Fort Wilkins: insignificant military post
Although Fort Wilkins may have been among the most insignificant military posts in United Stated History, it provided a vital service to Michigan’s Lake Superior Copper District, while it was evolving from a wilderness to a frontier. Captain Robert Emmet Clary, United States Army, had been ordered to Copper Harbor to establish a military fort, which was to be named Fort Wilkins, in honor of the Secretary of War, William Wilkins.
Clary, commanding Companies A and B, Fifth United States Infantry, arrived at Copper Harbor on May 27, 1844, along with his command. Among the barracks and quarters to accommodate 105 officers and men, other buildings erected that summer included, two kitchens, a bakery, a hospital, a blacksmith shop, a store house, an ice house, and a sutler’s store. This would be operated by a man named Charles Brush.
Wisely, Brush carried a line of items for prospectors and explorers coming into the region. In his “Early Settlement of Lake Superior,” published in the Michigan Historical Collections, John H. Forster mentioned, “The sutler’s Store in the stockade supplied our copper pioneers with needed clothing, tools, and supplies. We shall never forget the genial, whole-souled sutler, Charley Brush.”
Indeed, Charley Brush was whole-souled, as well as generous. Peter White, in his article, “A Biographical Sketch of the Lake Superior Iron Country”, quoted John Hays, who wrote, “I borrowed one hundred dollars of Charles Brush, a sutler at Fort Wilkins, to enable me to pay the Indians and other expenses of the trip.” In 1844, one hundred dollars was nearly the annual salary of a private soldier garrisoned at the fort.
John Hays, who discovered the copper lode that would later become the Cliff Mine near Eagle River, was a typical explorer of that time and region. Hays was a druggist from Cleveland who, like so many others, was looking to cash in on the Michigan copper rush. He hired a party of Ojibwe Indians to handle his canoes for his copper exploring expedition, and he mentioned the supplies he purchased for his journey. The list consisted of, “snowshoes, blankets, pork, tea and sugar, cooking utensils, also a gun and a dog, which comprised our outfit.” Aside of the dog, this list of necessary items was standard of what the explorers and prospectors would have taken with them into the wilderness. Hays was rare in that he intended to remain in the district that winter of 1844; he was one of the few who would remain, rather than retreat back to civilization before winter set in.
While Fort Wilkins, in the end, not needed as a military post, it did indeed, offer a necessary service to the Lake Superior Wilderness, in the form of the Sutler’s Store.
Editor’s note:?Graham Jaehnig has a master’s degree in English/ creative writing with a focus on nonfiction from Southern New Hampshire University and a B.A. in history from Michigan Technological University.