A black and white photo from 1890 showing the Fort Mackinac rifle range, with soldiers participating in a firing drill.

Army Marksmanship at Fort Mackinac

American history is full of stories and legends of soldiers and civilians skillfully using their muskets and rifles in the heat of battle or some other dramatic event. Tales of David Crocket, Daniel Boone, Annie Oakley, and the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord create an image that many people living on the North American continent in the 1800s would have been skilled with firearms. As far as these stories are true, they do not accurately represent most of the people living at that time. Most people in the United States had little to no experience with any long-range rifle shooting, and even basic skills with firearms were poor. Even amongst the United States Army ranks, very few soldiers participated in any significant target practice.

A black and white photograph of 1880s soldiers standing in a line with muskets and rifles in front of them.

Soldiers of the 23rd U.S. Infantry on the Parade ground at Fort Mackinac in the late 1880s.

 This lack of target practice was not neglectful. The technology and tactics at the time didn’t require soldiers to be skilled in long-range shooting. The army supplied soldiers with a smoothbore musket, which only had an effective range of 80 to 100 yards. As a result, armies had their soldiers lined up in big columns to create mass fire groups. While an individual soldier isn’t accurate, a large group of soldiers firing as a team is a much more effective force. These tactics were common around the world. Even after rifled muskets came into existence, which are more accurate than smoothbore muskets, many armies stuck to traditional battle line tactics. Firearms with “rifling” “have grooves inside the barrel, which make the projectile spin, making it more accurate and able to shoot farther.

 After the Civil War, the United States Army adopted the 1873 Springfield 45/70, often called the “trapdoor rifle.” The 45/70 was the first standard-issue breechloading rifle adopted by the army, meaning that the rifle was loaded from the rear of the rifle rather than from the muzzle. This rifle was far more accurate, allowing people to hit targets beyond 1,000 yards. Given the capabilities of this new weapon and the changing nature of warfare, the army began investigating ways to improve the marksmanship skills of their soldiers. While many officers developed different learning strategies, the army failed to provide any serious enforcement or supplies for training. Soldiers lacked ammunition for target practice, and commanding officers ultimately decided how much practice their soldiers would get. There was little pressure on commanding officers to restructure their soldiers to incorporate target practice.

A black and white photo of the Fort Mackinac rifle team from 1886. The soldiers are posed for the photo, holding rifles, with a trophy between them.

Fort Mackinac rifle team in 1886. Note target shaped collar buttons for marksmanship.

 The army started to improve its marksmanship efforts in 1884 by creating a new award system. Now, soldiers could earn various awards and compete against their fellow soldiers. A soldier who could hit targets 200 and 300 yards away at 80% accuracy and a 600-yard target at 70% would qualify as a marksman. Soldiers who could hit targets 200, 300, and 600 yards at 88% and targets at 800, 900, and 1000 yards at 76% earned the sharpshooter qualification. Aside from these awards, the army also created a special board to investigate ways to instruct soldiers in long-range marksmanship. Captain Stanhope E. Blunt was placed in charge of this board, and in March, Blunt’s “instruction for Rifle and Carbine Firing for the United States Army” would be officially approved and prescribed to the rest of the army.

 Soldiers were now required to conduct target practice at least six months out of the year, with considerations given to climate and operational duties. Post commanders would be held responsible for their practice, and those records would be published regularly in the reports. Each garrison went on the rifle range twice weekly over a four-month practice season. Post commanders could adjust the season better to fit the climate or duties of each post. The army gave more resources and funding to post commanders to improve equipment quality and follow through on plans that needed to be addressed.

A black and white photo from 1890 showing the Fort Mackinac rifle range, with soldiers participating in a firing drill.

Lt. Benjamin Morse (standing, center) supervises soldiers from the 23rd Regiment of Infantry as they practice on one of the Fort Mackinac rifle ranges in 1890.

 Fort Mackinac had a leg up in this new system compared to many other stations nationwide. While they initially lacked the proper ranges and suffered from the same lack of resources as many different stations, Fort Mackinac showed incredible success under the new training manual. This success is primarily attributed to the enthusiasm and skill of the officers stationed at Fort Mackinac. Both Captain George Brady and Captain Greenleaf Goodale qualified as Sharpshooters, as well as many other notable officers. A later addition to Fort Mackinac was Captain William Manning of Company E, who served as a member of the revision board for Blunt’s manual in 1885/4. In addition, Fort Mackinac quickly constructed a 1000-yard range, equipped with telegraph lines, in 1885 to accommodate the new expectations for target practice.

A black and white image of 600-yard rifle with target platform on foreground, looking towards Fort Mackinac.

Image of 600-yard rifle with target platform on foreground, looking towards Fort Mackinac.

 The 23rd Infantry stationed at Fort Mackinac boasted some of the best marksmen in the entire army. Between 1884 and 1889, sixteen soldiers from Fort Mackinac qualified as Sharpshooters. In 1885, 50 men qualified as Marksmen at Fort Mackinac. Innovations like this would help the army transform into an impressive military force. Over the next several decades, and after the many catastrophes during the Spanish-American War, the army would continue to improve and change. When the United States entered World War I, the United States had earned a reputation of being an “army of marksmen.”

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. 

A color painting in a gold frame of Thomas Hunt, who was a commander at Fort Mackinac.

2023 Mackinac State Historic Parks Collections Acquisitions

In 2023, the collections committee accessioned 643 objects into the Mackinac Island State Park Commission collection and archives. In addition to 83 purchases, 560 items were donated to the collection. The summer collections internship program saw the hiring of Kaitlyn Cary from Central Michigan University and Sara Handerhan from Cornell University. They assisted Curator of Collections Brian Jaeschke with the inventory of The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum, several historic downtown Mackinac Island buildings and General Storage inside the Heritage Center.

A color portrait of Colonel Arent DePeyster. He is wearing a dress military uniform of the British military. The portrait is in an oval gold frame.

Colonel Arent DePeyster

A color portrait of Rebecca DePeyster, who is wearing a formal dress and hat, in an oval gold frame

Rebecca Blair DePeyster

 In the fall of 2022, Mackinac State Historic Parks was able to acquire two rare portraits of Lieutenant Colonel Arent DePeyster and his wife Rebecca. DePeyster was commandant of the King’s 8th Regiment of Foot at Fort Michilimackinac from 1774-1779. Francis Alleyne painted the images around 1790. The portraits were discovered in a London home and put up for auction. Money from the Jahn Collections Fund was used to purchase and conserve the portraits and their frames. They are currently on display in the Mackinac Art Museum.

A color painting in a gold frame of Thomas Hunt, who was a commander at Fort Mackinac.

Donated portrait of Colonel Thomas Hunt

 The commission received a donation of a framed portrait from a descendant of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Hunt. Hunt was commander of the 1st Infantry at Fort Mackinac from 1802 – 1804. During this time, Fort Mackinac became the sixth largest U.S. military post with 120 soldiers. Hunt had a distinguished military career starting in 1775 at Lexington-Concord. He served in several battles including Bunker Hill and Yorktown where he was wounded. After the war, he was a major in the 2nd Sub Legion and served during Wayne’s Indian Campaign of 1794, fighting at Fallen Timbers. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1802. The portrait was painted on tin circa 1808 and the artist is currently unknown. The painting is undergoing conservation treatment and will be placed on display in the near future.

Two photograph albums

Two of the donated photo albums

 Over the years, Mackinac State Historic Parks has purchased or had donated photograph albums containing snapshots taken by visitors to the straits region. This year the commission accessioned three albums containing several black and white images of Mackinac Island, Mackinaw City and other local attractions. Besides scenes such as Arch Rock, Fort Mackinac and Grand Hotel, the albums contain perspectives that commercial photographers would not normally shoot providing important historical information. Another aspect is images of  everyday people enjoying the sites much like visitors continue to today.

A collection of brochures, photos, and other items related to MRA and the Mackinac College

Donated items from the MRA and Mackinac College.

 Besides Grand Hotel, Mission Point Resort is another Mackinac Island icon. Many of the resort buildings were originally constructed for the group Moral Re-Armament which was an international moral and spiritual movement that started before World War II. In 1942, the group began holding conferences on Mackinac Island and by the mid-1950s had purchased the property known as Cedar Point on the east end of the island. They began constructing buildings using workers from around the world. One of those workers donated several photographs, slides, blueprints and other material related to the construction. In addition, various objects from Mackinac College, which operated at Mission Point from 1966 – 1970, were donated.

 This is only a small sample of the type of objects Mackinac State Historic Parks collects during any given year.  We are always looking for donations and items to purchase which will help the commission to continue its mission of educating the public about the history of the region.

Mackinac State Historic Parks
2023 Accession Gift Donors

Amy Sacka
Large color photograph of Mackinac Bridge in wintertime by Artist-in-Residence
Raymond Gaynor
Framed black and white photograph of sailboats in Mackinac Island harbor by Artist-in-Residence
Becki Barnwell
Black and white portrait photograph of Samuel Bayard and Martha Poole
Copies of Mackinac Islander, The Island News and Mackinac Island News newspapers
James Newton
Souvenir letter wallet and change purse from Mackinac Island
Jeri Gustafsson
Black and white photographs of Fort Michilimackinac, Fort Mackinac and Mackinac Bridge
Joan Vannorman
Black and white photographs of Mackinac Island, Fort Mackinac, Niagara Falls and Parry Sound, Ontario
Patricia Jahn
Woven flax cloth night shirt
Joan Slater
Office paper spike and papers from John Doud store on Mackinac Island
John Polacsek
Georgian Bay Line travel brochures for S.S. South & North American
David Callaghan
New Testament Bible of Jacob Wendell and Old and New Mackinac by Rev J.A. Van Fleet
Kathy Verhagen
Color and black & white postcards from the Straits of Mackinac region
Michael McGarr
Metal artwork of Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse entitled Midnight Light
Kathy Ames
Black and white photographs of the Tootle family, sailboats and Gardiner photographic prints
David Doss
Michigan State Highway Ferry schedule for Fall and Early Winter 1944
Cheboygan History Center
Color postcards of Mackinac Island and black and white photographs of a truck being pulled by horses on Mackinac Island
Dustin Hunt
Pencil sketch entitled Sue by Artist-in-Residence
Kateri Kaminski
Cross, pendants, brooch and earrings made in silver by Artist-in-Residence
Jeri Baron Feltner
Nikonos III underwater camera used to photograph shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac
High pressure scuba tank used by Charles Feltner for diving on Great Lakes shipwrecks
Sid Browne
Wooden walking stick crafted by Donald Andress
Phil Porter
Mackinac State Historic Parks employee coffee mug from 1994
Jean Gumpper
Framed woodcut print by Artist-in-Residence
James Swanson
Oil on linen of Round Island Lighthouse and seagulls by Artist in Residence
Marilyn Bachelor
Framed painting by Robert E. Wood entitled From Mackinac Island
Dorothy and Dan Elliott
Framed oil on tin painting of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Hunt
Anonymous
Real color postcard of Fort Michilimackinac land gate
Harold Kriesche
Clear glass ashtray with letter “L” engraved by Frank Kriesche
Dan Friedhoff
Fire axes recovered from the SS Cedarville shipwreck
Brian Scott Jaeschke
Copy of A Lake Tour to Picturesque Mackinac
Debra Orr
Photographs of Christopher Reeve, Mary’s Pantry, stockade spike, ferry pass, movie ticket and Truscott documents
Douglas McGregor
Moral Re-Armament and Mackinac College photographs, slides, booklets, blueprints, newsletters, records, postcards, Mackinac College letterman patch and stationery
Kyle Bagnall
Three color panoramic postcards of Mackinac Island

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A picture of the Mackinac Island State Park sign, with a small building behind it, fall colors including red and orange, and Fort Mackinac behind everything.

The Seasons of Mackinac

A picture of the Mackinac Island State Park sign, with a small building behind it, fall colors including red and orange, and Fort Mackinac behind everything.

Marquette Park in fall.

Perhaps the best part of Michigan is the changing of the seasons. Fall in northern Michigan brings a peace and calm as nature starts to go to sleep. Winter brings a respite – everything gets a fresh start. After the break, spring arrives, and everything is renewed with energy. Summer is when nature truly blooms and thrives, only for the cycle to reset in the fall. It’s fair, and possibly safe, to say Michigan is one of the best states to experience the extremes of all seasons, and what better way to experience them than by exploring the Straits area? Here is your guide…

Winter:

 The best way to spend your winter visit to the Straits of Mackinac is outside! The island can be hard to get to so try exploring Mackinaw City. Michilimackinac State Park is as beautiful in the winter as it is in the summer, with amazing views of the Mackinac Bridge, Mackinac Island, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, and the Straits of Mackinac. As winter progresses and the lake freezes, moving currents can create sheets of blue ice. Visiting Michilimackinac State Park offers the best views of the blue ice when it forms.

Snow on the ground and trees covered in snow, with the Historic Mill Creek sawmill in the background.

One of the many amazing winter views available at Historic Mill Creek.

 Historic Mill Creek, just east of downtown Mackinaw City, is also a wonderful winter spot. It offers over three miles of beautiful snow-covered trails so you can get your steps in and experience the North Woods at the same time! There are occasional winter programs hosted at Mill Creek, including a Snowshoe Stroll in March. Mill Creek State Park is always open, with parking available near US 23.

 Spring and Summer:

 Lilac season is one of the most sought-after times to visit Mackinac Island. The island is abuzz, gearing up for the annual Lilac Festival. The scent of lilacs flows through the air following you on your exploration of the island. It’s a wonderful time of year to visit as the island comes alive after the sleepy winter season.

A white and purple lilac bush with green grass around it and Fort Mackinac in the distance.

Lilac time on Mackinac Island.

 Historic Mill Creek is also special in the spring. Wildflowers are abundant along the guided trail system, and the sound of singing birds can be heard throughout. The Mill Pond is also full from the spring thaw, creating a beautiful waterfall over the Mill Dam.

 Summer is prime time in the Straits area. It’s the time for family vacations, festivals and races, chances to catch warm summer breezes and a chance to extend your Straits visit with the long sunny days. If you are looking to catch a break from the busy downtown, one of the best ways to spend a summer day on the island is to explore Mackinac Island State Park. The island has wonderful nature trails, overlooks, historical sites and more to explore. It is a nature junkie’s haven. A suggested itinerary for the more experienced nature enthusiast is taking a hike on Tranquil Bluff Trail. After visiting the new Milliken Nature Center at Arch Rock, take the stairs up to the Tranquil Bluff trailhead and begin your journey along the bluff. If you are looking for a more leisurely stroll, the Arch Rock Botanical Trail would be for you. A paved path featuring signage with information the nature of the island will give you an easy, undisturbed adventure out to Arch Rock. Bonus: If you are staying over night on the island and want to catch the sunset or go stargazing, Mackinac State Historic Parks has the perfect spots. Catch the sunset on the west side of the island either on the beach just off M-185 or up the bluff at Sunset Rock. The perfect spot for stargazing is the highest point on the island – Fort Holmes. On a clear night, it will seem like you can reach out and touch the stars. Bonus two: sunrise at Arch Rock is hard to beat, and, most likely, you’ll have the place to yourself.

People sitting on a bench looking out at the Straits of Mackinac and the Mackinac Bridge.

Enjoying the view from Michilimackinac State Park.

 In Mackinaw City, there may be nothing quite as peaceful as sitting on a bench in Michilimackinac State Park enjoying the sunset as you look out over the Straits of Mackinac and the Mackinac Bridge. With the lighthouse standing guard behind you, the gentle sounds of the waves reaching the shore will bring you a sense of calm to wind down your busy day in the Straits. If you want to see what Colonial Michilimackinac is like in the summer in the evening, join us for Moonlit Michilimackinac, a free special event in August.

 Fall:

View from Fort Mackinac in the fall, featuring houses, cloud cover, and colorful leaves.

View from Fort Mackinac in the fall.

 There is no scientific data to back this up, but, if you ask seasonal and permanent residents of the Straits, most will likely tell you fall is their favorite season. Everything starts to change. The colors turn and cooler temperatures flow in. On the island, people (and horses) board the ferries for their final departure, and a sort of quiet sets in. This is the perfect time to hike on Mackinac Island. The color views from Fort Holmes and the bluffs are incredible. A fall bike ride to the interior and then down to British Landing has to be done to be truly appreciated.

A child throwing leaves in the air in fall at Historic Mill Creek.

Fall at Historic Mill Creek.

 Over in Mackinaw City, Historic Mill Creek is the place to be in fall, just like in winter and spring. As you walk along the trails you are enveloped in a sea of colors, with the ever-present creek noise in the background. Mill Creek is also a great place to take your dog (on a leash, of course). If there is ever a place to get those Pure Michigan vibes in the fall, it’s Mill Creek.

 No matter what season you decide to visit the Straits area, you will not be disappointed. There are always beautiful things to experience while exploring northern Michigan. Explore the different activities Mackinac Island State Park, Michilimackinac State Park, and Mill Creek State Park have to offer. And don’t forget to stop and appreciate all the natural beauty in the seasons of Mackinac.

A historic black and white photo showing a large white building known as the Fort Mackinac Post Hospital with three cannons in the foreground.

The Hospital Corps at Fort Mackinac

For much of the United States’ history, military medicine was the responsibility of a few surgeons. These Post Surgeons would be stationed at forts and posts nationwide. They would travel with campaigning regiments across the country, often with limited supplies and help. These men often held commissions as officers in the army or were given civilian appointments when an army surgeon wasn’t available, as was often the case in Fort Mackinac’s history. Different forts posed different challenges to surgeons depending on the climate of the fort or the condition of the fort buildings and waste systems. This situation would change dramatically during times of war, as the risk of disease and injury increased significantly with a much greater number of soldiers interacting with one another even outside the chaos of combat.

A historic black and white photo showing a large white building known as the Fort Mackinac Post Hospital with three cannons in the foreground.

Fort Mackinac’s 1860 Post Hospital prior to 1887.

 During the Civil War, army surgeons could depend on a complex web of volunteer and charity organizations supplying them with volunteer civilian doctors and nurses (both men and women) to cater to the army’s needs. Both sides would implement formal and informal groups of soldiers to assist in transferring the wounded off the front lines to field hospitals and administering early wound treatment. While many new medical “firsts” can be exhibited during the Civil War in surgery, treatment, and staffing, many of the systems about medical staff went away after the war. Following the war, the army reduced in size, and all volunteer functions disappeared. The peacetime army of the 19th century was chronically under-size, underpaid, and poorly equipped, and the Medical Department faced the brunt of this problem.

A portrait of Charles Woodruff, Fort Mackinac's Assistant Post Surgeon, in 1895. The photo is black and white, and he has a beard and large mustache, and is wearing an overcoat with a large collar.

An 1895 photo of Charles Woodruff, who was the Assistant Post Surgeon at Fort Mackinac from 1887 – 1889.

 In the late 1860s, the army turned its attention west towards the Native Americans of the western plains. For the next 25 years, the army would engage in consistent fighting with several tribes in the final of the “Indian Wars” fought by the United States government against native peoples. This combat required soldiers to be mobile and often to go on campaigns to very remote parts of the country, where supplies for the army were minimal and the hope for help from civilian volunteers extremely slim. Surgeons found themselves to be the sole caretakers for 50-100 soldiers, with the only trained help they might rely on being an enlisted Hospital Steward. Hospital Stewards were specially trained enlisted men, acting more like pharmacists caring for medicine and supplies. This problem also became clear to many commanding officers in combat.

 Surgeons typically distanced themselves from the main line of fighting for their safety in battle. In the early stages, they might be seen closer, prepared to move wounded soldiers to the rear, but once casualties began to build up, the wounded soldiers would have to rely on the help of their fellow soldiers to move them to the rear. Commanding Officers found this to be a problem: now, instead of losing one combat-capable soldier, they were losing one to three capable men who should be fighting. Even having a handful of wounded soldiers could seriously inhibit a company, which was often barely at its capacity of 54 men.

A black and white photo from 1892 showing the undress uniform of the Hospital Corps.

Model of Hospital Corps undress uniform, from The Report of the Surgeon General, 1892

 Various Surgeon Generals in the early 1880s began advocating for an established group of specially trained soldiers to attend to the soldiers in both combat and garrison situations. On August 11th, 1887, Commanding General Philip Sheridan issued General Order 56, establishing a Hospital Corps. This Hospital Corp included Surgeons, Hospital Stewards, and Privates. Privates were a new addition to the Medical Department. Privates serve directly as assistants to the Hospital Stewards and Surgeons in Garrisons and, in battle, would operate an ambulance and provide care to wounded soldiers. General Order 56 also mandated four soldiers in each company to be “company bearers.” These four men were to be trained regularly on wound treatment and litter bearing and, in an emergency, would help the Hospital Corps.

 By November 1887, three privates of the Hospital Corps were stationed at Fort Mackinac, most having transferred directly from the companies already stationed at Fort Mackinac on the recommendation of Assistant Post Surgeon Charles Woodruff. These soldiers would attend division-wide encampments and training, the Corps soon proving themselves to be a valuable and effective part of the army. At Fort Mackinac these men would work regularly in the Post Hospital with sick and injured soldiers and would assist in the training of the company bearers. The Medical Department hoped that by training regular infantry soldiers to be company bearers they could create a consistent recruitment path into the Hospital Corps. Unfortunately, the Hospital Corps was consistently under staffed due to poor pay and negative feelings many soldiers had towards hospital work.

A black and white photo with men in military uniforms posing by three large cannons at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island.

Hospital Corps Privates posing by cannons on the upper gun platform with fellow soldiers at Fort Mackinac, late 1880s or early 1890s.

 While the Hospital Corps only came into being toward the very end of Fort Mackinac’s time as an active military post, it demonstrates another way Fort Mackinac experienced the changing times of the army. The creation of the Hospital Corps marks a leap forward in military medicine, both in the chaos of the battlefield and the comforts of an army fort. Join us this summer at Fort Mackinac for our new “Medicine at Mackinac” Program. There you can learn more about how medicine was changing and the impact on Fort Mackinac.

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.

What’s in Store for ’24?

As the calendar flips to 2024, the Mackinac State Historic Parks crew is hard at work constructing new buildings, creating new exhibits, fine-tuning programs, preparing the historic sites, and finalizing special events to share the rich historic and natural treasures of Mackinac Island and Mackinaw City.

 “We are excited to welcome visitors to experience our parks and numerous attractions,” said Steve Brisson, Mackinac State Historic Parks Director. “We are hard at work and busy preparing to have everything ready for our spring openings.”

A rendering of the new Milliken Nature Center at Arch Rock.

A rendering of the new Milliken Nature Center at Arch Rock.

 The Milliken Nature Center is built to accent the natural beauty of Arch Rock – not dominate it. The exhibit inside, Arch Rock: Unsurpassed in Nature’s Beauty, will celebrate what was known as the “Jewel of the Mackinac National Park” and is still today known as a “Star Attraction of Mackinac Island State Park.” It features dozens of stunning historic images of Arch Rock as well as a timeline on how the arch was formed. In addition, the center will highlight geology on Mackinac Island as a whole, from the formation of the island itself and how stunning features such as Sugarloaf Rock and Skull Cave came to be. A highlight of the center will be an interactive 3D map of the island. Finally, modern new restrooms will also be located at the site.

A rendering of a new exhibit inside the Milliken Nature Center at Arch Rock.

A rendering of the new exhibit, “Arch Rock: Unsurpassed in Nature’s Handiwork,” at the Milliken Nature Center.

 “The Milliken Nature Center will be a welcome and fitting addition to Mackinac Island State Park,” Brisson said. “We look forward to welcoming guests this spring. We’re honored it will feature the name of Governor Milliken, who loved this island, and are appreciative of the support of Governor Whitmer, the state legislature, and Mackinac Associates to see this project come to fruition.”

The Milliken Nature Center and restrooms are slated to open May 3.

Construction in front of a historic building with a construction worker.

Progress on the Southwest Rowhouse addition in mid-December.

 Moving to Mackinaw City, construction is underway on the first new building at Colonial Michilimackinac since 2013. Located on the east end of the Southwest Rowhouse, the building will host a new exhibit, combining archaeological and archival research to help present community life at Michilimackinac in the 1700s: Slavery at the Straits. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, slavery was integral part of the community at Michilimackinac, as well as the rest of Michigan. Enslaved Black and Native American men and women worked in all levels of society, doing everything from domestic work to skilled labor. Already a hub of the Great Lakes fur trade, Michilimackinac also served as the center of the regional trade in enslaved workers as French and British colonists exploited preexisting systems of Native American enslavement to feed a growing demand for enslaved labor.

“This new exhibit explores the lives of these enslaved individuals and how their experiences fit in with the larger story of Michilimackinac, allowing us to present a more complete vision of the site in the 18th century,” Brisson said.

An overview of the archaeological dig and historic buildings in the background.

A new tour highlighting historic architecture adds to the robust schedule at Colonial Michilimackinac.

 Staying at Michilimackinac, the year 1781 will be explored, when local and global forces uprooted the entire community as soldiers and civilians relocated to Mackinac Island. After six decades as a thriving diplomatic and economic hub, Michilimackinac came to an end in 1781. A special daily program will go into detail on the end of Michilimackinac.

 Other programs throughout the day explore the rich history of the site and showcase how it was more than a military outpost. Get an up-close look at the merchandise that passed through Michilimackinac during the height of the fur trade; learn about the different architectural styles found at the fort; explore dining culture at a Merchant’s House; explore the 5,500 square feet of gardens during an engaging tour; have tea at a British Trader’s home and dive into the complexities of British society; find out what civilians and soldiers were up to; and, of course, feel the power of Michilimackinac’s weapons with musket and artillery firings.

 “The gorgeous setting and beautiful reconstruction of the 18th century fur trading village and fort overlooking the Straits of Mackinac are worth a visit for everyone that comes to Mackinaw City,” said LeeAnn Ewer, Curator of Interpretation. “Here you will be able to explore and learn about what the last year of Michilimackinac was like for the soldiers and civilians that disassembled the community and moved to Mackinac Island. Our newest tour will highlight the move to the island, as well as the historic architecture that would have housed the community daily from Michigan weather as well as the occasional war.”

A person holding tweezers looking for artifacts at the Colonial Michilimackinac archaeology dig.

Mackinac State Historic Parks archaeology program will enter its 66th year in 2024.

 The Mackinac State Historic Parks’ archaeology program will enter its 66th season in 2024. Work will continue in House E of the Southeast Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac. Archaeologists will be out daily (weather permitting) during the summer months. Guests will have the opportunity to see the most recent finds at Colonial Michilimackinac with a “Recent Excavations” display inside the Colonial Michilimackinac Visitor’s Center.

 Want to get closer than ever to the action at Colonial Michilimackinac? Guests have two opportunities to fire black powder weapons: an opening cannon blast, at 9:30 a.m., or they can fire the full complement of weapons at Guns Across the Straits. Reservations for either program can be made by calling (231) 436-4100. More information can be found here.

 Special events at Colonial Michilimackinac include exhilarating “Fire at Night” programs, deep dives into Michilimackinac’s maritime history, a celebration of the King’s Birth-day on June 4, a look at Askin’s Men and Women at Michilimackinac in August, a moonlit Michilimackinac evening, the ever-popular Fort Fright, and A Colonial Christmas. More information can be found at mackinacparks.com/events.

Colonial Michilimackinac opens for the 2024 season May 8.

An oil house added at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse under cloudy skies.

The Oil House added in 2023. A privy, pump, and flagpole will be added in 2024 to complete the restoration of the house to its 1910 appearance.

 Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, across the park from Colonial Michilimackinac, will see the continued restoration of the site to its 1910 appearance. This summer will see small details added to the site, including a privy, pump, and flagpole. A small sidewalk will be added to the privy and pump, and, along with the oil house that was added in 2023, new interpretive signs will be added. Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse opens for the season May 9.

 Programs at Historic Mill Creek feature daily demonstrations of a reconstructed 18th century sawmill. With the smell of fresh sawdust in the air, the awesome power of the water never fails to impress as the mill springs to life, fed by the pond and ever-flowing currents of Mill Creek. Log hewing and pitsaw demonstrations will be relocated near the millpond, providing easier access and shaded seating for visitors of all ages. At the workshop historic farming programs highlight what life was like beyond the sawmill more than 200 years ago.

A young raccoon.

Themed weeks, including a Wildlife Week, highlight the Historic Mill Creek schedule in 2024.

 During the summer months, special themed weeks will dig deeper into the story of Historic Mill Creek. From June 23-29, enjoy “Wildlife Week at Historic Mill Creek,” featuring the amazing animals of the North Woods. From July 21-27, enjoy “Hay Cutters & Summer Pasture,” as programs explore historic hay making at the Straits of Mackinac. Finally, August 18-24 will feature “Lost Rocks & Mackinac Millstones,” where guests will earn about the grist mill at Mill Creek, and how the Mill Creek millstones were hewn from “lost rocks” deposited by glaciers thousands of years ago.

 On the wild side, Historic Mill Creek’s 3.5 miles of interpreted hiking trails are always open and available to explore. During the summer months, join a trained naturalist at various times of the day for a guided walk along the trails, looking for blooming wildflowers, fruiting fungi, and singing birds among the trees, as well as for any wildlife along the banks of Mill Creek.

 “We’re excited to enter a year of transition at Historic Mill Creek,” shared Park Naturalist Kyle Bagnall. “This year, special themed weeks will highlight aspects of the site’s amazing history. Guests can join a naturalist for short, guided trail walks. We’ll bask in the summer sun as we listen for the swish of the scythe and tales of historic hay cutters. Finally, we’ll join a hunt for “lost rocks” which traveled hundreds of miles thousands of years ago before landing at Mackinac.”

 Historic Mill Creek will also host two special Snowshoe Strolls, on February 10 and March 3, both from 2:00-3:30 p.m. Bring your snowshoes and explore the snowy North Woods on this guided stroll. This two-mile guided hike will allow you to search for signs of wildlife and other wonders of the natural world. After the walk enjoy treats near a campfire. This event is admission by donation.

 Historic Mill Creek opens for the regular 2024 season May 10.

A person dressed as a historic soldiers leads a group at Fort Mackinac on the Parade Ground.

A new ‘Medicine at Mackinac’ tour will showcase Army Surgeons and military medicine in the 1880s.

 Moving back to Mackinac Island, Fort Mackinac opens for the 2024 season on May 3. Guests can discover two new programs: “Medicine at Mackinac,” where interpreters will provide the history of Army Surgeons and how the Army began changing military medicine in the 1880s. In addition, a Guard Mount Program will show guests how soldiers would conduct this complex military ceremony. Other programs at the fort include a walking tour about the changing face of Fort Mackinac, an exploration of the people who lived and worked at the fort, how the Army of the 1880s conducted itself, a look at Mackinac’s time as a national park, a program showcasing the equipment a soldier was issued, and an exploration of what happened at Fort Mackinac after the sun set. In addition, the classic rifle and cannon firing demonstrations will both feature refreshed presentations.

 “2024 will be an exciting year because we are continuing to expand the programs we offer as well as adding greater depth to our classic programs, creating a fun and educational experience for anyone coming to Mackinac Island,” explained Jack Swartzinski, Mackinac State Historic Parks’ Interpretation Coordinator.

 The Tea Room at Fort Mackinac, operated by Grand Hotel, will feature new menu items for the 2024 season, and, as always, will feature one of the most stunning views in Michigan. Perhaps the way to make a Fort Mackinac visit most memorable is firing the opening cannon salute, which is available to one guest daily. More information can be found here.

Fairy Arch by Henry Chapman Ford 1874

Fairy Arch by Henry Chapman Ford (1874).

 The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum, located in Marquette Park in front of Fort Mackinac, will feature Mackinac Rocks!, a juried exhibition in the second floor changing gallery. From looking in wonder at the natural curiosity that is Arch Rock to skipping rocks at Windermere Point, to maybe enjoying some ‘rock’ at a local establishment or the fact that Mackinac Island is itself a large rock, it is safe to say that Mackinac Rocks!

 An art attendant will lead guided tours of the galleries, including a look at Native American art on Mackinac, and the works of photographer William Gardiner. In addition, the attendant will lead two “Kids’ Time” crafts in the lower-level art studio. The sixth nine artists-in-residence will stay on Mackinac Island throughout the summer. Each artist will host a special, free workshop on the second Wednesday of their residency.

 Elsewhere on Mackinac Island, the Biddle House, featuring the Mackinac Island Native American Museum, shares the continuing story of the Anishnaabek on Mackinac Island, with daily interpretive programs and engaging exhibits. The Benjamin Blacksmith Shop, located next door to the Biddle House, is a working blacksmith shop that dives into the 1950s and the changing culture of workers on Mackinac Island. The American Fur Co. Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum and McGulpin House have both received new exhibits in the past two years. Admission to all of these sites is included with a Fort Mackinac or Historic Downtown Mackinac ticket.

 The Biddle House, featuring the Mackinac Island Native American Museum, Benjamin Blacksmith Shop, and The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum open for the 2024 season on May 10. The McGulpin House and American Fur Co. Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum open June 1.

A baseball player getting ready to swing a bat wearing a blue and gray uniform.

The annual ‘Vintage Base Ball’ game is a highlight of the summer season.

 Special events at Fort Mackinac and Mackinac Island include Twilight Turtle Treks on January 13, February 3 and March 2; the Fort2Fort Five Mile Challenge May 11; the annual Vintage Base Ball game July 27; special activities for July 4; special history evening programs including a guided tour of Historic Downtown Mackinac as it would have looked in the 1830s and a tour highlighting the creation of the village of Mackinac Island; special nature and birdwatching tours; night sky programs at Fort Holmes and Arch Rock; bike tours looking at Mackinac’s forgotten features and the War of 1812; and much more. More information can be found at mackinacparks.com/events.

 Every museum store will feature new items inspired by the site they represent. The Official Mackinac Island State Park Store, inside the Mackinac Island State Park Visitor’s Center, will continue to have new items inspired by the historic and natural elements of Mackinac Island.

 Most major projects were funded, in part, by Mackinac Associates. Visit mackinacparks.com for a complete listing of updates and projects at Mackinac State Historic Parks, hours of operation, daily events, special events, and more.

Civil War at Mackinac Weekend

In the summer of 1862 Fort Mackinac held a new title: political prison. Join reenactors portraying the “Stanton Guard,” the company mustered to guard the prisoners, as they present special programming throughout the weekend at the fort. All special programs are included with regular admission to Fort Mackinac. #thisismackinac

SCHEDULE OF EVENTS

Posted soon!

Residents Appreciation Day

For residents of Mackinac, Cheboygan, or Emmet counties, for one weekend, we discount the admission prices for all of our sites to what they were when we first began operating our modern museum programs for the public in 1958. (.50 cents adults, .25 cents children). Thank you for supporting Mackinac State Historic Parks!

This special offer includes residents of Mackinac, Cheboygan and Emmet counties. Proof of residency is required (e.g. driver’s license).