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.

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Gun Parts from the South Southwest Rowhouse at Michilimackinac

Between 1998 and 2007 Mackinac State Historic Parks excavated the east end unit of the South Southwest Rowhouse, now the site of Hearthside Museum Store in the reconstructed rowhouse. From its construction in the 1730s through the time of the 1763 attack it was lived in by French Canadian fur traders, mostly members of the Desriviere family. When the British returned with more soldiers in 1764, this was one of the houses they rented for foot soldiers to live in before the barracks was built in 1769. It appears to have reverted to a French Canadian trading household in the 1770s, before being moved to Mackinac Island in 1780.

One of the most interesting categories of artifacts excavated at the house was gun parts. In part this was because of the quantity present. A total of sixty-one were recovered, thirty-one (whole or fragmentary) gun worms and thirty other gun parts. By way of comparison, House D of the Southeast Rowhouse, the Bolon-Mitchell house excavated from 1989 to 1997, yielded thirty-five total gun parts, ten of which were gun worms. We have found eleven gun parts, six gun worms and five other parts, in the first thirteen seasons of excavation at House E of the Southeast Rowhouse.

Two-eared gun worm.

Of the sixty-one gun parts from the South Southwest Rowhouse end unit, just over half (thirty-four, twenty-two gun worms and a dozen other parts) came from in and around the cellar, suggesting the parts were stored there.

1st model Long Land buttplate.

Two gun parts from British military weapons came from the cellar. The first was an unusual two-eared gun worm, the only one found during the project. The second was a buttplate from a first model Long Land Service Pattern musket. Both of these could have been used by foot soldiers of the 60th Regiment living in the house in the late 1760s.

Two other parts suggest that one of the traders living in the house was stockpiling gun parts, possibly for sale. The first is an unused wrist escutcheon from a c.1740 Type D fusil fin, a high quality French civilian gun. A wrist escutcheon serves as an anchor for the screw attaching the triggerguard to the stock of the gun. We can tell this one was never used because it was never drilled through. It is currently on display in the Treasures from the Sand exhibit at Colonial Michilimackinac. The second is a buttplate which cannot be further identified because it was deliberately wrapped in birchbark to protect it. It was found near the bottom of the cellar.

Wrist escutcheon from a c.1740.

Buttplate wrapped in birch bark.

Gun parts are just one artifact category that tells us more about what the inhabitants of the South Southwest Rowhouse were doing and where they were doing it. If you are interested in learning more, the final report on the project will be published later in 2021. In the meantime, there is more information on the project in the Archaeology pages of the Explore at Home section of mackinacparks.com.

She Lived Here, Too: Sally Ainse

. Sally Ainse was one of many people drawn to Michilimackinac in the 18th century. During her life she worked as an interpreter, fur trader, farmer, and real estate investor. Her work in the fur trade gives us insights into how women moved through the Great Lakes during this era of business and opportunity.

  Ainse was born in the 1720s along the Susquehanna River to a family belonging to the Oneida Nation. In her early childhood, she was almost certainly exposed to the fur trade business. Nearly all Indigenous communities worked with traders from England, France, or Canada to purchase supplies in exchange for beaver, otter, muskrat, and any number of other furs. She grew up speaking her native language while also likely learning the European languages spoken around her.

  By the age of about 18, Ainse married a fur trader named Andrew Montour. He and Ainse did not remain lifelong partners. When they separated he received custody of their older children, while she was able to keep the youngest. To support herself and her baby, she worked at a variety of jobs. As an official Indian Interpreter, Sally was able to use her highly valuable language skills to assist government officials in negotiations with various Indigenous nations. At the same time, she also bought and sold merchandise to make money in the fur trade business.

An interpreter at modern Colonial Michilimackinac, dressed as the historic residents of Michilimackinac, like Sally Ainse, would have dressed.

  To tap into more lucrative markets, Ainse moved from the New York region further west to Niagara, Detroit, and then, in the mid-1760s, to Michilimackinac. By that time, the area was under British military control, although the trade was still being largely run by French-Canadians and Anishinaabek people. Most people at the straits were transient, which created a very diverse population, and Ainse’s own history growing up elsewhere would not have been in any way remarkable at Michilimackinac. She rented or purchased a unit in a rowhouse and clearly had the means to support herself.

  Her activities at Michilimackinac were likely typical of other fur traders. While she did not leave records herself, her name does appear in a few documents related to the Michilimackinac community. In April 1774, John Askin wrote about her in his journal when she left Michilimackinac for the Grand Traverse area to meet with the Odawa living there. This meeting was likely a trading event, although Askin did not specify the exact purpose of the trip. In any case, she was not gone long and came back just a few short days later, seemingly successful in whatever she had traveled there to do.

  In another instance, a British soldier named William Maxwell wrote about his interactions with Sally. Maxwell served in the British Army during some of the most well-known campaigns of the Seven Years’ War. After the war ended, he served in the western Great Lakes as commissary, and that is when he and Ainse met at Michilimackinac. In a letter between Maxwell and one of his acquaintances he described a proposal he made to Ainse:

till I was better Convinced of her Sincerity, I was willing to a small settlement for a year, and in that Time if her Temper would please me I would have pleased her if I could, but she would not trust me with her so she walked off and I did not hinder her, for she had tried me heartily, (I mean with her Tongue and Hands both) I believe on the Whole Socrates need no more be quoted for his patience with his Wife where my Storey is known.

A rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac, similar to where Sally Ainse would have lived.

  The length of Sally and William’s relationship is unknown. Maxwell left Michilimackinac in 1772 and by 1775 Ainse had left Michilimackinac to live at Detroit. By 1779 she owned at least two houses near the city as well as livestock and enslaved people. She traded in a variety of items including fur, rum, and cider, perhaps from her own orchards. She continued to do business with John Askin, who similarly had relocated to the area from Mackinac. Ainse was well-known by Major Arent DePeyster and in 1780 when the commanding officer made a list of assets at Detroit, he included two bateau loads of merchandise as belonging to her.

  Much of Ainse’s later life was spent petitioning the government. Shortly after moving to Detroit, Ainse began purchasing land on what would become the Canadian side of the Detroit River. Eventually, Sally’s ownership of many of these properties came into question, and she fought a long battle to keep them. In the end she lost most of her property after the government of Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) refused to acknowledge her ownership of the land.

  Sally Ainse died in 1823 after a long life of consistently being involved in the fur trade. Her diverse work as a fur trader, interpreter, diplomat, farmer, and real estate owner was typical for the time and gives us a better understanding into how women successfully worked in the Great Lakes fur trade. Visit our website for more information or to visit the recreated fort at Colonial Michilimackinac that Ainse, Maxwell and many others called home.

2020 Collections Acquisitions

  In 2020, the collections committee accessioned 425 objects into the state park historic collection and archives. In addition to several purchases, over 160 items were donated for the collection. Although the summer collections internships were cancelled, the park was able to hire an intern for October and November. During this time, the inventory scheduled for the summer of the Heritage Center General/Furniture Storage and the historic buildings downtown was completed.

  Several of the objects purchased in the early part of the year were for new exhibits including the Native American Museum inside the Biddle House and the restored second floor of the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse. Purchases for Biddle House included a school textbook and axe which now appear in the museums exhibit cases. On the second floor of the lighthouse, two new bedroom period settings were furnished with beds, dressers and other items to show what may have been used originally by the families.

  During the summer, the park purchased several pieces of souvenir china and glass, a register from the St. Cloud Hotel, postcards and other items from avid collector John Huibregtse of Mackinac Island. Many pieces of ruby glass inscribed by island store owner Frank Kriesche were among the new additions. Two unique purchases this year were a brass luggage tag and an early 1800’s lithograph. The brass tag is inscribed with the name of Captain George Etherington who commanded the British troops at Fort Michilimackinac from 1762 to 1763. The lithograph entitled Fort Americain dans l’Ile de Michilimakimac dates to 1838 and was drawn by Jacques Prat for the publication Vues et Souvenirs de l’ Amerique du Nord by Francois, comte de Castelnau. The image is done from the top of Fort Hill and looks east toward Fort Mackinac and downtown.

  The state park received several interesting donations this year including a silver set, photographs, steamer trunk and paintings. The silver set belonged to Bernard and Laura Wurzburger who owned a residence on Mackinac Island around 1900. The set has beautiful floral etching with some pieces inscribed “LW.” Photographs included snapshots from different eras on Mackinac Island, images of the east end of Grand Hotel under construction and a wonderful color view of Fort Mackinac by the Detroit Photographic Company. The steamer trunk came from islander James Bond and has a storied history belonging to both Dwight Kelton, soldier and author of Annals of Mackinac and Helen Donnelly. Finally, thanks to the Mackinac Island Artist in Residence program, the park received two of the paintings inspired by artists who stayed on the island in 2020.

Row Covers and Bell Jars

As many visitors to Colonial Michilimackinac know, we have a lot of gardens inside the palisade. The walls of the fort, as well as the geography of northern Michigan, create a unique climate at our site. But what if we need more protection from the weather? In the 18th century, gardeners devised a number of creative ways to extend the growing season and control the climate to shelter their garden plants.

Starting in the 17th century, some gardeners began using a tool called a bell jar, or cloche. Resembling a small bell, glass cloches functioned as a miniature greenhouse. Gardeners placed jars over an individual plant, occasionally with one side propped up to allow air circulation. Sunlight passing through the glass warmed the air inside. While it may be cool outside, the plant underneath the glass stayed cozy and warm, and continued growing where otherwise it may not have survived. This method is useful at Michilimackinac today when we are setting out our warm-weather crops, such as melon and cucumber, which need warm temperatures to grow well.

Another tricky tool that gardeners used was a row cover. Row covers were inexpensively built with paper, glue, a wooden frame, and linseed oil.  Although seemingly fragile and susceptible to damage, even from a heavy rain, paper row covers were surprisingly resilient. Gardeners could expect to get a full summer’s use before the paper would need to be replaced. If we can keep the chickens away from them, our row covers at Michilimackinac usually last from April to October.

The most labor-intensive way of protecting plants in a small garden involved the use of cold frames and hot beds. These wooden boxes needed to be built with “lights” or windows on the top, and were usually oriented toward the southern sky to catch as much light as possible. They worked by trapping heat from the sun under the glass, similar to a cloche but on a larger scale. Gardeners could further heat the interior of their frames by placing them over a pit filled with fresh manure. With a layer of soil on top of the manure, these hot beds could reach temperatures high enough to start planting lettuce outside in a Michigan March.

Various gardening how-to books from the 18th century suggest the use of an assortment of strategies and tools to protect important plants from the cold and the wind. Stop by Colonial Michilimackinac to see if you can spot the cloches, row covers and frames that are keeping our plants happy. Many elements of our gardens, including the cloches, were provided through the generosity of Mackinac Associates. If you would like to contribute to the Michilimackinac gardens, or any other Mackinac State Historic Parks’ project, consider becoming a Mackinac Associate today.

John Askin’s Garden: Lettuce

 As we know, from 1774 to 1775 John Askin used his journal to record activities in his garden. Another of his frequently-mentioned vegetables remains a staple of meals everywhere today: lettuce.

Growing food of any sort at Mackinac was not always easy. Jonathan Carver wrote in 1766 that “The land about Michilimackina for some miles has a sandy, dry barren soil, so that the troops and the traders here can scarsly find sufficient for gardens to raise greens on.” The sand meant that the soil was rather poor at the fort, and that made growing many plants very difficult. We know that the people here who chose to garden had to add soil amendments to succeed, and most people relied heavily on whatever foodstuffs they could import. However, certain foods, like lettuce, did not transport well and had to be grown near where they were to be eaten.

In 1775 Askin mentioned planting lettuce on May 2. Shortly after that, on May 10, he “sowed some more lettice.” This sort of staggered planting meant that his household had a steady supply of good lettuce, and did not have had to deal with a surplus at any one time. It was, and quite often is, the common way of growing these sorts of foods. Practicing succession planting ensures that the plants mature one after the other, rather than all at once. It makes it much easier to manage the amounts of produce and avoids any sort of gluts.

Askin never specified the type of lettuce he was growing but there were generally two types: those that would form heads, and those that modern gardeners call “cut and come again.” The “cut and come again” varieties were valued for a steady production of leaves that could be harvested two or three times from the same plant.

Some of the tougher and more bitter lettuces were often blanched in the garden. Blanching is a technique that makes them sweeter by tying the leaves together or covering them with an upturned bucket or flowerpot, or even burying the plants completely to exclude the light. Keeping the light away from them causes them to stop producing chlorophyll and improves the taste, generally making them whiter, sweeter and more tender.

Garden writers from the time recommended that all types of lettuce be planted in a sheltered location to protect them from the wind. At Michilimackinac we certainly get a lot of wind, so we are careful to protect lettuce by placing the plants strategically. Removing the dead leaves and keeping them free from weeds were also common recommendations for a successful crop.

Lettuces were among the most popular vegetables of 18th century English and French gardens. When Pehr Kalm visited Canada and described the food on the table, he mentioned meat, certainly, but also noted that it was eaten “together with different sorts of salads.” He also observed that “carrots, lettice, Turkish beans, cucumbers, and currant shrubs” were “planted in every farmer’s little kitchen garden.” It sounds charming, to be sure, but it was also perennially practical. Easy access to fresh produce is every cook’s dream. Besides salads, some lettuces would be used in soups or sautéed as a tasty side dish.

John Askin’s journal is used as a valuable source of information that can help us understand what it was like to have a garden at Michilimackinac. Be sure to visit Colonial Michilimackinac to see how our plants are growing. Please also consider joining Mackinac Associates, a friends group which supports our gardening activities and programs and exhibits throughout Mackinac State Historic Parks’ sites.