19th Century Women Writers and Mackinac Island

By Maria Bur

  For decades, Mackinac Island and the Straits area has been a rich source of inspiration for writers. Some literary ties remain well remembered, like Herman Mellville calling Mackinac by name in Moby-Dick, while others fade and are largely forgotten in time. 

  Two such 19th century women writers, long overlooked compared to their male contemporaries, nevertheless also took inspiration from Mackinac’s one-of-a-kind scenery and made notable, even remarkable contributions to literature. 

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft. Courtesy U-M Library Digital Collections. Bentley Image Bank, Bentley Historical Library. Accessed: March 05, 2021.

  It is only in recent years that the private writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft have been uncovered and recognized for the accomplishment they are. History better remembers her husband Henry Schoolcraft, a geographer, ethnologist, and United States Indian agent for Michigan beginning in 1822. He made a career studying American Indian tribes. But it’s the poetry and translations of his wife Jane, a Métis, or mixed Ojibwe and Scotch-Irish woman, that have just as much to say about Ojibwe life, culture, and womanhood in the 19th century. 

  As a woman straddling two different cultures, Schoolcraft took inspiration from places like Mackinac Island, where she lived for most of the 1830s, and from her Ojibwe heritage to craft collections of poetry in English and Ojibwe, wrote, in English, at least eight traditional Ojibwe stories, and transcribed and translated a variety of other Ojibwe tales.

  Schoolcraft is among the first American Indian writers, the first known Indian woman writer, by some measures the first Indian woman poet, as well as the first to write poems in a Native American language. Recent scholarship has even determined that Schoolcraft’s Ojibwe tales served as inspiration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha

  Another 19th century women writer familiar with Mackinac Island, and whose literary talents remain partially eclipsed by her contemporaries, is Constance Fenimore Woolson. This American Realist is perhaps most remembered for her friendship with Henry James and for her well-known great uncle, James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, but recent scholars argue she should be celebrated in her own right. 

  Woolson spent portions of her childhood and young adulthood in the midwest and on Mackinac Island, which is where several of her short stories and novels are set.  

  Of particular note is Anne, an 1880 novel published first as a serialization in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, is partially set on the island. In Anne the protagonist begins her journey in her village on Mackinac Island headed for the northeastern United States, only to return home at the end to familiar ground. Forever known for her picturesque and vibrant descriptions of the natural world, Woolson’s Anne pays fitting homage to Mackinac Island. 

  Woolson’s work remains a product of her time and echoes other 19th century literature, but also departs from the norm in important ways. Woolson is a woman writing often about other women as explorers setting out into the new and unknown, deepening their own mental and spiritual lives as they go. Though her heroine in Anne tends to be extremely self-sacrificing, a common literary depiction of the time, Woolson also imbues her with a sense of independence and self-determination, that coupled with Woolson’s own desire to write about uncomfortable, difficult subjects, sets her apart from other 19th century writers.

  Although she’s little more than a footnote in 19th century literature, Woolson’s legacy remains alive on Mackinac Island in the form of a bronze plaque located within Mackinac Island State Park next to Fort Mackinac. Overlooking a bluff, part of the plaque dedicated in 1916 honors Woolson for “her love of this island and its beauty in the words of her heroine, Anne.” 

  Maria Bur is a freelance writer and graduate of Saginaw Valley State University. She enjoys writing about women’s history, literature, media, and culture.

Card Games on Mackinac Island

The Mitchell House, home of David and Elizabeth Mitchell.

Studying the lives of 19th century people on Mackinac Island often brings us to the work that they did. We know there were soldiers, fur traders, and families living and working together on the island, but what did they do for fun? Luckily for us there are a few clues.

In 1830, a woman named Juliette Kenzie traveled to Mackinac Island on a steamship from Detroit. She was originally from Connecticut and was an experienced traveler. She wrote an account of her excursion and mentioned that while the boat “the ladies played whist” to pass the time.

While on the island itself, Juliette noted that there were many whist parties held at Mrs. Mitchell’s home. Elizabeth Mitchell, a prominent Ojibwa and French-Canadian woman, was very much involved in the work of the fur trade with her husband, Dr. David Mitchell. While David mostly remained in British Canada after the War of 1812, Elizabeth supervised their business on Mackinac Island, and was a leader of the local society. Going to her house for a whist party was probably an event that many Mackinac Island residents in their circle experienced and enjoyed.

Agatha and Edward Biddle lived across the street from the Mitchells, and cards were part of social life in the Biddle household as well. Retail records indicate that Edward purchased cards from the American Fur Company store, located down Market Street. Other Mackinac Island residents also picked up a deck or two from the American Fur Company store, including Fort Mackinac post surgeon Dr. Richard Satterlee and his wife Mary. Other items sold at the store, like violin strings, remind us that early 19th century life on Mackinac Island wasn’t all work.

A rear view of the home of Edward and Agatha Biddle, across from the Mitchells and down Market Street from the American Fur Company store.

If you would like to try you hand at whist and experience a popular Mackinac Island card game of the 1820 and 1830s, grab a deck of cards and follow the instructions below. Visit mackinacparks.com for more information about planning your own visit to Mackinac Island, and please consider joining Mackinac Associates, who make many of our programs possible.

– Rules of Whist:

You will need 4 players and a standard 52-card deck. The cards rank from highest to lowest: A K Q J 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 in each suit. The players play in two partnerships with the partners sitting opposite each other. To decide the partnerships, the players draw cards and the players with the 2 highest cards play against the two lowest. Any comments on the cards between partners is strictly against the rules.

– Shuffling and Dealing:

Any player can shuffle the cards, though usually it is the player to the dealer’s left. The dealer can choose to shuffle last if they prefer. The player on the dealer’s right cuts the cards before dealing. The dealer then passes out 13 cards, one at a time, face down. The last card, which belongs to the dealer, is turned face up and determines trump. The trump card stays face-up on the table until play comes to the dealer. The dealer may then pick up the card and place it in their hand. The deal advances clockwise.

– Play:

The player left of the dealer starts. They may lead with any card in their hand. Play continues clockwise with each player following suit if they can. If they cannot follow suit, any card may be played. The trick is won by the highest card of the suit led, or the highest trump. After each trick is played, its stack of cards should be placed face down near the player who won that trick. Before the next trick starts, a player may ask to review the cards from the last trick only. Once the lead card is played, no previously played cards can be reviewed. The winner of each trick begins the next round. Play continues until all 13 cards are played and then the score is recorded.

– Scoring:

The partners that won the most tricks score 1 point for each trick after 6. The first team to score 5 wins.