Food scarcities on the frontier

Last week, we talked about pasties and their introduction to the Lake Superior copper region in the mid-1840s. So much literature has been produced about pasties in the region since the mid-20th century that other foods, of more historical significance, have been relegated to obscurity. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it leaves readers the impression that pasties were the only food consumed in the copper region, and therefore the only thing miners ate. Another reason is that the cultural fixation of the historical aspect of the pasty completely ignores the other foods the early pioneers of the copper region, as well as those territories within the 1789 Northwest Ordinance, relied on to survive, regardless of flavor or ethnic culture.

From 1840 to the early 1870s, the south shore of Lake Superior was the extreme northwest corner of the the Northwest Ordinance, which was established in 1789. It was, the Northwest Frontier. That section of the territory was opened to Euro-American settlement in March, 1843, after Congress ratified the Oct. 1842 Copper Treaty of La Pointe. The region was ill-prepared for the flood of humanity to its shores.

There were no overland roads into the region and on the Lake, there were only two ships, neither of which was designed for passenger service. The first, the John Jacob Astor, was a two-masted schooner, built by master ship builder George Washington Jones under the direction of Ramsey Crooks, president of the American Fur Company in 1835. It measured 78 feet long and weighed 112 tons. Four years later, the AFC converted the schooner’s rigging from a topsail schooner to a square-rig brig.

The second ship was the fore-and-aft schooner Algonquin, built in 1838-39 for the Cleveland North Western Lake Company, under the direction of Cyrus Mendenhall. Like the Astor, the Algonquin was built by George Washington Jones of Black River, Ohio. At just 54 feet in length, the ship was a small, single-deck cargo vessel, specifically built to transport wooden barrels between La Pointe, in the Wisconsin Territory and Sault Ste. Marie. These two ships were the only transports for bringing food into the increasing number of mining locations. The food did not always arrive.

In the fall of 1845, Rev. Eric H. Day received his first appointment as a missionary to the region.

“That appointment,” he wrote in 1889, “was in the then far ‘Northwest,’ 25 miles west of the extreme wester part of of Lake Superior.” The appointment was to the Methodist mission at La Pointe, and when nearly there, his vessel was caught in a savage Lake Superior storm.

“Freight on the deck was thrown about promiscuously,” he wrote, “barrels were broken, and some filled with corn jumped clear over the bulwarks and landed unbroken into the sea.”

Historical documents like Day’s provide overwhelming evidence that food was always a scarcity on the frontier.

Rev. John H. Pitezel, another Methodist missionary, was on the south shore of Lake Superior around the same time as Rev. Day. In his memoir, he wrote of spending Christmas time in 1845 at the Sault Ste. Marie mission, where on the approach of the New Year, …“A barrel of flour was baked into bread for the occasion, and a barrel of bean soup made, and sundry minor things placed in readiness.”

The next day, after 10 a.m. public worship, the mission workers “distributed some corn, pork, and other eatables among our visitors, including the barrel of bean soup, which was not the least among the luxuries of the day.”

John H. Forster, the engineer and historian who seemed to be everywhere mining was going on, was employed at the Silver Islet Mine, about 20 miles north of Isle Royale, in Ontario, in 1870, when the location was under construction.

Forster wrote, in his “The History of the Settlement of the Silver Islet, on the North Shore of Lake Superior,” which was published in Michigan Historical Collections, Volume 14 in 1908, that “Plenty of fish were taken through the ice, affording a much needed change of diet from salt pork and beef.”

At the Minnesota mining location, in the Ontonagon district, the annual report of that company for 1859 recorded the population of the location at 1,215. Situated some 12 miles from “the mouth” of the river, It was a difficult enough time getting food to the location from the Ontonagon harbor in the summer; in the seven-month long winter season, that task was next to impossible. The company did everything it could to ensure ample food for residents and animals.

“We added about 70 acres of cleared lands during the year,” Mine Agent J.B. Townsend reported, “making some 400 acres now under cultivation, besides those occupied with buildings and improvements.” The harvest for 1859 was 2,200 bushels of potatoes, 1,200 bushels of turnips, and 170 tons of hay and oats. Townsend complained that the year’s product was nearly a failure compared to previous years.

The following year, weather conditions were far better than they had been in 1859. In 1860, more than 10,000 bushels of potatoes and 2,000 bushels of turnips were harvested. These were vegetables that could be easily planted, easily harvested, could be stored for months at a time, and could be successfully grown in the region’s thin soil.

On the Lake Superior frontier, food scarcity was a very real fear, even before the area was opened to settlement. Mendenhall’s schooner was claimed (by him) to be the first American vessel to enter Copper Harbor, which occurred in May, 1840. In a letter written from Copper Harbor some years later, Mendenhall wrote that his goal in entering the harbor was to establish a fishing station there. In his letter, he wrote that when he left the six-person crew to fish there, he had “furnished them with potatoes, corn, beans and other seed, with directions to plant but they reported that they could find no suitable ground which in their opinion offered any encouragement, and that they therefore omitted planting.”

Four years later, the U.S. Army established Fort Wilkins at Copper Harbor, not far from the area Mendenhall had intended to establish his fishery. The post commander, Capt. Robert E. Clary, in a report written in 1845, complained that the post garden “produced us less than the seed planted…”

Clary, like everyone else on the Lake Superior frontier, faced severe hardship during the winter of 1844/45 after the brig Aston, the larger of the two ships on the Lake that year, was wrecked in Copper Harbor in a storm. The directors of the Lake Superior Copper Company, which had its mine at Eagle River, had been quick to realize the impact of the Astor’s wreck would have.

“The brig Astor was wrecked in the Fall of the same year,” its unofficial company report stated, “leaving only the Algonquin upon the Lake, for the transportation of freight and passengers on the opening of navigation in the Spring of 1845.”

A letter from the mine’s agent, Charles H. Gratiot, to one of the directors, dated from “South Shore, Lake Superior, Eagle River,” on Jan. 25, 1845, opened with the following:

“The brig Astor’s disaster has been the cause of much perplexity, loss of time, and expense for us, as we have had to boat all our supplies from the Fort to this place. I was under the necessity, also, of purchasing a large Mackinau boat to take up part of our supplies from Sault Ste. Marie; the schooner being under charter to government, I could get her to take but little.” Owing to severe storms and heavy snowfalls, Gratiot’s life was several times put in danger attempting to get food and winter provisions from the Sault to Eagle River, in open boats, on the south shore of the Lake.

“It is all over now,” he wrote, “but I shall try and keep clear of such trips in the future.”

The wreck of the Astor showed the vulnerability of the settlements along the south shore of Lake Superior during the pioneer years on the northwest frontier. In addition to the uncertainty of shipping, the high prices charged by ship owners for freight haulage created difficulties in purchasing enough food to sustain a mining location through the winter. Regardless of flavor and taste, barrels of salt pork, salted fish, salt beef, whatever could be shot or trapped locally — or if and when possible, whatever could be farmed — food that could be had on the frontier was welcomed.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today