Pirates, Kings, and Revolutionaries: The Great Lakes as seen by the USS Michigan

By Enoch Carpenter

Discussion of United States history in the latter half of the nineteenth century is often dominated by the South and West, and for good reason.  The 1860’s brought civil war to the country, and westward expansion was a constant pressure during the era.  While attentions were elsewhere, the Great Lakes connected lands ranging from new states to old states to British-held Canada, providing unique opportunities for trade, diplomacy, and crime.  The task of keeping law and order on the lakes fell mostly to one vessel:  the USS MichiganMichigan was a giant in the lakes, and saw events which, given the opportunity, could spawn mythos rivaling the Wild West.

The driving forces behind the construction of the Michigan originate in the Rush-Bergot Treaty of 1818[1].  This treaty limited both the amount of warships allowable by the United States and Britain in the Great Lakes, and provided a diplomatic method of solving any territory disputes, as no clear line of demarcation existed in the Lakes[2] .  Specifically, the treaty allowed one vessel with one 18 pounder gun on lakes Champlain and Ontario, and two ships with equal qualifications on the other Lakes[3].  Though the rules were strict, neither side hesitated much from breaking them[4] .  The United States especially felt that Britain was militarizing the Lakes more than was permissible[5].  In response to this perceived threat, Congress passed the Fortification Act in 1841, which earmarked money later used to build the Michigan in accordance with the Treaty[6] [7].  Secretary of the Navy A. P. Upshur was responsible for the Michigan’s most notable feature:  it was the first iron hulled warship owned by the United States Navy.   He determined to experiment with iron “to use the immense resource of our country in that most valuable metal” and “to ascertain the practicability and utility of building vessels, at least for harbor defense, of so cheap and indestructible a material.”[8]  The result of these efforts culminated in the USS Michigan, a paddle frigate capable of out-shooting or outrunning anything else in the Lakes[9].

USS Michigan

Michigan was designed by Samuel Hart, USN and built by Stackhouse and Tomlinson, and was delivered to Erie, Pennsylvania, where it was assembled for launch[10] [11].  On December 5, 1843, the Navy attempted to launch her, but she became stuck, and could not be moved.  The shipwrights gave up, determining to return the next day to try again.  When they returned, however, they found that the ship was floating offshore.  It had apparently launched itself[12].   Two days later, President John Tyler Christened the ship, and Commander William Inman took command[13] [14].

The Michigan’s patrol of the Lakes went relatively smoothly until 1853.  The years prior had seen a rebellion against federal authority swell in the region.  The unrest stemmed from restrictions on logging in the area.  A black market formed, the government responded, and the situation escalated; the Timber Rebellion was now in full swing, with organized criminal organizations to rival those in the Prohibition era[15]. (2, 42-45).  In spring 1853,  Michigan set out for its yearly patrol under Commander Abraham Bigelow, likely unaware that the Rebellion had recently been escalated by recent actions by timber agents in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois[16].  (2, 46-47).  This threat was especially strong for the Michigan, as timber pirates knew the Michigan was the greatest threat to their smuggling operations[17]. (2,48).  These circumstances culminated for the Michigan when sailing Northwest near Point Au Barques, Michigan.  At 2:15 AM, the crew of the Michigan noted a light from an oncoming ship some 10-15 miles away.  Michigan attempted to move out of the way, but the light followed their movement.  By 3:00AM, the ship, a large propeller steamer, was only a couple hundred yards away.  As they prepared to pass each other, the steamer turned abruptly and rammed the Michigan in the port quarter: a more vulnerable spot could not have been hit[18].   In spite of this, her iron construction allowed her to weather the impact without springing a leak[19].  The steamer had continued on its course, and Michigan gave chase.  Catching up, the other steamer was identified as the Buffalo, the largest propeller steamer in the Lakes[20].   Commander Bigelow had no way to know a reason his ship was targeted, and he had been asleep before the impact, so he allowed the steamer to go, attributing the collision to carelessness, though his view changed after interviewing his crew[21].  Though operational, the Michigan had been mangled by the impact, so she limped her way to Chicago for repairs.

Later that year, Michigan, back in Erie from its repairs received confidential orders to join the fight.  The Timber Rebellion was going poorly for the timber agents.  Timber pirates would flee to the water when they were threatened, and the pirates stole any timber seized by the agents at a later time.  All this changed when the Michigan arrived.  Joint land and sea operations had her transporting marines to raids, chasing down smuggling ships, and dropping its prisoners off in New Buffalo, where they would be shipped by rail to Detroit, where they stood trial[22].  By October, the timber barons had given up the tactics which made them vulnerable to the Michigan, opting for political means of achieving their means[23].

Before her involvement in the Timber Rebellion, Michigan had been sent to deal with a stranger problem.  Beaver Island, in the mid to late 1840s had been populated by a mormon sect, led by James Jesse Strang[24].  In 1850, Strang declared himself king[25].  Tensions were high between the Strangites and the “gentiles” in the area, and propagandic news outlets fanned the flames[26].  In 1851, the Michigan transported law enforcement officials to arrest Strang on charges of robbery of the mails, counterfeiting, trespassing on U.S. land, and more[27].  It was thought that the Michigan would be necessary to make the arrest because the Strangites may resist.  This was not the case.After a short trial in Detroit, Michigan returned the self-proclaimed king to his kingdom27.

James Jesse Strang, “King of Beaver Island”

Five years later, on June 16, 1856, the Michigan entered the port at St. James[28].  The captain, Commander Charles H. McBlair sent word for Strang to come to the ship[29].  As Strang approached, two of his former followers, Alexander Wentworth and Thomas Bedford came from behind him and shot him simultaneously[30].  After the initial volley, Wentworth, at the behest of Bedford shot him point blank in the head, and Bedford beat him with his pistol[31].  Their objective complete, they ran to the Michigan and asked for protection[32].  The assassins were transported to Mackinac, where they were greeted as heroes[33].  After a brief meeting with a justice of the peace, they were released, being charged $1.25 each for court fees[34].  The Michigan’s ship surgeon was asked to treat Strang, but many of his wounds would be mortal alone, and not much could be done[35].  Questions are rampant about this incident.  Michigan had periodic contact with the locals in the area, and had earlier heard complaints about Strang.  These had led McBlair to express his belief  to Governor Bingham that Strang was committing robbery and fraud by overstating the population of Beaver Island by about four times the actual number[36]. This belief, coupled with the Michigan’s arrival and “luring” of Strang to the place where he was assassinated, as well as reports that the officers of Michigan observed the assassination without attempting to intervene has brought about speculation that the crew was complicit in the act[37], but no serious investigation was launched[38].

The Michigan’s involvement in the American Civil War was truly unique.  She was assigned to guard the prisoner of war camp on Johnson’s Island in Sandusky Bay, Ohio[39].  Confederate Captain Charles H. Cole, however, had other plans for her.  He would ingratiate himself with the crew while another group of Confederates would take control of a passenger steamer named Philo Parsons, and make their way to the Michigan[40].  Cole would then drug or get drunk the officers of the Michigan, signal the Philo Parsons, and take the ship[41].  Had the plan been a success, the Michigan would have freed the prisoners from Johnson’s Island and begun raiding coastal cities and ships in the Great Lakes, disrupting the North’s economy[42].

The Philo Parsons, typical Great Lakes Sidewheeler Steamship

The plan to take the Philo Parsons, led by Acting Master John Y. Beall, succeeded without error.  Confederate conspirators boarded the boat as passengers a few at a time, then took the boat[43].  They dropped off the other passengers and most of the crew, after swearing them to secrecy.  They even managed to take the Island Queen, which carried 30 inexperienced, unarmed Union militiamen.  They left them on shore as well, and sank their ship[44].

When they came upon the Michigan, however, no signal came from Cole.   As it became apparent that no signal would come, the Confederates aboard the Philo Parsons became uneasy.  Beall wished to take the Michigan with the element of surprise alone, but his conspirators saw the impressive bulk of iron and guns that is the Michigan, and thought better of it[45].  Cole had been found out when warning of the plot had reached Lieutenant Colonel Bennet Hill, who warned the Michigan[46].  The Philo Parsons retreated to Canada, where it was burned[47].

Michigan spent the rest of her life protecting law and order in the Great Lakes.  She went back to her normal pastime of helping ships in distress and hunting down criminals[48], like the Fenian Brotherhood after their attempted invasion of Canada[49].  In 1905, her name was changed to the USS Wolverine, and she was decommissioned in 1912. At this time she was given to the Pennsylvania Naval Militia, and used for training.  In 1923, she was broken, and given back to the city of Erie.  Funds ran out to preserve the Wolverine, though, and in 1949 everything but the bow and cutwater were scrapped[50].

 

Unfortunately, the exploits of the Michigan have gone largely unknown.  It’s exploits, be they tracking down timber pirates or witnessing the assassination of a prophet, are limited in scope to the immediate area.  Her adventures, though impressive, become overshadowed by larger, more eye catching trends in United States and world history.  This is a shame for any person proud of their Michigan heritage, and the first iron hulled ship the Navy had, Michigan.

Notes

 

[3] Ibid. 239.

[4] Rodgers, Guardian, 14.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hulce, “Michigan at Sea,” 98.

[7] Rodgers, Guardian, 14.

[8] “Michigan I (SwStr)”

[9] Rodgers, Guardian, 5

[10] Hulce, “Michigan at Sea,” 99.

[11] Rodgers, Guardian, 16.

[12] “Michigan I (SwStr)”

[13] Rodgers, Guardian, 17.

[14] Hulce, “Michigan at Sea,” 100.

[15] Rodgers, Guardian, 42-45.

[16] Ibid., 46-47.

[17] Ibid., 48.

[18] Rodgers, Guardian, 49.

[19] Ibid., 50.

[20] Ibid., 50

[21] Ibid., 50

[22] Ibid., 53-54.

[23] Rodgers, Guardian, 55-56.

[24] Van Noord, Michigan King, 72

[25] Ibid., 105.

[26] Rodgers, Guardian, 66.

[27] Ibid., 67.

[28] Van Noord, Michigan King, 248.

[29] “Assassination of Strang.”

[30] Ibid.

[31] Van Noord, Michigan King, 249.

[32] Van Noord, Michigan King, 249.

[33] Ibid., 251.

[34] Ibid., 252.

[35] Ibid., 250

[36] Ibid., 245

[37] Rodgers, Guardian, 73.

[38] Van Noord, Michigan King, 267.

[39] Hildebrand, “Piracy.”

[40] Rodgers, Guardian, 88.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Hildebrand, “Piracy.”

[43] Hildebrand, “Piracy.”

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Rodgers, Guardian, 93.

[49] Ibid., 106.

[50]“Michigan I (SwStr)”

Bibliography

“Assassination of Strang,” Detroit Advertiser (Detroit, MI), June 29, 1856.

Hildebrand, Craig W.  “Piracy on Lake Erie,” Michigan History 82,  4 (July-August 1998): 94+.

Hulce, DeVern C.  “Michigan at Sea,”  Michigan History 50, no. 2 (Summer 1971):95-107.

“Michigan I (SwStr),” Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Last modified August 10, 2015,https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/m/michigan-i.html.

Rodgers, Bradley A. Guardian of the Great Lakes:  the US Paddle Frigate Michigan. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Shuryan, James M.  “A Peaceful Border:  The Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817.”

In Border Crossings: the Detroit River Region in the War of 1812, Edited by Denver Brunsman, Joel Stone, and Douglas D. Fisher, 235-243.  Detroit: Detroit Historical Society, 2012.

Van Noord, Roger.  Assassination of a Michigan King:  The Life of James Jesse Strang.  Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997.