Where’s the Rum? Liquor and Soldiers at Michilimackinac

  A common question we hear at Michilimackinac concerns liquor being dispensed to soldiers. Pirate movies and other popular culture seem to suggest that every soldier in the 18th century received a regular issue of rum. The truth is a bit more complicated- liquor was issued and available to British soldiers at Michilimackinac, but only in specific circumstances.

  In many places where British troops were stationed, liquor was at least supposed to be issued to soldiers on a regular basis. When the Mutiny Act, which governed a variety of army administrative functions, was extended to cover the American colonies in 1765, it required every soldier to receive a daily allotment of beer, cider, or rum. These articles were to be provided by the government of whichever colony was quartering the soldiers. However, due to highly technical legal differences enshrined in British law, only soldiers quartered in private inns were allowed beer or rum. In British Canada, including Michilimackinac, soldiers were usually quartered in purpose-built barracks owned by the Crown, and as such were not entitled to a liquor ration. Rum and other liquors were never listed with provisions supplied to Michilimackinac and other Great Lakes posts, and soldiers could not expect a daily drink as part of their regular rations.

  Even though rum was not regularly issued, soldiers had access to liquor and other drinks through a variety of official and informal channels. Soldiers performing heavy labor, such as construction work or serving as boatmen, might be issued a special ration of rum in return for their extra exertions. In 1780, while his soldiers were heavily engaging in constructing a new fort on Mackinac Island, Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair complained that the work was being held up “for want of working Cattle, Tools, the materials and Rum.” Soldiers could also be offered rum as a form of compensation. Earlier in the summer of 1780, a portion of the Michilimackinac garrison complained that they had not received their pay since August 1779. In lieu of money, Lt. George Clowes offered tobacco or rum, which the soldiers rejected. Of course, soldiers were also usually able to simply purchase liquor and other drinks on their own, using personal funds saved up from their wages. Rum and brandy arrived at Michilimackinac in huge quantities (2,155 kegs in 1778 alone) and were popular and important trade items, so they were readily available for purchase from the many civilian merchants operating at the post.

  Although soldiers may not have received official rum rations, Great Lakes sailors were another matter. Civilian sailors, such as those employed by John Askin in 1778, enjoyed a gill (one fourth of a pint, or four ounces) of rum a day, although Askin dictated that Pompey, an enslaved sailor, only receive half a gill. Sailors in government service also apparently received a regular rum ration. In 1783 a rum shortage caused considerable unrest among the British sailors working on the Great Lakes. At Detroit, Lieutenant Colonel Arent DePeyster complained that “we have not one drop of Rum in store here, the Naval Department begin to cry out.” General Allan MacLean, writing from Niagara, warned that “the seamen must have it [rum] for it’s part of their wages, and they will desert or mutiny if they do not get it.” To stave off desertions, MacLean ordered a small quantity of rum distributed from Niagara’s stores, but wrote to his superiors that it was almost impossible to replenish the garrison’s stocks of liquor. He declared that “I have more Plague with Rum than all the Business I have to do” and believed that “it’s a Pity that such a cursed Liquor ever had been found out.”

  While rum isn’t issued to our historical interpreters today, it was clearly an important item at Michilimackinac historically (especially for sailors). If you would like to learn more about trade on the Great Lakes, the British military at Michilimackinac, or the role of liquor in the fur trade, come visit us at Colonial Michilimackinac. Check out our website for tickets and more information.

 

Summer Birds of Mill Creek

Blackburnian Warbler, Alexander Wilson (1808)

  As spring turns to summer, the woods of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park are alive with birdsong. By mid-June, year-round residents of the park, such as black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, and tufted titmice, have been singing since winter snow gave way to spring wildflowers. Summer residents, many which migrated north for thousands of miles, arrive “finely tuned” and ready to put on a show as they attract mates and defend nesting territories.

  The official wildlife checklist of Mill Creek includes about 130 species of birds, while the list for Mackinac Island contains 190 varieties. Both parks consist of varied habitats, including Lake Huron shoreline, creeks and streams, swamps, open meadows, and forests of conifers and hardwoods.

Robert Ridgeway (1875)

  Finding birds at Mill Creek begins as soon as you step out of your car. Although the tree canopy is filled with green, listen closely for musical notes floating in the breeze. In the pines growing near the visitor’s center, you may hear a “shrill, thin song, which runs up the scale to end in a high z.” If so, pause and search for a blackburnian warbler hunting for insects among the branches. Catching a glimpse of a male’s flame-orange throat may just take your breath away! As they prefer evergreens for nesting, this species was once known as the “hemlock warbler.”

Ernest Thompson Seton (1901)

  Stop for a trail map as you make your way into the park. Next, follow the sound of rushing water and you’ll soon discover Mill Creek. Sitting near the mill pond, patient watchers may enjoy a visit from a belted kingfisher as it scans for brook trout. Kingfishers are memorable birds, with a dry, rattling call that announces their presence long before they fly into view. Occasionally, they even perch on the zip line, as if teasing participants while they glide over the creek. Unlike most birds, female kingfishers are more colorful than males, as they wear a chestnut-brown “necklace” while their mate sports a simple bluish band across their chest.

Thomas G. Gentry (1882)

  As you head into the woods, it’s nearly impossible to avoid an encounter with an American redstart. In 1893, Mackinac Island resident and researcher, Stewart E. White, wrote this was “the most characteristic bird of the island. It occurs in such amazing abundance that it seems as if every tree contained one of these birds.” Thankfully, such words still ring true today as this flashy black, orange and white warbler is still one of our most common summer residents. Plumage of females and immature males consists of light brown tones with yellow highlights.

  Relentlessly persistent, a restart’s repetitive, mellow song begins as soon as they arrive in May and lasts through August. This woodland songster sings for weeks on end, seemingly, as one early 20th century author noted, “to the accompaniment of his own echo.”

  As you continue down the trail, the species of birds you may encounter numbers in the dozens. Almost assuredly, you’ll hear the insistent, rambling song of the red-eyed vireo, the plaintive “peee-weee” call of the eastern wood peewee, and the rapid staccato of “teacher-teacher-TEACHER” from the tiny ovenbird, ringing through the forest. Venture out in the morning or evening for a chance to hear the ethereal, flute-like call of a wood thrush, perhaps the most magical song of the North Woods.

Mark Catesby (1754)

  If you don’t encounter one of our six resident woodpecker species, you’re almost certain to find evidence of their handiwork, hammering trees for insects beneath the bark. Especially watch for huge, rectangular cavities excavated by the crow-sized pileated woodpecker and small, regular rows of “sap wells” chiseled by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Sapsuckers maintain wells to drink sap that drips out, but more importantly to capture insects that become trapped in sweet liquid that seeps from the tree. Sap wells in dead wood are evidence of a previous season’s efforts.

  No matter where you wander, watch and listen for birds all around you, each of which varies in color, shape, song, size, habits and habitats. Ancestors of many special species found homes in the forest of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park long before people arrived on the scene. While some are suited to the creek or frequent the shore of a beaver pond, others prefer poking through leaf-litter on the forest floor. Some nearly never leave the tree canopy high above, while others may zip past you on their way to pick a sunflower seed from a bird feeder.

  During your visit, be sure to sit and scan the summer sky. Every day, someone spots a bald eagle floating effortlessly on the wind, high above the forest canopy. As you watch an eagle soar, consider it may also be watching you, with eyesight sharper than its talons. As it finally leaves your view, let your imagination follow into the unknown. At Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, the feathered residents of Mackinac’s North Woods are waiting. Here you’ll discover ducks on the mill pond, friendly chickadees at the feeder, tiny hummingbirds sipping nectar, and the majestic symbol of our nation soaring over the Great Lakes. We all hope to see you soon.

Shifting Sands

Remains of the lighthouse dock in April 2021.

The high water levels of the Great Lakes in recent years have caused significant erosion along the shoreline, exposing many long-buried landscape features. This year, water levels have fallen slightly, revealing previously-buried or submerged pieces of the past. The dock remains currently visible in front of the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse are but one example of how the power of the Great Lakes can alternately hide and reveal reminders of our maritime history.

The dock may have been the first element of the light station to be built, as it would have been necessary to receive materials for the construction of the original fog signal building in 1890. According to the 1894 Annual Report, “the landing crib was carried away by ice.” A replacement was completed the following year. It is depicted on a 1907 map as extending 198 feet out into the straits.

Keeper George Marshall greets a lighthouse inspector on the station dock. 

The dock was gone by 1921, when the District Superintendent explained in letter to the Commissioner of Lighthouses that it was not necessary to construct a new dock because “supplies and fuel can be unloaded at a city dock and transported to the Station.”

The remains of the dock you see today are over one hundred years old and fragile. Please do not disturb them. Archaeological remains such as the dock, whether located on land within Michilimackinac State Park or submerged in the waters of the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve, are protected by state law.

More information about the Old Mackinac Point Light Station can be found in Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse: A History and Pictorial Souvenir by MSHP Director Steve Brisson, available at MSHP museum stores. Visit our website to order a copy, or for more information about visiting Old Mackinac Point.

 

John Askin’s Garden: Potatoes

Potato Flower

Although most food was purchased and shipped to Michilimackinac, local gardens provided an important source of fresh produce for the community’s 18th century residents. We currently maintain over 5,000 square feet of gardens at Colonial Michilimackinac, guided by a variety of historic sources. One of the most interesting 18th century documents at our disposal is the journal of the Michilimackinac merchant John Askin, who recorded his garden activities in 1774 and 1775. In this semi-regular series, we’ll examine some of the plants Askin (or more likely the free and enslaved employees working for him) was cultivating at Michilimackinac in the 1770s.

Askin really liked growing potatoes. They are the most-mentioned vegetable in his journal. If he wrote about his farm or garden, it was highly likely that he was writing about potatoes.

They are first mentioned on April 27, 1774 when he “Sett potatoes at the farm” and once more the next day “sett potatoes at the farm.”  The next month he planted more potatoes on four different occasions. It appears they grew well over the summer, and he was able to dig most of them on the 8th of November just a couple of days after a 4-inch snowfall. We finally see the last mention of in 1774 on November 14 when he “dug the last of my potatoes.”

With one season of cultivation under his belt, Askin decided that he could perhaps get a better potato crop if he changed the ways in which he was planting them. In 1775 he decided to try some experiments. Experimenting in the garden or on the farm is something that growers love, no matter the time period. In the 18th century there was a huge interest in how things grew and the various ways of improving crops. Gardeners around the world were developing new methods for growing plants and it is no surprise that it was happening at Michilimackinac as well.

On August 29, 1775, Askin wrote that the potatoes were put into the ground “with a little dung in the holes.” This is different from his previous entries where he does not mention planting with any sort of manure at all. Gardeners like Philip Miller wrote pages and pages about the worth of various sorts of animal and vegetable manure in the 18th century. Even George Washington experimented with various types of muck to see which would grow the best beans, etc. While Askin does not tell us the sort that he used, he did have a small number of cows and horses. Both animals produce excellent dung with superb growing qualities.

Digging up potatoes at Colonial Michilimackinac.

He also “Set three hills of potatoes near the pease” on October 28. In each of these hills he employed a different method of planting. In the first hill he put “one potatoe cut in 3,” and in the second and third hills he put “3 whole potatoes” about “4 inches deep.” Modern gardeners still debate over the necessity and results of planting potatoes whole versus cutting them into pieces. It seems like cutting the potatoes can potentially leave the pieces more vulnerable to disease. However, if you have a small amount available to plant you will get more by dividing the tubers that you do have. Unfortunately, John himself did not tell us which side of the debate he stood on after his experiments.

No matter how you plant them, potatoes are a welcome addition to any garden. They are an easy and reliable vegetable to grow whether it is 1774, 1775 or 2020. The next time you come to Colonial Michilimackinac see if you can spot the potatoes growing in our gardens in the same way they were being grown nearly 250 years ago. Check back for future entries about other parts of John Askin’s garden, and consider contributing to Mackinac Associates, which makes our gardens and many other activities possible.

It’s for Decoration

Recently, an artifact in the Colonial Michilimackinac collection was re-examined as part of our ongoing mission to present the history of our site. That object is a fragment of silver-colored metallic bobbin lace that shares with us a glimpse into the luster and shine of 18th century life in the Great Lakes. (more…)

Greatcoats: Another Cold Winter Garment

With winter descending on the Straits of Mackinac, it can be difficult to image what life was like here in centuries past. When guests visit Colonial Michilimackinac during the summer months, they see historical interpreters dressed for pleasant weather in the 1770s, but people often wonder: what did they do they when it got cold? (more…)

The Winter Table at Michilimackinac

Michilimackinac in the 18th century was an important transshipment point for the fur trade. With the abundance of material goods and huge shipments of supplies coming through the Straits of Mackinac on the waterways all summer long, there were many opportunities to source fresh and tasty foods. Some items were sourced from the farms at and around Detroit, while others came through the Great Lakes from Albany, New York and beyond.  Once the lakes and rivers froze, however those shipments stopped and the eating habits of the Michilimackinac population had to change. (more…)

Privy Addition at Old Mackinac Point

Restoring a historic site to its original appearance is usually an ongoing activity. At the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, restoration has been underway since 2004 to return the station buildings and grounds to the way they looked just over a century ago. This summer, another small historic addition appeared at the lighthouse that you may not have noticed. Attached to the back of the station barn, you can now see a reconstructed privy cleanout, which allowed the keepers to maintain the privy located in the barn between 1892 and 1928. (more…)

On this day: Capture of Fort Mackinac, July 17, 1812

Just over 200 years ago, Lieutenant Porter Hanks of the U.S. Regiment of Artillery awoke to a particularly unpleasant surprise. As July 17, 1812 dawned, Hanks learned that not only was the United States at war with Great Britain, but, more concerning, that a force of 600 British soldiers, Native American warriors, and Canadian militiamen stood poised to attack Fort Mackinac. (more…)

Ice Fishing at Michilimackinac

Ice Fishing at Michilimackinac

Archaeologists excavated this nearly-completed whitefish skeleton from a trash pit in the southwest corner of the fort. It is now on display in the Treasures from the Sand exhibit.

Right now, it’s cold at the Straits of Mackinac. The straits are almost completely iced over, apart from slim shipping tracks kept open by Coast Guard icebreakers. While today those of us who live here can drive our cars to the store for food regardless of the ice conditions in the straits, the 18th century residents of Michilimackinac were much more limited in their choices of food. For the most part, during the winter they relied upon foods that had been shipped in and stockpiled before snow and ice closed trade routes on the lakes and rivers of the Great Lakes watershed. Fortunately, there remained a ready supply of fresh food just under the ice covering the Straits of Mackinac: fish. (more…)