Michilimackinac Archaeology 2021 Mid-Season Update

We have reached the halfway point of the 2021 archaeological field season at Michilimackinac and there is progress to report.

Door latch

  The southeast cellar seems to be showing signs of bottoming out. The soil in the southern portion is becoming very sandy with pebbles, like the glacial beach which lies under all of the fort. Some of the wood wall fragments have disappeared. Part of a door latch was found in this area. The northern part of the cellar is becoming somewhat sandier, but the wood planks continue, and it recently yielded a small, plain pewter button and a musket ball.

Pocketknife

  The east wall of the central cellar has become better defined with the burned tops of eight wood posts now exposed. The most interesting artifact of the summer (so far) came from the north edge of this cellar, an intact pocketknife. We hope that future research will help us date it or at least identify it as French or British in order to better understand the construction sequence of the cellars.

  Excavation of 1781 demolition continues further north. We expect to find remnants of the north wall of the house in this area. We have opened the first quad in what we expect to be the final row of squares for this project.

New Quad Opened Up

  The 2021 field season is sponsored by the Mackinac Associates, and we are grateful for their support. Follow MSHP’s social channels and this blog for updates on the rest of the season, or, better yet, come visit the site. We will be excavating every day, weather permitting, through August 21.

Using Cold Frames at Michilimackinac

 Gardeners, especially at the Straits of Mackinac, have always been interested in helping their plants grow despite sometimes problematic environmental conditions. Building walls or planting hedges can protect plants from the wind, which might break fragile stems and leaves, while changing the soil chemistry with manure or compost can make a poor soil rich enough to grow the sweetest melons. But what about the cold? How would gardeners in the 18th century protect tender plants from the snow and frigid temperatures so common in northern Michigan?

 Cold frames may have been the answer. Our gardeners at Colonial Michilimackinac have recently been generously gifted with a very nice cold frame. Built using 18th century specifications, it is essentially a miniature greenhouse. Pots of plants are set inside the frame, or seeds can be planted directly in the soil to get off to a good start in the small, protected environment. The wooden frame is topped with two glass “lights” or windows that can either be kept closed in cold weather to trap heat, vented to release moisture, or completely removed to allow for air flow on sunny and warm days.

 With a bit of work, a cold frame can even be used to generate heat to keep young plants warm and healthy. Historically, frames were placed over brick-lined pits full of animal manure. As the manure decomposed, it released heat, keeping the inside of the frame warm enough to support lettuces, spinach and other cold season vegetables throughout much of the winter, or at least late fall and early spring. Modern gardeners use electric heat mats to produce similar results.

 If you are interested in see our new cold frame and learning more about the gardens and the people that lived at Colonial Michilimackinac visit mackinacparks.com for tickets and more information.

SS Minneapolis Revolver

On April 4, 1894, the bulk steam freighter Minneapolis sank in the Straits of Mackinac after taking on water due to ice damage. On board the ship was a Smith and Wesson Model No. 1, Second Issue revolver manufactured in 1864. It is a bottom-break revolver that holds seven brass .22 caliber short rimfire cartridges. It was one of the first handguns produced by Smith and Wesson and one of the first to use self-contained brass cartridges. The revolver belonged to one of the 14 crewmembers aboard the ship who may have carried it for numerous reasons.

Firearms were not uncommon amongst Great Lakes sailors. Revolvers provided a form of protection against unwelcome guests aboard a ship and assisted in protection of valuable cargo. Pursers aboard passenger ships were known to carry weapons to protect items entrusted to them by their guests. Officers carried them to protect monies carried on board for payroll and other business. In an emergency, firearms could be used to keep order and act as a signaling device to attract the attention of other vessels and searchers.

The crew of the Minneapolis survived the wreck, being picked up by the San Diego, a consort barge the ship was towing along with the Red Wing. The wreck was located in 1963 and today is approximately 500 feet from the South Tower of the Mackinac Bridge. The revolver was recovered from the shipwreck prior to the 1983 creation of the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve, which makes it illegal to remove items from shipwrecks today. Along with several other objects, the revolver was donated to the Mackinac Island State Park Commission in 2013.

Conservation work was done in the winter of 2014 by Inland Seas Institute (ISI) for inclusion of the revolver in the new Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum. The revolver was placed into electrolysis, which is the process of using electricity, an electrolyte, and anodes to remove corrosion from metal objects. After just a few hours of treatment, it was noticed that the gun still contained cartridges. Treatment of the revolver continued with the awareness that the gun could still contain black powder and lead bullets.

The revolver is composed of a silver-plated brass frame with a steel barrel, cylinder, cylinder rotating mechanisms, screws, springs and pins and brass cartridges with lead bullets which over time interact with one another causing deterioration via bi-metallic corrosion. Even though the revolver was treated, contact between these metals would continue to cause corrosion over time especially during environmental changes. During a cleaning of the exhibits in 2020, recent corrosion was noticed on the revolver. It was removed from display, examined, and photographed. ISI was contacted and a new proposal was developed to treat the corrosion and attempt to disarm the revolver by removing the cartridges and their bullets.

Electrolysis was performed again to halt the corrosion and once stabilized, the revolver was taken to a gunsmith. The cylinder was removed revealing that the gun had 6 loaded cartridges and an empty cartridge under the hammer possibly to act as a safety. Corrosion in the cylinder prevented the gun from being unloaded once the cylinder was removed, so a plan was developed to melt out the lead bullets, remove the powder, and have safe access to the cartridges for their removal. The cylinder was positioned in a way to safely do this in case the powder was still active after 60+ years underwater.

The lead bullets were melted using a propane torch, which upon contact caused three of the cartridges to go off in a controlled manner for safety. The cartridges were then removed using a specially made brass punch. The screws and pins holding the revolver together were removed so complete treatment of each piece could be performed. Upon completion of conservation the revolver parts will be coated with microcrystalline wax prior to reassembly to prevent future corrosion of the barrel, cylinder and cylinder works. The revolver will be reassembled using carbon fiber screws and Delrin (polymer) pins to minimize future bi-metallic corrosion. The cartridges, screws, and pins will be returned and the revolver will be placed back on display inside the shipwreck museum. We hope you’ll join us at Old Mackinac Point in the near future to see the Minneapolis revolver on display once again.

Biddle House Update

As you may have heard, we’re currently in the process of updating the Biddle House to include the Mackinac Island Native American Museum. This new exhibit, which tells the continuing story of the Anishnaabek on Mackinac Island and in the surrounding Straits of Mackinac region, will open in early summer 2020. To get the building ready for the new exhibit, the Biddle House itself is currently undergoing a variety of restoration work. (more…)

Chief Wawatam Archival Collection

In the fall of 1911, the railroad ferry Chief Wawatam arrived in the Straits of Mackinac to begin a career which lasted 73 years. The Mackinac Transportation Company built the ship to haul railroad cars between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. The ship could carry 18-26 cars depending upon their size and unlike previous ferries that worked the straits, the Chief Wawatam was built entirely of steel. Along with freight cars, the ship carried passenger train cars, automobiles, soldiers and passengers. At 338 feet, she was the largest railroad ferry at the straits and served the longest, until 1984. (more…)

What’s new at Fort Mackinac?

What’s new at Fort Mackinac?

It may not seem like it with so much snow on the ground, but summer is steadily approaching. With less than two months to go before Fort Mackinac opens for the 2019 season, we’re hard at work on two brand new exhibits which will greet visitors to the fort this summer. (more…)

Treasures from the Collection

Treasures from the Collection

Today we begin a new feature highlighting important objects in the museum collection of Mackinac State Historic Parks. The items presented here belonged to the O’Brien’s of Fort Mackinac. The O’Brien collection also includes John and Charlotte’s letters (the basis for our book The Caplain’s Lady), John’s sermons, and letters to John from his son, Lyster, while he served in the Civil War.  (more…)

Beaumont Emergency Hospital Ambulance

Beaumont Emergency Hospital Ambulance

The carriage being prepared to move to the Mackinac Horsemen’s Association.

The Beaumont Emergency Hospital Association was formed around 1924 to provide medical services during the summer tourist season. The hospital was named in honor of nationally-known Fort Mackinac physician, Dr. William Beaumont, famous for his ground-breaking medical research on human digestion. (more…)

Where’s The Rest of Fort Mackinac?

Where’s The Rest of Fort Mackinac?

Today, visitors to Fort Mackinac experience a wonderfully complete example of a late 19th century American military post. Preserved since 1895 as a museum and historic site, the fort’s 14 original buildings appear much as they did between 1885 and 1889. Most other Army posts from this time period have either decayed into ruins or have been so thoroughly modernized that their historic character is largely invisible. However, the preserved Fort Mackinac open to visitors represents only about half of the post as it existed historically. Although some elements are gone from the landscape, a lot more of Fort Mackinac remains outside the walls- you just need to know where to look. (more…)