Archaeology at Fort Mackinac – Provision Storehouse

The “Store House” is the structure labeled “I” on the west end of the fort on this drawing from 1796. Credit: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

One of the largest archaeological excavations to take place at Fort Mackinac was at the site of the original provision storehouse. This excavation was carried out during the summers of 1981-82 by University of South Florida field schools directed by Dr. Roger T. Grange Jr. These were part of the commemoration of the bicentennial of Fort Mackinac. Dr. Grange’s final report was published as Number 12 in the Mackinac State Historic Parks’ Archaeological Completion Report Series (Excavations at Fort Mackinac, 1980-1982: The Provision Storehouse – Mackinac State Historic Parks | Mackinac State Historic Parks (mackinacparks.com) and was the basis of this blog post.

 The provision storehouse is an unusual structure because is has been excavated twice, in two different locations. It was originally built by British soldiers just inside the water gate at Michilimackinac (on the south side of the straits) in 1773. Being a relatively new building, it was moved to Mackinac Island when the garrison was relocated in 1781 and appears on early maps of Fort Mackinac.

 The mainland site was excavated in 1959 and the storehouse reconstructed in 1961. Today it houses the orientation film at Colonial Michilimackinac.

Scissors from the early American occupation.

Leather shoe parts from post War of 1812 deposit.

 On the island, the structure served as a storehouse through the first British occupation (1780-1796), the first American occupation (1796-1812) and the second British occupation (1812-1815). After the War of 1812, it was converted into a barracks, with workspace for military tailors and shoemakers, and a hospital. Its use as a hospital (1815-1827) overlapped with the service of Fort Mackinac’s most famous post surgeon, Dr. William Beaumont. A portion of the storehouse appears as a log structure next to the 1827 hospital painted by Mary Nexsen Thompson shortly before it burned down days before completion.

Microscope lens, possibly used by Dr. Beaumont.

Mary Nexsen Thompson painting of 1827 hospital with portion of storehouse. Credit: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

 A completely new hospital building was constructed in 1828, over the middle of the storehouse/1827 hospital, but oriented north-south instead of northeast-southwest like the original. A portion of the west end of the provision storehouse behind the 1828 hospital was the area of the archaeological excavation. No remnants of the provision storehouse are visible today, but you can stand on the original location while touring Fort Mackinac (opens May 4, 2023). You can also visit the reconstruction of the original provision storehouse at Colonial Michilimackinac (opens May 10, 2023) and learn more about Dr. Beaumont’s work at the American Fur Co. Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum in downtown Mackinac Island (opens June 3, 2023).

 

The Sea Serpent at Mackinac

HMS Daedalus crew sees a serpent
Illustrated London News (Oct. 28, 1848)

 On August 6, 1848, the captain and crew of the British frigate, HMS Daedalus had a freak encounter with a “sea-serpent of extraordinary dimensions” off the west coast of Africa. When an official report reached England that October, a virtual firestorm of wild speculation, other sightings, and denouements circulated in the press for months. The Illustrated London News printed several fabulous illustrations of the beast, capturing details described by Captain Peter M’Quhae and his men. Watching the creature for twenty minutes, they estimated at least 60 feet of the creature was visible, with another 30 or 40 feet below the surface. The animal had the head of a snake, with “something like the mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of seaweed washed about its back.” Its cylindrical body measured about 16 inches in diameter, being dark brown, with yellowish-white about the throat. It had no fins, and traveled by undulating at a speed of 15 miles per hour. The British paper included examples of many additional sightings, including some of the Great American Sea-Serpent, Scoliophis Atlanticus.

Head of the serpent (left) and view of the Great American species. Illustrated London News (Oct. 28, 1848)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

American Monsters

Advertisement for the Missouri Leviathan (ca.1845)

 In the United States, news of the Daedalus’ encounter spread like wildfire. While many derided the claim as fantastical, others, including Dr. Albert C. Koch, reveled in the discovery. A German-born naturalist, showman and entrepreneur, Koch first came to the U.S. in 1827, settling in St. Louis. With a flamboyant style akin to P.T. Barnum, the good doctor opened the Saint Louis Museum in 1836. Displaying both cultural and natural history specimens, exhibits included much of William Clark’s collection (of Lewis & Clark fame), acquired after his death in 1838.

 Koch’s star began to shine in 1840, when he claimed to have found the complete fossilized skeleton of the “Missouri Leviathan,” a previously unknown elephantine behemoth which dwarfed the extinct American mastodon. To increase his audience (and profits), Koch closed his museum and carted the Leviathan across the Atlantic for a European tour. The massive skeleton was particularly popular in England, where it was displayed at Egyptian Hall, in Piccadilly, London. Ultimately, Koch sold the skeleton to a British scientist before returning to America in May 1844. Only later was it discovered the Leviathan was a fabrication, composed of several mastodon skeletons, including added vertebrae and other bones to exaggerate its size.

Hydrarchos exhibition advertisement,
New York City (1845)

 Back in the states, Dr. Koch searched for new fossilized wonders for display. In March 1845, he announced the discovery of a new monster, excavated from the rocky prairies of southern Alabama. On May 30, 1845, the Vicksburg Tri-Weekly Sentinel reported, “It is of the amphibious species, supposed to have been fiercely carnivorous, and is some thing of the alligator form except that it had fins instead of feet.” Measuring 114 feet long, Hydrarchos Harlani was displayed in New York and Boston, drawing fierce supporters and critics alike. The giant “Sea Snake” was a sensation. In 1846, Koch started another European tour, eventually selling his “specimen” to the Royal Museum in Berlin. It eventually proved to be an elaborate hoax, composed of parts from several fossilized Basilosaurus skeletons, a type of extinct whale.

The Sea Serpent at Mackinac

 In June 1847, in the very midst of sea serpent mania, Horace Greeley and Lewis G. Clark boarded a steamboat at Detroit, bound for Mackinac Island. While the ship provided comfort, their Lake Huron journey was shrouded in fog and mist the entire length of the lake. Greeley, the noted editor and publisher of the New-York Tribune, was on a tour of the Great Lakes, to conclude at a Rivers and Harbors Convention in Chicago. ­­During the pair’s brief stop at Mackinac, Greeley noted it was “among the coldest spots within the limits of our Union.”

 Greeley’s companion, Lewis G. Clark, served as editor of his own publication, The Knickerbocker: or, New-York Monthly Magazine. When news of the Daedalus sighting hit the U.S. (more than a year after their Mackinac visit), Clark shared a unique perspective based on personal experience.

Horace Greeley (left) and Lewis G. Clark spotted a “sea serpent” while guests at the Mission House in July 1847.

 “Toward the twilight of a still day, near the end of July, 1847, Horace Greeley .. and ‘Old Knick’ hereof, were seated on the broad piazza of the dark-yellow ‘Mission-House’ at Michilimackinac, looking out upon the deep, deep blue waters of the Huron, when an object, apparently near the shore, suddenly attracted our attention. We both examined it through a good glass, and came to the mutual conclusion that it was an enormous sea-serpent, elevating its head, undulating its humps, and ‘floating many a rood’ upon the translucent Strait. Such was the opinion of the proprietor of the ‘Mission House,’ who in a ten years’ residence at Mackinac had never seen the like before.”

 Clark delightfully describes Horace Greeley’s “tremendous kangaroo bounds” as the pair dashed for a closer look, himself getting slightly stuck in marsh mud near the shore. Reaching the beach, he continued:

 “When we had arrived, lo! The object which had so excited our curiosity was nothing more than the dark side of a long undulating, unbroken wave, brought into clear relief by the level western light which the sun had left in his track as he dropped away over Lake Michigan. We felt rather ‘cheap’ as we came back together, and ‘allowed’ that if they’d seen at Nahant what we had at Mackinac, they’d have sworn that it was the sea-serpent. Catch us doing any thing o’ that kind!’”

 Was Mackinac’s sea serpent nothing more than illusion, or did a mysterious creature deftly vanish beneath a convenient wave? As Lewis Clark noted, “We have been led to believe, from our own experience, that one may very easily deceived by these water reptiles.” During your next visit to Mackinac Island, keep an eye on the watery horizon. You might be surprised at what you find!

Fix Bayonets!

 Throughout Fort Mackinac’s military history, British and American soldiers were issued bayonets to complement their shoulder arms. Bayonets allowed a firearm to double as a stabbing weapon and a pike. Additionally, soldiers advancing with fixed bayonets could be a powerful psychological weapon, frightening the enemy into fleeing before contact. By the 1880s, however, bayonets had lost much of their tactical usefulness. Nonetheless, American soldiers stationed at Fort Mackinac and elsewhere continued carrying these secondary weapons, and the bayonets of the late 19th century reflect an interesting time of transition for the U.S. Army.

 When the army adopted the new Springfield .45-70 rifle in 1873, a new bayonet came with it. Featuring an 18-inch long triangular blade, the Model 1873 bayonet utilized a rotating clasp to lock onto the front sight at the muzzle end of the gun barrel. From 1873 to 1878, bayonets were specifically produced for use with the new rifles. However, officials in the War Department, always eager for ways to reduce costs, realized that the government still had large stocks of surplus Model 1855 bayonets. These older weapons, produced in huge quantities to supply federal troops during the Civil War, were designed to fit .58 caliber rifled muskets. Fortuitously, officers at the Springfield Armory devised a method of cold-swaging the larger sockets of the 1855 bayonets down to fit the .45 caliber barrels of the 1873 rifles. The older bayonets could thus be utilized at little cost to the government, and no new bayonets were produced after 1878. So large was the stock of 1855 bayonets that it took a decade for the armory to finally run out of them.

 When the old bayonets were finally expended in 1888/89, the army officially adopted a ramrod bayonet. A sharpened metal rod carried within the stock just under the barrel (the traditional location for a ramrod on all earlier muzzleloading weapons), the ramrod bayonet could be extended beyond the muzzle and locked in place. This eliminated the need for soldiers to carry a separate bayonet and scabbard, since the bayonet was already integral to the rifle. The army experimented with ramrod bayonets for most of the 1880s, continually tinkering with the design and issuing small numbers of the weapon to soldiers for field testing. In 1886, Co. K of the 23rd Infantry, stationed at Fort Mackinac, received rifles with ramrod bayonets for evaluation.

 As bayonet designs evolved, so too did the scabbards to carry them. Although the ramrod bayonet eliminated the need for a separate scabbard, those weapons were not in general service until the middle of 1890. As a result, most soldiers carried their bayonets in metal scabbards hung from their belts through the 1880s. Initially, scabbards for the 1873 bayonet featured a leather frog, which simply looped over the 1¾-inch wide waist belts issued beginning in 1872. However, as soldiers increasingly preferred to wear wider cartridge belts for field service, these scabbards were no longer compatible. As a result, in 1889 the army finally adopted a new scabbard design featuring a long, thin brass hook in place of the leather loop. The hook could still easily be worn with the narrower 1872 belts, but could also be used with a woven cartridge belt.

 Even as the Army continually refined and experimented with bayonet designs, general officers and regular soldiers alike increasingly questioned the utility of the bayonet in an age when troops were trained for exceptionally long-range marksmanship. Noting that in combat the bayonet functioned only as far as a soldier could reach, Commanding General of the Army William Sherman stated that “my experience teaches me that one side or the other runs away before arm’s length is reached.” Sherman and other officers suggested that the bayonet be declared obsolete and dropped from service, but stopped short of pressing the issue as he believed bayonets might still be useful in highly specific circumstances such as riot control. In the 1870s and 1880s soldiers were deployed to suppress civil unrest, usually linked to strikes and other labor actions, and officers felt that bayonets allowed troops to “safely” disperse crowds without firing on them.

 If you would like to see original bayonets up close, feel free to ask our interpretive staff at Fort Mackinac. They carry original bayonets (to go with the original .45-70 rifles used daily for demonstration) and are happy to answer questions about them, as well as the rest of the unique uniforms and equipment utilized by the U.S. Army during the 1880s. This was a time of change and experimentation for the army. If you would like more information, or an opportunity to buy tickets to Fort Mackinac and our other museums, please visit our website.

Holiday Traditions of the 17th and 18th Centuries are Alive at A Colonial Christmas at Colonial Michilimackinac

Historic Interpreters getting ready to celebrate Christmas at Michilimackinac The sun sets on the Straits of Mackinac. Fires crackle in stone hearths. The smell of treats and warm beverages fill the crisp winter air. Laughter, conversation, and more can be heard emanating from inside the palisaded walls. It’s A Colonial Christmas Saturday, December 10, at Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City.

 From 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. (last admission at 6:30 p.m.) the holiday traditions of the 17th and 18th centuries are alive for all to explore. As visitors enter through the secondary entrance off Straits Ave under boughs and decorations, lanterns will light the path to the palisaded walls, as the historic residents of Michilimackinac invite you into their homes to celebrate.

 “A Colonial Christmas is a chance to dig deeper into the lives of the historic residents of Michilimackinac and explore even more of this history of the Straits of Mackinac,” said Mackinac State Historic Parks director Steve Brisson. “We hope our visitors find it to be an enriching and fun event that will help us all appreciate the history of holiday traditions.”

 Upon entering the South Southwest Rowhouse, travelers will be welcomed with hot chocolate and the chance to look at available wares (and purchase tickets to the event, if you don’t already have one). Upon exiting the Rowhouse, more lanterns will light the paths, while the smell of treats and the fires burning in the fireplaces indicate the buildings to enter. You are now on your own to explore at your own pace.

 At the Merchant’s House you’ll find coriander cookies and seats around the fire, where you’ll learn about Réveillon, the French tradition of eating a night-time meal after Midnight Mass, including many desserts. In the Northwest Rowhouse the French celebration of New Year will also be observed, as it played a major part of the holiday festivities. Here you can sample the King’s Cake, but be on the lookout for the ‘bean’ that will make you king for the day.

An interpreter hanging greenery at Michilimackinac In the Barracks you’ll learn of British and German military traditions, as the soldiers may have celebrated the holidays with feasting, storytelling, and games. Here you’ll be able to sample tea cakes and learn about the tradition of the Christmas pie. British holiday traditions will continue in the British Trader’s House, as 18th century stories will be told while guests sample comfit. Ghost stories will be told in the Soldier’s House, which was a popular holiday tradition.

 Wassailing will take place in the Priest’s House, where hot wassail will be available as you make your way into Ste. Anne’s Church, which will be dressed for Christmas Mass and you’ll learn about the first Christmas at Mackinac.

 The celebration continues outside, as popcorn will be available on the porch of the Guardhouse. Over on the parade ground you’re encouraged to join a game of Trap Ball, a game played all year, but especially during the holiday season.

 Finally, down in the Treasures from the Sand exhibit, you’ll learn how the soldiers and fur traders decorated their houses for the holidays and have a chance to make your very own decoration to help decorate your own house.

 Admission to A Colonial Christmas is $10 per adult, $6 children ages 5-12, and free for children 4 and under and Mackinac Associates members (excluding Heritage Level). Tickets are available now online at www.mackinacparks.com/a-colonial-christmas/. Tickets will also be available upon arrival. Last admission is at 6:30 p.m. Call 231-436-4100 for more information.

 Visitors are encouraged to dress warmly, as the buildings at Colonial Michilimackinac are not insulated for the cold weather. Restrooms will be available in the South Southwest Rowhouse.

 Much of Colonial Michilimackinac has been reconstructed based on archaeological excavations, including its 13 buildings and structures, many of which will be open featuring special activities during A Colonial Christmas. The fort and fur trading village was founded by the French in 1715 and is depicted today as it was in the 1770s when occupied by the British. Colonial Michilimackinac will open for the 2023 season on May 10.

Creating the Village of Mackinac Island

Join us for a guided tour going through the creation of the village of Mackinac in the 1780s. This guided tour, led by Mackinac State Historic Parks’ Interpretation Coordinator Jack Swartzinski, will take guests through downtown Mackinac Island, laying out how the Village of Mackinac came to be, contrasting current locations with how they would have looked in the early 1800s. Tour will begin at Windermere Point. This is a free tour – donations welcome. Wear comfortable walking shoes. Tour should last about an hour.

Whitefish – Deer of the Lakes

“The great business of life at Mackinac was looking out upon the lake and munching the fish,

and I felt when there that I would not have the heart to look at a fish in the face for years to come.

In fact we all began to feel decidedly fishy before we left the island.”

                                                                                                               – The Venango Spectator, October 21, 1857

Before the Straits of Mackinac became a center of international fur trade, its waters were renowned by generations of Native Americans as an abundant fishery. Of the many species in these freshwater seas, the delicate whitefish, usually weighing 3-5 pounds, was the most prized catch of all. The importance of fish at the Straits was noted early, with French Jesuit Jacques Marquette writing in 1673, “This place is the most noted in these regions for the abundance of its fisheries; for, according to the Indian saying, ‘this is the home of the fishes.’ Elsewhere, although they exist in large numbers, it is not properly their ‘home,’ which is in the neighborhood of Missilimackinac.” Whitefish are called adikameg in Ojibwe or Anishnaabemowin, effectively translating as reindeer (or deer) of the lakes.

Whitefish (left) in the Codex canadensis by French Jesuit Louis Nichols c.1700

Normally living in cold, deep water, lake whitefish spawn on shallow shoals each autumn, where they lay and fertilize their eggs. For centuries, whitefish have been widely regarded as the best-tasting and most important of all fishes in the lakes. Writing from St. Ignace in 1688, Louis Armand, Baron de Lahontan wrote, “You can scarce believe, Sir, what vast sholes [sic.] of white Fish are catch’d about the middle of the Channel, between the Continent and the Isle of Missilimackinac. The Outaouas and the Hurons could never subsist here, without the Fishery… This sort of white Fish in my opinion, is the only one in all these Lakes that can be call’d good; and indeed it goes beyond all other sorts of River Fish.” About 1695, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac noted “the pleasure of seeing as many as a hundred whitefish caught in a single haul of a net. This is the most delicate fish of the lakes…”

Many early travelers repeated similar exultations. Although sturgeon and trout were larger, whitefish were most prized. In 1721, Jesuit Pierre Francois-Xavier de Charlevoix, the first historian of New France, wrote, “The Michillimackinac live entirely by fishing, and there is perhaps no place in the world where they are in greater plenty… the most famous of all is the white-fish; it is nearly the size and figure of a mackerel [sic.], and whether fresh or salted, nothing of a fish-kind can exceed it. The Indians tell you that it was Michabou who taught their ancestors to fish, invented nets of which he took the idea from Arachne’s, or the spider’s web.”

This preserved whitefish skeleton, was discovered by archaeologists at Fort Michilimackinac.

While French and British residents preferred domestic fare, they readily ate fish and wild game when necessary, particularly during lean winter months. In 1761, British fur trader Alexander Henry noted high prices of grain and beef “led me to be very industrious in fishing… White-fish, which exceed the trout, as a delicious and nutritious food, are here in astonishing numbers.” Having small, delicate mouths and a habit of schooling, they were most easily caught in gill nets, mainly in fall and winter. Detailing the process, Henry continued, “The white-fish is taken in nets, which are set under the ice… The fish, running against the net, entangle their gills in the meshes, and are thus detained till taken up.”

While important locally for centuries, fish at Mackinac didn’t gain economic importance until the 1830’s, when commercial fishing replaced the fur trade as the predominant industry. In his 1835 Gazetteer of the State of Michigan, author John T. Blois bragged, “The numbers, varieties, and excellent quality of the lake fish are worthy of notice. It is believed no fresh waters known, can in any respect bear comparison… Their quantities are surprising, and apparently so inexhaustible, as to warrant the belief, that were a population of millions to inhabit the lake shores, they would furnish an ample supply of this article of food, without any sensible diminution.”

In 1836, about 1,200 barrels of whitefish and trout were taken at Mackinac. In just 20 years, the number skyrocketed to 20,000 barrels annually at the Straits, with comparable increases throughout the Great Lakes. In 1857, Mackinac’s fish-munching “Viator” wrote, “The staple article of trade is fish… These fish are taken in exceedingly deep water in what are called gill nets…The net is then sunk in 300 feet of water and left over night, when it is drawn up, and the fish are found fastened by their gills. They are then, opened and cured on the schooners, brought to the dock, inspected and barreled, when they are fit for the market. It does not add to one’s appetite for white fish, to see them piled up by cart loads on the dock, and to notice the decidedly filthy odor, that fills the whole atmosphere.”

In his 1860 publication, Old Mackinac, Or Fortress of the Lakes, W.P. Strickland wrote, “White-fish are more highly prized than any other kind found in our waters, being the decidedly the most delicious in a fresh state, and when packed command a higher price than any other by $1 per bbl… They were once so numerous that eight thousand were taken at a single haul. At present a haul of one or two thousand is thought a very good one. In all the rivers they are growing scarce very gradually, but surely. The ratio of decrease cannot be arrived at with any degree of precision.”

The decline, recovery and future threats to Great Lakes fisheries are a long tale for another time. Restocking and other 20th century conservation efforts resulted in stabilized populations, along with efforts to restore Native American fishing rights granted by 19th century treaties. Today’s commercial fishery sustainably harvests more than eight million pounds of lake whitefish each year. Residents and guests alike continue to enjoy this humble, tasty member of the salmon family at restaurants, markets, and fisheries throughout northern Michigan.

Les Feu Follet

The following is excerpted from Were-Wolves and Will-O-The-Wisps: French Tales of Mackinac Retold, written and illustrated by Dirk Gringhuis. The stories in this book are the basis for Fort Fright, an annual event that takes place in October. Fort Fright 2022 takes place October 7-8 – click here for tickets

Les Feu Follet

 Marie and her husband Robert along with their baby, Jean, lived in their home outside of Fort Michilimackinac. One warm summer day, Marie’s cousin, young Jacques from Montreal, came to pay a visit. Marie was delighted when Robert suggested that he take a day’s trip to meet with some courerurs de bois near the Ottawa Indian village of L’Arbre Croche, the Crooked Tree, Marie was quite content to stay at home with her young cousin, the baby and a Pani woman servant. Panis were Indian slaves, prisoners taken in Indian wars who served as domestics.

 All went well until evening when storm clouds began to form over the lake and white caps showed their plumes far out in the lead coloered water.

 The women watched it approach the cabin. Now the sky was very dark except for the brilliant lightning forking lakeward. Marie began to worry about Robert and asked the Pani woman to split some slivers off the Christmas Log (always preserved year by year) and to throw them on the fire to prevent the thunder from falling. She then glanced at the door and was relieved to see a branch of white torn still in place. This bush was thought to be a divine lightning rod. The custom had probably come from the fact that thorns such as these had crowned the Saviour’s head.

 Gradually the rumble of thunder and the lightning passed. By not it was dark. Marie’s fears began to rise once more as her husband failed to return. Going to the window she peered into the darkness. Suddenly all were startled by a shrill whistle. Even Jean in his crib, began to cry. Quickly, Marie slammed the shutters clossed, and bolted them. “I saw the feu follet dancing over the fields, if I had not shut it out it would have entered and strangled us!” she cried. “Le Bon Dieu preserve Robert this night!”

 Her cousin tried to comfort her. “Do not fear, Robert your husband can take care of himself.” he said. “If you like, now that the rain has stopped, we can go looking for him.” A sturdy young man, he moved toward the door confidently trying to ease his cousin’s fears. Jean was sound asleep and the Pani woman was a good nursemaid. Marie made up her mind. Robert was never late, something must have happened on the trail.

 “Let us go,” she said, wrapped a shawl around her shoulders and handed a lantern to Jacques. “I know the path well.”

 As they walked Jacques, trying to keep her mind from her missing husband asked, “What are the feu follet like at Michilimackinac, cousin?”

 “They are not always dangerous and they appear as lights above swampland. When twin lights are seen in the twilight, they are called Castor and Pollus and this is a happy omen.”

 “This I had not heard,” said Jacques, lantern held high, watching the dim trail ahead.

 “But,” Marie continued, “When a single light appears it is named Helene. Then he who sees it must throw himself on the ground and cover his face. For the light holds an evil magic that lures the traveler to desert bogs or steep ravines then leaves him there to die … But Robert does not believe in them” Jacques shook his head. “Grand-pere who came from Caen in Normandy said that the feu follet there, are male and female and are supposed to be those who have sinned against purity. Therefore the Normans call maidens who have sinned, fourolle, such as ‘fourolle Jeanne’ or ‘fourelle Mignonette’. The Evil One gives them power to turn themselves into bright lights leading travelers to their deaths.”

 Marie shuddered.

 “Perhaps it is time we shouted for Robert” said Jacques. Together they called out his name again and again, for now the ground was getting miry and frogs croaked dismally close by. The lantern threw weird shapes against the dark trees, and Marie held her shawl tighter around her shoulders. Still there was no answer. Desperate, the young wife uttered one last despairing cry. It was answered instantly by a pistol shot. With a shout they both sprang forward through the underbrush. There in the swamp was a figure up to his waist in the sucking mud. It was Robert.

 Together they made a bridge with their hands and soon the weary traveler was in his wife’s tearful embrace.

 As they made their way happily homeward, he told his story. Returning later than expected from the village, he had become lost in the storm. All at once he had seen a light and followed it only to plunge into the swamp. He cried out for help until he grew hoarse and all he heard was the mocking laughing of goblins. At last, when he thought all hope gone, he had heard his wife’s final cry. It was then he had fired his pistol.

 “Perhaps now, mon cheri, you will believe in les feu follet?” asked Marie.

 Robert nodded, thoughtfully, “You were right, ma petite. I believe!”

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.

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.

Dr. William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin

Dr. William Beaumont served at Fort Mackinac from 1820 to 1825.

On June 6, 1822, a shot rang out inside the American Fur Company’s retail store located on Mackinac Island’s Market Street. When the smoke cleared, Alexis St. Martin, a young French Canadian voyageur, lay bleeding on the floor. Although the exact cause of the accident has been lost to history, the immediate results were abundantly clear: St. Martin was grievously wounded, with a large hole blasted into the left side of his abdomen and the interior of his stomach exposed. Although St. Martin was not expected to survive, store patrons sent word to fetch Dr. William Beaumont, the post surgeon at Fort Mackinac and the only physician on Mackinac Island. Arriving minutes after the accident, Beaumont made St. Martin comfortable but judged his wound to be mortal. The doctor had St. Martin carried to the post hospital in the fort. To Beaumont’s amazement, St. Martin survived, and under the doctor’s care began healing. Together, Beaumont and St. Martin embarked upon a journey of scientific discovery that continues to shape medical care today.

Dr. Beaumont’s book.

 As St. Martin recovered from the accident, the wound slowly healed. However, instead of closing, the hole into his stomach fused to his abdominal muscles, creating a permanent opening. Beaumont realized this presented a unique opportunity to observe the digestive process inside a living person, and at the urging of the surgeon general of the army began making informal notes about what he could see inside St. Martin’s stomach as it worked to digest food. These initial observations occurred at Fort Mackinac in 1824, but grew into a series of formal experiments carried out periodically at other posts until 1833. By the time the final experiments concluded, Beaumont had gained a much clearer understanding of the human digestive process, publishing his findings as Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion. Although other physicians and scientists had previously contributed to our understanding of how our stomachs work, St. Martin’s injury allowed Beaumont to make critical observations about the mechanical and chemical processes which occur during the digestive process.

The entrance to the new exhibit at the American Fur Co. Retail Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum.

 To mark the 200th anniversary of the accident that set Beaumont and St. Martin on their path of discovery, a new gallery exhibit is being installed in the American Fur Company Retail Store. Opening on June 4, this new exhibit tells the story of the accident and subsequent research that transformed Beaumont into the “father of gastric physiology.” Admission to the new exhibit is included with tickets to Fort Mackinac and the Mackinac Island Native American Museum at the Biddle House. We hope you’ll join us soon to see this exciting new addition and learn more about Mackinac Island’s own contribution to medical science.