U.S. Army Forage Cap and Dress Helmet

Inspection at Fort Mackinac with soldiers in dress uniform.

The public interacts with our interpretive staff every day, asking questions about the island, fort, and the way soldiers stationed at Fort Mackinac lived when it was active between the years of 1780-1895. One of the main draws, other than the rifle and cannon demonstrations, are the tours, given by interpreters seen in two types of uniforms: the everyday “undress” uniform and the more elaborate “dress” uniform. One of the unique aspects of Fort Mackinac in the 1880s is the balance between its soldiers serving in both military and public facing capacities, which almost perfectly matches the roles of their different uniforms. A big part of how Mackinac State Historic Parks makes sure to best tell the stories of these uniforms, and the soldiers that wore them, is though our collections. Headgear, especially for the uniforms that are worn at the fort, are vital to the overall story that the park tells the public. Two specific items that embody these uniforms are the forage cap and dress helmet.

Forage Cap

 The forage cap, or the wool, leather brimmed cap with unit brass on the front, is an evolution from the forage cap from the Civil War. Mostly worn by officers until 1872, when the whole army adopted them, these vital pieces of a uniform were more commonly seen used during daily duties in and around the fort. For more formal occasions, such as when the public was let in the fort several times a week, they had a different uniform: the dress uniform. This consisted of a frock coat, white gloves, dress collar, and the dress helmet. This helmet had both Prussian and British influences, with a brass eagle plate on the front, and a spike on top.

Dress Helmet

 Both hats are unique in the way they help portray military life in the 1880s, as well as being some of the most recognizable items when the public comes to the fort. Having these items in our collections, furthermore, establishes the importance of public interaction with museums and their objects. Museum collections are often referenced for research, both public and private, and these hats hold significant value for those who want to learn more about the soldiers at Fort Mackinac. Items so easily identifiable and personal, such as these hats, aid in making that connection from the past to the present day, as these are the physical objects used daily by the people who served in the army in the 1880s.

A work party at Fort Mackinac.

 Fort Mackinac, one of our premier sites, benefits from having several items in our collections pertaining to it and the soldiers that were there. Being able to have physical representations from that era, which visitors see daily, is history translated to the present day. They allow the public to get a look at our collections every day, but in the form of a personal aspect, through our interpreters. This makes the park a living representation of its objects, with the interpreters discussing their importance every day, and sharing their legacy with a wider audience. The kepi and dress headgear are vital to the park to tell these stories, as they are an iconic part of the uniform, fort, and overall encompass a crucial period in the islands’ history.

Mackinac at the Museum (1798)

On February 28, 1798, an article in the Greenfield Gazette detailed plans for an exciting new museum. A veritable “cabinet of curiosities,” the institution would be housed at Deerfield Academy, in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Today, the organization is one of the oldest preparatory schools in the United States. Their eclectic collection included donations from Dartmouth College, Boston area museums, and “many curious articles from many private gentlemen and ladies.”

A portrait of Joseph Priestley by Rembrandt Peale

Joseph Priestley, by Rembrandt Peale (c.1801)

 The late 18th century was a pivotal time in the development of scientific understanding. The “tree of knowledge” flourished during the Age of Enlightenment, with new discoveries by curious scientists, including Benjamin Franklin, William Bartram, and Joseph Priestley. Science also became more accessible as everyday citizens attended popular lectures, read printed works, roamed public gardens, and patronized museums.

 Joseph Priestly, an influential chemist, wide-ranging educator, natural philosopher, and radical theologian, epitomized this spirit of discovery. Priestly published and lectured often, becoming a close friend and collaborator with Benjamin Franklin. Deerfield Museum founders were  influenced by his advice, writing, “Dr. Priestley, in his lectures, shows the importance of such collections, as they respect history; and as the natural history of America is yet very imperfect, gentleman may be of essential service to it, by depositing specimens of minerals the skins of peculiar animals, or whatever may appear to them uncommon…”

 Which Mackinac wonders would you pick to display in this “infant museum” of early America? A unique specimen of Mackinac limestone? Animal pelts from the world-renowned fur trade? The delectable whitefish, or a 70-pound Mackinac trout? A closer look at this fascinating assemblage reveals the following curiosities:

  • Petrifications [fossils] from different parts of the country
  • Stone tools, clay pots, pipes, a bow and a number of arrows
  • Crystals and ores
  • Several fish hooks and lines
  • A spoon and a comb, made by Pacific Island inhabitants, visited by Captain Cook
  • The saw of a sawfish
  • A tooth of the spermaceti whale and jaw of a mackerel whale
  • The jaws of a Shark, with the teeth
  • Bills of a toucan and a pelican
  • The head and egg of an ostrich
  • A puffing fish, a coney, and sea wolf
  • A centipede of the West Indies
  • A young alligator and the egg of the albatross
  • Rare insects and reptiles, including a two-headed snake
  • “Nuts from Michilimackinac, called by the natives Pickens – and Indian rice from the same place”
A beaked hazelnut growing along the trail at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.

Beaked hazelnut growing along the trail at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park

 “Nuts from Michilimackinac, called by the natives Pickens,” likely refers to fruits of the hazelnut tree. The word pecan originates from the word pakan, meaning “hard shelled nut” in the Algonquian language family. Spelled with many variations over eastern North America, the word translates as bagaan in Anishinaabemowin, spoken by Ojibwe and Odawa people in the Mackinac region. A member of the birch family, there are 15 species of hazels in North America. Beaked hazelnut (Corylus rostrata) grows in the North Woods at Mackinac. In his 1912 botanical report, Charles K. Dodge noted they were common in “rich open ground from Bay County to St. Ignace and on Mackinac Island.”

A painting of people gathering wild rice from 1853.

Gathering Wild Rice, by Seth Eastman (1853)

 Wild Rice is one of the few staple grains native to North America. It belongs to a genus of tall, aquatic grasses of the genus Zizania, which thrived in marshes throughout the upper Great Lakes. Anishinaabek call the plant manoomin. In Ojibwe culture, its importance rises beyond a rich food source, with many related stories, symbols, and ceremonies associated with its use and harvest. While wild rice grew in the eastern Upper Peninsula it was never overly abundant here, often being traded from Green Bay. Draining of marshes and impaired water quality greatly reduced its range in the 20th century.

 In 1800, a large birchbark canoe made its way from Lake Huron to Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia. Founded in 1786 by artist Charles Willson Peale, the institution is considered the most important museum of early America. Peale’s expansive collection featured portraits of prominent individuals, natural history specimens, and cultural artifacts from around the world. The canoe was donated by Dr. Charles Brown, U.S. army surgeon at Detroit, who paddled it to New York. Constructed at Saginaw Bay by “an Indian woman,” the lightweight craft measured 23 feet long, 4 feet in breadth and 26 inches deep. Canoes were indispensable for transportation on the Great Lakes, plying rivers and lakes throughout the U.S. and Canada, including the Straits of Mackinac. It was said the donated craft “carried six persons and 1,200 weight of baggage across the Lakes.”

 The next time you visit the straits, consider which items might be fit for a museum of the 22nd century. Would your futuristic exhibit feature a slab of petrified fudge? A bicycle with pedals? Or fragrant blossoms of a lilac tree? Whatever change may come over the next century, we can rest assured that Lake Huron waters will lap against the rocky shore, welcoming visitors to Mackinac as they have since time immemorial.

From the Collection: Artifacts of Literacy

One of the next major projects for Mackinac State Historic Parks will be the reconstruction of a unit on the Southwest Rowhouse. To prepare, MSHP staff have been going over the archaeological records and artifacts from the 1960s, when the unit was originally excavated. Today we’re taking a look at various artifacts of literacy, including pencils and a pen knife. Curator of Archaeology Dr. Lynn Evans takes us through this peek at the collection.

2022 Mackinac State Historic Parks Collections Acquisitions

In 2022, the collections committee accessioned 176 objects into the Mackinac Island State Park Commission collection and archives. In addition to several purchases, over 90 items were donated to the collection. The summer collections internship program was restarted and Kendra Ellis, from the Maritime Studies Program at East Carolina University, was hired. She assisted Curator of Collections Brian Jaeschke with the inventory of Fort Mackinac buildings and Special Storage inside the Heritage Center.

 In 2010, five pen and ink drawings of Mackinac Island were loaned to the park for exhibit in The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum. The loan was changed to a donation early in the year. The five drawings were done in the early 1840s by Francis Melick Cayley who moved to Canada in 1836. The views are some of the most precise pre-photographic images of the island known to exist. They are so well proportioned that it is believed he may have employed artificial means to prepare the sketches, such as a “camera obscura,” which permitted projection of a scene onto paper for tracing. The drawings continue to be displayed in the main gallery of the art museum.

 During the course of procuring images for the new Dr. William Beaumont Museum exhibit this winter, the park purchased four paintings of the doctor and his wife from the Wayne County Medical Society of Southeast Michigan. Two of the paintings are miniature portraits of Dr. Beaumont and his wife Deborah. It is believed they were done around the time of their marriage in 1821. The other two paintings are reproductions of images showing Beaumont later in life. The portraits need conservation work and will eventually be placed on display.

 The park purchased two black and white panoramic photographs showing Mackinac Island scenes. The first image, by island photographer William Gardiner, was taken from a naval vessel, quite possibly the USS Michigan. The ship is entering the harbor with downtown, Fort Mackinac and Grand Hotel visible. The second image was taken by H.J. Rossiter from the fort pasture and shows the officers’ and commanding officer’s quarters, Fort Mackinac and Trinity Episcopal Church. The images were taken around 1900 and give us a unique historic glimpse of the island.

 Donated to the park collection this summer was a painting with a unique perspective from a path behind Trinity Episcopal Church looking toward Fort Mackinac. The oil on canvas by German-born Curt Bielefeldt was done sometime between 1940 and 1960. He lived in Buffalo before moving to Detroit in the early 1930s. He worked in oils and watercolors and was also known for murals. He was a cousin of German boxer Max Schmeling. Bielefeldt won the grand prize in the 1930 Buffalo Society of Artists in the Albright Gallery. His work was displayed in many locations including the Detroit Institute of Art and the J.L. Hudson Company Gallery.

 This is only a small sample of the type of objects Mackinac State Historic Parks collects during a given year.  We are always looking for donations and items to purchase which will help the commission to continue its mission of educating the public about the history of the region.

5 Things For Kids to See at Historic Fort Mackinac

Visiting historic Fort Mackinac on Michigan’s Mackinac Island is less of a lesson in history than it is an experience of it. After all, guests don’t so much learn about history by walking around quietly and reading stuff on the walls as they do step into that history for a completely interactive experience.

 No wonder kids love the fort so much!

 Of course, adults enjoy Fort Mackinac, too, whether they’re history buffs or not. Some visitors just come to see the incredible views from the bluff, go shopping in the museum store and have lunch at the Fort Mackinac Tea Room (which has an amazing kids’ menu, by the way).

 But while people of all ages have fun at Fort Mackinac, there are a handful of exhibits that are especially entertaining for kids.

Here are five places to see on a visit to Fort Mackinac with the family:

  • Kids’ Quarters – Located in the Officers’ Stone Quarters, which dates to 1780 and is the oldest surviving building in all of Michigan, the Kids’ Quarters is one of the newest exhibits at Fort Mackinac. The exhibit space features hands-on displays and interactive games that give visitors of all ages a look at what soldier and civilian life was like at Fort Mackinac. For example, there’s a dress-up area where kids can try on uniforms from all eras of the fort’s history and a music area where guests can listen to the music that was played at Fort Mackinac.
  • Post Hospital – The way people live has changed a lot over the past 200 years, and perhaps medical practices have changed as much as anything. That’s why it’s an eye-opening experience to check out the “Military Medicine at Mackinac: 1780-1895” exhibit at Fort Mackinac’s Post Hospital. You can see what it was like for soldiers and civilians at the fort to go to the doctor, and there’s a lot of interactive gadgets for kids to play with including microscopes and stethoscopes.
  • Guardhouse – While Fort Mackinac was “a desirable station” for many soldiers who lived there in the 19th century, everybody didn’t always get along with each other even during times of peace. A visit to the Guardhouse offers a glimpse into military justice at Fort Mackinac. For example, you can hear actual court martial cases and feel like you’re right in the same room as the accused. It’s pretty interesting to find out some of the things that soldiers were put on trial for in the 1800s!
  • Drill Program – Back in 2022 after a two-year hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Drill Program invites visitors of all ages to participate in basic soldier drills on the Parade Ground at Fort Mackinac. Can you march in a straight line? Turn about-face 180 degrees? The Drill Program is an engaging way to experience history at Fort Mackinac. And it’s especially fun for kids, who often are better at the drills than their parents!
  • Reading Room – New for 2022, the Reading Room at Fort Mackinac offers guests an immersive experience in the educational aspects of life as a soldier in the 1880s. Visitors can page through newspapers of the time or use interactive touch screens to scan through the kinds of periodicals that Fort Mackinac soldiers read. Both kids and adults can step back into history and get a sense of why the Army thought it was so important to have Reading Rooms at its forts in the late 19th century.

 There are 14 original buildings preserved at Fort Mackinac, and each of the rest of them also have something of interest for kids. There’s a movie in the North Blockhouse that puts visitors amid the confusion, fear and drama of the British capture of Fort Mackinac during the War of 1812, for example, and period settings and galleries in the Office that showcase the training and duties of Fort Mackinac’s officers.

 Both kids and kids at heart also love watching and hearing the daily cannon blasts from Fort Mackinac. In fact, kids and other visitors ages 13 and up can even sign up to fire the Fort Mackinac cannon on the morning of their visit!

 Fort Mackinac opened for the 2022 season on May 3 and will welcome guests daily through Oct. 23. Buy tickets here for your entire family to visit to Fort Mackinac this year.

Stereoview of Arch Rock

2021 Mackinac State Historic Parks Collections Acquisitions

A beer stein

A souvenir beer stein

The Grand Hotel Loving Cup

One of the more unique additions: a Grand Hotel Loving Cup

In 2021, the collections committee accessioned 247 objects into the Mackinac Island State Park Commission collection and archives. In addition to several purchases, over 115 items were donated to the collection. Although the summer collections internships were cancelled, the commission was able to hire an intern for the 2021/2022 winter. During the summer, the inventory scheduled for the Mackinaw City historic sites including Colonial Michilimackinac, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and Historic Mill Creek was completed. The 2020 winter intern completed the inventory of the archival and postcard collections in the Keith R. Widder Library.

 

 

Ruby mug inscribed by Frank Kriesche

A ruby mug inscribed by Frank Kriesche.

 

A painting of a horse and buggy by Stanley Bielecky

Painting by Stanley Bielecky

As in 2019, several objects were purchased from the collection of the late Ronald J. Rolando. Watercolors and oil paintings by Stanley Bielecky, photographic prints by William H. Gardiner and artwork of many other artists were selected. A unique Grand Hotel loving cup presented in 1894, a souvenir beer stein and a ruby glass mug inscribed by island artist Frank Kriesche were some of the three-dimensional objects chosen. Archival items included an engraving from Henri Chatelain’s early 18th century atlas showing the industry of the beaver fur trade and manufacture, four island hotel menus printed on birchbark and two late 19th century maps of Mackinac Island.

A capstan cover from the SS Chief Wawatam

Capstan cover from the SS Chief Wawatam.

This summer, the commission received a call from a gentleman who had one of the brass capstan covers from the railroad ferry SS Chief Wawatam. The ship had two of these covers which were mounted on top of the capstans on the railcar deck. The capstan is a vertical-axled rotating machine developed for use on sailing ships to multiply the pulling force of seamen when hauling ropes, cables and hawsers. The man’s father had been given the cover back in the late 1980s when the ferry was being scrapped and told his son if he did not want it to throw it away. The son did some research and found the commission had a collection of objects from the ship. After discussion with collections staff, he offered to donate the cover to the commission’s collection. This is a unique piece with the ship’s name, company and shipyard that built the ship and manufacturer of the capstan.

 

A note from W. Stewart Woodfill to a guest from Grand Hotel

Letter on Grand Hotel stationary from W. Stewart Woodfill

Bottles from the Bailey National Park Drugstore

Pharmaceutical bottles from the Dr. John R. Bailey & Sons National Park Drugstore

The commission received several other donations including seven pieces of artwork from the Artist-In-Residence program, a letter on Grand Hotel stationary from W. Stewart Woodfill to a patron and a Westfield Company bicycle belonging to islander Ernst Puttkammer. Two pharmaceutical bottles from the Dr. John R. Bailey & Sons National Park Drugstore were donated by an island contractor and original sanctuary light fixtures were donated by Little Stone Church.

Over the years, the commission has acquired several stereoviews showing Mackinac Island buildings, geological formations, scenic views and other subjects. This year four views were purchased showing the New Mackinac Hotel, Arch Rock from below, Robinson’s Folly and Devil’s Kitchen. Stereoview cards were a popular souvenir in the late 19th century. The three-dimensional views could be purchased from many local stores and taken home to be viewed through a stereopticon. P.B. Greene, J.A. Jenney and Webster & Albee were some of the photographers who took the images and published them on Mackinac Island or in cities around the Great Lakes.

Stereoview of Arch Rock

A stereoview of Arch Rock

A stereview of the New Mackinac Hotel

A stereoview of the New Mackinac Hotel.

This is only a small sample of the type of objects Mackinac State Historic Parks collects during a given year.  We are always looking for donations and items to purchase which will help the commission to continue its mission of educating the public about the history of the region.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…)