Historical Archaeology Informs History: The Brig James McBride

Illustration of a brig from a federal government publication.

Illustration of a brig from a federal government publication.

By Jay C. Martin

Historical archaeology and the material culture remnants of the past often inform historical inquiry.  One need only to think of how the excavations at Pompeii have enriched our knowledge of the past to understand the importance of archaeology as a tool for historians, particularly in fields of study where historical documentation is rare.

The potential for historical archaeology in the maritime realm is vast.  In Michigan the cold freshwater of the Great Lakes and their tributaries preserve cultural material.  The best examples of this are the wrecks of the Hamilton and the Scourge, War of 1812 vessels lost in a sudden squall on Lake Ontario.  When located in 1975 they were in near pristine condition, intact with guns and deck equipment still at the ready.

A less dramatic, but equally important story is that of the Great Lakes brig James McBride.  Built in 1848, it was reputedly the first American-flag merchant ship to initiate direct trade between U.S. Great Lakes ports and the Atlantic World via the St. Lawrence River.  “Direct trade” in this context can be defined as a commercial vessel carrying its cargo direct from the port of loading to the port of discharge without having to use the time consuming and expensive “forwarding” process wherein cargo was unloaded and transferred around one or more topographic obstacles.  Such cargo was most often transferred to an ocean-going vessel during the final leg of the journey.

Although the merchant vessels of British Canada were first to initiate direct trade by running the St. Lawrence River rapids and using the pre-Seaway locks, McBride’s trip to saltwater illustrated the intent of Chicago commercial interests to become leaders in global, not just the regional, shipping industry.  This intent was signaled in 1847 when the young city—incorporated in 1833--hosted the first national rivers and harbors convention.  The convention focused on internal improvements and drew 2,500 participants from nineteen of the twenty-nine states. 

The pre-St. Lawrence Seaway adventure of the McBride in 1848 was an important stride toward making the Great Lakes a more influential and competitive part of world maritime commerce.  This innovative venture was typical of the can-do spirit that characterized contemporary lakefarers.  The success of the venture encouraged others to do what had only previously been considered theoretically possible.  An example occurred the following year when the Eureka sailed from Cleveland direct with “49ers” headed for the California Gold Rush, taking Great Lakes trade direct to the Pacific.  Direct trade expanded rapidly after reciprocity agreements allowed American vessels to pass through the St. Lawrence River without special diplomatic permission or crippling duties.  The trade flourished until Confederate commerce raiders and the resulting rise in insurance rates made it prohibitive for shipowners to trade outside the Great Lakes.  During this period the entry of vessels flying European flags dramatically increased.

Direct trade by American-flag vessels recovered after the war.  Existing locks and dams were expanded in incremental stages until the mammoth St. Lawrence Seaway project of the 1950s finally made it easy for large modern ships to transit between the Great Lakes and saltwater.  Despite its importance to the development of the United States and Canada, little has been done to interpret the pre-Seaway traffic and the shift from forwarded cargo to direct trade via the St. Lawrence River. 

Staff, students, and volunteers working on the McBride this summer. Photo credit: Jay Martin. Used with permission.

Staff, students, and volunteers working on the McBride this summer. Photo credit: Jay Martin. Used with permission.

In August 2017 I led a small group of CMU students, faculty, staff, and volunteers to survey the remains of the brig James McBride at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, the location of its grounding and loss in 1857.  The intent was to determine the relative archaeological integrity of the wreck and its potential for full archaeological survey and excavation.

The team found that relatively little of the lower hull remains submerged off shore.  A thirty-eight foot section was swept ashore a few years ago by ice, but has substantially degraded over time.  Still the wreck has potential to add to the collective knowledge of Great Lakes to saltwater direct trade by a comparison with the remains of contemporary vessels to determine what modifications were made to Great Lakes vessels to prepare them to navigate saltwater. 

Analysis of the results of the 2017 field season is ongoing, but it is clear that the remains of the McBride and other Great Lakes vessels have much to contribute to our collective knowledge of world history.  They also help us reinterpret that history, shifting from the prevailing saltwater-centric view that what happened on the world’s oceans determined what happened on inland waters.  The author’s scholarship has demonstrated instead that Great Lakes innovations in technology, business management, and maritime labor had lasting and transformative impacts on maritime commerce worldwide.