Marquette’s First Fourth of July Celebration

Happy Independence Day Everyone!

As someone with six ancestors who fought in the American Revolution, the 4th of July is definitely one of my favorite holidays!

Have you ever wondered how Marquette used to celebrate the Fourth of July in its infancy. Below is the passage from my novel Iron Pioneers about the first official Fourth of July celebrations held in 1855, Marquette’s sixth year.

Iron Pioneers: The Marquette Trilogy, Book One

On July 4, 1855, Marquette held its first official Independence Day celebration. The grand master of ceremonies, Mr. Heman Ely, had gone all out for the festivities in the belief that Marquette had plenty to celebrate. Despite many doubts regarding the settlement’s survival, now its success seemed determined. In this year, the locks had been completed at Sault Sainte Marie, resulting in ships making easy travel from any of the other four Great Lakes through the lock at the Sault and into Lake Superior. Until now the differing water levels of the lakes had made it difficult for ships to travel into Lake Superior, but the locks allowed for adjustment of water levels so ships could pass through without difficulty. Trade would now be easier for every city along Lake Superior, and for Marquette, it meant the iron ore would not have to be shipped overland but could be transported by water to the other great ports, such as Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo. With this easier ore shipment, the iron industry would soar to prosperity and Marquette’s harbor would bustle at the center of this activity. Finally, Marquette was realizing its dream of becoming a great industrial metropolis. With such a promise for success, the Fourth of July, until now ignored as a holiday because everyone had so much work to do, was set aside as a day of civic rejoicing, a day of reward for years of pioneer dedication and ingenuity. Mr. Ely, as organizer of the celebration, invited all of Marquette’s citizens to be his guests at a massive barbecue on his property.

            At the party, Gerald had never felt so proud of his role in the birth of this fine community. He gazed with appreciation at the fine estate Mr. Ely had built, with what would soon be one among many prosperous homes in Marquette. The Ely land included a two acre lawn with flower gardens and rustic bridges crisscrossing a small brook that meandered through the grounds. For today’s festivities, Mr. Ely had added a bandstand and a pole to fly Old Glory. The entire community of seven hundred residents–for Marquette had grown until it was almost impossible to know everyone’s name–flooded into his yard. Mr. Ely began the festivities with a welcome speech, followed, to everyone’s astonished pleasure, by the boom of a hidden cannon that would fire continually throughout the day. Fireworks were not yet available for celebrating, but they were scarcely missed amid all the day’s other splendors.

            Gerald admired all these signs of prosperity, as he and Clara strolled about the property with their little girl. While some of the women and children plugged their ears during the cannon blasts, Clara was delighted to see Agnes laugh, her excitement surpassing even that of her parents. The Hennings were raising no dainty little daughter but a courageous native girl of the great North.

            They were soon joined by Fritz and Molly, carrying their baby boy, Karl. Fritz claimed the warm weather put him in good health today, but Clara thought he had looked better ever since the couple’s fear of being childless had been relieved.

            “I’ve not seen a party like this,” Fritz said, “since last Oktoberfest I saw in Saxony.”

            Little Karl struggled to see where the cannon’s boom came from, and he babbled away inquisitive, unintelligible questions.

            “He’s more curious than frightened,” said Gerald. “He’ll be a brave boy.”

            “We hope so,” said Fritz. “You need be brave to live here, but today is worth it, yes?”

            “Well worth it,” Clara said.

            “Air is fresh and healthy here,” said Fritz. “I never see boy grow like Karl. Lake Superior is what does it.”

            Fritz was prone to exaggerate his son’s strength and health, but after his own many years of illness, he could not be blamed for his pride.

            “And now that he’s been baptized, he has God’s favor,” said Molly, who had been overjoyed when the October before, a Catholic church was established in Marquette. The Upper Peninsula had now become a separate diocese of the Catholic Church with its own bishop, Frederic Baraga, stationed in Sault Sainte Marie. Bishop Baraga had come to choose the site of Marquette’s first Catholic church himself, and this year, the building had become functional. Now with a priest in Marquette, the Bergmanns felt they had more cause to celebrate than over the opening of the locks at the Sault.

            But across the lawn, not everyone was enjoying the party. Sophia and Cordelia were deep in argument with their husbands. Tomorrow, Caleb and Jacob wanted to camp overnight by themselves at Presque Isle. Their fathers had approved the plan, but their mothers were convinced the boys would be eaten by bears or accidentally plunge off a cliff to drown in the lake.

            “When I was their age, I had plenty of such adventures and came to no harm,” Nathaniel Whitman told his wife and sister-in-law. “They’re levelheaded boys with ample experience in the woods. If you don’t want them to grow up to be cowards, they need to learn independence, and Presque Isle is the perfect place. They can’t get lost there because it’s surrounded by water on all sides except the narrow land bridge, and it’s close enough that they can run home if there’s trouble.”

            “If anything happened to Caleb, I would never forgive myself,” Sophia objected. “George, how can you agree to this trip? Aren’t you at all concerned of the danger to your son?”

            “Danger,” scoffed George, supporting his brother-in-law. “Ain’t no danger.”

            “What about the bears?” asked Cordelia.

            “Bears are more scared of us than we are of them,” Nathaniel replied. “The boys know better than to rile any wild animals. They were out deer hunting with us last winter so they know how to survive in the woods. And it’s only for one night. They’ll be just fine.”

            “You don’t know how nervous I was when they went hunting last winter,” Cordelia said.

            “It’s a ridiculous idea,” said Sophia. “I don’t want my son growing up to be some wild mountain man. There’s no need for them to go.”

            “Well, George and I already told them they could,” Nathaniel said. “We can’t go back on our word now.”

            Cordelia was angry the men had consented without asking her and Sophia. But she knew further objections were pointless. Men were stubborn creatures who would argue with a woman just to spite her. Cordelia turned away and walked to the picnic table while Sophia remained to glare at her brother-in-law. She hated men who tried to boss her. George knew better than to argue alone with her, yet with Nathaniel, he would always side against her, and Nathaniel was impossible to reason with. She was also angry that Cordelia had given in so easily. When Nathaniel ignored her glares, Sophia also turned away, seeking someone whose society was more desirable than her family’s.

            Peter White stood nearby, engaged in talking to a young couple who had arrived in Marquette on the most recent ship. Ever the storyteller, Peter was recalling how he had rescued Marquette’s mail by hoodwinking the United States Post Office. The mail had constantly been delayed during the winters because of the village’s isolation and a lack of transportation. During the summer, a villager would have to hike some seventy miles south to the shore of Lake Michigan to collect the mail and carry it back to Marquette, but in winter, the only way to cross this distance was by snowshoe, and the constant blizzards and freezing temperatures made such excursions nearly impossible. In January 1854, Marquette had received no mail for three months, so Peter had been elected to go to Green Bay to fetch it. With Indian companions and dog sleds, he set out on the one hundred eighty mile journey. Halfway, he met sleighs coming north with the village’s mail. Eight tons of Marquette’s mail had accumulated in Green Bay, and it took three months for the postmaster to find someone willing to carry it north. Peter sent his companions and the mail back to Marquette, but intent to resolve the situation, he continued on to Green Bay.

            Upon his arrival, he discovered Marquette’s mail was accumulating at the rate of six bushels a day. Frustrated, Peter traveled another fifty miles to Fond du Lac so he could telegraph Senator Cass about the situation. Determined to receive a response, he bombarded the senator with telegrams until a special agent came to Green Bay to investigate. The postmaster in Green Bay, as upset about the situation as Peter, agreed to act as accomplice. Together the two men filled all the post office’s empty sacks, claiming, when the agent arrived, that every bag contained mail for Marquette. Thirty bags of actual mail now appeared to be four times as much. The agent, overwhelmed by the sight, quickly authorized weekly mail delivery to Marquette from Green Bay. Marquette had not lacked for its mail since, and Peter had been hailed as a town hero.

            Peter’s listeners laughed at his story, while feeling relieved to know they would receive their mail in winter. Sophia had listened carefully to Peter tell his tale, all the while admiring the young man’s ingenuity. He had become a jack-of-all-trades in Marquette, not afraid to try anything; recently, he had even become a real estate agent. When Marquette was founded, he had hardly been more than a boy, but now at twenty-five, he seemed destined for a large share of the community’s prosperity. Grimly, Sophia reflected how her mercantile was only making a small profit, while her husband did little to improve their welfare. She almost wished–but Peter was ten years younger than her, and she could not change the past now. But she just wished something . . .

            “Ma!” Caleb shouted, running up to her. “Did you talk to Uncle Nathaniel? Can Jacob and I go?”

            “Yes,” Sophia said, pursing her lips in annoyance and shooing the boy away.

            “Great!” Caleb yelled and ran to tell his cousin; Sophia turned back to hear more of Peter’s interesting conversation.

Explore posts in the same categories: Marquette History, Tyler's Novels

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3 Comments on “Marquette’s First Fourth of July Celebration”

  1. Debbie Glade Says:

    Wouldn’t that be something to be there at the 4th of July 1855?!


  2. Great Story! I am anxious to buy a copy of the book. The book would make a nice gift for anyone raised in the Upper Peninsula.


  3. […] Happy Independence Day, everyone! I hope you have a wonderful time filled with family, friends, fun, fireworks, picnics and parades. Last year I posted a passage from my novel Iron Pioneers depicting Marquette’s first Fourth of July celebrations in 1855, which you can read here. […]


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