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Master of Fine Arts



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Masters Thesis-Campus Only

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In almost all cases the residents of any particular community are at least vaguely aware of the history of that community. However, for the most part, the average person has a tendency to think of history as though it were always spelled with a capital "H" and were concerned only with wars, intrigues, and diplomacy on a national or world-wide scale. When one thinks of the past of one's own town, it is apt to be in the form of reminiscences. Such local history is usually found in a special article in the local newspaper to the effect that "Old Mr. So and So remembers when." It is difficult to realize that this is the "stuff of history." Wedgwood has pointed out this anachronism aptly:

But our education and the idioms that we use, emphasize certain elements of experience as though they alone were historical. A statesman is described as having 'made history' as though this were a special function of a statesman; or a nation is said to be 'making history' when it becomes involved in some particularly violent or remarkable circumstances. But every human being is making history all the time. We live in history as we live in air and we cannot escape it.1

In this study of the history of the Port of St. Joseph-Benton Harbor, this latter type of history will be the chief concern. This paper relates the common occurrences in the lives of a great many people, but the sum total constitutes history.

This paper traces the use of the harbor by the people in their everyday business from the time that it was a dangerous anchorage at the mouth of a wilderness river, through its gradual development to a busy port, not only communicating with other cities on the inland seas, but also shipping its products to Europe. The decline of the port and some reasons for that decline are indicated.

The writing of local history frequently is the most difficult activity of the historian. Such history is concerned with a great many activities that were not considered important enough to be recorded at the time they occurred. Thus it is that the historian must rely upon the reminiscences of "old timers" or the reports of the newspapers published at the time. Experience has shown that both of these sources lack a great deal of reliability. In the present paper, there are several areas in which primary sources have been available, the use of which have increased the accuracy and heightened the "sense of the past."

In any history of a port, whether on the inland lakes, or the oceans, it is obvious that the geographic setting of the port is important to its history. A port is a gateway through which pass the products of the soil and labor of the surrounding areas and admit those supplies needed by the population of those areas.

To a large extent the early development of the Port of St. Joseph-Benton Harbor depended upon the existence of the St. Joseph River. This river rises in the south central area of the State of Michigan and winds its way westward through the lower tier of counties in Michigan, dips into northern Indiana, and then flows back into Michigan, where it empties into Lake Michigan some thirty miles north of the Michigan-Indiana boundary.

Rivers were used as highways when Michigan was covered with forests. The Indians first traveled up and down them, and the French, who first explored the area, used them in their explorations. As permanent settlers moved in, they had a tendency to make their homes near such rivers as they offered an easy route for travel and a means of shipping produce to market and bringing in supplies. As will be seen below, much of the early commerce through the Port of St. Joseph-Benton Harbor consisted of farm produce and timber being shipped out to market and supplies being brought in.

The land around the area drained by the St. Joseph River consists of heavy, black earth on the bottom lands and lighter, more sandy soil on the high ground. At close proximity to Lake Michigan, the soil turns to sand.

The climate of the area is greatly affected by the lake. The prevailing westerly winds, blowing across the lake in the spring tend to lower the temperature, while they tend to raise it in the fall. A combination of light soil and moderate temperatures have lent themselves admirably to the cultivation of fruits and berries. These crops formed, in early years, an important cargo for the ships sailing out of the harbor.

The first inhabitants of the area around St. Joseph-Benton Harbor were, of course, the Indians. In the early seventeenth century it would appear that the St. Joseph River valley, including the mouth of the river, was the habitation of the Miami Indians. In fact the river was known to the French as the river of the Miamis, and when La Salle built his fort at its mouth, it was named Fort Miami. By the time permanent settlers started coming, however, the area was inhabited by the Potowatomi. During the latter half of the seventeenth century this nation pushed the Miami out of the river valley and occupied it in their place.

The first white men to see the valley of the St. Joseph River were Frenchmen. Father Marquette, in the company of Pierre Porteret and Jacques Largilier, may have passed the mouth of the river on the return from the Illinois River to St. Ignace in the spring of 1675.1 There is no evidence, however, that the party stopped.

It is generally accepted that the first white man to stop at the mouth of the river long enough to have that fact recorded was La Salle. It is related that he left the Griffin at La Baye (Green Bay, Wisconsin) and traveled by canoe along the western and southern shores of Lake Michigan while the ship was to sail to Mackinac. It was arranged that the Griffin was to return and meet the party at the mouth of the river of the Miamis. These arrangements suggest a certain familiarity with the area, since it hardly seems logical that an unknown point on the lake would have been selected as a rendezvous. Whether La Salle had definite information from other French explorers, or relied upon the Indians is not clear.

The La Salle party made its way around the shore of the lake and arrived at the mouth of the river in November, 1679. Not finding the ship there, the party constructed a small fort on the bank of the river near the lake shore and settled down to await its coming. When the Griffin did not come, La Salle assumed that it had been lost and returned to Montreal, his main base. The Griffin was the first of many vessels sailing to or from St. Joseph that were lost to the fury of the lake storms.

It is not necessary for the purposes of this study to recount the long struggles between France and England for possession of the area. The area played no important part in the years of warfare. La Salle's fort was not maintained since another was built at Niles, some twenty-five miles upstream.

The French viewed the lakes and the rivers as arteries of travel and trade rather than as barriers. La Salle was using the Griffin to haul trade goods and supplies and she was lost while carrying a cargo of furs. Had she made a safe voyage to the mouth of the river, she would have been the first vessel to do so. As it was, regular commercial use of the port was to await a century.

1 C. V. Wedgwood, Truth and Opinion. (New York: The Macmillan Co.,1960), pp. 97-8.

1F. Clever Bald, Michigan in Four Centuries. (New York: Harper & Bros., 1954), p. 38.

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