Records from the U.S. Customs House on Mackinac Island: Witness to Early Life on the Upper Great Lakes – Winter 2010


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The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Fred Neuschel

Even though the old Northwest became part of the United States after the Revolutionary War and the campaign of General Anthony Wayne precipitated the departure of the last British soldiers from American soil, the American era of commercial sail on the upper Great Lakes did not develop until the end of the War of War of 1812.1 Once there was a prospect of peace between the United States and Great Britain and a potential for profit, it did not take long for enterprising and adventuresome sailors to begin to build decked and sail-powered vessels to promote the trade that canoes, bateaux and barges had done in earlier years. Little remains to give witness to their presence. Ship’s logs and business records were kept, of course, but few have survived. In this huge hole in the historical record, however, there is one landmark of knowledge that has survived: the records of the U.S. Customs House on Mackinac Island. Like the island rising above the water of the strait, these records stand in silent testimony to thousands of voyages that would otherwise be unknown.

This wood block print shows the town and harbor at Mackinac Island in the 1850s. Image from Mackinac State Historic Parks Collection.

Well into the 19th Century, Mackinac was the western-most customs house on the Lakes. Consequently, vessels that were bound for Sault Ste. Marie, Green Bay, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Joseph or Grand River [Michigan] — all were obliged to go through a customs check at Mackinac. Its central position among the Upper Lakes and its proximity to Canada made it an obvious place for the federal government to assert its right and obligation to regulate trade across its borders.

Created by an act of Congress in July 1789, the Customs Houses were charged with the responsibility of collecting duties on imported material of any kind and enforcing the laws governing the import and export of goods. In August of that same year, Congress passed an act establishing lighthouses and beacons to protect mariners; in September, Congress mandated the registration of vessels which participated in the coastal trade of the country. The responsibility for carrying out these acts was also assigned to the Customs Service. And so, the paper trail left by the operation of the customs agent on Mackinac Island beginning in 1801 is rife with information documenting activity on the Lakes. Granted, some might see the documents with their description of what vessels were carrying in their cargo holds as the dry bones of history, but to those whose imaginations are inspired by such things, these documents add an otherwise unavailable color, depth and detail to our picture of what early commerce on the lake looked like.

In the 1870s, the U. S. Customs Office was housed in the white building with the symbol of an anchor painted on it. Image from Mackinac State Historic Parks Collection

The manifests are by far and away the most numerous documents to survive. They were being created even before the Customs House opened and the early examples are sometimes quite crude affairs consisting of little more than a rough list of what the vessel was carrying.2 As time went on, however, a convention for the manifests was developed and pre-printed forms were used. The remoteness of Mackinac Island is reflected in the fact that vessels upbound from Detroit, Cleveland or Buffalo almost universally had the printed manifest forms, while many vessels downbound from Mackinac and other ports in the hinter lands continued to carry the informal and often haphazard lists well into the 19th Century.

If the forms were correctly filled out, they would contain the basic information about the vessel: vessel’s name and type, master’s name, tonnage, port from whence sailed, destination and date of clearance. On some manifests the vessel’s homeport would appear. So, for instance, the schooner Farmer is often referred to as the Farmer of Grand River [Ohio]. On some of the earliest printed forms the place where the vessel was built and the name of its owners were also given. Unfortunately, this practice, so helpful to modern researchers when enrollments cannot always be located, was soon abandoned.

Below the heading which introduces the vessel there are seven columns labeled Marks, Quantity, Cargo, Shipper, Residence, Consignee and Residence. “Marks” referred to how the cargo was labeled so that it would find its way into the hands of the intended recipient at the far end of the voyage. Most often the mark would simply be the name of recipient such as “O. & W. Newberry” or “J. P. Arndt.” However, companies that did a great deal of business on the Lakes could have a distinguishing mark which functioned more like a brand. The American Fur Company’s mark was “AMF,” the United States Army’s goods were often marked simply “U.S.” and materials intended for the Indian Factories at Green Bay or Chicago were frequently marked “U.S.F.”3

There was no standard for the quantification and description of cargo. As a consequence, there is a great variety in the way cargos are described. One manifest might record a cargo of “one lot of shingles” while another might describe the cargo as “8,000 (or 8M) shingles.” One manifest might report a cargo of 1,780 bushels of corn while another will enumerate the number of barrels or bags of corn on board. Clothing may be given as a tierce, box, barrel, chest, bundle or that most indefinite of measures — a “lot.”

The imprecision with which cargo was quantified and recorded makes it difficult to get a detailed tally of goods and material shipped. Instead, the manifests are much better suited for seeing the larger trends in shipping on the Upper Lakes. The shipment of lumber upbound from Detroit tells us something about the primitive state of life in communities that did not even have the benefit of a saw mill. On the other hand, when upbound cargos began to include brick, grindstones, [ship’s] rigging, oakum and iron castings, it is evident that a rudimentary manufacturing is taking hold on the distant frontier. When [maple] sugar, furs and peltries are no longer the only commodities going downbound, other natural products start to appear. Fish is a major example, but eventually shipments of farm products give telling proof to the advance of settlements around the Lakes.

A striking example of how the manifests bear witness to the progress of settlement in the old Northwest are five manifests from 1833 documenting the shipment of 5,979 bushels of wheat from St. Joseph, Michigan, to Detroit and Buffalo. Although a small detail to most, this figure is impressive evidence of how far agriculture had advanced in the fertile prairie land of southwestern Michigan. While most think of Chicago as being the pioneer port shipping wheat to eastern markets, the manifests show that St. Joseph, Michigan, deserves that credit.

Another surprise might be the shipment of cast iron from St. Joseph, Michigan, in the early 1830s. While most iron and steel and products made from iron and steel were being shipped up the Lakes, bog ore had been discovered and was being mined in northern Indiana. Some cargos do not appear very often in the manifests, but when they do, they speak loudly about how society was changing in dramatic ways. So, for instance, troop movements and shipments of munitions are documented as the federal government asserted its sovereignty by building forts. The effort to wrest the land away from the Native Americans is also traceable in the manifests. Vessels carried delegations to treaty meetings, goods to pay the annual annuity to the Native peoples and, when the Black Hawk War broke out in 1832, armaments and powder to supply the soldiers.

A particularly poignant chapter in the history of the First Nations of the United States is reflected in manifests that list as their cargo simply “Indians.” These were “shipments” of Stockton, Brotherton, St. Regis and Oneida people from New York State to Wisconsin where they had been promised a land whose title was unassailable by white settlers. Some of the manifests show several hundred Indians in a single “cargo” for a single vessel. Conditions for their travel could not have been good and likely not even humane. Although they did not travel in chains, they did not travel with dignity either. The very fact that they are listed as “cargo” while Euro-Americans on board the same vessel are designated “passengers” tells the story. The witness of an army officer at Green Bay gives an indication of what shape the “cargo” was in when it arrived on the western frontier. “We have two Missionaries,” he wrote to a friend, “to crown all a motley assemblage of half-starved Indians from the immaculate State of New York.”4

Manifest for the Schooner Constitution by which about 200 Indians were sent from Buffalo to Green Bay on July 5, 1830.

Altogether, ten manifests have been found from 1823 to 1834 which list Indians as part of their cargo. Several of them use the vague term “a lot” to describe how many. But those that do designate a number tell us that at least 1,023 men, women or children were sent west. An 1830 manifest shows 100 Indians shipped on the two-masted schooner Napoleon, a vessel which was 70 feet, 10 inches long and 22 feet wide, with a depth of hold of 7 feet 10 inches. Take out the space designated for crew, galley and cargo and very little room is left for the comfort of the vessel’s human “cargo.”5 The manifest indicates that it took two full weeks for the schooner to sail from Buffalo to Mackinac in the middle of July and it could easily have taken another three to five days to reach Green Bay depending, of course, on weather conditions. The one consolation which the Native Americans might have had was that the Napoleon was a relatively new craft at two years old and was likely sound and dry.

Another example of how the manifests help to flesh out the historical record pertains to the 1816 voyage of the schooner George Washington from Presque Isle (Erie), Pennsylvania, to Mackinac. On that voyage, the cargo included the following items: 47 kegs high wines, 2 bbls. high wines, 178 bags flour, 78 kegs powder, 3 boxes muskets, 2 nine-pound cannon, 4 six-pound cannon, 305 iron shot, 209 bags lied corn, 754 bags lied corn, 27 bbls. mess pork, 73 bbls. prime pork, 46 kegs lard. All of this material was destined not for the American port of Mackinac Island but for the British military post on Drummond’s Island and all of it was consigned to Monsieur LaCroix. The importance of this manifest is realized when we discover that M. LaCroix was the agent of Lord Selkirk, the British nobleman and humanitarian who was trying to protect the haven he had created in the Red River Valley (near modern Winnipeg) for the poor and landless agrarians of the Scottish Highlands. In 1816, Selkirk’s dream was being threatened by fur traders who were trying to drive the farmers from the land. Selkirk’s troops went to the rescue, traveling the faster route of the voyageurs by way of the Ottawa and French rivers to Georgian Bay, the Sault and the north shore of Lake Superior. But the many portages of that route would not allow for transportation of armaments, and so an American vessel was hired. Were it not for the manifest, this American contribution to Selkirk’s mission would be lost.

One area in which the value of the manifests has not been adequately tested is researching maritime disasters on the Lakes. Before potential investigators make too many assumptions, a sobering word about the limits of the extant manifests should be sounded. First, the manifests are only for vessels visiting the Mackinac Island Customs District. Second, and equally important, there are obviously many significant manifests that have not been preserved. If a researcher finds a significant voyage mentioned in another primary source, he or she might naturally go to the manifests in hopes of learning more about the vessel and its cargo. Too often, however, the manifest is missing. In 1824, for instance, the missionary Eleazer Williams left Mackinac Island for Green Bay and recorded that the vessel sailed into a violent storm as it made Green Bay and had to retreat all the way to the other side of the lake where it found shelter in the lee of the Manitou Islands.6 Rev. Williams was the prime motivator for the movement of the New York Indians to Green Bay and so it would be most interesting to have a manifest for this voyage but, unfortunately, none has been found yet.

On the other hand, manifests have a potential to add some vital details to studying the careers and fates of vessels. A rare example is an 1821 manifest for the schooner Monroe which was making a late season attempt to reach Green Bay. The Monroe left Detroit on October 16 and cleared Mackinac Island on October 21 with 222 articles of entry in her hold (primarily containers of apples, cider, turnips, onions, oats and corn) but it never reached Green Bay. The manifest contains the following explanation: “The schooner Monroe Capt. Woodworth in attempting to go to Green Bay was overtaken by a severe storm — was driven on shore at the Beaver Islands where he lost a good part of his cargo — and nearly his vessel — he succeeded in getting her off returned to this port leaving part of his cargo on the Island — repaired his vessel and cleared for Detroit Nov. 14th 1821.”

1 This is, of course, a generality. It is not meant to ignore that prior to the War of 1812 there was a substantial regional trade between the southern end of the Niagara portage and Erie [Pennsylvania] or that commercial traffic between Buffalo Creek and Detroit (with intermediate layovers at Grand River, Cleveland, Sandusky) was sufficient to keep several vessels busy. In comparison, however, these early ventures are dwarfed by the amount of trade that developed in the years immediately following the end of the war in 1814.

2 Although the emphasis of this article is more on the decked sail vessels, canoes, barges and open boats also carried manifests and were required to pass through Customs.

3 The Indian Factories were government-operated trading facilities where Native Americans could exchange products of the land (fur primarily) for manufactured goods. They were established to provide an alternative to private traders who were often unscrupulous in their trade practices. The factory system ultimately failed because the private traders competed more successfully for their customers’ loyalty and offered the added inducement of liquor, a commodity that factories were not allowed to trade.

4 “Letter of John Bliss to David Bates Douglass, February 5, 1825,” David Bates Douglass Manuscripts. Wm. L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

5 The size of the Napoleon is found in the digital record of vessel enrollments prior to 1861 which was created by historian Walter Lewis. www.hhpl.on.ca/GreatLakes/ scripts/enrolment/Enrolment.asp?EventID=782. Web address accessed 11/11/2008.

6 “Fragment from a Journal 1824,” Eleazer Williams Papers. Wisconsin Historical Society Area Research Center, University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. Micro 19, reel 4, frame 348.

Editor’s Note: Since this article was published, the Association for Great Lakes Maritime History supported the digitization of many files including the Mackinac Island Customs House Manifests.  You can look at all of these amazing documents and see what you can learn about shipping here: http://images.maritimehistoryofthegreatlakes.ca/109321/gallery

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About the Author: Fred Neuschel was born in Buffalo and now is a resident in Illinois.  Mr. Neuschel is a long time member of the Great Lakes Historical Society and has written several articles for this journal over the years. 


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2 replies
  1. Carrie Sowden
    Carrie Sowden says:

    Walter –
    Thanks for the update! It is much appreciated.
    Cheers,
    Carrie Sowden
    NMGL Archaeological Director

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