Saturday, January 11, 2014

Thrifty Acres: Michigan History No Longer A Mystery

Hello! Back when I was in 4th grade, we studied the history of my native state, Michigan. The 1963 edition of Exploring Michigan, authored by Delphine Newcomb, was the textbook we used. About 14 years later I found a copy of it in a secondhand store near Lansing, MI:

Since the price was a measly two bucks, I purchased it for nostalgia's sake. Even back in 4th grade, we kids thought the book's narrative rather contrived, so I bought it in part to see if I still thought so. 

And of course, I did. Who wouldn't, upon reading of the main characters, Billy and Mary Smith, as they, their family and friends talk about all things Michigan. Somehow, Billy and Mary's parents, and their grandfather, knew every facet of Michigan history, commerce and tourism hot spots. And they weren't the only ones - the Smith kids' teacher, Mrs. Wallace, knew plenty about Michigan as well. As we studied from the textbook throughout the year, I wondered why Billy and Mary's parents and grandfather knew so much about Native American legends and my relatives didn't.

I also recall us 4th graders laughing over this illustration in the book:

As the caption below the picture explained: "Nicolet thought he might be in China. So he put on his Chinese robe. When he held up his guns and fired them, the frightened Indians ran away. They thought Nicolet was holding thunder in his hands."

A close-up of the illustrator's depiction of Nicolet's attire:

I think we mostly laughed over Nicolet's mistaken notion that he was in China. But this was back in 1634 and of course there was very little knowledge then about our neck of the woods. In reality, Nicolet had ended up near present day Green Bay, Wisconsin. Though not in Michigan, of course, this event was mentioned in a chapter that discussed French explorers, the first Europeans to come to our state. 

After 4th grade my knowledge of Michigan history stayed pretty stagnant, though I occasionally read a book or magazine that talked about a particular city or region in the state. But then a few years ago I spotted this in a thrift store and bought it:

This is the 1988 edition of Michigan A History Of The Wolverine State, first written by Willis F. Dunbar and revised by George S. May. Yes, 1988 is already a number of years ago, but from what I saw on, the most recent edition came out in 1995. Undoubtedly some of the once-accepted facts of history have changed due to new research done since my edition (or the later one) came out. And of course, history keeps occurring, so this book would hardly have the final word on Michigan. But I figured I'd at least get a good overall sense on what had happened, and why. 

At 729 pages, this book is huge, but thus far I've found it very entertaining. For instance, there's this sentence that talks about an incident during the War of 1812: "When the expedition finally got around to its major objective of taking Fort Mackinac, there seems to have been no thought given as to how to go about it, in spite of the fact that former residents of the island and soldiers who had served at the fort were aboard." 

Upon reading this, I immediately thought of those long-ago military men and how their conversation might have gone: 

"Oh look, there's the island up ahead! Where should we land?" "I dunno... what do you think?" "That bay over there?" "Think they can see us already?" "How much ammo we got?" And so on.

(For those not in the know, the book's sentence refers to the Americans wanting to kick the British out of Fort Mackinac, which is on Mackinac Island. Not surprisingly, this particular effort was a failure. The British eventually tired of war, however, and gave Mackinac Island back to the US in 1815. The fort has been restored and makes for a nice tour). 

I had bought this book thinking it'd make for good wintertime reading, though a few winters went by before I finally picked it up earlier this week. But I was right: it's interesting enough that it doesn't seem like a chore to read it, and I'll learn even more about Michigan history than Billy and Mary Smith did!



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