Frontier life was never comfortable for anyone

Life on the Lake Superior frontier copper district was not romantic or simple by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it was brutal, seldom merciful, and not everyone survived.

While there were physicians in the region, medical knowledge and technology were limited to the time, and medical facilities were primitive at best when compared to densely populated areas back east. Even in the better equipped facilities on the frontier, such as the hospital at Fort Wilkins, patients were sometimes beyond what frontier medicine could offer.

The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1845 remarked that a “new disease of alarming character, attended with rapid inflammatory symptoms, exists at Fort Wilkins, and excruciating pains are represented to mark its destructive progress.”

Thirteen cases of the abdominal ailment were reported by the fort’s physician, one of which was fatal. He never was able to discover the identity or cause of the sickness. Such was life on the frontier.

Death not only did not discriminate, it often targeted the weakest and the youngest of the community. Infant death was more than common, as any a walk through any pioneer cemetery will readily reveal. So were illnesses, particularly in the winter when people were confined more to the indoors, where hastily built housing contributed to air-born bacteria and respiratory ailments. Malnutrition undoubtedly played a major role in sickness and death, as well. Pioneer John H. Forster probably hit the mark without even knowing it.

“The winter of 1847,” Forster wrote, “as it fell upon those isolated settlers, some of them poorly supplied with the necessaries of life, and poorly sheltered in hastily built huts and cabins, proved more severe, cruel, and wearing than had been expected.”

Reverend John H. Pitezel, in his book, Light and Shades of Missionary Life, described the condition of a mining company cabin. In the fall of 1847, Pitezel, a Methodist missionary, was sent by his superiors to Keweenaw Point to preside over the “Keweenaw Mission.” He was given a house, free of rent, by the Cliff Mining Company, about which Pitezel tried his best to be cheery.

“This was a cabin,” wrote Pitezel, “built of round logs, a story and a half tall, divided below into two apartments by a board partitions, with woodshed made of rough boards.” The cabin had no basement, but rested on the ground.

Equipped with a cook stove, and a box stove loaned from Richard Edwards, the agent of the neighboring Albion Mine, the house was warm, but that caused problems. The house had no chimney, rather just metal stove pipe. The heat generated from the pipe, along with the rising heat of the cabin, combined to melt the layer of snow against the roof, while the snow above that kept it insulated. Melted snow ran down the outside of the cabin, then seeped through the logs to the interior of the house, making the air wet, dank, and difficult to breathe.

“But our cabin was a much better one than some of our neighbors had,” Pitezel wrote, “and we felt grateful to the Company [sic] for giving us possession of such a home.”

Pitezel and John Forster were two very different men possessing very different attitudes of “our neighbors,” thought they were both of the same frontier social class. Pitezel, the preacher, and Forster, the mining engineer, were both considered “Upper Class.”

Forster, in War Times in the Copper Mines, wrote that “The leading people, mine managers, merchants, surgeons and artisans, were mostly Americans, a mere handful among the mass.” Among the mass. Their families, he wrote, “seemed out of place in those rude settlements.”

Two paragraphs later, he described the “miners and laborers — as “rude and turbulent, much addicted to beer and whiskey.”

Pitezel, on the other hand, looked upon the “working class” with compassion, understanding, yet without consdescension.

“In this wilderness, many snares were but too successfully laid for their feet,” he wrote. “The influences around them tended to harden them in their career of backsliding.”

Yet, Pitezel found a genuine affection and a certain amount of respect for those who either repented or had not “backslid” while waiting for the arrival of a minister of the Gospel.

“During our residence among the miners,” he wrote, “we found many large and warm hearts to throb under the rough exterior.”

Forster tried to stand above the the workers and their families with an elitist attitude. Pitezel, on the other hand, stood among them, and he came to know them well.

“For frankness, warm and generous sympathy, and liberality to relieve the suffering, to support the Gospel, to aid the cause of Sunday Schools, or the missionary cause, we have seldom known these people to be excelled (surpassed?).”

Forster circulated among the society he chose for his own vain reasons, once walking on snowshoes from Hancock to Fort Wilkins just to attend an officer’s Christmas Party to do it. Pitezel spent the same Christmas celebrating the holy day with the Ojibway on Keweenaw Bay. Very different men with very different missions.

But Pitezel, being a man of God, understood something Forster seems to have not quite gotten. Every one, of every class, was equal without distinction in the eyes of God, or nature if you prefer. Suffering, starvation, sickness, death, misfortune, and winter, like God, did not discriminate.