring 20 feet long by 15 inches in diameter. If they were white pine (one of the lighter species), this single portion of his order would have weighed over 1,249,000 pounds, or nearly 625 tons.

 To transport such heavy loads, logs were often stacked on stout sleds and skidded over ice, pulled by oxen or horses. For many years, turning logs into boards at the Straits of Mackinac was either done by hand with a pit (whip) saw or at a water-powered sawmill which operated at Mill Creek from 1790-1839. Originally constructed by Robert Campbell, the mill was purchased in 1819 by Mackinac Island businessman Michael Dousman. Both owners filled lumber contracts for Fort Mackinac and other island projects. The following account recalls events that took place nearly two centuries ago, in early 1830.

The Carpenter-Schoolmaster

A pencil black and white sketch of Mission Church on Mackinac Island.

Sketch of Mission Church, 1835

 Martin Heydenburk came to Michigan in 1824 after accepting a teaching position at the Mission School on Mackinac Island. Also an experienced carpenter, his skills as a craftsman were utilized for construction of the Mission House, completed in 1825. During the winter of 1829-1830, Heydenburk was called upon to lead a crew in felling and cutting timber on the mainland for building a Protestant church for the mission. Today, Mission Church is Michigan’s oldest surviving church building.

A large brown building on stilts in winter in Mackinaw City.

Water-powered sawmill reconstruction at Mill Creek

 In early 1830, solid ice didn’t form in the Straits of Mackinac until the end of January. In February or early March, Heydenburk and his crew spent several cold weeks along the Lake Huron shoreline. He later recalled, “in three weeks’ time we had all the timber hewed, fifty pieces flattened to be made into scantling and joist with the whip-saw, and three hundred saw-logs hauled out of the woods to the shore ready to be moved home or to the saw mill when the ice should prove favourable. A few weeks afterward a heavy rain flooded the snow upon the ice and then froze. Michael Dousman had a saw-mill about two miles from our logs and we soon had them there …”

French Trains to Mackinac Island

 Heavy rain proved to be a mixed blessing for the timber project. After it refroze, the flooded lakeshore offered a smooth surface to haul logs to the sawmill. Rainwater also filled the creek and mill pond, providing an ample supply of water power to cut 300 logs into boards. Once the order was completed, word was sent to Mackinac Island and horse-drawn sledges were sent over the ice to pick up lumber from the sawmill.

A black and white photo of large horses pulling a sleigh of firewood on snow.

Horse-drawn sledges were commonly used to haul firewood to Mackinac from nearby Bois Blanc Island

 Heydenburk continued, “On the eleventh day of April, with the thermometer at zero, and the wind blowing strong from the east, all the horses and French trains on the Island started at daylight for the timber; we crossed safely, loaded up and started for home.” A French train was a narrow, deep box sleigh, pulled by one or two horses, which slipped easily over ice and snow. Dogsleds were also used for winter mail and hauling smaller loads to Mackinac Island. Sleighs and sledges were used well into the 20th century for hauling goods such as hay, groceries, and firewood from the mainland or nearby Bois Blanc Island.

 As they trudged along hauling heavy loads of lumber, news reached the teams that rain had degraded the ice, making the journey unsafe. Heydenburk recalled, “when about half way across the straits we were met by messengers and guides who told us that the ice which was two feet thick had become porous and we could not cross the channel. We left our loads on Round Island, then put rope on the necks of the horses and started across the treacherous channel … We all got home safe.” Thankfully, such dangerous spring journeys are now but distant memories at the Straits of Mackinac.

Marchand De Lignery and the Voyageurs

Artifacts recovered during the archaeological dig at Michilimackinac.

French weapon parts recovered at what is now the South Southwest Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac.

 In the years between 1712 and 1720, France was entangled in a long war with the Meskakie Nation in Wisconsin. The area which would later become Michilimackinac became a jumping off point for the troops who were going to go fight in that war. Those forces were made up of a handful of soldiers, French canoe men or voyageurs, and Native Americans led by Louis de La Porte de La Louvigny and Constant Marchand de Lignery. They were to travel separately to the gathering place before heading further west.

A 1749 map of Michilimackinac, when it was under French control by Michel Chartier de Lotbiniere. Courtesy Public Archives of Canada.

 Lignery had arrived at Michilimackinac by 1714 under orders to “persuade the savages of Michilimackinac” and to make war with them against the Fox. Unfortunately, by the spring of 1715 those plans to go to Wisconsin were still muddy. Louvigny had been delayed and food and other supplies were not as well-stocked as the Commanding Officer would have liked. In addition, close to the end of the year, there were grumblings of discontent and four voyageurs had left Michilimackinac without Lignery’s consent. In response Lignery had them arrested as deserters. The men were sent to prison in Montreal to wait for their sentences.

 On January 13, 1716, Jean-Baptiste Adhémar, royal notary, and Pierre Raimbault, the King’s attorney, began interrogating the four voyageurs. In response to “why he left before the said convoy” and if “he had the commandant’s permission” the twenty-eight-year-old Jean Verge dit Desjardins said that “not being one of the coureurs de bois he did not believe he was absolutely obliged.” Desjardins further argued that he contracted “a sickness in prison” from being wrongfully jailed. LeBoeuf answered to the same question that “he thought he did not do anything wrong in leaving secretly” and that he was “returning from fur trading.” Jean Gautier responded “that he did not hear any king’s order on this topic.” Pierre Monjeau added that he was “obligated by his contract” to obey his master and feared “he would lose his wages.”

An ornamental weapons artifact recovered at Colonial Michilimackinac.

A French weapon part recovered at what is now the South Southwest Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac.

 In the end, despite their perceived desertion by Lignery, the men were acquitted. Adhémar and Raimbault let the men go but they were to return to Michilimackinac and “place themselves under the orders of the commandant.” The deserters were volunteers, after all, and were probably more interested in trade than fighting in a war.

 Once Louvigny arrived at Fort Michilimackinac, Lignery was relieved of his command and criticized for his failure. However, the trouble with the voyageurs still continued under Louvigny. Even when Louvigny went on campaign with his forces, the voyageurs abandoned their post on their return and departure of the Fort.

 Despite its rocky beginning, the presence of those early French voyageurs and soldiers became the start of more than 40 years of successful French military occupation at Michilimackinac. The soldiers during that time never ended up fighting in Wisconsin, but instead built the first version of what we now can see as the reconstructed fort and village.

Inside an exhibit at Colonial Michilimackinac showing a canoe and exhibit panels talking about the French presence at the site.

Inside the France at Mackinac exhibit at Colonial Michilimackinac.

 To learn more about the French military at Colonial Michilimackinac and its other great history or to plan your trip, go to mackinacparks.com.

A New Gown at Michilimackinac

A dress, reddish-orange in color, held together with pins as it sits on a mannequin. When you come to Colonial Michilimackinac it is always easy to find staff dressed in historic clothing. This winter, the clothing collection has had a number of new pieces added. Each is carefully researched and recreated to represent the items worn by the colonial residents. One of the larger projects this year has been recreating a woman’s gown.

 18th century women’s dresses were remarkably consistent in the basic style and cut in North America and in Europe. Trimmings and fabrics varied, but the shape of the pattern pieces and the construction were very similar from gown to gown. The basic style consists of an “open robe” which is a dress that is meant to be worn over a separate skirt. The open robe gowns are cleverly constructed and take very little fabric compared to later styles of gowns. The bulk of the cost of a gown was in the fabric. It might only take a day to make a gown, but it might take months or longer to make and transport the fabric.

 Textiles were often re-used and remade into newer styles or new garments altogether. Clothing could be let out, taken in, re-trimmed, patched, cut down, made into a garment for a child, or completely unpicked to start over. Some items, such as ladies’ gowns, were constructed with future alterations in mind. Folds and pleats were used extensively to give the gowns shape and prevent unnecessary cutting into the valuable fabric. Even wealthier households were known to be thrifty with their fabric.

A reddish-orange dress being fitted on a staff member for Mackinac State Historic Parks.

The new gown being fitted for the historic interpreter who will wear it.

 There were many fabric options for ladies’ gowns. Silk has a lustrous finish and soft texture which made it a choice fabric. By the 1770s silk was worn by all people, not just the wealthy. Even the very poor were able to afford a silk neckerchief or a silk ribbon for their cap. In 1778 John Askin wrote to his trading partners in Detroit asking for a gift for his daughter: “I owe Kitty her wedding Gown, as there was nothing here fit for it. Please have one made for her in the French fashion of a light blue sattin”. Miss Askin’s bespoke silk gown would have been a special piece, but it wouldn’t have been that unusual at Michilimackinac where many people liked to dress well.

A staff member wearing a reddish-orange gown with a white apron standing in front of a black curtain.

The new gown being worn in public, as Devan, one of our historic interpreters presents an education outreach program.

 The most reliable and practical fabric to make a gown from was, and still is, wool. Wool gowns do not fade in the sun nearly as fast as cotton or linen. We especially love wool for our staff because it does not need to be ironed nearly as much as some of the other types of textiles. So, while our staff may want to wear silk, most of the gowns found in the Michilimackinac closet, including this new one, are made of wool. Lightweight wools are good for all seasons, keeping the wearer warm in the cold and cool in the heat.

 There is still a lot to do, but we are happy to have one project checked off the list. To support our programs and learn more about Michilimackinac’s history visit mackinacparks.com.

An “Unlucky Affair” at Michilimackinac: The Stabbing of Lt. James Hamilton

Three buttons discovered at Colonial Michilimackinac. They have 10s on them as they were for the 10th Regiment that were stationed at Fort Michilimackinac.

Uniform buttons lost by soldiers of the 10th Regiment while stationed at Michilimackinac. These buttons were discovered by archaeologists as part of the ongoing excavation of Michilimackinac, which has continued every summer since 1959.

 In the course of otherwise routine historic research, occasionally a previously unknown and unlooked for piece of information comes to light. Such is the case of the stabbing of Lt. James Hamilton of the 10th Regiment at Michilimackinac in the summer of 1773. This previously unknown (to us at Mackinac, at least) incident came to light while reviewing the voluminous correspondence of Frederick Haldimand, who served as governor of Quebec from 1778 to 1786. Within these pages, now held by the British Museum, is the account of the violent incident at Michilimackinac in 1773. Haldimand received the original letters since he was serving at the temporary commander in chief of British forces in North America at the time.

 On July 31, 1773, Capt. John Vattas, the commanding officer of the detachment of the 10th Regiment at Michilimackinac, took depositions from Lt. James Hamilton and several other soldiers in the immediate aftermath of the incident. Hamilton, assigned to Vattas’ company, accused a Sergeant Dagg of Captain Robert Dalway’s company of stabbing him with a bayonet and attempting to murder him. In his deposition, Hamilton related that he went to Dagg’s house to confront the sergeant’s wife about a chicken she had supposedly stolen from him. After demanding the bird’s return, Hamilton reported that “Mrs. Dagg made use of provoking language to him, which obliged him to give her one or two kicks, and some strokes.” Mrs. Dagg ran outside “screeching,” so Hamilton started to make his way towards his own home. Once outside, Hamilton “saw Serjeant Dagg running up to him with great violence, with a drawn bayonet in his hand.” The lieutenant claimed that Dagg “made a lunge at the center part of his body,” but Hamilton twisted out of the way and into his own back yard, receiving a 2.5 inch cut near the “bottom of his belly” in the process. Hamilton’s memory was less clear about exactly what he said next, but he cried out “damn your blood, will you stab me?” or words to that effect. Dagg apparently “swore by God he would run any gentleman through that would use his wife so.” Convinced that Dagg intended to strike again and kill him, Hamilton ran inside his house. He waited a short time before reporting the incident to Vattas.

The Post Guardhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac. The building is gray, with a wood shingle roof, with pillars in front. The ground in front is gravel and dirt, with a light dusting of snow.

The reconstructed guardhouse at Michilimackinac today. Sergeant Dagg and Corporal Newton may have been sitting on a bench similar to the one near the front door.

 The depositions of the other soldiers added more details about the incident. These men, all likely part of the guard detail, were relaxing in and around the guardhouse when Mrs. Dagg ran outside screaming. Corporal John Newton was sitting on a bench near the guardhouse door with Sergeant Dagg, who was hemming a piece of stamped linen or cotton. Hearing his wife’s scream, Dagg ran towards his house, dropping the fabric on the ground. Cpl. Newton swore he did not see Dagg draw his bayonet, but upon returning to the guardhouse he saw Dagg attempting to put his bayonet back into its scabbard, and the corporal heard him say that “by heavens I have fixed myself.”  John New reported that he was sitting on another bench near the guard room door when he heard a “great noise.” New saw Dagg jump up and run around the corner of Hamilton’s garden, so he followed the sergeant. New watched as both men ran towards the gate leading into Hamilton’s yard. He swore that “Lieut. Hamilton made a smart twist into his own back gate, as if to avoid Sjt. Dagg; and that Sjt. Dagg made a lunge up to the gate after him and turned back immediately with a drawn bayonet in his hand.” New then watched as Dagg attempted to sheath his bayonet while “swearing some desperate oaths,” the exact substance of which he could not remember beyond “saying he had done for himself.”

 While New was the only eyewitness to the actual confrontation outside Hamilton’s yard, several other soldiers testified about what they saw and heard immediately before and after the incident. John Sweet saw Dagg “standing in a very remarkable attitude, with his drawn bayonet in his hand,” and heard him say that “he would run any gentleman through that offered to use his wife in that manner.” Ephraim Staneford was in the guard room and came out to meet Dagg as he returned to the guardhouse, hearing the sergeant say “by heavens he had done it.” Staneford also claimed he heard and saw Dagg laying on the ground crying “murder,” but never observed the sergeant draw or carry his bayonet. Robert Hill, who had been resting on the guard bed, heard Mrs. Dagg’s screams and ran outside, meeting Dagg as he returned to the guardhouse. Hill did not see Dagg’s bayonet drawn, but heard him “swear by God he thought his wife was killed.” Hill also swore that he later saw Lt. Hamilton with “his belly bare,” and watched “blood proceed from a wound that had been lately made into it.”  John Murphy claimed he saw Dagg sitting on the bench sewing before the incident, and noticed the dropped fabric on the ground after the sergeant ran away. Murphy also observed Dagg sheathing his bayonet and swearing that “by God by heaven that he had done for himself.”

 In early October, Lt. Col. Francis Smith, commanding the 10th Regiment from Fort Niagara, passed along the depositions to Haldimand. Smith also provided more information about the case. Dagg had been handcuffed and confined since the incident in July, and Hamilton demanded that he be tried by general court martial. In addition to deposing Hamilton and the witnesses, Vattas also questioned Dagg about “his reasons for so villainous an attempt.” The sergeant claimed that “he was cleaning his bayonet, when the cries of his wife took him from his guard, and that Mr. Hamilton chanced to run upon it.” In other words, the whole thing was an accident, with Hamilton essentially stabbing himself. Given that both Newton and Murphy swore that that had seen Dagg sewing before the incident, as well as noticing the dropped fabric near the bench, Vattas placed little stock in Dagg’s story about cleaning his bayonet, but nonetheless awaited further orders about what to do with the sergeant.

The light infantry and grenadier companies of the 10th Foot took part in the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. This engraving, printed soon after the battle in 1775, shows the opening engagement on Lexington green. Courtesy Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University.

 Dagg’s situation remained unresolved in March 1774. Writing to Captain Thomas Moncrief, a staff officer, Smith noted that he had written to Vattas “in a private way, and wish Mr. Hamilton and him may be able to wipe this affair away in as decent a manner as the nature of it will admit of, without a public hearing.”  Although Hamilton had demanded a general court marital for Dagg, Smith hoped that “perhaps length of time and other circumstances may lead him to alter his opinion.” If not, Smith would be ”under the disagreeable necessity of troubling the general [Haldimand] further about this unlucky affair.” Why Smith hoped to avoid a court martial remains unclear. A general court martial required 13 officers to sit in judgement, a potentially difficult undertaking with garrison spread out across British Canada. The necessity of transporting witnesses to testify posed similar issues. The nature of the incident, in which Hamilton openly admitted to kicking and beating Mrs. Dagg, may have also prompted Smith to suggest that Dagg not be brought to trial.

 Unfortunately, the outcome of Dagg’s case remains unclear at this time. Additional references to the assault in Haldimand’s correspondence have not yet come to light, and Haldimand relinquished his role as commander in chief when General Thomas Gage returned from England later in 1774. Future research may shed more light on this “unlucky affair,” but in the meantime, the depositions from July 1773 remain the only hints of what happened between Sergeant Dagg and Lieutenant Hamilton. Transcripts of the original documents are available online courtesy of the Library and Archives of Canada. The depositions begin on page 150 of Volume B-18, General Orders and Letters relating to the Garrison of Niagara, Add. Mss. 21678, with the additional letters from Smith on pages 160 and 166. Take a look at these fascinating historical documents and see if you can figure out what happened over 250 years ago at Michilimackinac!

A brown-looking bowl that was used as a milk pan. This dates to the 1700s.

Moving Day

Most of us have had the experience of moving from one place to another, deciding what to take and what to discard, packing everything, transporting it, unpacking, and rearranging our belongings in a new setting. In the summer of 1781, the residents of the Southeast Rowhouse at Michilimackinac had that same experience as the garrison and community relocated to Mackinac Island.

 Over the past ten summers archaeologists have been excavating a cellar in the southeast corner of House E of the Southeast Rowhouse as part of the ongoing excavation of the house. It appears that the cellar was filled with objects discarded during the move. These artifacts, especially the ceramics, give us glimpses into daily life in the household.

 We do not know who lived in the house in 1781. The last documented occupant was an “English trader” noted on a 1765 map drawn by Lt. Perkins Magra. Preliminary analysis of material excavated thus far indicates the house was occupied by a wealthy English merchant and his household throughout the British era at the fort.

An off-white plate, dating to the 1700s, that has been reassembled.

Creamware plate reassembled

 One line of evidence used to reach this conclusion is the quality and variety of ceramics found in the house, cellar and yard. The most common ceramic type found in the house is creamware. Creamware was developed in the early 1760s by Josiah Wedgwood when he succeeded in creating earthenware vessels as thin as Chinese porcelain. This plate (left) is the most complete creamware vessel found in the house. The way the sherds were piled when they were found indicates the plate was broken elsewhere and thrown into the cellar.

A Chinese porcelain tea saucer, white with a blue image of trees and plants on it. It dates to the 1700s and has been broken and reassembled, though some pieces no longer exist.

Chinese export porcelain reassembled

 We have also found a nearly intact Chinese export porcelain saucer in the cellar (right). This would have been used for serving tea, an important social ritual for 18th century British people. Expensive tea sets were used to display one’s wealth.

A brown-looking bowl that was used as a milk pan. This dates to the 1700s.

French Canadian terrine

 On the other end of the spectrum, strictly utilitarian wares have been found as well. A French Canadian terrine, or dairy pan (left), is the most intact example. Fresh milk was poured into the terrine and left to sit until the cream rose to the top. Although not intended for display, the terrine demonstrates wealth because it indicates the presence of a dairy animal.

Two white tin-glazed earthenware ointment pots, white. They date to the 1770s and have been broken and reassembled.

Tin-glazed earthenware ointment pots

Over the past few seasons, we have pieced together two plain white tin-glazed earthenware ointment pots (right). These most likely held medicinal salves.

An earthenware bowl, tan in color, with a flared lip.

Earthenware flared cup

 No archaeology project is complete without a mystery or two. We have not yet been able to determine the exact purpose of this flared cup (left). We have only found one piece of a red-edged, white tin-glazed earthenware dish (bottom right). Although this style of ceramic was produced throughout the 18th century, it was most common in the 1730s and ‘40s. Is it a remnant left behind by earlier residents of the house? A family dish brought when moving to Michilimackinac? A cheap old dish bought expressly for a difficult journey to the frontier of the British Empire? We may never know the answer, but it is interesting to ponder these questions.

A portion of a white dish, dating to the 1700s, with a red rim.

Red-edged tin-glazed earthenware dish

 During the 2024 season, programming at Colonial Michilimackinac will highlight the events of 1781 and the relocation to the island. Colonial Michilimackinac opens for the season May 8, 2024. The archaeological excavation will take place daily June 1 – August 17, weather permitting. 

Ice Fishing at Mackinac

“A delightful drive the ice is very smooth this season, and there is just snow enough for good sleighing. The net poles for fish are so thick, that the Lake looks like a forest.” Amanda White Ferry, 1832

Ice breaks up near St. Ignace, March 21, 2022. 

This winter, the Great Lakes have been nearly devoid of ice. Although floating masses filled portions of the straits, the larger lakes have been nearly ice-free. While mild winters weren’t unheard of in centuries’ past, Mackinac Island was often ice bound for six months at a time, nearly cut off from the outside world. Strong ice was counted on by local residents to obtain a critical winter harvest. For many generations, ice fishing provided an important source of food throughout the northern Great Lakes during cold winter months.

Long before European contact, Anishinaabek families at the straits were ice fishing experts, particularly for whitefish and lake trout. The tradition continued in Métis families, a culture of mixed French and American Indian ancestry. Spending the winter of 1767 at Fort Michilimackinac, Captain Johnathan Carver joined local residents in trout fishing through the ice. He described the process in detail, noting three or four hooks affixed to strong lines often caught two trout at a time, frequently weighing up to forty pounds each. Preserving them in cold months was accomplished simply by hanging them outdoors, where they froze solid in one night.

 Although they’re smaller (weighing about four pounds) lake whitefish have long been described as notably more delicious. Generations of writers raved about their delicate flavor and seemingly endless abundance. Whitefish live at deeper depths than trout and have small mouths, so they were typically caught with gill nets sunk beneath the ice.

Amanda White Ferry, wife of missionary Rev. William Ferry, lived on Mackinac Island from 1824–1834. Her correspondence included many references about ice conditions, winter fishing, cutting ice, sleighing, and dog sledding. On January 8, 1824, she wrote, “The weather is remarkably mild so that the Lake is still open …  Recently, many who had had been entirely out of provisions, set their nets upon a small patch of ice, surrounded by water. In the night a wind arose, carried off the nets ice and all (eleven in number); they have no method of making more.”

Warm season view of gill netting on Lake Michigan. In winter, floats were replaced with wooden stakes or poles, ca. 1861. 

When good ice was present, fishing was pursued vigorously. Mrs. Ferry described the process in late February 1831, writing, “We went onto the ice and saw the manner of setting the nets for fish. Two holes, several rods distant from each other are cut in the ice. By each of them a stake is driven and a cord is strung with nets, weighted to fall, and attached to the stakes. The fish in passing with the current are caught in the nets, and whoever has tasted of Mackinac White Fish knows how delicate and delicious they are. As we glided over the ice on the bay, we could see clearly through its clearness stones on the bottom as plainly as though they lay on the surface.”

Amanda’s sister, Hannah White, spent the entire winter of 1831-32 on Mackinac Island, visiting from Massachusetts. On March 12, a letter to her parents described a morning adventure to witness a net being taken up. “As we rode along,” she wrote, “we could see through the clear ice all that lay upon the bottom of the Lake, even when the ice was two feet thick. When there is no snow, fisherman can frequently see through the ice what their nets contain.” Sometimes, net poles were so numerous it appeared as if a forest had sprung up on the icy Straits of Mackinac.

Pancake ice forms along the shore as the Straits begin to freeze. 

Such dramatic scenes have long since faded beyond the memories of Mackinac’s oldest inhabitants. If a forest appears on the lake today, it’s likely a row of Christmas trees marking the elusive “ice bridge” for snowmobiles to follow between St. Ignace and Mackinac Island. Someday, this too may become a forgotten tradition. In recent decades, unpredictable winter weather has caused warmer lakes and more thawing, promising an uncertain future for winter forests on the ice.

A historic black and white photo showing a large white building known as the Fort Mackinac Post Hospital with three cannons in the foreground.

The Hospital Corps at Fort Mackinac

For much of the United States’ history, military medicine was the responsibility of a few surgeons. These Post Surgeons would be stationed at forts and posts nationwide. They would travel with campaigning regiments across the country, often with limited supplies and help. These men often held commissions as officers in the army or were given civilian appointments when an army surgeon wasn’t available, as was often the case in Fort Mackinac’s history. Different forts posed different challenges to surgeons depending on the climate of the fort or the condition of the fort buildings and waste systems. This situation would change dramatically during times of war, as the risk of disease and injury increased significantly with a much greater number of soldiers interacting with one another even outside the chaos of combat.

A historic black and white photo showing a large white building known as the Fort Mackinac Post Hospital with three cannons in the foreground.

Fort Mackinac’s 1860 Post Hospital prior to 1887.

 During the Civil War, army surgeons could depend on a complex web of volunteer and charity organizations supplying them with volunteer civilian doctors and nurses (both men and women) to cater to the army’s needs. Both sides would implement formal and informal groups of soldiers to assist in transferring the wounded off the front lines to field hospitals and administering early wound treatment. While many new medical “firsts” can be exhibited during the Civil War in surgery, treatment, and staffing, many of the systems about medical staff went away after the war. Following the war, the army reduced in size, and all volunteer functions disappeared. The peacetime army of the 19th century was chronically under-size, underpaid, and poorly equipped, and the Medical Department faced the brunt of this problem.

A portrait of Charles Woodruff, Fort Mackinac's Assistant Post Surgeon, in 1895. The photo is black and white, and he has a beard and large mustache, and is wearing an overcoat with a large collar.

An 1895 photo of Charles Woodruff, who was the Assistant Post Surgeon at Fort Mackinac from 1887 – 1889.

 In the late 1860s, the army turned its attention west towards the Native Americans of the western plains. For the next 25 years, the army would engage in consistent fighting with several tribes in the final of the “Indian Wars” fought by the United States government against native peoples. This combat required soldiers to be mobile and often to go on campaigns to very remote parts of the country, where supplies for the army were minimal and the hope for help from civilian volunteers extremely slim. Surgeons found themselves to be the sole caretakers for 50-100 soldiers, with the only trained help they might rely on being an enlisted Hospital Steward. Hospital Stewards were specially trained enlisted men, acting more like pharmacists caring for medicine and supplies. This problem also became clear to many commanding officers in combat.

 Surgeons typically distanced themselves from the main line of fighting for their safety in battle. In the early stages, they might be seen closer, prepared to move wounded soldiers to the rear, but once casualties began to build up, the wounded soldiers would have to rely on the help of their fellow soldiers to move them to the rear. Commanding Officers found this to be a problem: now, instead of losing one combat-capable soldier, they were losing one to three capable men who should be fighting. Even having a handful of wounded soldiers could seriously inhibit a company, which was often barely at its capacity of 54 men.

A black and white photo from 1892 showing the undress uniform of the Hospital Corps.

Model of Hospital Corps undress uniform, from The Report of the Surgeon General, 1892

 Various Surgeon Generals in the early 1880s began advocating for an established group of specially trained soldiers to attend to the soldiers in both combat and garrison situations. On August 11th, 1887, Commanding General Philip Sheridan issued General Order 56, establishing a Hospital Corps. This Hospital Corp included Surgeons, Hospital Stewards, and Privates. Privates were a new addition to the Medical Department. Privates serve directly as assistants to the Hospital Stewards and Surgeons in Garrisons and, in battle, would operate an ambulance and provide care to wounded soldiers. General Order 56 also mandated four soldiers in each company to be “company bearers.” These four men were to be trained regularly on wound treatment and litter bearing and, in an emergency, would help the Hospital Corps.

 By November 1887, three privates of the Hospital Corps were stationed at Fort Mackinac, most having transferred directly from the companies already stationed at Fort Mackinac on the recommendation of Assistant Post Surgeon Charles Woodruff. These soldiers would attend division-wide encampments and training, the Corps soon proving themselves to be a valuable and effective part of the army. At Fort Mackinac these men would work regularly in the Post Hospital with sick and injured soldiers and would assist in the training of the company bearers. The Medical Department hoped that by training regular infantry soldiers to be company bearers they could create a consistent recruitment path into the Hospital Corps. Unfortunately, the Hospital Corps was consistently under staffed due to poor pay and negative feelings many soldiers had towards hospital work.

A black and white photo with men in military uniforms posing by three large cannons at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island.

Hospital Corps Privates posing by cannons on the upper gun platform with fellow soldiers at Fort Mackinac, late 1880s or early 1890s.

 While the Hospital Corps only came into being toward the very end of Fort Mackinac’s time as an active military post, it demonstrates another way Fort Mackinac experienced the changing times of the army. The creation of the Hospital Corps marks a leap forward in military medicine, both in the chaos of the battlefield and the comforts of an army fort. Join us this summer at Fort Mackinac for our new “Medicine at Mackinac” Program. There you can learn more about how medicine was changing and the impact on Fort Mackinac.

The Famous Mackinaw Potato

The best potatoes in the world grow at Mackinac.” – Army and Navy Chronicle, September 1835

 Most people easily recognize two kinds of potatoes. A sweet potato has orange flesh and belongs to the morning glory family. Distantly related, the common potato is large and white-fleshed, being part of the nightshade family. The latter type was domesticated by Native Americans in South America at least 7,000 years ago. Introduced to Europe by the late 16th century, it eventually became a dominant crop, especially in Ireland. Potato plants flourish in a variety of soils, providing more calories per acre than grain. Today, more than 5,000 different varieties are grown across the globe.

A black and white photo of farmland on Mackinac Island, in what is now known as Marquette Park.

Gardens below Fort Mackinac, ca.1890

 Common potatoes weren’t grown in North America until the early 18th century. Brought to New England from Ireland, this variety became known as the “Irish potato.” Potatoes were first planted at the Straits of Mackinac by the British. John Askin grew them near Fort Michilimackinac in the 1770s, keeping meticulous records. As the garrison relocated to Mackinac Island, large gardens were planted below the new fort, near the harbor. When Americans arrived in September 1796, they found a commandant’s garden “filled with vegetables” and an adjacent plot “filled with potatoes.” A government garden provided fresh produce for soldiers for more than 100 years before being transformed into Marquette Park.

 Gardeners at Mackinac discovered these hardy tubers needed little soil to thrive there. In 1820, Henry Schoolcraft noted, “Potatoes have been known to be raised in pure beds of small limestone pebbles, where the seed potatoes have been merely covered in a slight way, to shield them from the sun, until they had taken root.” By this time, several small farms dotted the island where potatoes were a staple crop.

An artist rendering of the Mackinaw Mission in the 1830s, featuring a large white building known as the Mission House surrounded by trees.

View of the Mackinaw Mission, ca. 1830

 Rev. William Ferry operated a Protestant mission on Mackinac Island from 1823–1834. The Mackinaw Mission operated a school and boarding house for Anishinaabek children. Located near the southeast shore, staff and pupils maintained a five-acre garden stocked with potatoes, peas, beans, and other vegetables. In 1826, the mission also purchased the John Dousman farm, along the western shore. There, they grew 10 acres of potatoes and other crops.

 As tourism grew, the reputation of Mackinac potatoes (usually spelled Mackinaw) spread far and wide. In 1835, visitors found a potato patch near Fort Holmes, writing, “There are about eight or ten acres on this summit cleared up, part of them being enclosed as a potato field. The best potatoes in the world grow at Mackinac, and this plat of them looked very flourishing.” They were amazed, observing plants “flourishing among pebbles where there is no more earth than in a stone wall. The Mackinackians do not regard earth as necessary in a garden, and perhaps would dispense with it even in a farm.”

A drawing of a potato plant.

The Potatoe Plant, Its Uses and Properties, 1847

 As tourists departed, some carried seed potatoes to plant at home. In 1837, Solon Robinson experimented with several northern crops in Iowa, including an early variety named Mackinaw blue. By the 1840s, some voiced the opinion that Mackinac Island potatoes rivaled those grown in Ireland. Extolling virtues of the straits, Dr. Daniel Drake wrote, “the potatoes of this region, rivalling those of the banks of the Shannon, and the white-fish and speckled trout of the surrounding waters … render all foreign delicacies almost superfluous.” On July 31, 1847, a correspondent for the Detroit Free Press boldly stated, “The fine potatoes raised on the island are irresistible –all passengers want them, and sailors will have them.” For decades, the Mackinaw potato enjoyed a celebrated status, renowned across the nation.

A historic newspaper ad for Mackinaw Potatoes in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 9, 1850

 What made Mackinaw potatoes so special? They grew large, ripened early, and were celebrated for their “mealiness.” A mealy potato is dry, fluffy, high in starch, and low in sugar. These traits make them excellent for baking, mashing, or serving deep fried. The plants themselves were also resistant to potato rot, a disease which decimated crops in Ireland, resulting in widespread famine between 1845-1852. Many Irish immigrant families settled at Mackinac during this period, some fleeing desperate conditions in their homeland.

 By the late 1840s, potato blight had also affected crops in the United States. Disease reduced production by more than one-half, while doubling the price per bushel. Blight resistant varieties, including the Mackinaw, were highly sought after. In 1852, Samuel H. Addington displayed Mackinaw White potatoes at the New York State Fair. Two years later, a report for the U.S. Patent Office noted, “Most of the fine varieties formerly cultivated … have been abandoned, and those less liable to disease substituted, such as the Boston Red, the Carter, and the Mackinaw.”

A drawing of the King of the Earlies, a potato sold for $50.00.

Best’s Potato Book, 1870

 At the same time, hundreds of new varieties were being developed. Fueled by a robust profit motive, “Potato Mania” gripped the farming community. In 1869, George Best wrote, “during the past two years the most intense excitement has prevailed in regard to the Potato, and fabulous prices have been paid for seed of new varieties, which, it was hoped, would more than take the place of old kinds.” An extreme example, King of the Earlies sold in 1868 at the price of $50.00 for a single potato. With such advancements, old varieties, including the Mackinaw, eventually fell out favor. By the 1920s, it had virtually disappeared from the market.

A picture of Mackinaw potatoes ready to be made into chips.

Mackinaw potatoes ready for chipping, Michigan State University photo

 In January 2022, researchers at Michigan State University unveiled several new potato hybrids. One of the most promising lines was named the Mackinaw (MSX540-4). A cross between “Saginaw Chipper” and “Lamoka,” it stores well, and it is highly resistant to several diseases. This attractive variety also performed highly in the Potatoes USA National Chip Processing Trials. With any luck, the new Mackinaw potato may even find its way to your next game-day celebration.

The Vacationland Auto Ferry in the icy Straits of Mackinac.

Michigan State Highway Ferries 100th Anniversary

The Sainte Ignace auto ferry at a dock.

The Sainte Ignace

This summer marked the 100th anniversary of the Michigan State Highway ferry service going into operation. The service was started to get automobiles and their drivers across the Straits of Mackinac in a timely fashion. Prior to the service being instituted, the Mackinac Transportation Company and their two railroad car ferries, Chief Wawatam and Sainte Marie carried automobiles across when possible. In 1917 when the first automobiles were taken across, it cost $40 and the car had to be loaded on a railway flat car. On top of that, the automobile had to be drained of gasoline due to maritime regulations. By the early 1920’s, several drivers had complained to Governor Alex Groesbeck, who asked legislators to approve a state-run ferry.

The Ariel auto ferry

The Ariel

The Mackinaw City Auto Ferry

The Mackinaw City

 The first ship purchased by the state was the Ariel which could haul 20 automobiles. On August 6, 1923, she made her first trip and by November when the season ended she had carried around 10,000 cars. The highway department purchased two more vessels that year, the Colonel Pond and Colonel Card which became the Sainte Ignace and Mackinaw City. Along with the purchase of ships, the state bought a dock in St. Ignace and adapted part of the railroad dock in Mackinaw City to load and unload the cars. By 1925, the state had purchased shoreline property in Mackinaw City and had a 1,400-foot causeway built. The state ordered its first ferry in 1927 and it was christened, The Straits of Mackinac, which could carry 50 cars.

The City of Cheboygan Auto Ferry on the water.

The City of Cheboygan

The City of Munising auto ferry.

The City of Munising

 During the 1930’s, the highway department improved the docks on both sides of the straits by making them bigger for the increasing demand in auto traffic. Restrooms, large parking lots for waiting motorists and elevators for lifting cars to the second deck of the ferries were constructed. More ferries were added to the fleet; instead of building new ships, unused Lake Michigan railroad ferries were acquired. The first was the Ann Arbor No. 4 which became the City of Cheboygan in 1937. One year later the Pere Marquette No. 20 was purchased and became the City of Munising. Rounding out the decade was the addition of the Pere Marquette No. 17 which became the City of Petoskey in 1940.

The City of Petoskey Auto Ferry on the water.

The City of Petoskey

 Rationing of gasoline and tires during World War II saw most of the ferries sitting idle but the post-war saw an increase in crossings. Three of the ships were altered by adding seagates to the bow allowing for faster loading and unloading. In 1948, the ferry service celebrated its 25th anniversary with several events including a parade, coronation ball, swimming race to Mackinac Island and a special moonlight cruise aboard The Straits of Mackinac. One of the highlights was models of the new icebreaking ferry the state proposed to build. One year later, construction began on the 360-foot-long, diesel-powered Vacationland. The ship had pilothouses and double propellors on both ends and could carry 150 automobiles.

 The Vacationland arrived in St. Ignace January 12, 1952 and immediately began hauling cars across. Due to her size and power plant, new slips were constructed in St. Ignace and Mackinaw City along with storage tanks to supply the ship with diesel and lubricating oil. As the ship began her service, plans were underway to construction a new way to cross the straits. In 1954, funds were obtained to start construction of the Mackinac Bridge which was completed in 1957. One of the stipulations of construction was that the highway ferries would stop running the day the bridge opened. The ferries were eventually sold, the City of Cheboygan and City of Munising being used to store and ship potatoes from Washington Island, Wisconsin. The City of Petoskey was sold for scrap and The Straits of Mackinac ferried tourists to Mackinac Island. She was the last surviving ferry eventually being sunk as a dive site off Chicago in 2005.

The Vacationland Auto Ferry in the icy Straits of Mackinac.

The Vacationland

 The Vacationland was sold and renamed Jack Dalton hauling trucks between Detroit and Cleveland. The venture lasted only a few months and the state repossessed the ship after failed payments. The vessel was sold again to North-South Navigation Company in 1961 and renamed Pere Nouvel. She returned to her role as an automobile ferry crossing the St. Lawrence River between Rimouski and Baie Comeau, Quebec. In 1967, she sailed to the West Coast of Canada serving British Columbia as the Sunshine Coast Queen until 1977. After an attempt to make her an oil drilling support ship on Alaska’s North Slope, she was sold to a company in Washington for scrap. She was to be towed to China but on December 3, 1987, the tow ran into an early winter storm and the ship began to take on water. The ship sank in the Pacific Ocean about 100 miles offshore in deep water with no loss of life.