Trousers, Overalls or Gaitered Trousers? A new Look at Michilimackinac

  In the 1770s, the common uniform of the British soldiers stationed at Michilimackinac and elsewhere around the world included a shirt, a waistcoat, a pair of breeches, a regimental coat, and a hat, along with accoutrements and accessories including stockings, shoes, and gaiters. The waistcoat, breeches, and regimental coat were all made of wool cloth, while shirts were linen. This uniform, broadly governed by regulations introduced in 1768, was comfortable and functional for the soldiers to wear while they performed guard duty, fatigue work, drill, and any other tasks that may have been assigned. In theory, it also served as the combat and campaign uniform.

  As the American Revolution intensified in the mid- to late 1770s, and increasing numbers of British soldiers deployed to North America to fight the rebels, soldiers began receiving a new type of uniform legwear. Alternately called trousers, gaitered trousers, or overalls, these garments were constructed like breeches at the top but extended all the way down the leg, ending in a fitted ankle that covered the top of a soldier’s shoes. Trousers were usually constructed of linen, but also occasionally of cloth- one 1779 letter to an artillery soldier based at Detroit noted that blue cloth was being used for trousers, while brown was issued in other theaters. Button on the lower seams allowed the trousers to be well-fitted, especially through the calves, creating a look not unlike a modern pair of skinny jeans. Trousers such as these were not unique to the military in the 1770s, but they were a newer type of garment in British fashion. As a single piece of clothing, they eliminated the need for separate breeches, gaiters and stockings to cover the leg and consolidated the soldier’s legwear into one garment.

  Due to the complexities of how the British army supplied and dressed soldiers in the 18th century, trousers were never truly uniform in the sense that they were issued to every soldier on a regular basis. However, records from individual regiments show that they were part of the uniform for most soldiers fighting in North America. Already a practical garment, in some instances trousers were an expedient when normal sources of uniform clothing became unavailable. In early 1777, for example, a Royal Artillery officer in Montreal ordered “all the old tents” to be “cut up into Trowsers for the Men.” The tents, made of sturdy linen, provided the raw materials for soldier-tailors to transform into trousers at a time when American naval activity had disrupted the normal flow of supplies to the British army in Canada.

  From about 1777 onward, trousers were an increasingly common part of the uniform worn by British soldiers in North America. Although breeches also remained in use (several regimental orderly books note tailors sewing both trousers and breeches for the men), trousers were regularly worn on campaign, in warm climates, or simply as part of the everyday uniform. This year at Colonial Michilimackinac, we continue our extended look at the Revolutionary era at Mackinac by focusing specifically on 1778. To help convey the passage of time, our military interpreters will be donning trousers this summer. We hope you can visit us at Michilimackinac this season to see these new uniform parts in action and learn more about 1778 at the Straits of Mackinac. Visit our website for tickets and more information.

Editors note: Thanks to Mark Canady for providing some of the historic resources used for this post.

 

 

 

 

 

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

Fact vs. Fiction: The Doctor’s Secret Journal

Since 1960, one of Mackinac State Historic Parks’ most popular publications has been The Doctor’s Secret Journal, an edited and annotated version of a dramatic journal kept by Surgeon’s Mate Daniel Morison between 1769 and 1772. Posted to Michilimackinac with the 60th (Royal American) Regiment, Morison recorded what he perceived as the regular verbal abuse, threats, and even physical violence directed at him and others by the officers of the garrison. According to Morison, his most frequent abuser was Ensign Robert Johnson (whose name Morison repeatedly misspelled as “Johnstone”). In the journal, Johnson comes off as petty, violent, and occasionally unhinged. But what was he really like? Was Johnson as awful a person as Morison claimed? (more…)

Forts Mackinac and Holmes in 1815

Forts Mackinac and Holmes in 1815

Captain Charles Gratiot, an American engineer officer, sketched both forts on Mackinac Island during the summer of 1814. Fort Holmes, here named Fort George by the British, was nearing completion when Gratiot made this sketch. National Archives

At Mackinac State Historic Parks, we are fortunate to have a huge variety of historic information available to help us protect, preserve, and present the resources under our care. Our archives and artifact collections contain numerous descriptions and depictions of the historic sites we manage, providing unique snapshots in time. A great example of these descriptive works is a report written by Lt. Col. Talbot Chambers in September 1815, soon after American troops returned to Mackinac Island following the War of 1812. (more…)