Re-opening the Archaeological Site at Michilimackinac

The House E site with all of the squares open.

Map of British features of House D showing House E cellar (F.866) to west of common wall separating Houses D & E.

Late May saw the beginning of the 64th archaeological field season at Michilimackinac. We are continuing to excavate the rowhouse unit we have been working on since 2007. We have opened three new squares where we expect to find remains of the trench for the north wall of the house. This should be as wide as the excavation for this project expands.

 The house walls do not fall exactly in line with the grid. Because of this, when we excavated the rowhouse unit to the east (House D) in the 1990s, we excavated about a foot of the current house (House E) as well. In doing so, we uncovered the edge of the root cellar in the southeast corner of House E. We reached the bottom of the western two-thirds of this cellar at the end of last season. Now we have uncovered the eastern third, which we had protected and re-buried when we backfilled House D in 1997. Our first exciting find of the season came from the east section of the cellar, most of a redware bowl with a green-glazed border. We had found a matching rim sherd in the western edge of the cellar in 2018. 

The dark crescent-shaped area is the cellar. The rocky sand is the beach underlying the fort.

Bowl with rim fragment from 2018 held in place.

Early Lumbering at the Straits of Mackinac

Robert Campbell constructed a water-powered sawmill at Mill Creek about 1790, being the first of its kind in northern Michigan. Prior to the mill, trees were turned into lumber entirely with hand tools for more than 100 years at the Straits of Mackinac.

An artists depiction of a woodchopper from 1804

Felling a tree with an axe
Traite de l’art du Charpentier (1804)

 British troops constructed Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island from 1779-1781. Some buildings were dismantled at Fort Michilimackinac on the mainland and transported to the island for reconstruction. Without a sawmill nearby, new construction relied on chopping down trees, sawing them into logs, squaring them with axes, and hauling them to a sawpit where boards were produced. A glimpse of this work can be found in the Log Book of His Majesty’s Armed Sloop – Welcome, kept by Captain Alexander Harrow.

 Beginning in 1779, the Welcome sailed between the lower peninsula mainland and Mackinac Island, hauling buildings, supplies, and timber. On November 19, 1780, Captain Harrow wrote, “This morning blowing hard. Discharged our timber and hauled it up along side of the sawpit. This day snowing very hard… All this day snowing very hard.”

 The Welcome remained tied to a wharf on Mackinac Island throughout the winter of 1780-1781. The crew lived on board and worked each day hauling firewood, sawing planks, repairing the ship, and constructing a blockhouse at the fort.

Hewing a log

Hewing a log (1804)

 Turning a tree into lumber by hand is demonstrated each summer at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park. After a log is fixed in place, one rounded side is hewed with a felling axe, then flattened with a broad axe. After these actions are repeated on each side, a round log is transformed into square timber. If desired, timbers could be flattened further with an adze to produce a finer surface.

Flatteninga beam of wood with a broad axe

Flattening with a broad axe (1804)

 To fashion planks and boards, a squared timber is either placed over an open sawpit dug into the ground or hoisted overhead on large sawhorses. To cut boards, a pit sawyer climbs into the hole to pull down on a large saw, while a top sawyer balances above, pulling up on the blade and guiding a straight cut. Despite the unforgiving rocky terrain, several saw pits were dug on Mackinac Island during the construction of Fort Mackinac.

A sawyer using a pit saw

Sawyers using a pitsaw
English Book of Trades (1824)

 Captain Harrow noted his men were at work sawing boards on Mackinac Island more than 50 days from November 1780 – April 1781. He specifically mentioned saw pits many times, including,

… put a log on the pit to saw” (Nov. 29)

“…hauling logs to the saw pit” (Dec. 27)

“…hauling plank from the saw pit to the blockhouse” (Dec. 29)

“…making a saw pit in the woods and getting an oak log on it” (Jan. 16)

“…digging and making a new saw pit” (Feb. 20)

 Warm spring weather finally released the icebound sloop and the Welcome set sail on April 24, 1781. One of the crew’s tasks was making trips to “The Pinery,” a camp located about 15 miles north of Saint Ignace, near the mouth of the Pine River. There, a team of men cut logs then rafted them together on Lake Huron. These rafts were towed behind the Welcome to Mackinac Island, where they were broken up, individual logs hauled to sawpits, and sawn into boards.

The reconstructed sawmill at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park in winter

Water-powered sawmill reconstruction at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park

 A decade after Fort Mackinac was constructed, sawing boards by hand could not keep pace with local demand for lumber. About 1790, Robert Campbell was granted a 640-acre land claim at Mill Creek, the only stream at the Straits powerful enough to operate a water-powered sawmill. Later owned by Michael Dousman, the sawmill at Mill Creek operated for nearly 50 years before closing in 1839.

 When the sawmill at Mill Creek was abandoned, large trees throughout the Straits region had been harvested for nearly 150 years. As young trees grew in their place, they too were eventually cut in subsequent periods of logging. In 1860, William Johnston wrote, “the trees now seen [on Mackinac Island] are the second and third growth.” In a History of Northern Michigan and its People (1912), author Perry Powers detailed extreme clearcutting from the 1860s–1900s in an aptly named section, “Melting of the Pine Forests.” After pine was cut, hardwood harvest followed, with old growth maples and oaks falling under axe and saw. Commercial logging operations took place at Mill Creek through 1923, with the Cadillac Veneer Co. running a portable sawmill to process hardwood logs, pulpwood, cedar, and stove wood.

Stumps at Mill Creek that serve as a reminder of logging done at the site.

Reminders of early logging remain in the forest at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park

 Careful observers can still find centuries’ old stumps scattered through many Michigan forests. While methods and management techniques have changed, lumbering remains an important industry in the state, which is about 54% forested today. After a century of responsible management, replanting, and growth, the Great Lakes State now boasts more than 20 million forested acres which provide homes for wildlife, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and renewable natural resources.

 This May 6 – September 4, you’re invited to explore early Michigan lumbering at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park. Experience the thrill of a water-powered sawmill, make sawdust fly with a pitsaw, and explore a vibrant Michigan forest along three miles of woodland trails. Before you leave, you’re invited to try the Adventure Tour to enter the forest canopy, fly like an eagle, and scale the Treetop Discovery Tower Climbing Wall. For information, visit www.mackinacparks.com.

South Southwest Rowhouse Construction Continues

After starting in October of last year, the construction on the South Southwest Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City is making great progress.

Two new exhibits and all new restrooms are planned for the structure, the largest in the history of reconstruction at Colonial Michilimackinac and the first in 23 years.

With the completed construction of the roof, dormers have been added facing what will be the gardens.

The ruins of an original hearth will be featured in a new exhibit about the French presence at Colonial Michilimackinac and the architectural style of the period.

The walls and preliminary plumbing for the restrooms are in position.

Master Map Gets an Update

The archaeological excavation of Fort Michilimackinac has been ongoing for more than five decades and detailed notes and records of each season, each site, and each square are important to our understanding and ongoing research. That accumulated data is presented in one, large document, the master map, which shows all of the major features excavated within the palisade wall from1959 until 2007, when the most recent project was completed.

Much like the time spent in the field excavating artifacts, maintaining those documents can be a time consuming, but fascinating endeavor.

Georgia Wulff updates the Colonial Michilimackinac master map with information from recently completed archaeological excavations at the site.

“The master map shows how all of the features, most of which are structural features such as parts of buildings, relate to each other, tying all of our projects together,” said Dr. Lynn Evans, curator of archaeology for Mackinac State Historic Parks. “This is important because we are interested in understanding the community, not individual structures isolated in space.”

Georgia Wulff, an artist from Minocqua, Wisc., met Dr. Evans on a study tour and offered to help update the map. But, this wasn’t Wulff’s first trip to northern Michigan, far from it.

“My family took a number of trips to the Upper Peninsula when I was younger,” said Wulff, noting that her grandfather served as lighthouse keeper in Manistique and her great-grand father served as lighthouse keeper in Traverse City. “I even remember coming across on a ferry before the bridge was built.”

“The master map is also important for planning because it shows where we have and where we have not excavated.  We don’t want to install fences or underground utilities in undisturbed deposit,” said Dr. Evans.

She added that, ideally the map would be updated at the end of each major project, when the important features are better understood. Things such as rodent runs and modern disturbances aren’t generally  included on the master map for the sake of clarity.

King’s 8th Still Present at Michilimackinac

In 1774, between 65 and 70 enlisted men and three to four officers of the 8th, or King’s, Regiment of Foot arrived at Fort Michilimackinac. This detachment comprised two companies of the 8th Regiment: the elite grenadier company as well as the “General’s” company.

Under the command of Captain Arent S. DePeyster, these men protected the combined military garrison and civilian fur trading community at Michilimackinac. Most of the men spent their time on fatigue duty, maintaining the fort’s walls and other government buildings, chopping firewood, hauling supplies, and performing other tedious but necessary chores. All soldiers regularly took part in drills and stood guard. Lieutenant-Governor Patrick Sinclair took command of the garrison and community of Michilimackinac in October 1779.

Interpreters dressed as members of the King’s 8th at Colonial Michilimackinac discuss the duties of the day.

Under Sinclair’s direction, the men of the 8th dismantled the post of Michilimackinac for the move to Mackinac Island. There, with assistance from soldiers from the 84th Regiment of Foot, they began to construct Fort Mackinac. Unhappy with their treatment at Sinclair’s hands as well as their own officers, the men of the 8th publically complained to DePeyster, their beloved former commander. To prevent more trouble, the grenadier company was transferred from Michilimackinac in September 1780, while the “General’s” company was relieved in August 1781. The 8th remained in North America until 1785, having served there since 1768.

Excavated from Colonial Michilimackinac this past summer, the 8 is still visible after more than 200 years on this button.

Bits and pieces of the 8th still remain from the 1700s, including the unique buttons on the regiment’s dress uniform.

This coming weekend, September 22 and 23 2012, the King’s 8th will be back at Fort Michilimackinac demonstrating drill and the other duties of the soldiers. For more information on the encampment, click here or go to Kings8th.com