Road Trip Through History: Colonial Michilimackinac

Last weekend My Own True Love and I hit the road after far too many months of being tied to desks, tasks, and deadlines.  It was our third anniversary and we wanted Romance, plus a little history, long walks, fabulous food, glorious scenery.  We chose the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan.

The hotel was indeed grand.*  The scenery was glorious.  The weather was perfect. We walked, and ate, and danced in the hotel ballroom.  We sat on the porch and enjoyed an excellent talk about the hotel by historian Bob Tagatz.**  But the history highlight of the trip was a visit that we had planned as a time filler: Colonial Michilimackinac.

Run by the Michigan state park system, Colonial Michilimackinac is Michigan’s answer to Williamsburg, both archaeological dig and historical reconstruction with plenty of intelligent interpretation.***  The site was home to a fort from 1715, when the French built it as a central depot in the Great Lakes fur trade to 1780, when a nervous British commander dismantled the fort and all its buildings and moved them piece by piece to Mackinac Island to keep them from falling in the hands of North American rebels.

The (on-going) reconstruction shows the fort as it would have appeared in the 1770s, when it was under British control after the French and Indian wars but still had a French population of traders. The costumed interpreters know their stuff.  The exhibits are well designed and informative.  The site provides an excellent view of colonial life away from the cities of the Eastern seaboard and a vivid sense of three cultures–British, French, and Native American–coming together in one place. Unlike most sites dealing with the fur trade, Colonial Michilimackinac tells the story of more than just the voyageurs:  French priests, English merchants, African-American craftsmen, Indian slave women, Irish entrepreneurs and a Jewish merchant from Germany all play a role.

We spent the better part of a day at the site, totally engaged.  What’s more romantic than that?


* Just in case anyone from the Grand Hotel is reading this: the room would have been even better if it had adequate reading light in addition to two comfy chairs.  I’d rather have good light than mints on my pillow any night.

**Gotta love a hotel that employs its own historian.

*** It has been under excavation since 1958, making it the longest on-going historical archaeology program in the United States.

Industrial Espionage

©Trustees of the British Museum

The Chinese produced luxury silk fabrics for several thousand years before they began trading with the west. Scraps of dyed silk gauze found in a neolithic site in Zhejiang Province date from 3600 BCE. Silk fabrics woven in complex patterns were produced in the same region by 2600 BCE. By the time of the Zhou dynasty, which controlled China from the twelfth to the third centuries BCE, silk was an established industry in China.

Wild silk, spun from the short broken fibers found in the cocoons of already-emerged silk moths, was produced throughout Asia. Only the Chinese knew how to domesticate the silk moth, bombyx mori, and turn its long fibers into into thread. They kept close control over the secrets of how to raise the domestic silkworm and create silk from the long fibers in its cocoon. Exporting silkworms, silkworm eggs or mulberry seeds was punishable by death. It was more profitable to export the finished product than the means of production.

The Chinese monopoly on the secrets of silk production and manufacture was eventually broken. According to one story, a Chinese princess, sent to marry a Central Asian king, smuggled out what silk cultivators called the “little treasures” as an unofficial dowry. (In one cringe-inducing version of this story, the princess carried the silkworms in her chignon to escape detection at the border.* It was illegal for a commoner, like a border security agent, to touch the head of a member of the royal family.) A totally different tradition tells of two Nestorian monks who smuggled silkworm eggs out of China in hollow staffs and carried them all the way to Byzantium, traveling in winter so the eggs wouldn’t hatch.

However the “little treasures” traveled, the Chinese monopoly on silk production was over by the sixth century CE, when the Middle Eastern cities of Damascus, Beirut, Aleppo, Tyre, and Sidon became famous for their silks.

* Would you want these in your hair? Makes your scalp crawl doesn’t it?

Image credit: tonobalaguer / 123RF Stock Photo

Steinbeck in Vietnam

Reading Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches From the War, edited by literary scholar Thomas E. Barden, is a fascinating, and occasionally uncomfortable, experience.

In December, 1965, Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, then 65, accepted an assignment from Harry F. Guggenheim to report on the war in Vietnam for Newsday.  A personal friend of Lyndon Johnson, with one son already in Vietnam and another in basic training, Steinbeck was not an unbiased observer–and made no pretense that he was.   He arrived in Vietnam a full-fledged supporter of the war.  He hated war protestors even more than he hated the Viet Cong.  He was fascinated by military hardware.  He treated American soldiers as heroes.

The columns were controversial at the time they were published.  Read more than forty years later, they are often shocking.  Written with the force that characterizes all of Steinbeck’s work, his Vietnam dispatches are a mixture of vitriolic attacks on war protestors, lyrical descriptions of the countryside, paeans to the American soldier, and moments of stunning insight.  What makes the columns more than a historical curiosity is Steinbeck’s effort to understand the war on its own terms.  That internal struggle, publicly shared in the pages of Newsday is as powerful an evocation of the Vietnam experience as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

Barden’s editorial touch is light, and clearly defined.  His introduction and afterword place the letters clearly in the context of Steinbeck’s career, including his later doubts about the war.


This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.