The Curious Mind of Thomas Nuttall

“To converse, as it were, with nature, to admire the wisdom and beauty of creation,

has ever been, and I hope ever will be, to me a favourite pursuit.”

     Thomas Nuttall (1821)

 On August 12, 1810, Thomas Nuttall stepped ashore on Mackinac Island, becoming the first trained botanist to explore northern Michigan. A native of Yorkshire, England, Nuttall arrived in America in 1808, intent on learning as much as possible about living things in the New World, whether they had leaves, petals, scales, fur, or feathers. Like many of his European counterparts, Nuttall was interested in Native American culture, North American geology, and the continent’s winding waterways. His wide-ranging travels led him from gardens of America’s leading scientists, through the Great Lakes, along the continent’s greatest rivers, over mountains, and all the way to California, Hawaii, and South America.

Thomas Nuttall (1786–1859)

 This extraordinary explorer kept journals of his adventures (unfortunately omitting his journey from Detroit to Green Bay), and published several books which detailed his scientific discoveries. At Detroit, he recorded the start of his journey to Mackinac, writing, “On July 29th, I left Detroit for Michilimakinak in a birch bark canoe accompanied by the surveyor of the territory.” The surveyor was Aaron Greeley, headed to measure private land claims at the straits, including those of John Campbell at Mill Creek, and Michael Dousman on Mackinac Island.

 Nuttall botanized at the Straits for several days before hitching a ride with a group of traders bound for John Jacob Astor’s ill-fated fur trading post, Astoria, located in modern-day Oregon. In his book Astoria, author Washington Irving described the enthusiastic 25-year-old botanist as he appeared in March 1811, while his group ascended the Missouri river. Depicted just seven months after leaving Mackinac Island, one can easily imagine Nuttall shared similar experiences with Aaron Greeley along the Lake Huron coastline.

 “Mr. Nuttall seems to have been exclusively devoted to his scientific pursuits. He was a zealous botanist, and all his enthusiasm was awakened at beholding a new world… Whenever the boats landed at meal times, or for any temporary purpose, he would spring on shore and set out on a hunt for new specimens. Every plant or flower of a rare or unknown species was eagerly seized as a prize. Delighted with the treasures spreading themselves out before him, he went groping and stumbling along among a wilderness of sweets, forgetful of every thing but his immediate pursuit, and had often to be sought after when the boats were about to resume their course.”

Listed as #13 in his lengthy list of “brambles,” Thomas Nuttall described the thimbleberry, growing “shrubby and unarmed… on the island of Michilimackinak, lake Huron.”

 Nuttall retreated to England to avoid the War of 1812, then returned to Philadelphia in 1815. After three years collecting more specimens and organizing his collections, he published, The Genera of North American Plants, and a Catalogue of the Species, to the Year 1817. This important two-volume work included 60 species of plants from the Great Lakes region, about a third of which were new to science. Those from the Straits of Mackinac included thimbleberry, dwarf lake iris, twinflower, beach pea, and birdseye primrose.

 In March 1823, Thomas Nuttall accepted a position as Curator of the Botanic Garden at Cambridge, Massachusetts. Over the course of his residence, he was encouraged to write about birds, which he had studied since his arrival in America. The result was A Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada. Published in two volumes, The Land Birds (1832) and The Water Birds (1834) were affordable and popular, featuring simple woodcut illustrations, which the author lamented were “not sufficiently numerous, in consequence of their cost.” In 1832, Ralph Waldo Emerson recommended the work to a friend, writing, “there is a beautiful book on American birds by Mr. Nuttall that every one who lives in the country ought to read.”

Woodcut from Nuttall’s Ornithology (1834). Nuttall saw Wood Ducks near Detroit before his trip to Mackinac Island in 1810.

 The intrepid botanist endured numerous collecting trips over the next decade, often at severe cost to his personal health and safety, as he crisscrossed North America and beyond. In 1841, he sailed back to England to live on an estate, “Nutgrove,” inherited from his uncle. There, he spent the last 17 years of his life before succumbing to illness on September 10, 1859, at the age of 73.

 The complete accomplishments of Thomas Nuttall greatly eclipse his brief visit to the Straits of Mackinac in 1810. More than 200 years later, perhaps the most lasting legacy of this humble, hard-working botanist is his self-described “fervid curiosity” and intense love of nature which continues to inspire curious wanderers in the 21st century.  

Fort Mackinac Then and Now

Mackinac State Historic Parks is fortunate to have an ever-expanding collection of original objects related to the sites we preserve and interpret. These objects help us share the many stories of Mackinac with our visitors. One of the more unique pieces in the collection is an original photo album and scrapbook assembled by Edward Pratt, a U.S. Army officer who served at Fort Mackinac and several other stations around the world at the end of the 19th century. Using these photos, Mackinac State Historic Parks’ Chief Curator and Historian Craig Wilson will compare and contrast these photos with the actual locations, providing a deeper look into the iconic fort’s history. Admission is by donation. #thisismackinac

The images from Pratt’s album have been compiled into a book, also by Wilson. More information can be found here: https://www.mackinacparks.com/books-publications/through-an-officers-eyes-the-photo-album-of-edward-b-pratt-u-s-army-1873-1902/

10 Picture Worthy Back Drops for your Mackinac Vacation

Finding a location to take that ultimate photo to show off your Mackinac vacation can be hard. There are so many places to choose from! To help you out we compiled a list of some of our favorite spots – five on Mackinac Island and five in Mackinaw City. These locations have gorgeous views that will make great backgrounds for family photos or will be sure to spice up your Instagram feed! As a disclaimer – we tried to find a few spots that are not as well known. You won’t see Arch Rock, Fort Holmes, British Landing or Sugar Loaf here, among other favorites.

Mackinac Island Locations:

Fort Mackinac

Although we literally just said we won’t include well-known ones, we have to include Fort Mackinac, right? The view is breathtaking every time. This is an easy one.

Robinson’s Folly

Robinson’s Folly is up the hill on the East Bluff of the island. It is a short distance from Arch Rock and it hosts similar amazing views without the hectic traffic of the carriages and tourists. It is tucked away down a path off Huron Road. It is a bit of a hike, but the peace and quiet, combined with the views, are worth the trek.

Leslie Avenue/Tranquil Bluff Trail

After visiting Arch Rock take a quiet stroll down Tranquil Bluff Trail or a calming bike ride on Leslie Ave. These two paths run alongside each other for a while so you can walk or bike and not miss a thing. There are a few clear spots where you can see down the cliff and over the blue water of Lake Huron. Tranquil Bluff Trail and Leslie Avenue eventually veer in different directions. Leslie Avenue will eventually connect with British Landing and State Roads, leading to areas like the Crack-in-the-Island, while Tranquil Bluff Trail mirrors and intersects with Scott’s Cave Road, leading us to our next picture spot.

Eagle Point Cave

By far the most underrated location on this list! Eagle Point Cave is for the traveler who is ready to go on an adventure! The bike ride out to Scott’s Cave Road is long if you are coming from downtown. And once you get there, there isn’t any signage or clear markings to help you find the cave. But that’s the fun of it! It is up to you to find this mysterious hidden cave of Mackinac Island. Once you do get there, you will be met with a spectacular rock formation and some amazing views of the North Woods. When you’re done at Eagle Point Cave follow the road down to British Landing to get those amazing views of the Mackinac Bridge.

Behind the Somewhere in Time gazebo

This is an area many people might not know about. Just off Huron Road is Anne’s Tablet Trail that leads to the Somewhere in Time Gazebo. Follow the trail to the overlook that hosts amazing views of Marquette Park, the harbor, Fort Mackinac, the downtown area and the Straits. This spot is gorgeous during the day but is especially perfect at sunset!

Mackinaw City Locations:

Michilimackinac State Park

Kick off your trip to the Straits with a visit to Michigan’s second state park, Michilimackinac State Park – or “the park under the bridge”. It offers views of the whole Straits area including St. Ignace, Mackinac Island, and other islands on the Straits. You can also walk in both Lake Michigan and Lake Huron in the same day!

Cannon Platform at Colonial Michilimackinac

The fort at Colonial Michilimackinac is in the perfect position to see out over the Straits. Walk along the perimeter and look through the watchtower windows to see a view of the bridge. There are also artillery demonstrations, gardens and much more to explore all with spectacular views.

Gardens at Colonial Michilimackinac

Take a walk around the fort at Colonial Michilimackinac to explore the gardens and see what’s growing. See what our interpreters are up to and ask them about the crops. Grab an Insta worthy photo in one of the gardens – there is always something in bloom that can be your background!

Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse Tower

Work your way up a flight of 51 stairs and an 11 rung ladder to see an amazing view of the Mackinaw Bridge and Straits of Mackinac. This is the place to get that perfect selfie with the bridge in the back and look over Michilimackinac State Park.

Platform at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park

As you are finishing up your trip to the Mackinac area, stop at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park to get one last glimpse of the Mackinaw Bridge and Straits area. We think it is one of the most underrated views, so make sure to check it out! While you’re there, check out the trails that offer their own amazing views!

No matter where your trip to Mackinac takes you, there are amazing things to see and experience, and perfect photo ops for everyone. From lake views to wooded hikes to the top of the lighthouse, we know you will enjoy your trip and go home with picture perfect memories.

Vintage Base Ball

A vintage game of “base ball” as it was meant to be played, barehanded and by gentlemen’s rules on the old Fort Mackinac ball field behind Fort Mackinac, the oldest continually used ball field in Michigan! Learn an old-fashioned cheer, watch players fined for smoking cigars on the field, and enjoy a good old-fashioned rivalry! We welcome back the Mackinaw City Boys for the 2022 match! Sponsored by Mary’s Bistro and Draught House.

Admission by donation. #thisismackinac

Underground Fort Mackinac

Fort Mackinac saw many changes over its 115-year history. All the buildings you see in the fort today were built by soldiers, but there were many other buildings that did not survive. Join Curator of Archaeology Lynn Evans for an evening walking tour to explore the archaeological side of Fort Mackinac history. This is a free event; donations welcome. Meet at the Fort Mackinac Avenue of Flags. #thisismackinac

The Musical Well of Mackinac Island

Cave of the Woods remains one of the lesser-known natural wonders of Mackinac Island.

 Mackinac Island attracts visitors from around the world to experience interesting history, inspiring natural beauty, and fantastic geological features. For centuries, visitors have stood in awe at famous sites such as Arch Rock, Sugar Loaf, Skull Cave and Devil’s Kitchen. Other features, such as Friendship’s Altar and Cave of the Woods, are reserved for explorers with a trail map and a little determination. Some attractions, including Fairy Arch, Scott’s Cave, and Wishing Spring were well-known to visitors a century ago, but no longer exist today. A few natural wonders never appeared in guidebooks, being mentioned briefly in historical records. One of the most intriguing is the Musical Well of Mackinac Island.

 The year 1845 began at the Straits of Mackinac with a mild winter. In early March, many eastern newspapers printed “a letter from a U.S. officer in the garrison at Mackinac.” Dated March 2nd, it announced “the straits are wholly free of ice, east of the island, so that vessels may anchor in the harbor.” Soon, captains of every brig, sloop, schooner, cutter, and steamboat on the Great Lakes made plans to set sail. Newspaper notices called for passengers and announced freight shipments of every description.

Advertisement for the new Mackinac Boarding House, printed in The Buffalo Courier, June 18, 1845

 Of particular note that spring were advertisements which featured a new “Mackinac Boarding House,” opened by Smith Herrick. In this period, Mackinac Island tourism was still in its infancy. While a small number of visitors found rooms to rent in earlier decades, formal hotels only emerged as the fur trade dwindled in the 1840s. The new establishment was located in the Mission House, a large building near the southeast corner of the island. Built in 1825 by the American Board of Foreign Missions, it operated for 12 years as a boarding school for Native American children before closing in 1837.

 During the spring of 1845, Mr. Herrick, along with his wife, Clara, transformed the structure in preparation for guests. Improvements included repairs and paint, carpeting throughout, and “new and excellent furniture – making a most extensive and comfortable house for travellers.” Guests who rented rooms during its first season offered rave reviews of their experiences. Among these testimonials was a letter written at Mission House on June 17th by a correspondent who identified himself as “J.I.M.” Printed in the Boston Statesman on July 5, 1845, he shared the following tale.

A 19th century view of the Mission House Hotel. The popular resort was owned and operated for many decades by Edward A. Franks and his family.

 “As I was speaking in the evening of my visits to the Sugar Loaf, and ‘Arch Rock,’ Mr Mack Gulpin, a French native, more than sixty years old, and a most excellent, kind hearted man – told me there was a curiosity on the Island not much known; that many years ago, in 1812 – he was gunning with a friend when they came to a hole in a rock. They threw down stones, which appeared to fall very far, and they made very sweet musical sounds as they went down. He had a string about 60 feet long, to which he attached his ramrod and let it down this Musical Well. He vibrated the rod so that it would strike the sides, and he said ‘such sweet and delightful sounds – such beautiful music as came up he never heard in his life.’ He and his companion, he said, staid there nearly all the afternoon enraptured by this music.”

 “Mack Gulpin” was surely a member of the McGulpin family. Today, visitors can tour the McGulpin House as part of Historic Downtown buildings on Mackinac Island. William McGulpin, the first known owner, bought the house in 1817 and it stands as one of the oldest remaining homes on the island. The McGulpin family also owned 2 acres of land immediately adjacent to Mission House for many years.

 After some encouragement, McGulpin agreed to guide “Jim” to search for the musical well. His account continued, “I furnished myself with twine and irons to draw music from the well. Mack Gulpin led on through the thick woods and along the winding paths, interesting me by the way with his stories of olden times… When he was tired, he would seat himself on the ground – strike fire with his flint and steel – light his pipe and take his rest…

This view of Fort Mackinac was drawn for Captain Scott in 1845 by Private William Brenschutz, a soldier stationed at the post

 When I was some ways from him, he called me to come; he had found the place. Time, leaves and dirt had choked up its original entrance, so as to divert the descent from a perpendicular, and we could not drop the iron and the line for the music. But the well is there, and is of great depth. I doubt not it descends 160 or 170 feet to the level of the water. Mack Gulpin was disappointed as well as myself at finding we could not get the music. He is sure the well can be restored to its original form and melody with a little labor. If it can be done, Captain Scott, the gallant, active and gentlemanly commander of the garrison, who beautifies, adorns and improves every thing which comes under his care will do it… After carving my name on a poplar tree near the mouth of the musical well, we turned our faces for home.”

 The Musical Well was never restored, and memory of its presence has faded away. Today, many island guests still enjoy natural music of Mackinac Island’s north woods. Listen closely, and you can hear songs of warblers in the treetops and aspen leaves fluttering in the breeze. If you stroll down Main Street, past the Mission House, you’ll find the rhythmic clomping of hooves fades to quieter sounds of waves splashing along the shore. Someday, perhaps the Musical Well will naturally reopen, enrapturing fortunate visitors, once again, with delightful sounds in the Mackinac Island forest.

A Star Spangled Fourth of July

The historic island fort is decked out in patriotic finery with banners, flags and bunting. It is an 1880’s Independence Day, with 38-gun salutes honoring the states of the period and children’s games. Guests join the party and participate in games on the fort parade ground.

Don’t miss out on this all 1880s Independence Day as we have catch and baseball available on the parade ground to go along with foot races and sack races, a reading of the Declaration of Independence, the raising of the colors, the national salute (38 rifle blasts for the 38 states of the 1880s!), a cannon salute, and much more!

Games will be available on the parade ground beginning at 1:30 p.m. Special programming will take place at 2:00 p.m.

The Tea Room Restaurant, operated by Grand Hotel, is open all day serving snacks, sweets, and beverages, and will have full lunch service from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

All special programming is included with regular admission to Fort Mackinac. #thisismackinac

Tour of the Turtle’s Back: Ancient Mackinac Island

Approaching Mackinac Island by boat offers excellent insight of ancient geological forces which shaped the landscape we enjoy today. As the last glaciers retreated about 11,000 years ago, a tremendous amount of meltwater filled ancient Lake Algonquin to a depth of about 220 feet higher than current Lake Huron. At that time, only the highest point of Mackinac Island stood above the water, being about ½ mile long and nearly ¼ mile wide. For many generations, Native Americans have referred to this high point as the Turtle’s Back, as its domed shape creates the perception of a giant turtle floating on the water.

Although exaggerated, this 1817 illustration by Francis Belton clearly illustrates the high point of ancient Mackinac Island.

 For about 3,000 years, the churning waves of Lake Algonquin eroded softer portions of limestone along the shores of this ancient island. As softer sections were removed, harder portions of recemented limestone, known as Mackinac breccia, were left behind, creating features which are still visible today. The two most prominent of these are among Mackinac’s oldest natural wonders – Skull Cave and Sugar Loaf.

 Both of these formations are examples of sea stacks which resisted the erosive power of Lake Algonquin waves. These pillars of breccia became separated from the ancient island as softer rock was gradually washed away. Both features also include caves, which were slowly excavated by the pounding surf, thousands of years ago.

This 1915 map, drawn by Morgan H. Wright, clearly outlines the features of the Turtle’s Back.

 Start your tour of the Turtle’s Back by heading north from Fort Mackinac, along Garrison Road and Rifle Range Trail. Upon your approach, high bluffs of the ancient island rise before you, with reconstructed Fort Holmes perched at the top. Skull Cave is located near the southwestern corner of the ancient island. At first, it may be difficult to imagine this formation as a sea stack, as it is smaller and more eroded than Sugar Loaf. The cave itself largely collapsed by 1850, and was subsequently filled in further. Like other formations across Mackinac Island, this cave was used as a sacred gathering place by nearby Anishinaabek residents, who interred their dead here for centuries. As a measure of respect, and to help preserve this ancient formation, access beyond the fence is not permitted.

 Published on August 19, 1842, an article in the Sandusky Clarion, of Sandusky, Ohio, included the following description of Skull Cave. “Not far from Fort Holmes is a small cave, called Skull Cave Rock, because the Indians were in the habit of interring the dead here. The passage in is necessarily on the hands and knees. The cave itself is about twelve feet square… The rock is light colored limestone, and is constantly crumbling away. The little stone that breaks off from the main rock have many holes in them, and are very easily reduced to a powder.”

This 1897 depiction of Sugar Loaf includes a ladder which once allowed park visitors to access its cave.

 As you leave the cave, continue along Garrison Road, towards the cemeteries. Here, the high bluff of the ancient island largely remains hidden by trees. Venture past the Protestant Cemetery and turn right on Fort Holmes Road, winding your way up a hill to the high promontory known as Point Lookout. From here, a grand vista opens below you, foremost being the 75-foot pyramid of Mackinac breccia known as Sugar Loaf.

 During her visit in 1852, Juliette Starr Dana climbed a ladder which once allowed tourists to enter a small cave in the side of Sugar Loaf, about 15 feet above the ground. Crouching down and examining its surface, she wrote, “It seemed water-worn & the whole rock within & without was full of strange little holes, with the insides nicely polished as by the action of water.” Today, safety concerns prohibit climbing the formation or entering the cave, but a tour around its base is well worth the journey.

 In 1945, geologist George M. Stanley noted that Sugar Loaf stands about 300 feet east of the ancient island, and the top of this formation was a small island of its own. He wrote, “It is a magnificent display of limestone breccia. One may see by close inspection, fragments of bedding limestone of various sizes from vary small fragments to blocks several feet long, tilted in random directions and all cemented into a solid mass.”

 Leaving Point Lookout, continue down the road to Fort Holmes, located at the southern exposure of ancient Mackinac Island. The renowned geologist Frank B. Taylor visited this spot in 1890 and 1891. During the period of Lake Algonquin high water, he noted that we “would stand alone in a wide expanse of water. The nearest mainland would then be about 30 miles to the south and the nearest islands about 20 miles to the north and southwest. In all other directions open water would stretch away 100 to 200 miles.”

 In more modern times, this grand view of the Straits of Mackinac has been celebrated time and again by visitors for the last several centuries. In 1836, theologian Chauncey Colton exclaimed, “I may venture to assert that there are few scenes in nature which are equal to the view from Fort Holmes… To the west, the eye follows the straits until it rests on the bluffs at the northern extremity of Lake Michigan, or is lost in its transparent waters; while all around stretches the vast expanse, with here and there an island, looking pure and peaceful as if the impress of sin had never been laid upon it.”