Boats Boats Boats!

 When thinking about the Great Lakes fur trade, most people will imagine French Canadian voyageurs paddling huge birchbark canoes filled with tons of furs or trade goods. Canoes were absolutely an integral part of the fur trade, and provided a vital link between Michilimackinac and other communities around the Great Lakes. However, they were by no means the only watercraft on the lakes, and a great deal of people and goods were moved by a type of large rowboat called a bateau.

 In the 18th century, there were few standardized plans for batteaux. Although the British Admiralty used a standard 30-foot design for vessels destined for military service in Canada, individual batteaux might range from less than 20 feet long to over 30, and there were regional variations in design. All shared a few common features: a flat bottom without a keel, heavier stems at the bow and stern, and butted plank construction. Relatively easy to build so long as appropriate woodworking tools were on hand, a bateau could be knocked together without the need for skill ship carpenters or shipyards. A bateau could be paddled, poled, or propelled under sail, but generally the vessels were powered by large wooden oars.

 While canoes (and sailing vessels) were absolutely workhorses of the Great Lakes in the 18th century, in many instances there were more batteaux on the lakes and rivers than other types of watercraft. In 1778, for example, 374 batteaux set out from Montreal for Michilimackinac and other western posts, while only 152 canoes left the city for the summer trading season. Individual merchants might own or hire several batteaux. Michilimackinac merchant John Askin, for instance, dispatched 10 batteaux in 1777, while  trading partners Thomas Smith, William Taylor, and Edward Ripley sent 16 more to Detroit and Michilimackinac. A 1778 inventory of Askin’s estate included both a “Common batea[u]” and a “Small fish [bateau],” both presumably for personal use rather than heavy trade.

 The British military also heavily employed batteaux to move personnel and supplies around the lakes and connect far-flung posts like Michilimackinac and Detroit. As somewhat disposable craft exposed to relatively heavy work, these batteaux required regular repair and maintenance. In 1771 Capt. George Turnbull received £85 for mending boats, making oars, and burning pitch at Michilimackinac. By 1778, Sergeant Amos Langdon of the 8th Regiment was issued nails from the engineer’s stores to repair the King’s batteaus and the wharf. Although somewhat more cumbersome than a canoe, a bateau could efficiently cover great distance at speed. In late September 1778, an express canoe traveled from Michilimackinac to Montreal in 10 to 14 days, while a batteau rowed by eight “active men” could go to the city and return to Michilimackinac by November 10, making a 6 week round trip. However, supplies to maintain the boats could be difficult to procure, making repairs difficult. In 1779, Major Arent DePeyster, Michilimackinac’s commanding officer, unsuccessfully requested pitch and oakum to repair batteaux. A year later, DePeyster sent pitch and oakum up from Detroit to repair the batteaus at Michilimackinac, telling Lt. Gov. Patrick Sinclair that these materials were previously hard to get. Boat repairs could be a thankless task. In 1774, Lt. Col. John Caldwell, commanding the 8th Regiment at Fort Niagara, complained that “The old ones [batteaus] have been so often repaired since I came here that it is throwing money away to attempt repairing them again.” Apparently the old adage about a boat being a hole in the water is somewhat older than expected.

 Today, a 22-foot bateau is part of the small interpretive fleet at Colonial Michilimackinac (we also have a 28-foot north canoe and a 35-foot Montreal canoe). We use all of these vessels to interpret the vital relationship between Michilimackinac and the surrounding waters of the Great Lakes, and our interpretive staff maintains these boats and utilizes them for special events. This summer, we will have three Maritime Michilimackinac weekends focusing on the roles and chores of sailors, voyageurs, and others working to maintain Michilimackinac’s marine links to the outside world. Weather permitting, our staff will use our bateau and canoes to get out on the water, so we hope you’ll join us for these special events!

 

Where’s the Rum? Liquor and Soldiers at Michilimackinac

  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.

 

Furnishing the Commanding Officer’s House

Furnishing the Commanding Officer’s House

Although winter is still holding on at the Straits of Mackinac, work continues to prepare the Commanding Officer’s House for opening later this summer at Colonial Michilimackinac. Since our last update in early January, major construction has wrapped up inside the house. Masons are currently applying several coats of plaster to the interior walls, and our staff carpenters are busy restoring the windows removed from the house. They’ve also constructed several new doors, and will soon begin building new windows to compliment the ones they’ve already restored. (more…)

A New Exhibit at Michilimackinac: The Commanding Officer’s House

Ever wonder what happens during the winter time at Mackinac State Historic Parks? Although our museums are closed for the winter, there’s still a lot of work going on to prepare for 2016. One of our major projects this winter is the renovation and reinterpretation of the Commanding Officer’s House at Michilimackinac, which will look completely different when visitors arrive next summer. (more…)

Which Flag Flew Over Michilimackinac?

Which Flag Flew Over Michilimackinac?

In the late 18th century, Michilimackinac served as an important economic, diplomatic, and military center for the British government. Although one of the most remote outposts of the British empire, Michilimackinac held the key to British influence in the Great Lakes, and it seems only logical to assume that the British projected this regional power by flying a flag over their fort on the Straits of Mackinac.

The Red Ensign served as the flag of the British Royal Navy until 1864. Today, it is the flag of the British merchant fleet.

The Red Ensign served as the flag of the British Royal Navy until 1864. Today, it is the flag of the British merchant fleet.

In a September 1774 letter to Lt. Col. Samuel Cleaveland of the Royal Artillery, newly-arrived Capt. Arent DePeyster made a rare reference to a flag when he requested a “large Ensign” be sent to Michilimackinac. For many years, historians assumed that DePeyster was referring to the Red Ensign, which served as the flag of the Royal Navy in the 18th century. However, reviewing the entire letter reveals a bit more ambiguity in DePeyster’s request:

Sir- I was informed by my predecessor that the Colours of this Garrison belonged to a Master of a Vessel of whom he had borrowed them to hoist upon particular occasions. They are at length demanded by the owner, by which means the Garrison remains without Colours which are absolutely necessary to return the compliments of tribes of Indians when they come on matters of any consequence to the Government. They serve to display a certain necessary dignity, therefore I am informed by the standing orders of this post that the Commanding Officer of the Artillery [Cleaveland] is to be applied to for Colours when wanted. I take the liberty of troubling you upon this occasion and shall be glad to have a good large Ensign sent as early in the spring as possible.

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