While pioneers suffered winter, Fort Wilkins had its problems

Copper Country's past and people

Capt. Robert Emmet Clary was in command at Fort Wilkins. In fact, it was his command that had constructed the post at Copper Harbor. The garrison consisted of 105 officers and men, comprising Companies A and B of the Fifth U.S. Infantry. And from the moment those men and their families landed at the harbor, Clary had nothing but trouble and frustrations.

The command arrived in Copper Harbor by ship in May, 1844, and began clearing the site for the next day. He pushed his men hard to complete the quarters, barracks, storehouse, shops and hospital before the winter snows arrived. Somehow the goal was met, but Clary during construction, and after, Clary was confronted by many odd distractions.

He had to be careful in ordering provisions until the two-story storehouse was completed, then order the bulk of the winter’s food supply to arrive before the close of the shipping season. What was convenient for Clary, the supplies he needed were in storage at Sault Ste. Marie. What was inconvenient, there were just two vessels on Lake Superior in 1844, and both of them had been racing all season shipping loads and passengers into Keweenaw Point, and west to La Pointe, in the Apostle Islands.

In September, the larger of the two vessels, the John Jacob Astor, was wrecked in the harbor. All of the cargo for the fort was saved, but upon inspection, most of it was found to be rotten.

Clary remained at Copper Harbor to continue overseeing construction, while his second-in-command, Lt. Daniel Ruggles, was sent to the Sault to procure a “partial load” of potatoes, which Clary hoped would be enough for the winter. Six hundred-seven bushels of potatoes were forwarded to the fort. All but 25 bushels were condemned as rotten.

“It is possible that all of the supplies will reach us,” Clary wrote in a report dated Nov. 1, “yet I think we shall have an abundance of the more important and necessary articles, the only deficiencies being bread and beef.”

The problem of the beef deficiency was temporarily solved in late November when Ruggles reported he ordered the slaughter of 10 beef cattle, the meat of which was mostly corned, because, he wrote, of a lack of transportation. Hay at the post was “damaged,” probably by rain.

A recently received lot vinegar was bad. Upon his request, the inspector at Sault Ste. Marie inspected 40 barrels of pork there intended for the post. He was able to select just 17 barrels that were not rotten, to which Ruggles reported: “Indeed I would never have received a pound of it if were already well supplied.”

So, we have a fair picture of the condition of the food at Fort Wilkins during the winter of 1844-45. Now comes an interesting, if sad, occurrence at the fort that I will leave for you to ponder and decide what may have caused it.

On Jan. 25, 1845, in a report to one of his superiors, Clary wrote, most casually, in fact: “We have considerable sickness in the garrison caused by an epidemic which has already carries off one man. — However, there are non, at present, in a dangerous condition.” This was an amazing understatement.

According to the quarterly report of Assistant Surgeon, Charles Isaacs, written in March, 1845, the first cases of the illness occurred on Dec. 28 and 29, 1844.

While thirteen cases were reported among the soldiers, “many of the command were affected with premonitory symptoms — such as nausea, weight and oppression at the epegastrium; sometimes (gripping), burning pain, diarrhea, and occasionally bloody discharges. Again, there were pricking, tearing, lancitating pains in the abdomen, with tenderness on pressure.” Further on, he stated, “The disease in its last stages had a strong tendency to pass into dysentery.”

In experimenting with remedies, Isaacs tried many approaches, even resorting, in most cases, to cupping and bleeding of the patients.

One soldier, as Clary had reported, died of the illness. Isaacs conducted an autopsy, from which he found: “…the inflammation in the latter stages involving the mucous coat of the stomach to some extent, of the small intestines, but particularly that of the colon.”

Isaacs, based on the symptoms and the autopsy, diagnosed the sickness as peritonitis, and stated the cause of the disease was entirely unknown.

His diagnosis leaves room for doubt, unfortunately, because peritonitis is inflammation of the peritoneum, and it is very rare. The likelihood of the majority of the garrison contracting it at once is next to nil. Further, peritonitis is accompanied by constipation, rather than diarrhea. There are other differences, but perhaps a doctor who reads this will care to comment.

What is of further interest in the occurrence is Isaacs’ inclusion in his report: “…nor were some severe cases in the families of officers reported on sick-list.” Does Isaacs suggest by this statement that he knew of severe cases of the illness on Officers’ Row? It is too ambiguous to gather much from.

However, Isaacs reported he first attributed the problem to the provisions, but they were “of good quality.” He considered the water, which was taken from what it now Lake Fannie Hooe, but wrote, “…but several people drink from it during the whole of the past summer, fall, and winter, without any bad effect.”

So, the cause was never found. But we do have several questions to ponder. Considering the repeated written reports regarding the condition of provisions, could it have been food poisoning? Or perhaps it was a result of poor sanitary conditions in the kitchens where the food was cooked? If that is the case, it would explain why so few of the officers and their families were affected, because they did not regularly eat in the mess halls of the enlisted men.

Whatever the cause, there is more than ample evidence to suggest that during the first winter the fort was occupied, living there was not a pleasant experience for anyone, officers, men, or civilians.