Merry Christmas to Everyone!
Today’s blog is a passage from my novel Iron Pioneers about Marquette’s first Christmas in 1849. That December, the expected supply ship had not survived and the settlers to the new village that was still called by its original name, Worcester, feared they would starve to death. The group of German immigrants decided they would walk to Milwaukee so the remaining settlers would have enough provisions to make it through the winter. At this point in the novel, Molly, an Irish woman, and Fritz Bergmann, her German husband, are among those immigrants who have begun the trek to Milwaukee when this scene begins:
Iron Pioneers - Marquette's First Christmas and more history in fiction
The German immigrants left the next morning, taking the Indian trail east then south on their three hundred mile trek to Milwaukee. By the second day, Molly’s legs ached from walking through heavy snow, and sleeping in the cold night air. Still, she did her best not to complain, knowing everyone suffered from the same difficulties; nor did she want to worry about Fritz worrying about her; she already had enough to worry about with his poor health. She loved Fritz dearly, perhaps all the more because he had been so sick; he was all she had in the world now. She would not go back to Boston, though her parents and brother were there–she had come here for a better life than she had known in Boston or in Ireland, yet it did not seem to matter where she went, she always ended up poor and desperate. Before coming here, she had asked everyone she met what they knew of Upper Michigan. She had heard tales of harsh winters, a climate like a tundra, a land of glaciers, an impenetrable wilderness, completely uninhabitable. But she had also heard the land was rich with iron and copper and that the plentiful forests could be logged to make a thousand men rich. Perhaps here, she had thought, she could escape the constant fear of hunger and want she had known since her childhood during the great potato famine, and she could overcome the prejudice she had known against the Irish in Boston.
In Europe, both she and Fritz had been told any dream could come true in America, but after Boston and now Worcester, Molly was beginning to lose faith in this new world. Each dream she had tried to follow only seemed to lead her down a worse path, until now she was trudging through three hundred miles of snow; her heart became as bitter as the cold winds biting her cheeks. She felt guilty for lying to Clara; she knew they would never return to the settlement, and she was sorry to lose the only female friend she had found since her arrival in America. But it could not be helped. Fritz could never make this trip back, if he even made it to Milwaukee; and what would they do when they reached Milwaukee, except starve in its streets? She would not go to his cousin again for charity–the cousin had made it clear they were not wanted. Fritz would probably die before he got there, and then she would be alone. She tried not to think what would become of her then.
They seemed to be walking forever. They had to travel east until they reached some place called Au Train, and then they would turn south. They had walked all of yesterday, and now today, and yet they were still following along the shore of Lake Superior. A piercing wind blew off the lake, while beneath her clothes, Molly sweated from the strenuous walking. Then the sweat froze until she had ice against her skin. If she were alone, she wondered whether she would have had the courage to walk into the lake and be done with it all. That sudden cold shock of an ending would be better than this prolonged bitter cold. Such an act would be a sin, but could even God blame her when she was so terribly cold? Still, she kept putting one foot before the other, while watching that her husband did not collapse in front of her from exhaustion.
Then she realized her companions had halted. She looked around to see a man running and hollering behind them; the wind howled so loud she could not understand what he shouted until he was only a few feet away.
Molly had been near the front of the party, and by the time she and Fritz turned around and returned to where half the group had stopped, everyone was shaking hands, clasping each other around the shoulders and shouting for joy.
“What is it? What is it?” she asked, stunned by the transformation in her formerly morose companions.
“The supply ship is in L’Anse!” a man shouted. He had run on snowshoes from Worcester, and though he had to keep pausing to catch his breath, he quickly told the news. “An Indian came to tell us, and now a couple men have left to snowshoe back to L’Anse. The ship was forced to take shelter there, and it’s locked in by some snow and ice, but the men are determined to bring the ship back with them. There’ll be enough supplies for the entire winter, so you can all return.”
Molly could scarcely believe it. Everyone started to talk at once.
“Praise the Lord!”
“But it’s eighty miles from L’Anse to Worcester.”
“Even if they get the ship into the lake, it will never be able to sail in the winter storms.”
“Why don’t they haul the supplies overland by sled?”
“No, that would take days.”
Molly doubted the news was hope enough to cling to, was reason enough to walk back to Worcester, but they were only a tenth of the way to Milwaukee. If they went back, they would have lost three or four days, but what did it matter when they had no food for their journey anyway? When her companions turned back toward Worcester, she and Fritz did the same; they could not go on to Milwaukee alone.
As the group walked, everyone spoke excitedly in mixed German and English while clapping the messenger on the back. Fritz smiled and linked his arm in Molly’s. She saw how exhausted he looked despite his smile. For the moment, he felt invigorated, but she knew he never would have made it to Milwaukee. Better they return to starve in Worcester–at least there he could die in bed. She reconciled herself to whatever fate was before them.
Molly soon learned she had no reason to dread for the immediate future. The good news was true; it seemed like a Christmas miracle to the settlement. The Swallow and its precious cargo had been prevented by a storm from reaching shelter in Worcester’s Iron Bay, so the crew had sought shelter in the L’Anse harbor. An Indian had then been sent from L’Anse to Worcester with word of the schooner’s whereabouts. When the news was heard, Captain Moody and his sailor companion, Mr. Broadbent, snowshoed their way to L’Anse, following an Indian trail along Lake Superior. After three days of long hiking over soft and consequently difficult snow, they arrived to find the Swallow trapped in the harbor’s ice. They also found another schooner, the Siscowit, the same size as the Swallow and able to sail. With determination, Captain Moody took charge, had all the Swallow’s supplies transferred to the other vessel, and pointed a shotgun on the Siscowit’s owner when he objected to the proceedings. Captain Moody, knowing the supplies meant life or death to the settlers of Worcester, refused to back down, until finally, its owner begrudgingly agreed to let the Siscowit sail to Iron Bay.
And if any doubt remained of their friendliness, the Chippewa now received the praise of the white folks, for they took their axes and went out on the frozen lake, chopping the dangerously thin ice for three miles out on L’Anse Bay so the Siscowit could move into Lake Superior’s open water. Then, fully supplied and with her sails lifted, the Siscowit was dragged by the Chippewa out into the lake until it broke free of the ice and reached rolling waves. Yet all this human effort was no match for winter’s fury; soon after leaving L’Anse, the Siscowit sailed into a snow squall and lost sight of the shore.
In Worcester, the people waited, praying the ship would arrive, unaware of how the snow squall had effected the schooner’s journey. Winter on Lake Superior is always dangerous, and with ice floating on the lake, the danger of crashing into invisible ice floes was as serious as a heavy wind that could toss over a ship. The sailors aboard the Siscowit knew they might capsize, but they were determined the settlers of Worcester would not starve that winter. Through that snowstorm they sailed, the entire eighty miles, despite cold and ice, fierce winds and threatening waters. The lake’s mist froze on the sails, and the deck became a skating rink of inch thick ice. The hulls and masts were so encased with ice it was feared they would crack and break. The sailors did not know whether they were even following the south shore of Lake Superior or whether they were heading straight across the lake to Canada, but they sailed on nevertheless. Sometimes the frozen ice caused the ship to tilt sideways, nearly overturning. At any moment of the journey, all could turn futile, the brave sailors and the desperately needed supplies being claimed by Lake Superior’s frigid depths.
Then on Christmas Day, on the distant horizon, a sail was spotted by a Worcester man. A holler went up. People gathered to look. Cheers rang out. Every man, woman and child in the village rushed to the shore, the ship clearly in view. In came the Siscowit, in it came to Iron Bay! Safe again were the courageous mariners; saved was the settlement of Worcester! The schooner docked at Ripley’s Rock, its brave men, their bodies frozen, forgot the cold as they were warmly hailed as heroes. The village burst with good will as each person helped to unload the supplies and praise the men who had saved them all. This Christmas was the finest any of them had ever known. This Christmas was the one they would remember when all others were forgotten. This moment had been the most vital in the village’s history. Not a single heart failed to give thanks that day. Worcester would survive through this winter, to face many more winters to come.
Clara felt how splendid it all was. What an adventure it had been! And the ship arriving on Christmas day, like something straight out of a fairy tale. That night, she and Gerald invited Molly and Fritz for supper; Fritz, despite the long walk, looked like a new man, and Molly told herself he would get well now, and Clara could already imagine herself being a mother by this time next year. They all thanked God for the good fortune that had come to them, and they imagined only future happiness and prosperity in this dangerous but exciting land they now called home.