The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Dr. Harry Kelsey
Ecologists grappling with the vexing problem of air pollution in the city on the Straits may take some bleak comfort in the knowledge that the same trouble existed more than two centuries ago. Even then men of scientific bent failed to agree on the cause or the cure. James Sterling, Detroit agent for a firm of Indian traders headquartered in New York, wrote about the foul air in October, 1762, to John Duncan, a fellow employee who later became his partner.1 Duncan apparently forwarded the letter to Samuel Mead, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, who read it at a meeting in London the following March. Sterling’s letter was then published in the Society’s annual volume under the title, “An Account of a Remarkable Darkness at Detroit, in America.”2 Sterling’s correspondence with his principals in New York reveals a man whose mind is wholly engrossed in business matters — profit margins, storage facilities, transportation costs, competition, rates of exchange. After wooing and winning the best looking girl in Detroit, Sterling gave this calculating report to his partner: “On the 9th Ult. I was married to Miss Angelick Cuiellierrie [sic], niece of the late commandant, Mr. Bellestre. She is a very prudent Woman, & a fine scholar; has been used to trade from her infancy, & is generally allowed to be the best interpreter of the different Indn. Languages at this place.”3 Obviously Sterling was a man with no time for foolish notions — a man ideally suited for cool and dispassionate scientific inquiry. This is how he described the dark day to Duncan:
A Man in business seldom troubles himself about news; yet the following is so uncommon, I cannot neglect acquainting you therewith. Tuesday last, being the 19th instant, we had almost total darkness for the most of the day. I got up at day break: about 10 minutes after I observed it got no lighter than before; the same darkness continued untill 9 o’clock, when it cleared up a little. We then, for the space of about a quarter of an hour, saw the body of the Sun, which appeared as red as blood, and more than three times as large as usual. The air all this time, which was very dense, was of a dirty yellowish green color. I was obliged to light candles to see to dine, at one o’clock, notwithstanding the table was placed close by two large windows. About 3 the darkness became more horrible, which augmented untill half past 3, when the wind breezed up from the S. W. and brought on some drops of rain or rather sulphur, and dirt, for it appeared more like the latter than the former, both in smell and quality. I took a leaf of clean paper, and held it out in the rain, which rendered it black whenever the drops fell upon it; but, when held near the fire, turned to a yellow colour, and when burned, it fizzed on the paper like wet powder. During this shower, the air was almost suffocating with a strong sulphurous smell; it cleared up a little after the rain. There were various conjectures about the cause of this natural incident. The Indians, and vulgar among the French, said, that the English, which lately arrived from Niagara in the vessel, had brought the plague with them: Others imagined it might have been occasioned by the burning of the woods: But I think it most probable, that it might have been occasioned by the eruption of some volcano, or subterraneous fire, whereby the sulphurous matter may have been emitted in the the [sic] air, and contained therein, until, meeting with some watery clouds, it has fallen down together with the rain.
The vessel referred to by Sterling was the schooner Huron, first sailing ship on the Upper Lakes since the Griffin. The Huron arrived in Detroit in August 1762, under the command of Lieutenant Charles Robertson of the 77th Regiment. Intended as a supply ship between Niagara, Detroit, and MICHILIMACKINAC, this ill-omened vessel could not get past the sand bars in Lake St. Clair.4 The French batteaumen can hardly be blamed for connecting the good ship Huron with the plague, since the use of larger and more efficient sailing ships meant the end of their profitable carrying trade. Although the Huron disappeared from history after the siege of Detroit,5 Sterling and others continued to press for wider use of sailing vessels, which the local inhabitants insisted could never last on the treacherous waters of the Upper Lakes.6
One of Sterling’s competitors, John Porteous, gave a similar account of this “remarkable” day in a letter written about the same time, apparently agreeing with Sterling on the volcanic origin of the pollutants:
The 19th Oct. 1762 was more remarkable for its darkness than any total eclipse in my opinion that ever happened [.] for 3 or 4 days before the sun appeared excessive Red & much troubled [,] the weather uncommonly Dark & mostly calm [.] the 19th the Sky was of a blackish Yellow most part of the day [,] perfectly calm until it began to rain. but it was impossible to discover which way the Clouds set, the darkness was so great that you could not frequently distinguish a man from a woman at the distance only of 10 yds on the Street, it was again at times a little clearer, but not so as to do any business in the best lighted room [.] We dined at 2 Oclock by candle light & it was hardly possible then to discover whither the Shutters of two very large windows were open or not; between 3 & 4 Ocl. it began to fall a small Rain, which was soon discovered to stain the shirt or Ruffles like copperas water, & appear’d on white paper like new Ink, which being burnt in the fire resembled a little that of sulpher [sic] but no smell was perceptible [sic], the rain gradually increased to fall heavier, & continuing the remainder of the Afternoon & all night, the longer it rain’d the more natural it became[.] it began to blow in the evening & increased to blow smart the best part of the night, but I had not the Precaution to note down the Point it blew from, tho I am almost certain it was one of the Southern Points, but the darkness of the night certainly equall’d the deepest Dungeon or Cavern & for some days after the weather was remarkably dark & troubled like as for some days before it. We were then very uncertain of the Cause, but have been since inform’d by Indians there was an irruption [sic] on the Banks of the Ohio River about that time, besides its highly Probable that any other cause would hardly produce the same train of effects.7
Several years later citizens of Detroit were still telling visitors about the day it rained ink. Jonathan Carver, writing after the Pontiac Up- rising, called it a sign of the evil times that were about to come:
In the year 1762, in the month of July, it rained on this town and the parts adjacent, a sulphureous water of the colour and consistence of ink; some of which being collected into bottles, and wrote with, appeared perfectly intelligible on the paper, and answered every purpose of that useful liquid. Soon after, the Indian wars already spoken of, broke out in these parts. I mean not to say that this incident was ominous of them, notwithstanding it is well known that innumerable well attested instances of extraordinary phenomena happening before extraordinary events, have been recorded in almost every age by historians of veracity; I only relate the circumstance as a fact of which I was informed by many persons of undoubted probity.8
Interestingly enough, the British officers stationed at Detroit seem not to have included this “Remarkable Darkness” in their reports. Captain Donald Campbell, an inveterate gossip, surely would have written about it to Colonel Henry Bouquet, but he had been recently relieved of his command by Major Henry Gladwin, a humorless officer who found discipline at the post sadly lacking and who apparently had little interest in matters not directly concerned with military affairs.
Nonetheless, Carver was right: this was an omen — if not of an Indian war, then perhaps of the more serious ecological threat that would begin a century later — and last another hundred years.
- Letter from Henry Howland to C. M. Burton, May 22, 1902, Burton Papers, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library. Henry R. Howland, “The Niagara Portage and Its First Attempted Settlement Under British Rule,” Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society, VI (1903), 44.
- Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, III (1763), 63-64. The text of the letter was quoted in full in the Gentlemen’s Magazine, XXXIV (September 1764),
- James Sterling to John Duncan, February 26, 1765, Sterling Letterbook, Photostat in the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, original in Clements Library, Ann Like everyone else, Sterling was unable to spell the surname of Angelique Cuillerier.
- Donald Campbell to Henry Bouquet, August 26, 1762; John Hay to Henry Bouquet, September 24, 1762; “Bouquet Papers,” Michigan Pioneer Collections, XIX (1891), 161,
- Milo Quaife, “The Royal Navy of the Upper Lakes,” Burton Historical Col- lection Leaflet, II (May 1924), 54-55.
- John Rutherford, “Rutherford’s Narrative — An Episode in the Pontiac War,1763 — An Unpublished Manuscript by Rutherford of the ‘Black Watch.’ “Transactions of the Canadian Institute, III (1891-92), 249. Sterling to John Duncan, July 8, 1761, and April 14, 1762; Sterling to James Syme, April 14, 1762, and June 18, 1962; photostats in Sterling Letterbooks, Burton Historical Collections, Detroit Public Library. Campbell to Jeffery Amherst, June 1, 1762, Amherst Papers, Michigan State University. Photostats of originals in British Public Record Office, War Office 34, Vol. 49, fols. 79-81.
- John Porteous to James Porteous, , Porteous Papers, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public This letter as well as Sterling’s is mentioned in Mrs. L. O. Woltz, “‘Who Was Who’ in Michigan, 1760 -1796,” Michigan History Magazine, VIII (April 1924), 129.
- Jonathan Carver, Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768 (London: Printed for the Author, 1778), 153.
About the Author: Dr. Harry Kelsey is Chief Curator of History at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, California. He holds a doctorate in history from the University of Denver, was Colorado State Historian for three years and Director of the Michigan Historical Commission from 1966 to 1971.