Staying Warm: Women’s Winter Clothing at Colonial Michilimackinac

 With winter settling in on the Straits of Mackinac, it can be difficult to image what life was like here in the 18th century. When guests visit Colonial Michilimackinac during the summer months, they get to see staff dressed for warm weather, but people often wonder: what did they do they when it got cold?

 For most women living at Michilimackinac year-round, the first thing to think about was changing the type of textiles that they were wearing. Light-weight summer wools and linens would be swapped for warmer or heavier layers. Wool was the obvious answer and imported from Europe in abundance. Some wools were so soft that they were more than comfortable to wear next to the skin while others were coarser and better suited for outerwear.

 Silk was another winter fabric option. It was lightweight, came in an amazing array of colors and allowed for less bulk. It has the ability to hold heat close to the body and is still used for long underwear today. In the 18th century it was used for mitts, petticoats, gowns, neckerchiefs, stockings, hats, and cloaks. Fur was another warm option but considered to be a little too bulky to make into a full garment. It was used more often as a trim for cloaks, gowns and for accessories such as muffs and mittens.

 Another option was to mix fabrics. Petticoats or skirts could be quilted with wool or down between the layers of wool or silk. Some women also wore quilted under-waistcoats that were meant to hold the heat close to the body and be hidden under their other clothing. Cloaks with hoods were sometimes lined and quilted with eiderdown to keep the head and core especially warm.

 The key to staying warm for the 18th century woman was to choose the right fabrics and layer up. If you are interested in seeing 18th century women’s winter clothing in action, come to Colonial Michilimackinac on December 11 for a celebration of the holiday season. For more information or tickets visit mackinacparks.com/a-colonial-christmas

She Lived Here Too: Marie Constance Chevalier

During the early years of Michilimackinac’s history not many people settled down at the straits permanently. Most people, especially French soldiers and fur traders, spent a relatively short period at the settlement before moving on. It is somewhat unique, then, for us to find a person that spent their entire life at Michilimackinac. Marie Constance Chevalier was born, lived, and died at Michilimackinac, witnessing huge changes in the community.

 Her parents’ sixth child, Marie Constance was born at Michilimackinac in 1719. She likely did not have a formal education, but certainly learned a fair amount about the fur trade business from her parents. They came to Michilimackinac as merchants around 1718, becoming successful and well-known in the area. Growing up it would not have been unusual to see Chinese tea, Caribbean sugar, and textiles from France in her parent’s household.

 Marie Constance married Joseph Ainse in 1741, when she was 22 years old. Joseph was a carpenter and probably came to Michilimackinac specifically to build the church, St. Anne de Michilimackinac. Joseph and Marie had a baby in 1743, but she died soon after birth. The baby’s internment under the newly-built church was the first to be documented in the records. A year later Joseph and Marie Constance had another baby and named him Joseph Louis.

 Marie Constance’s husband died during a trip to Cahokia in 1746. After his death she stayed at Michilimackinac. It is unclear from the records what she did to support herself, but she still had a fairly large family living nearby and likely had significant connections throughout the community. Around that same time, her father also died, leaving her mother to continue in the fur trade business as a widow herself.

 During this period of Michilimackinac’s history the fort was expanded and repaired. It was a lively place, especially in the summers when new fur traders were arriving and using the area as a transshipment point for the trade. One of these fur traders was a man named de Quindre who came to Michilimackinac to trade from Fort St. Joseph with a partner named Marin. It is unclear when they met, but by 1749 Marie Constance had a baby and named de Quindre as the father. It is quite clear that they were not married, as he already had a wife and Marie Constance was listed as “the widow” of her late husband Joseph Ainse. She apparently suffered no stigma for having a child while unmarried. After the baby was born, de Quindre left Michilimackinac and ended up living at Detroit with his wife, continuing to work as a fur trader and enlisting in the local militia.

 Marie gave birth to a daughter in February 1751, and chose not to identify the father in baptismal records. He may have been Louis Cardin, who married Marie in July 1751. This second husband of Marie Constance was a soldier in the French army. Louis Cardin may have come to the area in 1749 with the commanding officer Faber. Originally from Trois Rivieres, Louis was relatively well-educated. After he finished his service with the military, he and Marie Constance stayed at Michilimackinac. He became the notary and later justice of the peace. Records are unclear, but Louis Cardin and Marie Constance appear to have had at least five children together between 1752 and 1762.

 Meanwhile, many changes were taking place at Michilimackinac. The French garrison abandoned the post after the fall of New France in 1760, while British troops arrived in 1761. For the most part, the change in leadership did not significantly alter private life at Michilimackinac. Business continued as usual with some British traders added to the mix.

 By 1763, however, tensions between the British and many of the Indigenous people exploded into violence, including the surprise attack and capture of Michilimackinac by the local Ojibwa in June. We don’t know where Marie Constance was or what she experienced during the attack. From other accounts, the French residents were largely left unharmed, sometimes plundering their British neighbors who were killed or captured. The attack happened quickly but left the community in an unstable position. Charles Langlade, another longtime resident of Michilimackinac was put in charge of commanding the post. Langlade was well known and had a close relationship with many of the French residents, including Marie Constance. In 1754, as notary, her husband Louis had signed the marriage contract between Langlade and his wife Charlotte.

 After the British returned in 1764 the area settled down and most of the community focused once again on making money in trade. In 1766 Major Robert Rogers arrived as the new commanding officer. Already famous due to his exploits during the Seven Years’ War, as well as his work as an author and playwright, Rogers had had to deal with the complex politics of the Great Lakes, where the British, French-Canadians, and numerous Indigenous nations all worked towards furthering their own agendas. Rogers had to keep the area as peaceful as possible to maintain a British presence, and part of that role included gathering information about the local community.

 It was not uncommon for British officers to turn to non-military individuals to do at least occasional intelligence gathering. As Michilimackinac’s permanent community was rather small, numbering around 200 soldiers and fur traders at the time, it is likely that Rogers was introduced to Marie Constance and Louis soon after his arrival at the post.

 Rogers asked Marie Constance to go to L’arbre Croche to talk with the Odawa living there to “find out what” they “were about” in April 1767. Rogers sent her out again in May to a village at Cheboygan to speak with the people living there, this time accompanied by a man named Mr. Seeley. When she came back, Rogers recorded that she was able to report that they “had no bad intentions against the English.”

 While her report was not dramatic, it surely was a relief to Rogers to know that the local situation remained calm for the time being. As translators, diplomats and spies, women, especially multi-lingual French women in the Great Lakes, tended to have an advantage over the common British soldier in gaining the trust of their neighbors. People like Marie Constance tended overall to have a more non-threatening status in the community and were often the least suspect. Rogers recognized the value of Marie Constance’s work by paying her and Mr. Seeley £12.18, which was not a small amount. We do not know exactly why she agreed to work for Rogers, but it may have helped her and her husband’s position at the fort.

 Marie Constance is rarely mentioned in the historic record after her spy work. She and Louis Cardin continued to live together and work at Michilimackinac until her death in 1775 at age 56.  Throughout her life she worked to raise a family, sometimes on her own and operated on occasion for the government. Marie Constance was able to spend her whole life at Michilimackinac by adjusting to shifting family and political conditions. To visit Michilimackinac and learn about the community in which Marie Constance Chevalier lived and worked, check out our website.

 

 

 

The Commanding Officer’s Privy: A New Addition at Michilimackinac

 When you visit Colonial Michilimackinac in 2022, if you look in the right place you’ll see a newly-reconstructed building. It’s small and very humble, and is located behind the Commanding Officer’s House. Up against the palisade, you’ll find a privy! While the privy is by no means the largest building at Michilimackinac, it’s the first reconstruction added to the site since 2013, when the South Southwest Rowhouse was completed. More importantly, our new privy helps us better recreate and interpret Michilimackinac as it appeared in the 1770s.

 Our reconstructed privy is located in the same spot as an original structure associated with the Commanding Officer’s House. Ruins of the original privy were discovered during work on the palisade wall in June 1985. Although not formally excavated, archaeologists noted the privy’s location and retrieved a few artifacts, some of which are currently on display inside the Commanding Officer’s House. The remains of the privy were reburied and remain largely undisturbed.

 In 2021, interpretive staff members decided to rebuild the privy as a season-long demonstration project. The wood for the privy was hewn and sawed at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, where millwright interpreters assembled the framing timbers. Dimensions and construction details were copied from another 18th century privy located near the powder magazine, which was fully excavated and documented by archaeologists in 1978-79. The framing timbers and lumber were brought to Michilimackinac in August and assembled onsite by staff and volunteers during our Askin’s Men and Women special event. Finishing touches, including the seat and cedar shingles, were added soon after, and our interpretive staff moved the completed structure to the location of the original privy behind the Commanding Officer’s House.

 Although it isn’t very large, the new privy helps us interpret 18th century health and hygiene at Michilimackinac. Archaeologists have discovered remains of other privies around the fort, including near the powder magazine and behind the Southwest Rowhouse, but only the military latrine in the northwest corner of the fort had been reconstructed prior to the addition of the new privy. While not every house had an associated privy in the 18th century, they would have been a common sight at Michilimackinac.

 The privy is just one part of our ongoing efforts to reconstruct Michilimackinac, which began over 60 years ago. In the next few years you will likely be able to visit a much larger reconstructed building. Mackinac Associates, our friends group, has generously funded design work for an additional house unit of the Southwest Rowhouse. Rebuilding the house will provide additional interpretive or exhibit space and will better represent the rowhouse at it appeared in the 1770s (this house unit was excavated archaeologically in the 1960s, but not rebuilt). If you would like to support future reconstruction efforts, please consider joining or making a donation to Mackinac Associates, and we hope you’ll visit us at Colonial Michilimackinac to see what’s happening next!

Autumn Berries of the North Woods

“On the 20th of September [1835] the snow fell one inch, with quite a severe frost. The bushes were still loaded with whortleberries.”   – Benjamin O. Williams

In late September 1835, Lieutenant Benjamin Poole was completing an arduous months-long survey for the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. His crew’s mission was to survey a proposed military road from Saginaw to Mackinac, with a terminus at Dousman’s Saw Mill (now Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park).

Lowbush Blueberry

Poole’s survey crew was guided by brothers Benjamin O. and Alpheus F. Williams on a route “through a trackless wilderness nearly two hundred miles in extent, about which nothing was known, but that it presented obstacles of an unusually formidable character.” In short, the crew encountered long stretches of cedar swamps, shaking bogs, and alder thickets, ran out of provisions, and nearly starved. In his official report, written at Detroit on September 30, 1835, Poole admitted, “The assistants were frequently employed for days, and even weeks, in creeping through thickets and windfalls, where walking was quite out of the question.”

Much of what isn’t included in the official report was later recalled by B.O. Williams in a vivid account read before the Michigan Pioneer Society in February 1878. He wrote, “The density of some portions of the spruce, fir, and cedar lands exceeded any tropical forest I have ever seen…” His account follows their crew as they trek through the wilderness in moccasined feet, enduring swarms of gnats and mosquitoes, suffering illness and injury, and were saved from near starvation after stumbling upon “whortleberries [bilberries or blueberries] in great abundance.” Thankfully, shaking bogs and cedar swamps are excellent places to find many species of wild berries. Yet too much of a good thing caused a different digestive dilemma, as Williams noted, “eating whortleberries had affected some of the men unfavorably.”

As flowering plants bear fruit in early autumn, many species of wild berries ripen, each containing seeds to perpetuate a new generation of plants. While some berries are edible by people, others are inedible or even toxic to humans. Instead, most are best enjoyed with a photograph and left to the birds, squirrels, and other creatures of the north woods as they prepare to migrate south or endure the long, cold months of winter. The berries that follow were all photographed along the trails at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.

Common Chokecherry

Bluebead Lily

Western Poison Ivy

Starry False Solomon’s Seal

Hawthorn

Staghorn Sumac

Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Riverbank Grape

Wild Rose

Common False Solomon’s Seal

Canada Mayflower

White Baneberry (Doll’s Eyes)

What’s in the basement?

For more than 20 years, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse has been restored to its 1910s glory. In that time numerous exhibits, galleries, and tours have been added to the experience, and, just last year, the second floor of the house was opened for the first time in its history. However, we still get one question more than the others: what’s in the basement? Chief Curator Craig Wilson takes us into the basement to show us what’s there:

Michilimackinac Archaeology 2021 Wrap-Up

Southeast root cellar. This image shows the cellar shortly before completion. Only a gray circular area of cultural deposit, probably a postmold, and remnants of the south wall remain. 

  The 2021 Michilimackinac field season came to a satisfying end in late August. After seven seasons of excavation, we have finally reached the bottom of the southeast root cellar! The cellar was first tentatively identified in 2015. Since that time remnants of the north, west and south walls have been exposed and excavated along with a wide variety of interesting artifacts. More cellar deposit and the east wall are still present in the east profile and extending into the area of the House D excavation where the cellar was identified, but not excavated.

Central cellar. The dark soil surrounded by lighter sand is the central cellar. Six posts are now visible along the eastern edge of the cellar, two on the south, three on the west, and one on the north.

  The central cellar, on the other hand, became better defined and shows no sign of ending. It continued to yield trade goods, such as hawk bells, and structural artifacts, such as a hinge.

  A second new square was opened in the north row of squares where we eventually expect to find evidence of the north wall of the house. Both squares opened this summer are now down to the rubble layer created by the 1781 demolition of the fort.

  The newest square yielded the most interesting artifact of the second half of the season, a clear, circular intaglio set with Masonic symbols on it. The square and compass surrounding the letter G are easy to see. The surrounding symbols are not as legible but appear to include a trowel on the left. The set is .42” in diameter and could be from a linked button or a ring.

  While the lodge at Mackinac (St. John’s #15) was not established until 1784 on Mackinac Island, many of the soldiers and traders at Michilimackinac were members of lodges in Detroit or further east. Known Masons at Michilimackinac include: Major Robert Rogers, Lt. John Christie, Captain John Vattas, Lt. Robert Brooks, Lt. George Clowes, Surgeon’s Mate David Mitchell, Felix Graham, Benjamin Lyon, Forrest Oakes, David Rankin, and Ezekiel Solomon.

Masonic intaglio from a linked button or ring.

  This list is a starting point for possible owners of the intaglio. It could be a clue to the “British trader” who owned the house or could have been lost by a guest of his. It is particularly interesting to note that three other residents of the southeast rowhouse were Masons, Lt. Clowes (House A/B), Ezekiel Solomon (House C), and David Mitchell (House D).

The site is packed and waiting for spring.

  The 2021 field season was sponsored by Mackinac Associates, and we thank them for their generous support.

Chief Wawatam 110th Launching Anniversary

Frank Kirby

  Due to increased railroad traffic across the Straits of Mackinac, the Mackinac Transportation Company decided in 1910 that a new ferry needed to be built. The company had two ferries at the time, the St. Ignace, built in 1888, and the revolutionary Sainte Marie, completed in 1893. These vessels had been designed by noted Great Lakes naval architect Frank Kirby and he was asked to plan the new ship. The keel was laid on June 1, 1911 at the Toledo Shipbuilding Company of Toledo, Ohio as hull number 119. The ship was christened Chief Wawatam after an Ojibway Indian who befriended British fur trader Alexander Henry in the 1760s.

Captain Louis Boynton

  At 9:10 a.m. on August 26, 1911, the Chief Wawatam was side launched with no ceremony or traditional breaking of champagne on her bow. Charles Calder, part owner of the shipyard, recorded that it was a clear day and the launching proceeded with “not a scratch on her hull.” The ship was 338 feet long, 62 feet wide and had a draft of 20.7 feet. Built with a steel hull, she would be the largest and most powerful railroad ferry to serve the straits. She could carry 28 to 32 railroad cars depending on their size. The hull was taken to a fit-out dock where work was completed. The ship set sail for the straits on October 16, 1911 with Commodore Louis Boynton in command.

   The Chief was constructed with many unique features including three engines, two in the stern for propulsion and one in the bow for ice breaking. The bow propellor first appeared on the St. Ignace after Boynton successfully used two vessels tied bow to bow to break ice. The ship was one of the first to have electricity for lighting although lanterns continued to be carried as backup. In order to protect the open bow, the anchor was placed on the stern. Thus, the vessel could anchor stern-to during a storm preventing water from entering through the sea gate. For many years, the ship bore the words “U.S. Mail” on her bow as she carried letters and packages between the two peninsulas.

  The Chief Wawatam operated at the Straits of Mackinac until August of 1984 when the railroad pier in St. Ignace collapsed. The ship remained tied to the dock until 1988 when the State of Michigan, which owned the vessel, sold it to Purvis Marine Limited of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Prior to her departure, numerous objects, paper material and other items were selected and removed by Mackinac State Historic Parks staff. The plan was for the state park to store the collection until a transportation museum in St. Ignace could be built. Funding for the museum fell through and the state park continues to be the home for the collection. Objects including the ship’s steering wheel and engine room telegraph are on display in the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse.

Why are certain things banned on Mackinac Island?

There is so much to explore and enjoy during a visit to Mackinac Island State Park. When you visit the island make sure you bring sunscreen, comfortable shoes, and a camera! However, there are a few things you should leave on the mainland.

  • A site you won’t typically see on Mackinac Island. This was done for an ad.

    Your car – Ask someone what they know about Mackinac Island, and you’ll likely hear that there’s lots of fudge, bicycles, and horses, but no cars. Since 1901, cars have been banned in Mackinac Island State Park. There are numerous accounts of early automobiles causing problems with horses and carriages. The ban was incorporated into state law in 1960. There are few exceptions to the use of motor vehicles regulation, the biggest of which is emergency vehicles. There is one police car, two fire trucks, and an ambulance available on the island. So, when you come for a visit, the ferry services have plenty of parking available on the mainland. Lock up your car and hop on a shuttle to the dock. The lack of motor vehicles in Mackinac Island State Park is extremely important to keeping the historic character of this National Landmark alive, and one of the most enduring memories of your visit here.

  • Your e-bike – Speaking of vehicles, e-bikes are also banned within Mackinac Island State Park. The absence of motor vehicles in Mackinac Island State Park is uniquely effective in retaining the historic character of this National Historic Landmark. State law currently forbids the use of e-bikes within Mackinac Island State Park and the City of Mackinac Island without authorization from those respective entities. However, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission and City of Mackinac Island do have an exception for the use of Class 1 bicycles in certain situations.
  • Your drone – Yes, aerial pictures are awesome, and Mackinac Island State Park has numerous areas that are breathtaking at and above ground level. However, Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Drones) are not allowed in the State Park. Let’s face it, most drones are noisy, can be dangerous around groups of people, and very distracting to horses. Their presence takes away from the natural and historical environments our visitors are coming to experience. Therefore, the commission reviews professional operator requests thoroughly, and, more often than not, does not approve these requests.
  • The old campground in Michilimackinac State Park in Mackinaw City. Camping is now banned throughout Mackinac State Historic Parks to allow for guests to enjoy as much of the natural environment as possible.

    Your tent – While Mackinac Island is a beautiful island with a lot of open spaces, there is no camping permitted in the state park. Great care is taken to balance the amount of land left undeveloped with areas that have amenities like carriage roads and trails. The threat of a wildfire is also a particular concern, so campfires are also not allowed in the park. And what’s camping without roasting a couple marshmallows. For those that want to spend the night under the stars, there is a plethora of campsites to choose from on the mainland.

However, we do have a couple recommendations of a few special things you can bring that can make your visit even more enjoyable.

  • Your bicycle – Since you can’t drive on Mackinac Island, almost everybody gets around by bicycle. There are many bike rental shops on the island, but if you are more comfortable riding your own – bring it along. Mackinac Island State Park has more than 70 miles of natural and paved trails around the perimeter and through the interior of the island. The island is small enough that you can pedal around it at a leisurely pace in an hour and a half. Along the way you’ll come across many incredible scenic spots for photos of the island and Lake Huron. Please be aware there are few requirements for e-bikes and you’ll need to pay for a temporary bicycle license before boarding the ferry.
  • Your pet – Have fun exploring the state park with your dog by your side.  Make sure you have what you need to keep your pet hydrated and don’t forget the doggy bags. While Mackinac’s sanitation department takes care of the horse droppings, you’ll need to pick up after your pooch. Leashed dogs are allowed on all state park trails and within Fort Mackinac. Remember to cover your pup’s ears during the cannon and rifle demonstrations.

The Mackinac Island State Park Commission and Mackinac State Historic Park staff work hard to protect, preserve, and present Mackinac’s rich historic and natural resources. We appreciate your help in keeping Mackinac Island State Park a wonderful place to visit.

3 ways to explore the ‘wild side’ of Mackinac

As the name suggests, the Mackinac State Historic Parks are full of history. Glimpses of the past are preserved through original structures such as the 240-year-old Officer’s Stone Quarters at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island and artifacts such as the original Fresnel lens at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City.

  But really, the human history on exhibit at Mackinac State Historic Parks is all recent history. The attractions in Mackinaw City and on Mackinac Island also represent eons of natural history that go back much, much farther in time.

  Some of the iconic rock formations in Mackinac Island State Park, for example, are estimated to have been shaped many thousands of years ago. And the forest of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, as well as the Straits of Mackinac itself, are even older than that.

  In fact, the region’s natural history is the reason there’s any human history to explore in the first place. After all, it was the narrow Great Lakes passage that brought people to the area and it was the forests that provided for them – lumber for homes, animals for food and pelts for the once-lucrative fur trade, for example.

  Mackinac State Historic Parks attractions showcase that mix of natural history and human history. It’s fascinating to tour Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City and learn about 18th-century life on the fort or step inside the old American Fur Company Store on Mackinac Island and discover what it was like to be a 19th-century trapper or trader. It’s also enlightening to get the backstory of those human experiences by stepping way back into the natural “wild side” of Mackinac.

  Here are three of the best ways to get an understanding of the incredible natural history within Mackinac State Historic Parks:

  •  – Did you know that more than 80% of Mackinac Island is state parkland? It was even once a national park! While many visitors rent bikes and pedal all the way around Mackinac Island on M-185, that scenic loop is partially closed in 2021 due to ongoing erosion repairs. All the more reason to pedal up into the middle of Mackinac Island instead and find more than 70 miles of roads and trails through forest that looks much like it did millennia ago. (Get the latest updates on M-185 repairs and detours on Mackinac Island.)

Another popular ride is Mackinac Island’s Arch Rock Bicycle Trail, which takes you out to the iconic Arch Rock overlooking the southeast corner of the island. Arch Rock is a bucket-list natural history destination on its own. But along the way you can make stops on the Mackinac Island Botanical Trail, too. There are several trailside turnouts with interpretive areas where you can learn about the flowers and plants of Mackinac Island.

  •  – If hiking is more your style of exploration, then lace up your boots and take on the trails of Mackinac Island by foot. Many miles of trail aren’t even passable by bike, in fact. Roots and rocks combined with big changes in elevation make some trails within Mackinac Island State Park ideal for a strenuous hike, while the paved roads through the island’s interior offer a more leisurely option for immersing yourself in the ancient forest. Birdwatching on Mackinac Island is another great option for experiencing the wild side of Mackinac.

In Mackinaw City, you can enjoy a stroll along the Straits of Mackinac at the foot of the Mackinac Bridge at Colonial Michilimackinac or walk for miles through the woods of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park. Just as many visitors to Mackinac Island only scratch the surface of all there is to see, so do most people only see a fraction of Mill Creek. Many of the trails into the wilds of Mill Creek are even accessible, and there also are guided hikes scheduled each day.

  •  – Speaking of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, the one-of-a-kind Adventure Tour is a fun way for all ages to experience some of the region’s natural history. The high-flying excursion takes visitors not only into the forest, but up to the top of it for a walk over the Forest Canopy Bridge some 50 feet above the creek below. Your tour guide points out natural features along the way, then you zoom back down to ground level on the exhilarating Eagles’ Flight Zip Line.

Before or after your tour, be sure to take the 71 steps up to the viewing platform atop the park’s Treetop Discovery Tower. The panoramic vista from up there offers a spectacular view of the whole region, and a great perspective on the natural features that attracted people to the Straits of Mackinac.

There’s lot of history to experience at Mackinac State Historic Parks, including the wilderness where not many visitors venture. Come explore Mackinac’s wild side!

Cedars and Everlastings: Mackinac’s Amazing Evergreens

Dr. Carlos Carvallo

“The Island of Mackinac, three and a quarter miles long and two miles wide, though not the largest is the most picturesque and inhabited of the small group constituting the archipelago of the Straits of Mackinac… It is girded by limestone battlements and cliffs, which rise abruptly 100 to 150 feet above the surface of the water… The hills are covered with a dense growth of cedars and everlastings, which appear to extend from the water’s edge to the summit of the island.” Dr. Carlos Carvallo, Fort Mackinac Post Surgeon (1873)


Roots of an eastern white cedar span an outcrop of limestone along Quarry Trail in Mackinac Island State Park.

  In every season, visitors to the Straits of Mackinac are amazed by the varied shapes, forms, sizes, and habits of the numerous species of conifers that grow in this region of the North Woods. Venture out and you’ll discover towering white pines, pointed spires of spruce trees, dense thickets of eastern white cedar, and soft needles of fragrant balsam fir. Perhaps you’ll find yourself in the company of hemlocks whose dark canopy nearly shuts out the light of day, or enjoy a sun-filled stroll while prickly juniper bushes scratch at your ankles.

  For centuries, travelers to this region, including Dr. Carlos Carvallo, have commented on such “cedars and everlastings” while documenting their observations of the Island. Below are a few favorites to enjoy during your next Mackinac adventure.

Balsam Fir

  If it suddenly smells like Christmas, you’re likely in the company of balsam fir trees. This medium-sized evergreen may grow 65 feet tall or more, but dozens of saplings may also create impenetrable, brushy stands. Bark of young trees features bumpy “resin blisters” which tend to spray when ruptured, resulting in a sticky (but delightfully-smelling) encounter with nature. Since the mid-1800s, small sachet pillows, filled with dried balsam needles, have been sold on Mackinac Island as souvenir keepsakes.

 Canada Yew

  This native evergreen grows as a low, spreading shrub, especially in wet areas. A shade-lover, yews are common in northern portions of Mackinac Island, particularly under the canopy of cedar and balsam fir trees. Yew cones consist of a highly-modified scale, known as an aril, which ripens to resemble a soft, bright red berry that remains open on one end. Yew seeds are a favorite food of thrushes, waxwings and other birds. Look for them near Croghan Water Marsh.

Northern White Cedar

  If there is one dominant feature of the northern Michigan landscape, it just might be the cedar tree. Early French traders referred to this species as arborvitae, or “tree of life” due to its medicinal properties, including a high dose of vitamin C used to prevent scurvy. Cedar’s fragrant needles, pliable bark, and rot-resistant wood have been utilized by Native Americans for making containers, canoe paddles, medicine, and ceremonial rites for millennia.

  Small cedar cones turn from green to brown as they ripen in early autumn, releasing tiny seeds which are essential for birds, squirrels, and other wildlife. Cedar needles, scaly and evergreen, are the most important winter food for deer and also provide shelter when cold descends and snow blankets the North Woods.

Ground Juniper

  Juniper loves both sand and sun. A low-growing, shrubby evergreen, this species grows very slowly and can live up to 300 years. Their fleshy cones look like small green berries and have been used in the distillery process for centuries to give gin its distinctive flavor. Landowner Michael Dousman (1771-1854) once ran a distillery near his large farm on north-central Mackinac Island, possibly producing this herbaceous spirit. Junipers don’t tolerate shade, but are abundant in the sun near the Island’s airport. Several specimens also enjoy a view of the Straits overlooking Robinson’s Folly.

White Spruce

  Not pretentious, white spruce are comfortable in the shadows. Slow-growing and long-lived, their pointed crowns eventually pierce the tree canopy like church spires dotting a country landscape. Spruce needles, while similar in length to those of balsam fir, are stiffer and project from every surface around each branch. In contrast, fir needles only grow from each side of the branch, like tiny wings.

  Spruce cones are noted for being an especially important food source for birds, including both red and white-winged crossbills. As their name implies, crossbills are named for their unusual beak, perfectly adapted for flicking seeds from ripe conifer cones. Standing beneath a tree as a flock of crossbills feeds above is a memorable experience, as a cloud of discarded seed fragments swirl through the air like tiny brown snowflakes. Red crossbills were once a common nesting species on Mackinac Island. In recent decades, both red crossbills and their white-winged cousins still visit the Island in winter.

 Eastern White Pine

  It would be a sad miscarriage of piney justice if a blog about evergreens failed to include the State Tree of Michigan. Historically, this “King of the Forest” reached 300 years of age, growing nearly 200 feet tall with trunks up to six feet in diameter. While the 19th century lumbering clear-cut the vast majority of old growth giants, a few scattered stands and large individuals remain. White pines mature quickly, sometimes adding more than two feet of new growth per year! This species is less common on Mackinac Island than other evergreens, though scattered specimens (including several large ones) can still be located along many trails and roadsides. Several historic guidebooks referred to Forest King, “a magnificent pine tree which excites the admiration of all who behold it” on the trail to Arch Rock.

  An excellent way to appreciate white pines was expressed by author Anna Botsford Comstock in her Handbook of Nature Study (1911). She wrote, “The needles of the pine act like the strings of an ӕolian harp; and the wind, in passing through the tree, sets them into vibration, making a sighing sound which seems to the listener like the voice of the tree. Therefore, the pine is the most companionable of all our trees and, to one who observes them closely, each tree has its own tones and whispers a different story.”

  The evergreens above represent just a few of the “Cedars and Everlastings” you’ll find while exploring Mackinac Island and the surrounding region. During your next visit, you’ll just need a trail map, your walking shoes, and an adventurous spirit. Trees of the North Woods are ready to whisper their stories to us. We only need remember how to listen.

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