Where’s the Rum? Liquor and Soldiers at Michilimackinac Posted August 20, 2021 A common question we hear at Michilimackinac concerns liquor being dispensed to soldiers. Pirate movies and other popular culture seem to suggest that every soldier in the 18th century received a regular issue of rum. The truth is a bit more complicated- liquor was issued and available to British soldiers at Michilimackinac, but only in specific circumstances. In many places where British troops were stationed, liquor was at least supposed to be issued to soldiers on a regular basis. When the Mutiny Act, which governed a variety of army administrative functions, was extended to cover the American colonies in 1765, it required every soldier to receive a daily allotment of beer, cider, or rum. These articles were to be provided by the government of whichever colony was quartering the soldiers. However, due to highly technical legal differences enshrined in British law, only soldiers quartered in private inns were allowed beer or rum. In British Canada, including Michilimackinac, soldiers were usually quartered in purpose-built barracks owned by the Crown, and as such were not entitled to a liquor ration. Rum and other liquors were never listed with provisions supplied to Michilimackinac and other Great Lakes posts, and soldiers could not expect a daily drink as part of their regular rations. Even though rum was not regularly issued, soldiers had access to liquor and other drinks through a variety of official and informal channels. Soldiers performing heavy labor, such as construction work or serving as boatmen, might be issued a special ration of rum in return for their extra exertions. In 1780, while his soldiers were heavily engaging in constructing a new fort on Mackinac Island, Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair complained that the work was being held up “for want of working Cattle, Tools, the materials and Rum.” Soldiers could also be offered rum as a form of compensation. Earlier in the summer of 1780, a portion of the Michilimackinac garrison complained that they had not received their pay since August 1779. In lieu of money, Lt. George Clowes offered tobacco or rum, which the soldiers rejected. Of course, soldiers were also usually able to simply purchase liquor and other drinks on their own, using personal funds saved up from their wages. Rum and brandy arrived at Michilimackinac in huge quantities (2,155 kegs in 1778 alone) and were popular and important trade items, so they were readily available for purchase from the many civilian merchants operating at the post. Although soldiers may not have received official rum rations, Great Lakes sailors were another matter. Civilian sailors, such as those employed by John Askin in 1778, enjoyed a gill (one fourth of a pint, or four ounces) of rum a day, although Askin dictated that Pompey, an enslaved sailor, only receive half a gill. Sailors in government service also apparently received a regular rum ration. In 1783 a rum shortage caused considerable unrest among the British sailors working on the Great Lakes. At Detroit, Lieutenant Colonel Arent DePeyster complained that “we have not one drop of Rum in store here, the Naval Department begin to cry out.” General Allan MacLean, writing from Niagara, warned that “the seamen must have it [rum] for it’s part of their wages, and they will desert or mutiny if they do not get it.” To stave off desertions, MacLean ordered a small quantity of rum distributed from Niagara’s stores, but wrote to his superiors that it was almost impossible to replenish the garrison’s stocks of liquor. He declared that “I have more Plague with Rum than all the Business I have to do” and believed that “it’s a Pity that such a cursed Liquor ever had been found out.” While rum isn’t issued to our historical interpreters today, it was clearly an important item at Michilimackinac historically (especially for sailors). If you would like to learn more about trade on the Great Lakes, the British military at Michilimackinac, or the role of liquor in the fur trade, come visit us at Colonial Michilimackinac. Check out our website for tickets and more information.