July 4 at Fort Mackinac

As we get ready to celebrate the 245th anniversary of the date the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress declaring independence from Great Britain, we thought we’d take a look back at some of the ways the historic soldiers and residents celebrated July 4 at Fort Mackinac by taking a peek at some of the various books published by Mackinac State Historic Parks.

Shooting matches were a popular July 4 activity. Here is the Fort Mackinac squad showing off a trophy won.

  From “A Desirable Station: Soldier Life at Fort Mackinac 1867-1895” by Phil Porter:

“The United States army had a special affinity for the Fourth of July. Fort Mackinac soldiers celebrated the holiday with a variety of ceremonial and recreational activities. A hand-picked squad fired the national salute – one round for each state of the Union – from the fort cannons at daybreak. In 1873 Captain Leslie Smith dispensed with the firing “in consequence of a serious illness of a prominent citizen…” but took the opportunity to have the Declaration of Independence read to his men. Soldiers spent the rest of the day playing games, relaxing in the park or joining civilians in village-sponsored activities. In 1886 soldiers ran foot races, squared off against Cheboygan in a rifle match, played baseball against the St. Ignace club and enjoyed a special dinner with desserts of peach and raspberry pie, cherries, strawberries and cream and ginger snaps.”

  The diary of Harold Dunbar Corbusier was published with the permission of the Corbusier family under the title “A Boy at Fort Mackinac.” Dunbar kept a diary of his time on the island as a ten-year old boy in 1883-1884, and again as a teenager when his family returned to Mackinac Island in 1892. He was on the island for July 4, 1883 and July 4, 1892. His diary is presented as he wrote it, including spelling and grammatical errors:

“July 4 (1883): It has been a pleasant day. They fired a sulute of thirty-eight guns at noon as we have had a very nice time today down town they had go-as-you-please races, walking maches, pony hurdle, row boat races, greased pole, tub races. Jumping matches. Mama Mrs. Sellers, Miss Duggan and Mr. Duggan went to the point on the Algomah.”

The Fort Mackinac ballfield in the late 19th century.

  For his entry on July 5, Corbusier notes they set off a great many fireworks the night before, but Claude (his brother) hurt his hand very badly.

“4th. July (1892): They had a few country races & other amussements (?) down in the village today besides these there has been no unusual excitement. The usual salute was fired from the fort & they had a pretty good ball game up there. The Fort Wayne nine played the Fort Mackinac. The score was 3 to 1 in favor of Fort Wayne. There was a hop at the Grand Hotel this evening. I dance twelve dances. I am beginning to waltz a little.”

  From “Reveille Till Taps: Soldier Life at Fort Mackinac 1780-1895” by Keith R. Widder:

“Part of the commemoration of Independence Day in some years included issues of extra whiskey. On such days, fatigue duties and most military activities came to a halt. Generally the cannon fired a salute to the United States in honor of her successful Revolution. In the 1880’s and 90’s, the garrison took part in elaborate ceremonies with people of the village or St. Ignace. Both communities sought the assistance of the garrison in their celebrations because the presence of men in uniform added much glamour.

“…A year earlier (1884) the garrison put together a rifle team of ten men and officers to challenge the Cheboygan Rifle Team. On July 4 most of the garrison went to Cheboygan to watch their team in action. Out of a possible score of 510, the Mackinac marksmen scored 401 to Cheboygan’s 385, thereby winning the silver cup selected as the prize.

“…On the same days that the rifle team beat back challenges of the Cheboygan shooters, Cheboygan’s “Diamond Baseball Club” took the field against the post squad. The fort won the first tame 17-10 and the twenty-five dollar prize.”

  We also know that on July 4, 1879, at the “National Park” on Mackinac Island, there was a “Free to all rowing regatta, one mile and return” as well as a picnic in the park at 11:00 a.m., a reading of the Declaration of Independence, and dancing on the platform at 3:00 p.m.

  This July 4 at Fort Mackinac we will do our best to recreate these Independence Days of old with “A Star Spangled Fourth of July.” The iconic fort Mackinac decked out in patriotic finery with banners, flags and bunting for the program beginning at 7:00 p.m.

  Featured will be a reading of the Declaration of Independence, patriotic toasts, the raising of the colors, and games on the parade ground including sack and foot races, games of catch, hoop and stick, and Jacob’s Ladder. Guests join the party and participate in games on the fort parade ground.

  After the toasts, the ‘fireworks’ begin. We will recreate the 38-gun salute, honoring the 1880s states of the union with rifle firings, followed by the finale of a cannon salute in honor of the holiday. Guests are then welcome to stay at Fort Mackinac, enjoying the buildings, galleries and views, and stick around for the fireworks from the cannon platform, Wood Quarters, or Stone Quarters.

  The Tea Room Restaurant, operated by Grand Hotel, will be open until 9:00 p.m. serving hot dogs and brats, chicken sandwiches, salads, sweets, and beverages, including beer and wine.

  All special programming is included with regular admission to Fort Mackinac ($13.50/adults, $8.00/child (5-12), and free for kids under 5). Guests who visit Fort Mackinac earlier in the day on the fourth are welcome to come back for the special event without having to purchase a new ticket.

A Model 1884 Springfield Rifle

The .45-70 Springfield Rifle.

The Buffington sight. A second adjustment screw (not visible) swiveled the entire sight left or right.

During the summer months, visitors to Fort Mackinac are able to see a real piece of history in action every single day. Historical interpreters representing soldiers from the 23rd Regiment of Infantry perform rifle firing and drill demonstrations throughout the day. The weapons they carry, the .45-70 Springfield rifle, are all 19th century originals, making them at least 130 years old. Let’s take a closer look at one of these fascinating weapons.

 

Introduced in 1873, the .45-70 remained the standard issue arm of the American army for 20 years. A single-shot weapon, the rifle derived its name from the cartridge it fired: a .45 caliber bullet propelled by 70 grains of black powder. Over the course of its service life, the army refined the rifle several times, making almost yearly changes to the design to reflect the realities of daily use and at the suggestion of officers and enlisted men. Only rarely did these design changes cumulatively result in the designation of a new model, but in 1884 the army approved a “new” design incorporating improved features.

 

The improved cleaning rod, with tapered button tip.

Note the knurling on the trigger and on the hammer.

This Model 1884 displays many of these design elements. The two most prominent “new” features are the sight and the cleaning rod. The sight, designed by Lt. Col. A.R. Buffington of the Ordnance Department, includes a leaf that can be flipped up and adjusted to sight the weapon at ranges up to 1,400 yards. It also includes an adjustment screw to compensate for windage- by turning it, the entire vertical leaf swivels right or left. The cleaning rod, meanwhile, incorporates the flared button head adopted in 1879 and put into widespread production in 1882. The breechblock is stamped U.S. MODEL 1884, although in reality these stamps were not added to new rifles until 1886, and weapons marked this way did not enter widespread service until 1887. The rest of the rifle incorporates several other design improvements adopted over the years, such as knurling on the trigger and hammer, which was intended to improve a soldier’s fingertip grip on these critical pieces.

 

The star symbol stamped next to the serial number (it looks like a flower) indicates that this rifle was probably rebuilt at an arsenal at some point.

The rifle’s breech in the open position. When opened after firing, the weapon automatically ejected the spent cartridge, allowing a soldier to quickly reload.

This particular rifle has a serial number in the 141000 range, indicating that it was probably originally produced in 1879 or 1880. How, then, can it incorporate features only authorized in 1884, and not actually put into service for a few more years? The small five-pointed star or flower next to the serial number most likely indicates that this weapon is an arsenal rebuilt. In 1879 the Springfield Armory began collecting older .45-70 rifles and using some of the parts to build new weapons, which were held in reserve or eventually issued to various state units (the forerunners to the National Guard). Furthermore, since the rifles were built using entirely interchangeable parts, after the weapons left frontline military service and entered the civilian market (which many did- they are still relatively easy for collectors to obtain) it was simple for gun brokers and owners to cobble together “new” weapons with a mixture of parts from different model years.

 

In any case, this rifle, and the others in daily use at Fort Mackinac, are truly history that you can see, smell, hear, and touch. Our interpreters carry rifles of both the 1873 and 1884 models, with many of the small variations added each year. We even have a few rifles equipped with ramrod bayonets, an experimental design attempted on three different occasions in the 1880s. These weapons had a small, sharpened metal dowel mounted under the barrel in lieu of a cleaning rod in an effort to eliminate the need for soldiers to carry a separate bayonet and scabbard. Historically, one of the two companies of the 23rd Infantry stationed at Fort Mackinac from 1884 to 1890 were issued the experimental ramrod bayonet rifles for evaluation. When you visit us at Fort Mackinac, be sure to ask the interpreters about their rifles- they’re a fascinating link to the past!

Recent Archaeology on Mackinac Island

Recent Archaeology on Mackinac Island

One of the construction projects Mackinac State Historic Parks is currently undertaking on Mackinac Island is a new public restroom shelter located behind Fort Mackinac across Huron Road from the Scout Barracks. The trenches for the building footing, and electrical, water and sewer services were excavated last fall. Because there were buildings associated with the fort in this area in the mid-nineteenth century, archaeological monitoring of these excavations took place.

Plan of Fort Mackinac in 1890

View of structures east of the fort, from left to right: Coal house and shed, Carpenter shop, Morgue; then rear: Post Hospital; center, left to right: Privies, East Blockhouse; front: Bakery

Fort Mackinac was in a constant state of construction and repair throughout its existence. The military complex included many buildings located outside the fortification walls. Some of these, such as the officers’ quarters, post hospital, and barn are still standing today. Two buildings were in the vicinity of the project area, the carpenter shop, and the coal house and shed, which were one structure. The carpenter shop was constructed around the time of the Civil War. The coal house and shed were constructed around 1879. All were demolished in 1913. (more…)

2018 Collections Acquisitions

2018 Collections Acquisitions

Weidenaar etching of ‘Big Mac.’

In 2018, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission accessioned 120 gifts and 82 purchases to the historic object and archival collection. Among the objects acquired was an 1891 register from the New Mackinac Hotel, a walking stick that belonged to park commissioner James Dunnigan, a plastic viewfinder with slide images of Mackinac Island and several photograph albums. During the year, the park purchased two miniature etchings by Reynold Weidenaar, a black and white photograph showing early transportation in the park and accepted a donation of images showing a prominent Mackinac Island family.

Weidenaar etching ‘At Mackinac Straits’.

In 2017, the park commission purchased the mezzotint Bridge Builders by Michigan artist Reynold Weidenaar. This was the last of three large etchings showing the Mackinac Bridge being built that the park needed to complete its collection. This year, staff were made aware of two miniature etchings of the bridge also done by the artist. At Mackinac Straits and Big Mac were purchased and will complete the collection which will be on display in The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum. (more…)

Mary Ella Cowles

Mary Ella Cowles

Mary Ella Cowles

Mary Ella Hitchcock was born in 1855 in Rochester, New York. At 18 years old, she, her younger sister Kate, and parents Charles and Eliza Hitchcock headed west. Her father had purchased a silver mine near Prescott, Arizona, but the family was caught in a snowstorm for several days. They retreated to Fort Verde on December 27, 1873 and were under the protection of the soldiers. Just days prior, a young lieutenant named Calvin Duvall Cowles had arrived at the post with the 23rd Infantry. He was soon smitten with Mary Ella and, within six months, they were married.

For the next ten years, the Cowles family lived at ten different posts. Twice Calvin left on campaigns, with Mary Ella caring for home and family. Their first child, Mary – called Toosie to avoid confusion with her mother Mary – was born in 1875. Sons Robert, William, Calvin, Jr., and Josiah followed. To reorganize a household on an annual basis, and move with young children and infants was hard on the family, especially Mary Ella.  It was also a struggle financially to move the family so often. Mary Ella was frustrated with the lack of amenities and help to care for their growing family.  (more…)