Dive into the past at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and learn why ‘shipwrecks don’t just happen’

You may know the story of the Titanic, the luxury ocean liner that struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and quickly sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. But did you know that another large ship met a similar fate off Michigan’s coastline just three years earlier?

“We got around to the men struggling in the water as quickly as possible,” the surviving Capt. Timese Lemay reported in the days following the Eber Ward’s sinking. “Some had grabbed the wreckage. Others were holding fast to pieces of the ice floe. We pulled six into our boat. Then I looked for the others. They were gone. Nothing but pieces of wreckage, some ice and a few bubbles showed where they had been.” (Photo credit: Cliff Roberts, Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Preserve)

  The Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse tells the story:

It was April 1909 when the Eber Ward departed Chicago on its first trip of the spring. The wooden freighter picked up a load of corn in Milwaukee and then charted a course up and around Michigan’s Lower Peninsula toward Port Huron.

The day was calm and sunny as the ship neared the present-day location of the Mackinac Bridge. But as is often the case in early spring on the Straits of Mackinac, the thawing water still was quite slushy. And unfortunately, there were large chunks of solid ice, too.

Going too fast for the conditions, the Eber Ward slammed into an ice floe that ripped a hole in the ship’s bow, filling the peaceful morning with a surge of panic among the 16 crewmen. Within 10 minutes, the 213-foot-long freighter had disappeared.

One of two lifeboats safely launched, while the other was capsized by the sinking ship. Eleven men went into the water. Five were never found.

Shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac are ‘usually someone’s fault’

  The Eber Ward is one of more than 100 wrecks that remain on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, the narrow passage from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron between Michigan’s Lower and Upper peninsulas. Each one has its own incredible story of human tragedy, from the “Sandusky,” an 1850s sailing vessel that was overwhelmed by waves and is the oldest-known shipwreck in the Straits of Mackinac, to the “Cedarville,” a 600-foot modern freighter that went down after a collision in heavy fog in 1965.

  Each of those three wrecks occurred for different reasons. Yet, they illustrate the museum’s overriding theme: “Shipwrecks don’t just happen,” says Craig P. Wilson, chief curator for Mackinac State Historic Parks. “It’s usually someone’s fault.”

  Museum visitors get to see exactly what caused the various shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac. And there are artifacts from the ships on display, including the original figurehead from the Sandusky, kitchenware from the galley of the Eber Ward and, ironically, a paper safety placard from the Cedarville. There’s even a revolver that was recovered from a wooden freighter that was cut by ice and sank in 1894.

  The Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum also features dive footage from the wrecks. You can see the Eber Ward’s damaged hull, which sits upright and intact about 140 feet below the surface, as well as the damaged lifeboat that went down with the ship. And there are three sets of models that show the Sandusky, Eber Ward and Cedarville as they appeared while in service, and how they look now on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac.

RELATED: See underwater footage of the Sandusky

Plan a visit to the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse

  The “Titanic” movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio still ranks among the highest-grossing Hollywood features ever. And just like the Titanic, the shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac are fascinating, too.

  Yet, they’re also sobering. In many cases, people lost their lives. As Wilson notes, “there is a real human cost to these events” as people suffered the consequences of their own or other people’s decisions.

  Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum are open daily through Oct. 10 this year. In addition to the museum, the historic site at the southern end of the Mackinac Bridge in Mackinaw City features a “Shipwrecks of the Straits” movie, daily demonstrations of a fog signal whistle and a lighthouse keeper’s quarters with period settings and exhibits about the science of lighthouses and what life was like for the people who lived there.

  The lighthouse tower itself is currently closed.

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.

Passenger Pigeons at Mackinac

“It is reported that wild pigeons have arrived in this section, and are coming in great numbers. This would, we think, indicate that winter was over.”   Northern Tribune, March 9, 1878 Cheboygan, Michigan 
  As long as people have lived in the north woods, they’ve eagerly awaited signs of spring. For many centuries, the season of melting ice and flowing maple sap was also marked by tremendous flocks of passenger pigeons arriving from the south. For the past 130 years, however, no one has experienced the awe of a pigeon flock descending like a force of natureEctopistes migratorius, the passenger pigeon, has disappeared.  

Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. Mark Catesby (1743)

  While related to pigeons and doves of today, passenger (or wild) pigeons were unique in the animal kingdom. About 50% larger than a mourning dove, the species was known for its long tail and wing feathersbright iridescent plumage, and deep red eyes. Congregating in huge flocks, they flew at speeds up to 60mph and settled in colonial nesting sites covering many thousands of acres. These colorful birds were common east of the Rocky Mountains, especially where their favorite foods of acorns and beech nuts were abundant.  

Ornithology of the United States and of Canada. Thomas Nuttall (1832)

  At the Straits of Mackinac, archaeologists have found passenger pigeon bones at Colonial Michilimackinac and Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, especially near Native American and French-Canadian habitationsDescribing the Straits in 1773, trader Peter Pond noted “These Wood afford Partreages, hairs, Venesen, foxis & Rackcones, Sum Wild Pigins.     Arriving iflocks of millions, pigeons meant a suddenly abundant food source during a lean time of year. Thomas Nuttall, the first botanist to explore the Straits, also studied birds. In 1832, he wrote: “The approach of the mighty feathered army with a loud rushing roar, and a stirring breeze, attended by a sudden darkness, might be mistaken for a fearful tornado about to overwhelm the face of nature. For several hours together the vast host, extending some miles in breadth, still continues to pass in flocks without diminution… and they shut out the light as if it were an eclipse. 

Lyster O’Brien, c. 1855. Courtesy Edward Nicholas, in The Chaplain’s Lady (1987)

  In the 19th century, accounts of pigeons at the Straits became increasingly common. IJuly 1852, Lyster O’Brien, 15-year-old son of post chaplain Rev. John O’Brien, wrote from Fort Mackinac“My dear Uncle, We are all happy to learn that you are coming here, and will you please bring up your gun with you, for we expect plenty of pigeons this summer, and I think we can tramp all over the Island with you after them…”    Pigeons not eaten locally were killed by market hunters who travelled far to find roosting flocks. After being packed in barrels of salt for preservation, their harvest was shipped to cities such as Detroit, Chicago, and New York, where hotels and restaurants bought them by the dozen. Crates of live pigeons were sold for trapshooting competitions.     In 1862, Henry T. Philips opened a grocery business in CheboyganHe quickly became a major exporter of wild gameshipped by steamboat and railroad. He recalled, In 1864… I had a shipment of live wild pigeons which we brought down the Cheboygan River from Black Lake in crates holding six dozen each… In 1868, at Cheboygan, I took over six hundred fat birds at sunrise. I sold to the United States officers at Mackinac for trap shooting, also to Island House [hotel].”    Organized by groups such as the Cheboygan Gun Club, trapshooting matches were popular from the 1850s through the 1890s. On July 4, 1880, a target shooting match pitted members of the Cheboygan club against Fort Mackinac soldiers. After the contest, some races were held, followed by a public “pigeon shoot” featuring 15 dozen birds  In 1878, the largest colonial nesting in Michigan history occurred near Petoskey, covering an area of 150,000 acres. The following year, in his Annotated List of the Birds of MichiganDr. Morris Gibbs noted wild pigeons were “exceedingly common some seasons.” In such huge numbers, it seemed unimaginable their population would ever decline.  

Northern Tribune, July 3, 1880.

  Market hunting, trap shooting, and extreme habitat loss due to lumbering caused pigeon numbers to fall sharply through the 1880s. The last large nesting in Michigan occurred in the spring of 1881, near Traverse City. That same year, a heavy sleet storm occurred on October 15 as a large flock of pigeons flew south across the Straits of Mackinac, causing many to drop into the water and drown.    

Prang’s Natural History Series for Children (1878)

On April 22, 1882, Cheboygan’s Northern Tribune reported: “Some of our hunters were led to believe there were pigeons in plenty a few miles from town… but it was only a cruel hoax.” A few years later, Morris Gibbs observed pigeons on Mackinac Island in June 1885, but ornithologists only located small nestings in proceeding years.  

Steward Edward White (1912), Library of Congress, Bain News Service Photograph Collection

  Near the end of the century, brothers Stewart Edward and T. Gilbert White spent summers at their family’s Mackinac Island cottage. A prolific author, Stewart’s essay and list, Birds Observed on Mackinac Island, Michigan, During the Summers of 1889, 1890, and 1891, was published by the American Ornithologists Union. Of pigeons, he wrote, “A large flock was seen feeding in beech woods, August 30, 1889, after which they were frequently seen. About a hundred were observed September 10, and on September 12 the main body departed None were observed in 1890 or 1891.”    On September 14, 1898, the last known passenger pigeon in Michigan was shot near Detroit. At thtime, it was feared that other iconic animals, such as the bald eagle and American bison would follow this sad decline. The very last passenger pigeon in the world, “Martha,” died in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.     Today, it appears the extinction of this incredible species was not entirely in vain. Hard lessons learned helped fuel 20th century conservation efforts that brought some species back from the brink of disaster. During your next visit to the Straits of Mackinac, search the skies and you’re likely to find a bald eagle. As you watch it soarremember the tale of the passenger pigeon, once a sign of spring in the north woods. No matter how common something seems, it’s up to us to care for all life to ensure the awe of future generations. 

Gun Parts from the South Southwest Rowhouse at Michilimackinac

Between 1998 and 2007 Mackinac State Historic Parks excavated the east end unit of the South Southwest Rowhouse, now the site of Hearthside Museum Store in the reconstructed rowhouse. From its construction in the 1730s through the time of the 1763 attack it was lived in by French Canadian fur traders, mostly members of the Desriviere family. When the British returned with more soldiers in 1764, this was one of the houses they rented for foot soldiers to live in before the barracks was built in 1769. It appears to have reverted to a French Canadian trading household in the 1770s, before being moved to Mackinac Island in 1780.

One of the most interesting categories of artifacts excavated at the house was gun parts. In part this was because of the quantity present. A total of sixty-one were recovered, thirty-one (whole or fragmentary) gun worms and thirty other gun parts. By way of comparison, House D of the Southeast Rowhouse, the Bolon-Mitchell house excavated from 1989 to 1997, yielded thirty-five total gun parts, ten of which were gun worms. We have found eleven gun parts, six gun worms and five other parts, in the first thirteen seasons of excavation at House E of the Southeast Rowhouse.

Two-eared gun worm.

Of the sixty-one gun parts from the South Southwest Rowhouse end unit, just over half (thirty-four, twenty-two gun worms and a dozen other parts) came from in and around the cellar, suggesting the parts were stored there.

1st model Long Land buttplate.

Two gun parts from British military weapons came from the cellar. The first was an unusual two-eared gun worm, the only one found during the project. The second was a buttplate from a first model Long Land Service Pattern musket. Both of these could have been used by foot soldiers of the 60th Regiment living in the house in the late 1760s.

Two other parts suggest that one of the traders living in the house was stockpiling gun parts, possibly for sale. The first is an unused wrist escutcheon from a c.1740 Type D fusil fin, a high quality French civilian gun. A wrist escutcheon serves as an anchor for the screw attaching the triggerguard to the stock of the gun. We can tell this one was never used because it was never drilled through. It is currently on display in the Treasures from the Sand exhibit at Colonial Michilimackinac. The second is a buttplate which cannot be further identified because it was deliberately wrapped in birchbark to protect it. It was found near the bottom of the cellar.

Wrist escutcheon from a c.1740.

Buttplate wrapped in birch bark.

Gun parts are just one artifact category that tells us more about what the inhabitants of the South Southwest Rowhouse were doing and where they were doing it. If you are interested in learning more, the final report on the project will be published later in 2021. In the meantime, there is more information on the project in the Archaeology pages of the Explore at Home section of mackinacparks.com.

She Lived Here, Too: Sally Ainse

. Sally Ainse was one of many people drawn to Michilimackinac in the 18th century. During her life she worked as an interpreter, fur trader, farmer, and real estate investor. Her work in the fur trade gives us insights into how women moved through the Great Lakes during this era of business and opportunity.

  Ainse was born in the 1720s along the Susquehanna River to a family belonging to the Oneida Nation. In her early childhood, she was almost certainly exposed to the fur trade business. Nearly all Indigenous communities worked with traders from England, France, or Canada to purchase supplies in exchange for beaver, otter, muskrat, and any number of other furs. She grew up speaking her native language while also likely learning the European languages spoken around her.

  By the age of about 18, Ainse married a fur trader named Andrew Montour. He and Ainse did not remain lifelong partners. When they separated he received custody of their older children, while she was able to keep the youngest. To support herself and her baby, she worked at a variety of jobs. As an official Indian Interpreter, Sally was able to use her highly valuable language skills to assist government officials in negotiations with various Indigenous nations. At the same time, she also bought and sold merchandise to make money in the fur trade business.

An interpreter at modern Colonial Michilimackinac, dressed as the historic residents of Michilimackinac, like Sally Ainse, would have dressed.

  To tap into more lucrative markets, Ainse moved from the New York region further west to Niagara, Detroit, and then, in the mid-1760s, to Michilimackinac. By that time, the area was under British military control, although the trade was still being largely run by French-Canadians and Anishinaabek people. Most people at the straits were transient, which created a very diverse population, and Ainse’s own history growing up elsewhere would not have been in any way remarkable at Michilimackinac. She rented or purchased a unit in a rowhouse and clearly had the means to support herself.

  Her activities at Michilimackinac were likely typical of other fur traders. While she did not leave records herself, her name does appear in a few documents related to the Michilimackinac community. In April 1774, John Askin wrote about her in his journal when she left Michilimackinac for the Grand Traverse area to meet with the Odawa living there. This meeting was likely a trading event, although Askin did not specify the exact purpose of the trip. In any case, she was not gone long and came back just a few short days later, seemingly successful in whatever she had traveled there to do.

  In another instance, a British soldier named William Maxwell wrote about his interactions with Sally. Maxwell served in the British Army during some of the most well-known campaigns of the Seven Years’ War. After the war ended, he served in the western Great Lakes as commissary, and that is when he and Ainse met at Michilimackinac. In a letter between Maxwell and one of his acquaintances he described a proposal he made to Ainse:

till I was better Convinced of her Sincerity, I was willing to a small settlement for a year, and in that Time if her Temper would please me I would have pleased her if I could, but she would not trust me with her so she walked off and I did not hinder her, for she had tried me heartily, (I mean with her Tongue and Hands both) I believe on the Whole Socrates need no more be quoted for his patience with his Wife where my Storey is known.

A rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac, similar to where Sally Ainse would have lived.

  The length of Sally and William’s relationship is unknown. Maxwell left Michilimackinac in 1772 and by 1775 Ainse had left Michilimackinac to live at Detroit. By 1779 she owned at least two houses near the city as well as livestock and enslaved people. She traded in a variety of items including fur, rum, and cider, perhaps from her own orchards. She continued to do business with John Askin, who similarly had relocated to the area from Mackinac. Ainse was well-known by Major Arent DePeyster and in 1780 when the commanding officer made a list of assets at Detroit, he included two bateau loads of merchandise as belonging to her.

  Much of Ainse’s later life was spent petitioning the government. Shortly after moving to Detroit, Ainse began purchasing land on what would become the Canadian side of the Detroit River. Eventually, Sally’s ownership of many of these properties came into question, and she fought a long battle to keep them. In the end she lost most of her property after the government of Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) refused to acknowledge her ownership of the land.

  Sally Ainse died in 1823 after a long life of consistently being involved in the fur trade. Her diverse work as a fur trader, interpreter, diplomat, farmer, and real estate owner was typical for the time and gives us a better understanding into how women successfully worked in the Great Lakes fur trade. Visit our website for more information or to visit the recreated fort at Colonial Michilimackinac that Ainse, Maxwell and many others called home.

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.

Row Covers and Bell Jars

As many visitors to Colonial Michilimackinac know, we have a lot of gardens inside the palisade. The walls of the fort, as well as the geography of northern Michigan, create a unique climate at our site. But what if we need more protection from the weather? In the 18th century, gardeners devised a number of creative ways to extend the growing season and control the climate to shelter their garden plants.

Starting in the 17th century, some gardeners began using a tool called a bell jar, or cloche. Resembling a small bell, glass cloches functioned as a miniature greenhouse. Gardeners placed jars over an individual plant, occasionally with one side propped up to allow air circulation. Sunlight passing through the glass warmed the air inside. While it may be cool outside, the plant underneath the glass stayed cozy and warm, and continued growing where otherwise it may not have survived. This method is useful at Michilimackinac today when we are setting out our warm-weather crops, such as melon and cucumber, which need warm temperatures to grow well.

Another tricky tool that gardeners used was a row cover. Row covers were inexpensively built with paper, glue, a wooden frame, and linseed oil.  Although seemingly fragile and susceptible to damage, even from a heavy rain, paper row covers were surprisingly resilient. Gardeners could expect to get a full summer’s use before the paper would need to be replaced. If we can keep the chickens away from them, our row covers at Michilimackinac usually last from April to October.

The most labor-intensive way of protecting plants in a small garden involved the use of cold frames and hot beds. These wooden boxes needed to be built with “lights” or windows on the top, and were usually oriented toward the southern sky to catch as much light as possible. They worked by trapping heat from the sun under the glass, similar to a cloche but on a larger scale. Gardeners could further heat the interior of their frames by placing them over a pit filled with fresh manure. With a layer of soil on top of the manure, these hot beds could reach temperatures high enough to start planting lettuce outside in a Michigan March.

Various gardening how-to books from the 18th century suggest the use of an assortment of strategies and tools to protect important plants from the cold and the wind. Stop by Colonial Michilimackinac to see if you can spot the cloches, row covers and frames that are keeping our plants happy. Many elements of our gardens, including the cloches, were provided through the generosity of Mackinac Associates. If you would like to contribute to the Michilimackinac gardens, or any other Mackinac State Historic Parks’ project, consider becoming a Mackinac Associate today.

Early Christmas at Mackinac

In the midst of the holiday season, and with Christmas upon us, let’s take a look at one of the earliest recorded Christmas celebrations in the Straits of Mackinac.

This map, drawn around 1717, shows the location of the original St. Ignace Mission, labeled “maison des Jesuits,” as well as the Odawa and Huron communities nearby. Edward Ayer Collection, Newberry Library

  During the winter of 1679, Fr. Jean Enjalran supervised the Jesuit mission of St Ignace. Originally intended to serve a group of refugee Huron people brought to Mackinac by Fr. Jacques Marquette, the mission also served converts among the local Odawa. Combined with ministering to a French trading settlement that sprang up soon after the mission’s founding in 1671, Fr. Enjalran spent much of his time preaching to Native converts and instructing them in the Catholic faith. There were so many Odawa people living near the St. Ignace mission that the Jesuits eventually set up a smaller church, dedicated to St. Francis de Borgia, to specifically minister in their communities.

During one of the      Christmas processions the Huron carried a banner depicting the Holy House of Loreto, which some believe was the house that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus lived in while Christ was a child. The remains of the house are now enshrined in the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto, Italy. This image may have been chosen thanks to the Huron’s familiarity with Fr. Pierre-Joseph-Marie Chaumonot, another Jesuit who worked extensively with the tribe in New France and who felt a special connection with the Holy House after visiting multiple times before sailing for Canada.

  During the Christmas season, Fr. Enjalran supervised an elaborate series of services, processions, and feasts to mark the birth of Christ. In preparation, the Huron converts built a grotto in the mission church, complete with a cradle and a statue of the infant Jesus. After Fr. Enjalran conducted a midnight mass on Christmas, the Hurons and some of the Odawa asked that the priest bring the statue to their villages. Instead of simply moving the statue, the Hurons planned an elaborate procession for Epiphany, recreating the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ. The Hurons, including those who were not converts, split into three large groups, each with a tribal leader wearing a crown and carrying a scepter to represent the three kings and accompanied by the sounds of trumpets. Proceeded by a banner carried on standard depicting a star on a sky-blue field, the three groups marched to the church, where they presented gifts to at the grotto and prayed. Fr. Enjalran then wrapped the statue in a fine linen cloth, and followed the procession, this time led by two Frenchmen carrying a banner depicting Mary and Jesus, to the Huron village. Once there, all of the Hurons, including those who had not converted to Christianity, participated in a dance and feast. A week later Fr. Enjalran supervised a similar procession, with the Huron this time visiting the Odawa community for another feast. A complete description of these rituals can be found in the Jesuit Relations of 1679, vol. 61.

  We hope that you enjoy this festive season. From all of us at Mackinac State Historic Parks, happy holidays!

She Lived Here, Too: Fanny Corbusier

The Fort Mackinac Soldier’s Barracks in the 1880s.

  For a brief time, from April of 1882 until September of 1884, Fanny Dunbar Corbusier and her family lived at Fort Mackinac. She and her family thoroughly enjoyed their time on the island, which was already a tourist destination. While living on Mackinac Island, Fanny and her family took advantage of the island’s natural beauty and social scene to engage in activities familiar to modern visitors.

  Fanny was born in 1838 in Baltimore, but also lived in Louisiana and Maryland as a child. She was an active part of her church, wherever she lived. Public service was important to her and she served as a nurse during the Civil War. At the age of 30 she met and married William Henry Corbusier, a military contract surgeon. He was one of many northern soldiers occupying Mobile, Alabama with the army after the war. Together, they enjoyed a 49 year-long marriage and raised five sons. The marriage plunged Fanny into the transient life of civilians attached to the army, moving from station to station as William was transferred to different posts.

  At various times, Fanny and the family lived in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, the Philippines, the Dakota Territory, Wyoming Territory, Kansas, Colorado, Virginia, Indiana, California, New York, Nebraska, Alabama and of course Michigan. Their extensive travels were facilitated by regular long-distance train trips. The growing national railroad network allowed the army to move troops (and associated civilians like Fanny) quickly and easily around the country.

  Within the small, close-knit army community, William’s position bestowed a level of social prestige upon Fanny. Officers and their families were generally quartered in larger, nicer homes, separate from the enlisted soldiers. Fanny had, and expected to have, servants to help her with cooking, laundry and other chores. She hired a nurse to assist with her first baby and at various times employed off-duty soldiers, Chinese workers, and Indigenous people to work in her household. Fanny hired a woman named Carrie Greatsinger to work as a nurse for the children before moving to Fort Mackinac.

The Hill Quarters at Fort Mackinac.

  Regardless of where she lived, Fanny took the education of her children seriously. As a child, she attended the Hannah More Academy in Maryland, where her mother was principal. While raising her own children, she made sure that they always had access to education. At Mackinac, her younger children attended classes in the Fort Mackinac reading room, where Sgt. Fred Grant and Pvt. Crawford Anderson served as teachers. In addition to school, while on Mackinac Island Fanny also “sent for all of the histories and romances of Mackinac that were ever published” and read with her family about Alexis St. Martin, Dr. William Beaumont, and John Tanner.

  Fanny and William shared a lifelong interest in nature and spent time observing “the superb moonlight night” during their winters on Mackinac. In the fall they ”saw the island in its best array. The woods were gorgeous in the vari-colored trees and shrubbery, and then the aurora borealis in all its splendor would sometimes be seen.” Fall on Mackinac Island is still one of the most beautiful sights in Northern Michigan.

  Fanny Dunbar Corbusier left Mackinac Island in 1884 after experiencing it in much the same way as countless others of the past and present. Her life only brought her back one more time in 1892. She visited with old friends and went for “lovely drives” to see what had changed. If you would like to learn more about the experiences of Fanny Corbusier and the other women who called Fort Mackinac home in the 18th and 19th centuries, check out our website for details on how to visit. Also consider joining Mackinac Associates, a friends group that makes it possible for us to interpret Fanny’s life as well as countless other facets of Mackinac’s rich history.

John Askin’s Garden: Potatoes

Potato Flower

Although most food was purchased and shipped to Michilimackinac, local gardens provided an important source of fresh produce for the community’s 18th century residents. We currently maintain over 5,000 square feet of gardens at Colonial Michilimackinac, guided by a variety of historic sources. One of the most interesting 18th century documents at our disposal is the journal of the Michilimackinac merchant John Askin, who recorded his garden activities in 1774 and 1775. In this semi-regular series, we’ll examine some of the plants Askin (or more likely the free and enslaved employees working for him) was cultivating at Michilimackinac in the 1770s.

Askin really liked growing potatoes. They are the most-mentioned vegetable in his journal. If he wrote about his farm or garden, it was highly likely that he was writing about potatoes.

They are first mentioned on April 27, 1774 when he “Sett potatoes at the farm” and once more the next day “sett potatoes at the farm.”  The next month he planted more potatoes on four different occasions. It appears they grew well over the summer, and he was able to dig most of them on the 8th of November just a couple of days after a 4-inch snowfall. We finally see the last mention of in 1774 on November 14 when he “dug the last of my potatoes.”

With one season of cultivation under his belt, Askin decided that he could perhaps get a better potato crop if he changed the ways in which he was planting them. In 1775 he decided to try some experiments. Experimenting in the garden or on the farm is something that growers love, no matter the time period. In the 18th century there was a huge interest in how things grew and the various ways of improving crops. Gardeners around the world were developing new methods for growing plants and it is no surprise that it was happening at Michilimackinac as well.

On August 29, 1775, Askin wrote that the potatoes were put into the ground “with a little dung in the holes.” This is different from his previous entries where he does not mention planting with any sort of manure at all. Gardeners like Philip Miller wrote pages and pages about the worth of various sorts of animal and vegetable manure in the 18th century. Even George Washington experimented with various types of muck to see which would grow the best beans, etc. While Askin does not tell us the sort that he used, he did have a small number of cows and horses. Both animals produce excellent dung with superb growing qualities.

Digging up potatoes at Colonial Michilimackinac.

He also “Set three hills of potatoes near the pease” on October 28. In each of these hills he employed a different method of planting. In the first hill he put “one potatoe cut in 3,” and in the second and third hills he put “3 whole potatoes” about “4 inches deep.” Modern gardeners still debate over the necessity and results of planting potatoes whole versus cutting them into pieces. It seems like cutting the potatoes can potentially leave the pieces more vulnerable to disease. However, if you have a small amount available to plant you will get more by dividing the tubers that you do have. Unfortunately, John himself did not tell us which side of the debate he stood on after his experiments.

No matter how you plant them, potatoes are a welcome addition to any garden. They are an easy and reliable vegetable to grow whether it is 1774, 1775 or 2020. The next time you come to Colonial Michilimackinac see if you can spot the potatoes growing in our gardens in the same way they were being grown nearly 250 years ago. Check back for future entries about other parts of John Askin’s garden, and consider contributing to Mackinac Associates, which makes our gardens and many other activities possible.