The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By M.M. Quaife
The Hercules was one of the tiny schooners which sailed the Great Lakes a century and a half ago. Some of them were vessels of 30 tons or evenness. The U. S. snow Adams, the finest vessel on the lakes in her time, rated 150 tons and carried a crew of 10 or 12 men. The Hercules was rated at 60 tons and her crew numbered half a dozen men.
Then, as now, the Great Lakes were subject to violent tempests, and the Government had not even dreamed of surveying channels or providing harbors and other aids to navigation. The little vessels of the period, consequently, too commonly ended their careers on some stormy lee shore, which became the common grave of vessel and crew. Such was the fate of the Hercules, whose story provides a typical illustration of shipping conditions on the lakes in the early decades of the nineteenth century.
On August 12, 1816 the vessel cleared Fort Gratiot (present-day Port Huron) for Mackinac with a cargo of 370 barrels of flour, 31 barrels of salt, 3 barrels of pork, all of it consigned by James Thomas to J. W. Biddle of Mackinac. Master of the Hercules at this time was William Keith, a veteran lake sailor.
Two years later, June 26, 1818, Ebenezer Church, master, the Hercules cleared Mackinac for Chicago with a cargo composed chiefly of flour, soap, and whiskey consigned to the traders of that future metropolis. Twenty-two days later, June 18, she was back at Mackinac bringing a cargo chiefly of furs. John Kinzie, the Chicago trader, had consigned 312 packs of buffalo skins, 56 packs of other furs and 166 bear skins to Mackinac traders; other shippers had sent 44 packs of furs.
Few people of today have ever heard that extensive herds of buffaloes occupied the country around the head of Lake Michigan a couple of centuries ago. Before the advent of the nineteenth century settler they had vanished from the region. One can only wonder whether the shipment of over 300 packs of skins came from Chicago’s back country or from some more remote point. All but forty packs of furs were unloaded at Mackinac. In their stead, the Hercules sailed for Detroit with almost 400 mococks of maple sugar, besides a lesser number of various other items.
In the spring of 1817 the Hercules again voyaged from Detroit to Chicago. The first Fort Dearborn had been burned by the Indians following the massacre of August 15, 1812. Promptly upon the close of the war the Government laid plans to reoccupy Chicago and on July 4, 1816 two companies of the Third U. S. Infantry arrived from Detroit to erect and garrison the second Fort Dearborn. Major Daniel Baker, a veteran officer of the regiment, had been assigned to the command, but for some reason he did not accompany the troops in 1816. The following spring, accompanied by his family, he sailed from Detroit on the Hercules. On June 1, 1817 he wrote a letter to his friend, Solomon Sibley of Detroit, describing his new situation. He had intended to write by the return of the Hercules, but the vessel had left too soon to permit doing so.
He was hard at work making a garden and other necessary arrangements for living. The Fort was pleasantly situated and his living quarters were more comfortable than he had expected to find them. “The surrounding country, ” he continued, “abounds with almost every species of game, which is easily procured and enables us with little expense to live in a style very different from what we have of late been accustomed to.” Already he had established a garrison school, “with some prospects of success” and with a company clerk as instructor. Mrs. Baker was less pleased with her wilderness situation, but the Major hopefully anticipated that in time she would become reconciled to it.
Such was Chicago in 1817, But little has been learned concerning Captain Ebenezer Church. One item from the year 1816, however, indicates that he was a man of resolute hardihood. The schooner General Jackson had been caught at Mackinac by the advent of cold weather and had been laid up for the winter there. On December 18, therefore, Church set out for Detroit in a birchbark canoe. The details of his 300-mile mid-winter voyage down the coast of stormy Lake Huron would undoubtedly make an interesting story.
Owner of the Hercules was James Thomas, concerning whom considerable is known. He was a Massachusetts man who from 1808 to 1811 had served as captain of dragoons in the U. S. Army. Upon the outbreak of war a year later, he reentered the service and from 1813 to 1815 held the rank of colonel, serving as an assistant deputy quartermaster. Evidently this service brought him to the lakes, where he remained for two or more years following the close of the war. Evidently, too, he sought to obtain a livelihood in the shipping trade, for the entire 400 -barrel cargo of the Hercules on the voyage to Mackinac in August, 1816 was shipped by Thomas, owner of the vessel. At this time the vessel was listed as ‘of Presque Isle (Erie ).’ Thomas must soon have removed to Detroit, where he established friendly and social relations with such prominent families as the Sibleys and the Woodbridges. About the year 1818 he went to Washington, where he seems to have lived for many years. Here as late as 1828 he was still struggling to settle his accounts with the Government for his war-time service.
Comes now into our story a young Green Mountain boy named Luke Sherwin. In 1818, seeking fame and fortune, he made his way to Lake Erie and hired for the season on the Hercules. From the flotsam of time a single letter, written to his brother in Vermont, has emerged. “I am now a sailor,” he proudly announced. Already he had been as far west as Mackinac, 600 miles from Buffalo. When he began the letter, on August 9, 1818, the Hercules had been stormbound for three days off Cunningham Island in Lake Erie, prevented by contrary winds from continuing her voyage to Buffalo. He finished it at that port three days later. The captain had gone ashore, all of the crew save one were drunk, and Sherwin was in temporary charge of the vessel. He had engaged to remain with her until the close of the season of navigation, when he intended to seek other scenes; where, “God only knows.” Less than two months later his corpse, battered beyond possibility of recognition, was tossing in the surf off Michigan City.
Soon after the date of Sherwin’s letter we encounter a surprising document. William Woodbridge, collector of the port of Detroit, had persuaded the Treasury Department to permit him to procure a small sailing vessel to serve as a revenue cutter. She was built at Erie at a cost of $600, a far cry from present-day conceptions of governmental expenditures. Named the A. J. Dallas and manned by sturdy Captain Gilbert Knapp and crew of three or four sailors, she cruised the Detroit River and adjacent waters intent upon discouraging smuggling and enforcing a proper degree of respect for the Government of the United States.
On September 2, 1818 the Dallas dropped down the river and out upon Lake Erie. Several vessels had been spoken, when in the distance a strange sail was observed veering and tacking in such manner as to indicate she was desirous of avoiding the Dallas. Captain Knapp set out in pursuit and presently came close enough to fire a blank shot across her bow. No attention being paid to this, he fired another loaded with ball. The vessel replied in kind, repeatedly firing a musket at the Dallas which continued the chase for several hours. Eventually the wind failed the cutter and the vessel she had been chasing passed from sight, heading toward the mouth of the Detroit River. Knapp reported, however, that in the chase he had come near enough to her to identify her as the Hercules of Detroit.
Luke Sherwin had stated in his letter of August 12 that the Hercules was to remain a week or more at Buffalo. Presumably she was returning to Detroit when Captain Knapp encountered her. But the character of James Thomas, recently a colonel in the United States Army and the acknowledged friend of Detroit’s leading citizens, seems to render such conduct as Captain Knapp reported inexplicable.
Whatever the explanation of the mystery may be, the Hercules was engaged upon her last voyage. When favoring winds blew, the voyage from Detroit to Chicago might be made in a few days’ time. When the winds were contrary, or lacking altogether, it might require many weeks. The General Wayne, which carried the troops from Detroit to build Fort Dearborn in 1816, had consumed a month on the voyage, and the Hercules, which left Lake Erie on September 2, was at Chicago ready to begin her return voyage to Detroit, exactly a month later.
Lieutenant William S. Eveleth was a brilliant young Virginian who had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in the spring of 1815. His excellent record as a cadet gained for him the assignment to the engineering corps of the army and immediate appointment as instructor in engineering at the Academy. A year later he was sent to Detroit as assistant engineer in charge of the defenses around the lakes, and in July, 1818 he went to Chicago to supervise the work of construction of Fort Dearborn.
The Hercules weighed anchor for her return voyage to Detroit in the evening of October 2 and Lieutenant Eveleth improved the opportunity to return to his home station before the onset of winter. Next morning a tempest such as the oldest Chicagoan could not remember developed and raged for two days. Around the southerly half of Lake Michigan no single harbor afforded a shelter for shipping, and the tiny Fort Dearborn community anxiously awaited news of the Hercules.
It came with sickening impact a week later. On October 9 a band of Indians from the Grand River of Michigan arrived. They reported that they had encountered pieces of wreckage at the end of the lake, and among the objects which they had picked up and brought with them was a scale which had belonged to Lieutenant Eveleth.
Major Baker at once dispatched a party in search of any survivors of the disaster. They found the wreckage of the Hercules scattered along the shore for several miles in the vicinity of Michigan City. Although the hull had vanished, the main mast and some pieces of spars had drifted ashore. But one body was found, and this one was in such condition as to be unrecognizable. A party of Potawatomi Indians had already visited the scene and carried away whatever they deemed worth taking, but a uniform coat belonging to Captain Eveleth had been left behind.
Such was the contemporary report made by Major Baker to his superior at Detroit. Two years later, however, Henry R. Schoolcraft, the noted Indian authority, attended the Chicago Treaty of 1820 and returned to Detroit by open boat around the lake shore. He recorded that the mast and spars of the Hercules were still to be seen, and the voyageurs pointed out to him the graves of several victims of the wreck, scattered along the shore at points where their bodies had been washed up. The body of Lieutenant Eveleth had been identified and had been buried beneath a cluster of small pines at the edge of a sand dune, the spot marked only by a blazed sapling. Schoolcraft commented that a more adequate tribute of respect was due Lieutenant Eveleth from his brother officers, and expressed the hope that those at Fort Dearborn would yet provide a suitable memorial for him.
Although his fellow officers might be thus indifferent, the auditors of the Treasury Department could safely be trusted not to forget the dead lieutenant. Sometime before his last mission he had received $1000 in government funds. He had paid Lewis Morgan of Green Bay $50 and had rendered an account of $600 expended for other purposes. Although Eveleth died too soon to know of it, only $99.18 of the latter sum had been approved, leaving almost $850 still charged against him, and payment of the sum that had been approved was being withheld from his widowed and indigent mother until the entire $1000 should be accounted for. Although Lieutenant Eveleth was known to have been notably careful of his expenses while a cadet at the Academy, the question was raised whether at Detroit he had lived more extravagantly than his salary permitted. If not, had he carried the money with him, separated from his personal funds, in which event a presumption might be advanced that it had been lost when he perished in the line of duty, and consequently the loss was chargeable to the Government. How the matter ended, we do not know. Possibly the auditors are still pursuing the claim. More probably, the distressed mother did not live long enough to receive the minute fraction of the amount at stake which even the auditors acknowledged was rightfully due her son. Like the encounter of Captain Knapp with the Hercules the determination of Lieutenant Eveleth’s account still remains a mystery.
This article appeared in Inland Seas in Summer 1950.
About the Author: Dr. Quaife of Detroit is author of many books and articles on the Great Lakes, one of its best known and most distinguished historians.