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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Northern Michigan 150 Years Ago

The official poster isn’t here yet, but the book is, and the author gave me an extra dust jacket to use in the window until the poster arrives.

Yes, a new book on the Civil War period has come out in the last week, and while I’ve been eagerly awaiting it, John C. Mitchell’s Grand Traverse The Civil War Era is much more than I had expected. “It’s not military history,” he told me. “It’s Civil War lives and times.” So much the better, from my point of view. I sat down to look at the pictures and became engrossed in the first chapter. Mitchell has gone back to the early history of our region to set the stage in detail before exploring the years 1861-65.

Thus his tale begins with George and Arvilla Smith in northern Vermont and Joseph Waukazoo in the Kalamazoo Valley—and if you know your Northport history, those names will be very familiar. Also familiar to locals is the name of “King” James Strang, but I had forgotten or never knew much of Mormon history in northwest lower Michigan. Did you realize that the whole Beaver Island archipelago, including the Fox and Manitou Islands, was once its own county? Manitou County, 1855, was established by the state legislature to isolate Mormon voting power offshore, Mitchell writes. And then, of course, political dissension over slavery was building toward war across the continent. The author traces national debate and legislation on the slavery issue through the 1840s.
With the auction blocks as a backdrop, Congress passed the Compromise of 1850 in the hopes of fostering an elusive peace within the nation. ...The issue of slavery, long avoided in polite conversation, was now thrown in the face of Yankee sensibilities as slave catchers fanned out through the Free States. The reality of slavery was brought home to the big cities and small farms of the North as slaves were dragged away in chains. Rather than promote peace, the law destroyed what middle ground was left between the two distinct societies. The fires of confrontation were now burning, and the nation began its decade-long slide toward Civil War.

There was a lot happening in the new State of Michigan (admitted to the Union only in 1837) before the outbreak of war. The opening of the Soo Locks, for example, increased the North’s advantage in the coming conflict, as well as changing Great Lakes shipping forever. Bricks for the new Grand Traverse Lighthouse arrived in Northport harbor on May 6, 1858. The first mail carrier in Grand Traverse County, Jake Ta-Pa-Sah, brought letters and newspapers up from Grand Haven along a well-established Indian footpath, connecting northern Michigan to the rest of the state. A historic photo from Mitchell’s book of the harbor in Northport gives some small idea of how much was going on here prior to the Civil War. Lots!

I’m not reviewing Grand Traverse The Civil War Era at this time because I have so much of the book still to read and absorb, but I’m excited about it and know others will be, too. “I tried to get out of the way and let the stories tell themselves,” the author said the other day when he delivered a second box. (The books are selling that fast.) Mitchell’s writing style is engaging, the stories captivating, and Tom Woodruff’s illustrations, along with photographs from the period, add concrete visual images to the ones that will be created in readers’ imaginations as they are pulled into this book. There are stories of soldiers, to be sure, but there are also stories of women and children at home and ordinary Americans in many different occupations.

Signed copies are available now at Dog Ears Books for $24.95 + tax (total $26.45). Orders welcome—cash, check or money order only, please.

Additional Northport note from the current events calendar: Music in the Park begins this Friday, June 24, 7 p.m., with the classic rock sound of Zen Stew. The rain should be over by then.


Gerry said...

I've been obsessed with the communities Civil War veterans made in Antrim County after their war, and have been looking forward to reading this book. I'm halfway through--would have finished but for the time I spend poring over each map and illustration and photo--and have already decided it's simply excellent. Good history is, I think, mostly a matter of choosing telling details and then putting them together in a vigorous, honest narrative. Not a simple task, no indeed. Honorable work, though.

P. J. Grath said...

Glad you are enjoying the book, too, Gerry. David and I are loving it, as is my bookstore helper, Bruce Balas, who promises to write a full, formal review when he finishes--although that, I told him, could take a while. John Mitchell has made an important contribution to Michigan history with this book.