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Settlement and Early Transportation

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Excerpted from the Environmental Impact Statement / Management Plan and Martin, Jay C. 1996. Preliminary Comparative and Theme Study of National Historic Landmark Potential for Thunder Bay, Michigan. Great Lakes Visual/Research, Inc. Lansing, MI.

The Thunder Bay region was purchased from Native Americans by the federal government in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw. Although some land was used as a reservation area, European settlement soon pushed Native American villages inland to Mikado and Hubbard Lake. By the 1850s, the Alpena area became a center for fur trading, fishing, and lumbering.


Alpena residences and businesses along the Thunder Bay River, circa 1886.

The area of present-day Alpena County was first surveyed in 1840 and became a county in 1857. The survey of the town of Fremont began in 1856. In 1859, the state legislature changed the name of Fremont to "Alpena," a Native American word meaning "good partridge country." The population of the City of Alpena grew steadily from 290 in 1860 to 674 in 1864 and to 2,756 in 1870. In 1873, Alpena County had 4,807 citizens; 3,964 of these lived in the City of Alpena. Most of the early settlers in the Alpena area were from New York and New England, but the lumber camps later attracted Swedes, Norwegians, and French-Canadians to the area.

The following sections describe European trade and transportation on the Great Lakes in greater detail.

Early Trade and Exploration The Europeans who first entered the Great Lakes region quickly found their own small craft to be unwieldy in the new environment. As a consequence, they soon adapted the technology of Native Americans to their own needs. European explorers, missionaries, soldiers, settlers, and traders all traveled in their own versions of Native American canoes.

The trade that most rapidly impacted native/European interaction was the fur trade. Animal furs were in demand because of fashion trends in Europe and there developed an extensive trade whereby Europeans and Native Americans alike caught and cured pelts in the American interior for the European market. This trade required access to remote areas where larger craft would have been difficult to maneuver or portage around obstructions. The canoe was the ideal craft for this trade and remained so until well into the early nineteenth century.

In addition to the canoe, by the mid-eighteenth century French and later British military and commercial establishments also used the bateaux, a double-ended flat-bottomed craft built to carry heavy cargo. Unlike canoes, bateaux were built with frames and planks. The bateaux were propelled by oars, poles, and sails and were used on military expeditions. They normally remained within sight of shore.

No examples of either the canoe or bateaux are known to exist in the proposed sanctuary, but given the frequency with which these types of craft passed the bay, it would not be beyond the realm of possibility for them to be discovered there.

French and English Colonies, American Revolution, and Early Military Affairs (1679-1860) The canoe and bateaux were the standard means of transportation for Europeans on the Great Lakes until the 1670s, when larger vessels of European design were constructed to facilitate trade and transportation through sparsely settled territory to and from isolated frontier military posts. The first of these vessels to be built above Niagara Falls was La Salle's GRIFFON in 1679. Though vessels of European design did not immediately replace canoes and bateaux, they were the first long-distance deepwater sailing craft to be used on the Great Lakes.

The first European vessels were built on contemporary models adapted to carry supplies, personnel, trade goods, and later annual Indian payments to fortifications and trading posts at strategic points including Mackinaw, Sault Ste. Marie, and Green Bay. These early vessels were small and tended to sail within sight of shore, though not as close as canoes and bateaux. Early lakes craft are only sparsely documented among surviving historical records and it is not known whether any of these were lost within the vicinity of Thunder Bay. These sailing vessels were the technological ancestors of the highly efficient Great Lakes schooner of the mid-nineteenth century.

Naval craft were used on the Great Lakes during the French and Indian War, American Revolution, and the War of 1812. A few of these sailed in the vicinity of Thunder Bay, but none are known to have been lost there. After 1815, few naval vessels were in use on the lakes because the Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817 limited the number and type of naval vessels kept on the lakes by British Canada and the United States. This agreement was, in part, responsible for establishing the peaceful coexistence that characterized the border region during most of the next century. The stability spurred regional settlement, as did numerous travelers' accounts, popular literature, and European immigration. The regional population increased with such rapidity that cities appeared at strategic points almost overnight. The population of Buffalo grew twenty-fold between 1820 and 1850 after it became the front door to the Great Lakes and the back door to the East Coast with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Similar growth was seen in other Great Lakes cities.

Westward Expansion (1763-1898) The lack of adequate roads in the Great Lakes region during the late 18th and early 19th centuries made virtually everyone dependent upon waterborne transportation. Immigrants, traders, tourists, missionaries, and military personnel depended on the the growing number of fore-and-aft rigged sailing vessels. Steam-powered sidewheelers appeared on the Great Lakes in 1816 and above Niagara in 1818. Initially the steamers lacked the reputation for safety and reliability that encouraged the bulk of the travelers - immigrants - to part with more of their savings in the hope of a faster voyage. Steamers began to gain ground on sailing craft in the 1830s, but it was not until the 1840s that the passenger trade carried by sailing "packets" was surpassed by steamers.

Settlers bound to Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and northern Illinois often arrived by way of the lakes. The majority were foreign immigrants who came to the lakes via Canada or the American East Coast. Both routes involved departure from Europe by ship. The Canadian route involved landing at Montreal or Quebec and traveling by canal, river, road, or later railroad to Lake Ontario. Passage on a vessel from Kingston then moved the travelers to the head of Lake Ontario, where they would portage around Niagara Falls or, after 1829, go through the Welland Canal and on to their destination. The American route meant landing at New York or another large northeast port before heading west via roads, inland waterways, or railroads. The immigrants would normally reach the lakes at Buffalo, Oswego, or Rochester and take passage on a vessel heading to the desired destination. This process on either route might require any number of changes of vessel. In August of 1836, 1,500 people per week were disembarking at Toledo on their way west.

Traveling by both sailing and steam vessel could be dangerous, no less so for the passengers than for the crew. There were a number of terrible accidents, some of which took the lives of entire families. The sidewheel steamer NEW ORLEANS was engaged in the immigrant trade when it was lost near Thunder Bay in 1849, fortunately without loss of life. The sidewheeler MARINE CITY wasn't so lucky. She caught fire north of Sturgeon Point in 1880 and an estimated 10-20 of those aboard lost their lives before they could be rescued by the Sturgeon Point Lifesaving crew. (A picture of the MARINE CITY is shown as a representation of a sidewheel steamer on the NEW ORLEANS page.)

Most vessels did more than just carry passengers; they also served as supply ships for John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company and other trading firms, bringing supplies north and carrying fish, furs, beeswax, and other products of local communities back east. Some acted as traveling store ships, visiting and trading at remote locations where communication overland was difficult or unavailable. Eventually the trade increased as settlements were able to ship more products of agriculture and fisheries eastward. At least two early veterans of this trade were lost in the vicinity of Thunder Bay. The schooner H. HUBBARD capsized off Thunder Bay Island in June 1845 and the schooner HAVRE was lost on Middle Island in November of the same year. Because little record was kept of vessels under twenty tons engaged in the commercial fishing industry, it is possible that the remains of some early small craft might also exist in Thunder Bay.


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