A pair of silver scissors, a needle with white thread, and pieces of pink and beige fabric with white stitch lines are arranged on a flat surface.

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. 

The Mystery of the Five Michilimackinac Soldiers

Ongoing historical research and archaeological excavations form the backbone of Mackinac State Historic Parks’ interpretive programs and exhibits. This summer, programs at Colonial Michilimackinac will focus on the year 1781 and the fort community at that time. While researching the experience of British soldiers at the fort, we came across a historical mystery! Two hundred and forty-three years ago, in March 1781, five soldiers from Michilimackinac switched sides from the British to join the “rebel,” or, as we would call them today, American, forces. Why and how did this happen?  

These two 1778 sketches from Philip James de Loutherbourg show the variations of a British grenadier’s uniform. The grenadiers who followed Lieutenant Governor Hamilton into battle would have been dressed similarly. Anne S.K, Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library.

 To start, we need to meet the soldiers at Michilimackinac. Different groups of British soldiers occupied the fort between 1763 and 1781, when the fort was moved to Mackinac Island. During the years of the American Revolution, the soldiers living and working at Michilimackinac were members of the 8th Regiment of Foot. There were only 70-80 British soldiers from this group at Michilimackinac. The rest of their brethren were spread throughout Fort Niagara, Detroit, and smaller posts in the Great Lakes area. Different types of soldiers from the 8th Regiment were stationed at Michilimackinac. Half of the garrison were regular soldiers who were part of the General’s company, a battalion company. The other half of the garrison were grenadiers, who were supposed to be the fittest, most experienced soldiers and belonged to their own company. In theory, Michilimackinac was the only place where grenadiers from the 8th Regiment were stationed. However, historians have uncovered their presence at other Great Lakes posts. The grenadiers are the key to this mystery.  

Major DePeyster’s military return from March 1781. Look closely at the bottom center to see his notes on the Michilimackinac prisoners of war.

 Historians know where different groups of soldiers within the 8th Regiment were stationed, and even their condition – “present fit for duty,” “sick in quarters,” or even prisoner of war – from records called military returns. Commanding officers of the 8th Regiment, such as Major Arent DePeyster, compiled these documents and sent them to higher officials. It is in one of these documents that we discovered our mystery. In March 1781, DePeyster issued a return that announced the loss of seven 8th Regiment soldiers who were listed as prisoners of war. One soldier had died while prisoner; the other six had switched sides and “inlisted with the Rebels.” Five of the six were from Michilimackinac. This notable detail leads to many questions. Who were these soldiers? How were they captured? Why did they change sides?  

 We can start to unravel this mystery with the help of some background knowledge. In 1778, Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton of Detroit led a group of British, French-Canadian, and Native American forces to modern-day Indiana to confront rebel forces intent on controlling Fort Sackville. The British soldiers in his party were 8th Regiment soldiers from Detroit. After a short battle, Hamilton and his forces were captured by Colonel George Rogers Clark. Some soldiers from the 8th Regiment may have been taken to Virginia for their captivity while others remained as prisoners of war in Indiana; ultimately their full journeys are currently unknown.  

 Though the 8th Regiment soldiers captured with Hamilton came from the garrison at Detroit, his journal mentioned a grenadier within the group. This means it is possible that some soldiers could have come from Michilimackinac, too. The five Michilimackinac prisoners of war could have been five grenadiers taken with the rest of Hamilton’s expedition.  

 And now we reach the big question: why would these British soldiers join with the “rebels” in the war? By 1781, the five Michilimackinac soldiers could have been living as prisoners of war for almost two years in unknown conditions. During the American Revolution, prisoners of war on both sides received harsh treatment which could cause poor health or even death in the worst circumstances. Like other prisoners of war, it is possible that the Michilimackinac soldiers made their choice to change allegiances for the sake of self-preservation.  

An interpreter at Colonial Michilimackinac at present dressed as a grenadier.

 There are still many unknown details in this historical mystery. While facts and probability currently favor that the five prisoners of war from Michilimackinac who joined the “rebels” were grenadiers from Hamilton’s campaign, further research may suggest other theories. Interested in learning more about British soldiers stationed on the Great Lakes? Visit Colonial Michilimackinac this season for programs, demonstrations, and exhibits about these historical figures and others who lived and worked at the Straits of Mackinac.  

A pencil sketch of a single potato with some indentations in the skin.

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 archaeological pit filled in with a tarp and hay bales.

2023 Archaeology Field Season Wrap-Up

The archaeological pit filled in with a tarp and hay bales.

The site packed for the winter.

The 65th season of archaeological excavation at Michilimackinac wrapped up August 24 and the site is now secured for the winter. This was our 17th season of work on House E of the Southeast Rowhouse.

 The most interesting finds of the second half of the field season were remnants of the house itself. The house was burned when the community relocated to Mackinac Island in 1781. The charred wood of the house was partially preserved in the sandy soil the fort was built on.

The central cellar of House E of the Southwest Rowhouse

The central cellar.

Southeast cellar of House E of the Southeast Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac.

Remnants of the walls and a floorboard in the southeast cellar.

 One of the defining features of this house is its two cellars. Most of the central cellar (except a portion of the northwest corner) is now five and a half feet deep. Remnants of the burned wall posts can be seen along the edges of the gray sand cellar deposit in the center of the image. The eastern half of the central cellar was also better defined. This cellar had plank walls and remnants of the walls and a floorboard were exposed this season.

A trench at the north wall of House E of the Southwest Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac.

Humic stains from the north wall of the house (the dark soil at the top of the image. 

View along the north wall of House E of the Southeast Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac.

View of the north wall with the tree stump at the back. 

 We were able to identify humic stains from the north wall of the house (the dark soil at the top of the image). Unfortunately we also confirmed that the tree stump we have been working around is right in the center of the east end of the wall trench. In the image you can see how the stump is in line with the reconstructed house wall of another unit of the rowhouse and the dark wall trench stain at the bottom of the image. The tree was not there when the house was; it was planted around 1910 shortly after Michilimackinac became Michigan’s second state park. The roots do not seem to have grown around artifacts, rather they displaced artifacts as they grew.

 Stay tuned to the MSHP blog to see what interesting things the archaeologists might discover in the lab this winter as the season’s artifacts are cleaned and better identified.

U.S. Army Forage Cap and Dress Helmet

Inspection at Fort Mackinac with soldiers in dress uniform.

The public interacts with our interpretive staff every day, asking questions about the island, fort, and the way soldiers stationed at Fort Mackinac lived when it was active between the years of 1780-1895. One of the main draws, other than the rifle and cannon demonstrations, are the tours, given by interpreters seen in two types of uniforms: the everyday “undress” uniform and the more elaborate “dress” uniform. One of the unique aspects of Fort Mackinac in the 1880s is the balance between its soldiers serving in both military and public facing capacities, which almost perfectly matches the roles of their different uniforms. A big part of how Mackinac State Historic Parks makes sure to best tell the stories of these uniforms, and the soldiers that wore them, is though our collections. Headgear, especially for the uniforms that are worn at the fort, are vital to the overall story that the park tells the public. Two specific items that embody these uniforms are the forage cap and dress helmet.

Forage Cap

 The forage cap, or the wool, leather brimmed cap with unit brass on the front, is an evolution from the forage cap from the Civil War. Mostly worn by officers until 1872, when the whole army adopted them, these vital pieces of a uniform were more commonly seen used during daily duties in and around the fort. For more formal occasions, such as when the public was let in the fort several times a week, they had a different uniform: the dress uniform. This consisted of a frock coat, white gloves, dress collar, and the dress helmet. This helmet had both Prussian and British influences, with a brass eagle plate on the front, and a spike on top.

Dress Helmet

 Both hats are unique in the way they help portray military life in the 1880s, as well as being some of the most recognizable items when the public comes to the fort. Having these items in our collections, furthermore, establishes the importance of public interaction with museums and their objects. Museum collections are often referenced for research, both public and private, and these hats hold significant value for those who want to learn more about the soldiers at Fort Mackinac. Items so easily identifiable and personal, such as these hats, aid in making that connection from the past to the present day, as these are the physical objects used daily by the people who served in the army in the 1880s.

A work party at Fort Mackinac.

 Fort Mackinac, one of our premier sites, benefits from having several items in our collections pertaining to it and the soldiers that were there. Being able to have physical representations from that era, which visitors see daily, is history translated to the present day. They allow the public to get a look at our collections every day, but in the form of a personal aspect, through our interpreters. This makes the park a living representation of its objects, with the interpreters discussing their importance every day, and sharing their legacy with a wider audience. The kepi and dress headgear are vital to the park to tell these stories, as they are an iconic part of the uniform, fort, and overall encompass a crucial period in the islands’ history.

Cattle grazing in what is now Marquette Park, in front of Fort Mackinac, on Mackinac Island.

The Cattle of Mackinac Island

“There are more cows in Mackina than in any other place of its size in the known world; and every cow wears at least one bell.”

A painting depicting Fort Street as a dirt road, with Fort Mackinac to the left and grazing horse and cattle to the right.

Cattle & horses are depicted grazing the government pasture in this 1838 scene by French naturalist Francois, comte de Castelnau.

 Much has been written about the Battle of Mackinac Island, which took place between American and British forces on July 18, 1814. Often disregarded, however, are bovine witnesses to the melee which occurred that summer’s day on pasture and woodlots of Michael Dousman’s farm. This is their story.

The King’s Cattle

 During the autumn of 1779, Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair began transferring the British garrison at Fort Michilimackinac to Mackinac Island. At the time, local residents included the “King’s Cattle,” kept for providing fresh beef and dairy products. Construction on the island began that winter, with cattle driven over the frozen straits before spring. On February 15, 1780, Sinclair wrote, “…two Canadians are preparing Post & rail fence to enclose a fine grass Platt of about thirty acres for the King’s Cattle which will be sent to the Island before the Ice breaks up.”

Cattle grazing in what is now Marquette Park, in front of Fort Mackinac, on Mackinac Island.

Cattle grazed the public pasture below Fort Mackinac from 1780 until the early 20th century. Photo by the Detroit Publishing Co. (ca.1900)

 This “fine grass Platt” is a rolling plot of land, west of and below Fort Mackinac. For well over a century, it was known as the government (or public) pasture. In 1901, the Mackinac Island State Park commission leased the parcel to the Grand Hotel for use as a 9-hole golf course.

 In addition to provender, trained cattle served as working oxen. On July 30, 1780, Sinclair complained to his superiors, “… endeavors to secure this Garrison have been retarded for want of working Cattle, Tools, the materials and Rum.” That November, two cows were added to the island’s herd, transported from the mainland aboard the armed sloop, HMS Welcome.

Dousman’s Farm

A cow grazing on Mackinac Island.

A jersey cow poses for the camera of William H. Gardiner (ca.1905-1915)

 American troops took control of Fort Mackinac in 1796. Civilian arrivals included Michael Dousman, who established a large farm on the northeast corner of the island. On July 17, 1812, British troops conscripted Dousman’s oxen to haul their cannon across the island, leading to an American surrender. In 1814, those same oxen presumably bore witness to the bloody battle between American and British forces, which took place on Dousman’s hay fields.

 Michael Dousman filled island contracts for fresh beef, hay, lumber, and firewood for nearly 50 years. Several accounts noted his herd numbered about 20 head of cattle. In 1852, Juliette Starr Dana stopped for a visit, writing, “… we came to a large farm with oxen, outbuildings & everything in New England Style. We went to the house & asked permission to rest, which was which was granted very kindly by the woman of the house who handed each of us a large bowl of rich milk cold as ice, which proved very refreshing.” In 1856, Michael Early bought the property and continued maintaining a dairy farm.

Mackinac’s Meandering Cattle

An 1890 view of Mackinac Island from the East Bluff, showing cattle grazing in the park.

View of town with cattle grazing on the East Bluff,
Photo by Lieut. Benjamin C. Morse Jr. (1890)

 Other local residents also owned cattle, which often roamed at will, grazing as they pleased. In September 1835, Chandler R. Gilman spent a rustic night in a local boarding house. “This morning I waked very early,” he wrote. “At dawn heard the morning gun from the Fort, and soon after a clattering about the house; and the noise of cow-bells under the windows gave us notice that the world was astir … There are more cows in Mackina than in any other place of its size in the known world; and every cow wears at least one bell.”

 Wandering cows posed challenges for decades. Once Mackinac National Park was created in 1875, a new law barred cattle from running loose at night. Two years later, Captain Joseph Bush posted a notice that all stray cows would be put in a pound until reclaimed by their owners. Like most early park regulations, these proved difficult to enforce.

A family posing with their children, dog, cow, and kitten at the Sergeants' Quarters, behind Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island.

A family poses with their children, dog, cow, and kitten at the former Sergeants’ Quarters, behind Fort Mackinac. Photo by William H. Gardiner (ca.1905-1915)

 A turnstile was installed at the bottom of Fort Mackinac’s south sally ramp to deter four-legged visitors from sauntering to the top. Fanny Dunbar Corbusier, wife of the post surgeon, arrived in April 1882. She recalled, “People on foot usually climbed the long flight of steps that were the shortest way up to the [officers’] quarters, and a cow once chose this route, climbing until she reached the parade ground, some one hundred and twenty steps up.”

The Cow-Bell Nuisance

 Free-ranging cattle failed to amuse Illinois congressman, William Springer. His family spent the summer of 1884 on the island, contemplating leasing a lot and building a cottage. The following spring, he informed Captain George K. Brady they had decided to spend summers elsewhere. He wrote, “Owing to the ‘cowbell nuisance’ Mrs. Springer did not get the rest desired … and as a result has been in ill health the entire winter.”

A wandering cow grazing near Sugar Loaf rock on Mackinac Island.

A wandering cow grazing near Sugar Loaf

 Arthur Fisk Starr, on the other hand, delighted in the noisy situation. From 1883-1890, the “merry charioteer” ran the most celebrated carriage service of the national park era. Starr’s Chariot led tours across the island, full of “fun, philosophy, and unwritten history.” After stopping at Lover’s Leap, a guest wrote, “No drive could be more beautiful. A pause was made at a point where several roads meet. This is Cow-Bell Point. The drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds … It is said that at Cow-Bell Point the bells can be heard no matter on what part of the island the cows are.”

 Likely, you won’t encounter a single cow on your next Mackinac Island visit. As you wander, imagine a time when lowing “moos” and tinkling cowbells were defining features of the Wonderful Isle. Listen closely, and you just might catch faint echoes from this bygone era.

 

A picture of a fragment of a clay pipe with a Dutch company makers mark on it.

The Season Continues

A picture of a fragment of a clay pipe with a Dutch company makers mark on it.

Fragment of a white clay smoking pipe stamped with a maker’s mark. 

The first half of the 2023 Michilimackinac archaeological field season has flown by. The cellars continue to yield interesting artifacts. In addition to the gaming die found during our opening week (Our 65th Season Begins! – Mackinac State Historic Parks | Mackinac State Historic Parks (mackinacparks.com), an unusual white clay smoking pipe bowl fragment was recovered from the north edge of the central cellar. White clay pipe fragments are fairly common, but they are usually plain. This one was stamped with a maker’s mark. The motif is a jumping deer. It was used by a series of Dutch pipemakers in Gouda from 1660 to at least 1776. This is a reminder of the worldwide trade networks of which Michilimackinac was a part.

A reconstructed ointment pot.

With pieces recovered this year, archaeologists have been able to reconstruct this ointment pot. 

 In the southeast cellar, the most interesting artifacts have been plain white tin-glazed earthenware ceramic sherds. These were able to be matched with some sherds from last season to form an ointment pot. This is the second ointment pot we have been able to reconstruct from the southeast cellar.

A person holding a King's 8th Button.

Pewter button from the 8th Regiment. 

 We also have been working in the northern section of the excavation. At the beginning of this season, most of this area was in the layer of rubble from the 1781 demolition of the fort. Interesting finds from this area include part of a stone smoking pipe bowl, two gilt sequins and two pewter buttons from the 8th Regiment. These are the soldiers who demolished the fort.

 In some areas all the demolition rubble has been removed, revealing the north wall trench of the building cutting through beach sand. This is easier to see in the west end of the house because a tree was planted in the east of the wall trench in the early twentieth century. While the location of the fort was never forgotten, its interior layout was.

A photo of the north wall, with a dark area showing where trench was.

The dark area in the photo reveals the north wall trench of the building. 

 The 2023 archaeology season continues through August 19. Visitors to Colonial Michilimackinac can watch archaeologists uncover history seven days a week, weather permitting, until then.

 

A Closer Look at the Collections: Cameos

One of the next major projects for Mackinac State Historic Parks will be the reconstruction of a unit on the Southwest Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac. To prepare, MSHP staff have been going over the archaeological records and artifacts from the 1960s, when the unit was originally excavated. Today, our Curator of Archaeology, Dr. Lynn Evans, is looking at a cameo ring recovered in 1962.