Founding of Marquette, Michigan – in the words of Peter White

Survival, disease, raising a town, and life on the Lake Superior Frontier as told by Peter White.

This is an old engraving showing Marquette in 1851 right after its founding.

You can listen to this story by clicking on the audio slider below.  This story and many other great ones like it are available on my audiobook True Tales: The Forgotten History of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula available from and iTunes (no subscription required!)

Peter White – The Founding of Marquette and the Story Surrounding It
By Mikel B. Classen

This is a first-hand account by the Honorable Peter White about his arrival in Marquette and the founding of the city in his own words. Peter White spoke of this in 1870, and is a glimpse into the years 1850-1853 on the Lake Superior frontier.  His wry wit comes through in the narration and the life and death stories contained within almost feel like “just another day in the life.” This recounts the felling of the first trees for the city, the arrival of the earliest citizens, disease outbreak, mutiny, daring rescues, and brutal survival in the wilderness. This is a glimpse into the U.P. of the past that is unlike any other.

Peter White, not only helped clear the land that would be Marquette, but was instrumental in getting the Soo Locks built, was a postmaster and served as a legislator and state senator. He worked on getting the first school district organized and established the first library. His legislation got a railroad built from the Sault to Marquette. Peter White not only was a founding father of Marquette, but much of his work left lasting changes across the whole of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. His credibility makes the account below priceless. Rarely do we get such a complete look into the origins of a city, and the struggle against the Lake Superior wilderness.


In the Words of Peter White:

It was from this island (Mackinac), twenty-one years ago this month, that the little (and I might say almost worthless) steamer Tecumseh took her departure for Sault Ste. Marie. It was a tempestuous April morning: the seas rolled mountain high and before she had accomplished many miles, a huge wave took off the yawl boat, swept through the steamer’s gangways, washed overboard much of the freight from the decks, alarmed the passengers and brought Capt. Pratt to the conclusion that he had better turn his craft and run her for the haven of safety he had left only a few hours before. The steamer was not as fleet as the famous chief whose name she bore. He could probably have beaten her best speed on foot and through a thicket. Still, she did reach her starting point and after a delay of 24 hours for repairs, she again started on her trip. There were many more passengers on board than the boat had either eating or sleeping accommodations for, but it was not intended that she should be more than twelve hours in making the trip.

On board was a party specially bound to settle and start the city of Marquette and to claim and undertake to develop all of the iron mountains that had been or should subsequently be discovered. The head and leader of this party was Robert J. Graveraet. At that time, he was a fit leader for any great enterprise that required the exercise of pluck, energy, and perseverance. He had an indomitable will, a commendable ambition and a splendid physical organization capable of enduring an untold amount of fatigue; a disposition firm, yet gentle and generous to a fault, a figure that , for grace, beauty, noble bearing and symmetrical proportions, I have never seen equaled. He had many virtues, but his end was sad indeed. Many a man without a tithe of the noble qualities he possessed holds a place in history as a great hero.

Peter White, the narrator of this account, as he appeared in 1860, a few years after the incidents in the account.

The lively little steamer (lively with bedbugs), after thrashing around for several hours, finally got inside the Detour, and there met with solid ice, two to three feet thick, and there were no indications of a speedy thaw. The boat was run about half her length into the ice, when some of the passengers debarked and ran up it in all directions. Some essayed the cutting of a canal with saws and axes, but soon gave it up as a slow job. The next day we backed out and tried another passage, by way of the Bruce Mines, and thus succeeded in hammering our way through to the Sault in just ten days from the time we left Mackinac. In the meantime we had a bread riot, an insurrection, and once the boat sank to her deck, full of water. (Author’s Note: To clarify this last bit, the ship was overloaded and had only planned food for a 12 hour trip, not 10 days. Fed up with this the passengers decided to revolt but just as their ad hoc mutiny began, the ship began to sink.) She should have remained there, perhaps, forever, but for the aid of an old fellow we had named “Old Saleratus,” and at whom we had poked all manner of fun. He proved to be a ship carpenter, and, after we had unloaded the boat and pumped her up, he found the leak, put in a new plank and we proceeded on our way.

We succeeded in crowding our large Mackinac barge up the rapids, or falls, at Sault Ste. Marie, and embarking ourselves and provisions, set sail on Lake Superior for the Carp River Iron Region. After eight days of rowing, towing, poling and sailing, we landed on the spot immediately in front of where Mr. George Craig’s dwelling now stands. That was then called Indian Town, and was the landing place of the Jackson Company. We put up that night at the cedar house of Charley Bawgam (Kawbawgam). It is true his rooms were not many, but he gave us plenty to eat, clean and well cooked. I remember that he had fresh venison, wild ducks and geese, fresh fish, good bread and butter, coffee and tea, and splendid potatoes.

The next morning, we started for the much-talked-of iron hills; each one had a pack-strap and blanket, and was directed to exercise his own discretion in putting into a pack what he thought he could carry. I put up forty pounds and marched bravely up the hills with it for a distance of two miles, by which time I was about as good as used up. Graveraet came up, and, taking my pack on top of his, a much heavier one, marched on with both, as if mine was only the addition of a feather, while I trudged on behind, and had hard work to keep up. Graveraet seeing how fatigued I was, invited me to get on top of his load, saying he would carry me, too, and he could have done it, I believe; but I had too much pride to accept his offer.

When we arrived at the little brook which was by George Rublein’s old brewery, we made some tea and lunched, after which I felt so much refreshed that I took my pack and carried it without much difficulty to what is now known as the Cleveland Mine, then known as Moody’s location. On our way we had stopped for a few minutes at the Jackson Forge, where we met Mr. Everett (discoverer of the Marquette iron deposits), Charles Johnson, Alexander McKerchie, A.N. Barney, N.E. Eddy, Nahum Keyes, and some others. At the Cleveland we found Capt. Sam Moody and John H. Mann, who had spent the previous summer and winter there. I well remember how astonished I was the next morning when Capt. Moody asked me to go with him to dig some potatoes for breakfast. He took a hoe and an old tin pail, and we ascended a high hill, now known as the Marquette Iron Company’s Mountain, and on the pinnacle found half an acre partially cleared and planted to potatoes. He opened but one or two hills when his pail was filled with large and perfectly sound potatoes – and then said, “I may as well pull a few parsnips and carrots for dinner, to save coming up again,” – and, sure enough, he had them there in abundance. This was in the month of May.

The Jackson Mine, the first of the mines on the Marquette Iron Range. This is the mine that spurred the founding of the city of Marquette

From this time till the 10th of July, we kept possession of all of the iron mountains then known west of the Jackson, employing all of our time fighting mosquitoes at night, and the black flies through the day; perhaps a small portion of it was given to demanding the iron hills of extraneous matter, preparing the way for the immense products that have since followed. On the 10th of July we came away from the mountains, bag and baggage, arriving at the lake shore, as we then termed it, before noon. Mr. Harlow had arrived with quite a number of mechanics, some goods, lots of money, and, what was better than all, we got a glimpse of some female faces. We were all much excited and buoyant with the hope of a bright and dazzling future before us.

At 1 o’clock of that day, we commenced clearing the site of the present city of Marquette, though we called it Worcester in honor of Mr. Harlow’s native city. We began by chopping off the trees and brush, at the point of rocks near the blacksmith shop, just south of the shore end of the Cleveland Ore Docks. We cut the trees close to the ground, and then threw them bodily over the bank onto the lake shore; then, under the direction of Capt. Moody, we began the construction of a dock, which was to stand like the ancient pyramids, for future ages to wonder at and admire! We did this by carrying these whole trees into the water and piling them in tiers, crosswise , until the pile was even with the surface of the water. Then we wheeled sand and gravel upon it, and, by the end of the second day, we had completed a structure which we looked upon with no little pride. Its eastward or outward end was solid rock, and all inside of that was solid dirt, brush and leaves. We could not see why it should not stand as firm and as long as the adjacent beach itself! A vessel was expected in a few days, with a large lot of machinery and supplies, and we rejoiced in the fact that we had a dock upon which they could be landed. On the third day, we continued to improve it by corduroying the surface, and by night of that day, it was, in our eyes, a thing of beauty to behold. Our chagrin may be imagined, when on our rising the next morning, we found that a gentle sea had come in during the night and wafted our dock to some unknown point. Not a trace of it remained; not even a poplar leaf was left to mark the spot. The sand of the beach was as clean and smooth as if it had never been disturbed by the hand of man. I wrote in the smooth sand with a stick, “This is the spot where Capt. Moody built his dock.” The Captain trod upon the record, and said I would get my discharge at the end of the month, but he either forgot or forgave the affront. It was a long time before anyone had the hardihood to attempt the building of another dock.

The propellers would come to anchor sometimes as far as two miles from the shore, and the freight and passengers had to be landed in small boats. Our large boilers, when they arrived, were plugged, thrown overboard and floated ashore, and the other machinery was landed with our Mackinac boat or a scow which we had constructed. Cattle and horses were always pitched overboard and made to swim ashore.

Under the lead of James Kelly, the boss carpenter, who was from Boston, we improved our time, after 6 o’clock each evening, in erecting a log house for sleeping quarters for our particular party. When finished, we called it the Revere House, after the hotel of that name in Boston. This building stood on its original site as late as 1860.

About this time, we realized the necessity of procuring hay for our stock. A man called Jim Presque Isle informed Capt. Moody that he knew of a large meadow a short distance above Presque Isle, covered with superb blue-joint grass; the only trouble was that it was flooded with water too deep to admit of mowing, but he thought we could, with shovels, in a few hours, cut a drain out to the lake which would carry the water off. So off we started in our boat, armed with shovels, axes, scythes, rakes and pitchforks. Capt Moody nervously staked out the ground for the canal, and we dug each way from the center for four or five hours and at last opened both ends simultaneously, when, to our consternation, the waters of the lake rushed in and raised that of the meadow three or four inches! We were not more than five minutes embarking all of our tools and getting off. We tried to keep still about the matter, but it leaked out some way, and was the source of a great deal of sport.

We continued clearing up the land south of Superior Street, preparing the ground for a forge, machine shop, sawmill and coal house. Some time in August, the schooner Fur Trader arrived, bringing a large number of Germans, some Irish and a few French. Among this party were August Machts, George Rublein, Francis Dolf, and Patrick, James and Michael Atfield. All these have resided here continuously up to the present time, have been and are good citizens, and have become men of property. Gravaraet and Clark had been to Milwaukee and hired and shipped them on a vessel. It was the Cholera year; Clark died at the Sault on his way back; several others had died on the vessel, and many were landed very sick. We were all frightened; but the Indians, who lived here to the number of about one hundred, had everything embarked in their boats and canoes within sixty minutes, and started over the waters to escape a disease to them more fearful than the small pox. Now the medical talent of Dr. Rogers was called into requisition. He laid aside the hoe and ax he had learned to handle so dexterously and took up the practice of his profession. It was found, on examination, that there were no real cases of cholera, but many of the new-comers had the typhoid or ship fever, and that it was contagious was soon evident, for the doctor, and perhaps a dozen of our young men who had never known sickness before were soon stricken down with it. Each one of my companions had, in succession, had taken the position of nurse in the hospital ( a rude building called a hospital had been erected), and had in regular order been taken down with the malignant fever. It was my turn next; I looked upon it as a new promotion, abandoned my oxen, glad of a change, having no fear that I would catch the fever, and I did not. About the time I went in, Dr. Rogers was very low, indeed, unable to lisp a word, and to this fact I attribute the recovery of himself and associates; for, as I knew nothing of medicines, I discarded them altogether, and, by advice of Mr. Harding, Mr. Emmons and Mrs. Wheelock, I commenced rubbing and bathing them, and Mrs. Wheelock furnishing suitable food, the result was that in two weeks they were all convalescent. Dr. Rogers often said afterward, “If I could have told the fool what medicine to give, he would have killed us all.”

This is one of the earliest known pictures of Marquette. Taken in 1850 it shows the early settlement of Marquette that White speaks of.

At this time the first stem boiler ever set up in this county was ready to be filled with water, and it must be done the first time by hand. It was a locomotive boiler, and was afterward put into the side-wheel steamer Fogy, which plied between Marquette and Chocolay so many years. A dollar and a half was offered for the job, and I took it; working three days and a night or two, I succeeded in filling it. Steam was got up and I then was installed as engineer and fireman.

That summer there were but few boats of any kind on the lake. The propeller Independence was generally broken down, and the little propeller Napoleon only came three or four times during the season. The reliable mail, freight and passenger craft was the Fur Trader, commanded by the veteran Capt. Ripley, from whom the picturesque rock in Marquette Bay took its name. The Fur Trader was a small sail vessel, and usually made a trip in three or four weeks; but it was toward the last of October, and neither she nor any other craft had put in an appearance for nine or ten weeks. The stock of provisions was quite low; the butter and luxuries of all kinds were wholly exhausted; only a few barrels of pork and flour remained, and the danger of being put on very short rations was imminent. Then Mr. Harding discovered, or pretended to discover, a conspiracy among the Germans to seize the warehouse and confiscate what provisions were left. He volunteered to command a guard to watch the warehouse day and night. The provisions were doled out sparingly, the Germans becoming very much dissatisfied, and, a short time after (in November), they “struck,” and a large number of them started out of the country, intending to follow the lake shore to Grand Island, and go from there overland to Little Bay de Noquette. (Little Bay de Noc) Only a few reached Grand Island; the weaker ones, foot-sore, weary and hungry, lagged at different points along the beach, and probably many of them would have perished but for the return of those of the party who had reached Grand Island, and there learned that a  propeller, loaded with provisions had arrived here the next day after they left. So they returned, and the cheering news revived the drooping spirits of their comrades, as they came up to them here and there along the beach, and they finally all got back, wiser, and better men. None of the Germans named as still residing here went off with the party.

On the 27th of November, our boat was started for Sault Ste. Marie in charge of James Hilliard (sometimes called Jim Presque Isle). John H. Mann, Mr. Emmons and a German boy named Kellogg, accompanied him. They were all drowned, the boat being afterward found with two bodies in it, while the body of Mr. Emmons was not recovered till the following spring.

As I have told two stories that militate against Capt. Moody’s skill as an engineer, it is only fair that I should relate one which redounds to his credit as a navigator. We had by some means been apprised of the fact that the schooners Swallow and Siskiwit, which had been loaded with grain and supplies for us at Sault Ste. Marie, had run by and laid up for the winter at L’Anse. The grain was absolutely necessary to keep the horses from starving. Capt. Moody promptly started for L’Anse, accompanied by James Broadbent, an old salt water sailor. On their arrival there, they found both the vessels stripped and laid up, and, what was worse, frozen in the ice. But Moody had pluck enough to undertake any task, no matter how difficult or dangerous. He and his man went to work at once to refit one of the vessels – the Siskiwit – on the principle that might makes right. They paid no attention whatever to the urgent protests of her owner Capt. James Bendry. They filled her with corn and oats from the Swallow, and employed a large number of Indians to cut a passage between two and three miles long, through the ice, so as to float the vessel out into the open water. They got her out on Christmas Eve, and arrived here on Christmas Day, the sails frozen stiff and immovable, and the ice a foot thick on her deck. They had not seen land from the time they left L’Anse until they reached Marquette Bay, a heavy northwest gale and snowstorm prevailing all the time. The vessel was unloaded and run into the Chocolate River, where she lay until spring, when, in coming out, she ran on the beach and went to pieces.

During that winter we had three or four mails only. Mr. Harlow was the first postmaster and hired the Indian, Jimmers, to go to L’Anse after the mail at a cost of $10 per trip. I believe the cost was made up by subscription.

The Jackson Company had about suspended operations; their credit was at a low ebb; their agent had left in the fall, and was succeeded by “Czar” Jones, the President, but nearly all work was stopped, and the men talked seriously of hanging and quartering Mr. Jones, who soon after left the country. In the spring the Jackson Company “bust” all up, and all work at their mine and forge was suspended. By this time, the Marquette Iron Company’s forge was nearly completed and ready for making blooms. Many dwellings, shops, etc., had been erected, together with a small dock at which steamers could land. This dock still forms the shore end of the Cleveland Company’s merchandise pier.

In the fall of 1850, B.F. Eaton, and his brother, Watt Eaton, arrived from Columbus, Ohio. They had leased the old Jackson Forge and Mine, and brought with them an immense number of men and horses, and a large quantity of supplies. They commenced operations with a grand flourish of trumpets and high sounding words that bid fair to eclipse and crush everybody else out of existence in short order. They burst all to pieces within a year, and never paid their men a dollar in money; those who took goods for pay were wise. Ben Eaton was so disgusted with the country that he finally left the United States and went to Australia, and, as far as I know, has never returned.

This is a Marquette area homestead circa 1850, during the time of the narrative.

In the summer of 1851, we had pretty hard times generally, no money, and not much of anything else. I think it was in September of that year the county was organized. I was absent up the lake shore, fishing, at the time, and, on my return, was informed that I had been elected County Clerk and Register of Deeds. I told my informant (Amos Parish) that I was not of age; to which he replied that the impression generally prevailed that I was over thirty, that no one would say anything if I did not, and that it was very desirable to have someone hold those offices who could write. I was flattered and consented. Up to this time, we had been attached to Houghton County, the county seat being at Eagle River.

On one occasion, I was sent, in the dead of winter, on foot and alone up to Eagle River to get the County Clerk’s certificate to a lot of legal documents. I went to L’Anse, thence across the ice to Portage Entry, up the river, over Portage Lake, and across the Portage to Eagle River. I called on Mr. Kelsey, the County Clerk, and attended to the business I had in hand. He inquired, “When do you return?” “Tomorrow.” “Oh no,” said he; “we never allow a winter visitor to depart under two weeks, and, as you are the first man who has ever come from Marquette or Carp River up here by land, we must give you a good time.” Mr. S.W. Hill and Henry Parke came in, and between the three they agreed that I should have a big party the next night. The thought occurred to me whether I had not better cut and run for home, but I concluded if I should, and they caught me, it would go hard with me; so, I resolved to stay, and, if necessary, run the gauntlet, or fight for my liberty if cornered. The next day, Dr. L.W. Clarke, John Senter, George Senter, William Morrison, William Webb, Joe Thatcher and others called, paid their respects and tendered various civilities. I watched them all closely, but could not discover that my suspicions of conspiracy against me were well founded. The gay party came off the next evening, and all my fears were dispelled. I was invited the next night to a party at Eagle River, and, when I argued that my apparel was not suited for parties, I was forcibly taken into Senter’s store, and there compelled to put on an elegant suit of clothes; and for the next eight or ten days I was put through such a round of pleasures and hospitable attentions never before nor since witnessed by me. I could not have been more civilly feasted and toasted had I been the President. Such was the hospitality of the early settlers of the copper region.

At last, when I was about to leave, I was offered silver specimens, agates, or anything else they had. My wants were , however, few and simple, and I said, “Give me two cans of those elegant cove oysters to take back to my Carp River friends, and I will be delighted.” I worked my way back as far as Portage Entry, and found the ice in L’Anse Bay all broken up. Mr. Ransom Shelden then lived at the Entry, buying fish and furs from the Indians. At that day, copper mining on Portage Lake had not been dreamt of. After my arrival at the Entry, I was laid up for three days with the “Le mal de Racket” or snowshoe sickness. As soon as I could travel, I set out through the woods for the Catholic Mission. I knew nothing of the route except to keep in sight of the bay, and that I soon found was impracticable, owing to the impenetrable nature of the underbrush; so I struck back for better walking. The distance I had to go to reach the mission was sixteen miles, and it seemed to me I had travelled thirty. I had no dinner. It was very cold – twenty-two degrees below zero – the 18th of January; night was close at hand. I crossed a little valley, and, as I mounted the hill, I looked back of me and caught the only glance of the sun I had that day. I knew that to reach the mission I ought to be going toward the setting sun! I turned my course in that direction, and, in a short time, came across a single snowshoe track, and was much pleased to think I was getting where some one else had so recently been. Before long I crossed another track similar to the first, and soon a third. A little closer examination convinced me that they were all my own tracks, and that for hours I had been travelling on a circle, only enlarging it a little each time. It was now rapidly growing dark. Fortunately I had matches, but I had no ax, nor any provisions, except the two cans of cove oysters. I succeeded in starting a fire at the foot of a dead cedar that leaned over into the forks of a hemlock, and, as fast as it would burn to a coal, it would slide down a little, and thus my fire was replenished all night. I was too much excited to be either tired or hungry that night. I slept some in an upright or sitting posture, before the fire; the snow was about five feet deep, and I had shaped an indentation of my own figure, like a chair, into the snow, and lined it with balsam boughs, so that it was quite comfortable. In the morning, after breaking all the blades of my Congress knife in opening one of the cans of “elegant cove oysters,” I boiled them in the can and tried to eat them; but it was hard work; they wouldn’t stay down. Through the kindness of the good Bishop Baraga, who knew that I was either hurt or lost (he had left the entry after I did), an Indian was sent out, and found me about 3 o’clock, and before dark I was safely housed at the mission. After many more hardships, I succeeded in reaching home.

I have merely touched upon some of the incidents of the first two or three years of the history of Marquette and the iron region. A few houses, a stumpy road winding along the lake shore; a forge which burnt up after impoverishing its first owners; a trail westward, just passable for wagons, leading to another forge (still more unfortunate in that it did not burn up), and to the undeveloped iron hills beyond; a few hundred people uncertain of the future – these were all there was of Marquette in 1851-52.

Little did we think that the region we came to settle would, in so short a time, be known and felt everywhere; that the mineral products would be borne by hundreds of vessels to the ports of all the Great Lakes. The Sault Canal was then a project the consummation of which was devoutly wished, but not realized; and the boldest of us had not dreamed of a railroad from our little hamlet to the iron hills. We were building better than we know. We had fallen into the march of the century, not knowing whither it would lead us. We were like the fishermen of the Arabian Nights, who ignorantly opened a small sealed casket which they had drawn out of the sea in their nets. It held an imprisoned Genii, who emerged at first like a little vapor, which while they wondered, spread and ascended, until it towered up like a vast column toward heaven.

Marquette grew quickly. This picture is from 1860, just a few years after the time the story takes place. It shows the exponential growth in less than a decade.

The forge was completed and made the first bloom in just one year from the day Mr. Harlow landed with his men. He started with four fires, using ores from what are now the Cleveland and Lake Superior Mines. It continued in operation, rather irregularly, until 1853, when the Marquette Company was merged into the Cleveland, under the auspices of which latter company the works were operated, until destroyed by fire in the winter of 1853.

Peter White Esq. – 1870