Santa's Whiskers

Christmas 1849: The Legend of the Siscowit

“Winter food supplies for the pioneer residents of Marquette were adequate as 1849 came to a close and the first winter of settlement on Lake Superior began.  Grain and hay stores for livestock were not.  Earlier that fall, Robert Graveraet had brought a large number of horses from Chicago, arranging for feed to be brought up later. Weather disrupted that plan.  “The schooners Swallow and Siscowit,” remembered Peter White, “with their cargoes of grain, were unable to make Marquette, owing to a storm, and ran to L’Anse, where they laid up for the winter.”  The feed shipments were critical if the livestock were to survive the long winter ahead.  There was only one alternative—go to L’Anse and bring back the grain. 

​One person was up to this seemingly impossible task: Captain James Moody.  The man “had a heart of oak” and was a capable navigator.  He immediately set out for L’Anse on snowshoes, accompanied by James Broadbent, “an old salt-water sailor.” They arrived at Keweenaw Bay to find the two vessels stripped for winter and froze fast in the ice.  This disheartening state of affairs did not stop Moody.  He and his companion began to refit the Siscowit for the voyage to Marquette, “on the principle,” as White put it, “that might makes right.”  They paid no attention whatever to the urgent protests of her owner, Capt. James Bendry.  There was a village eighty miles down the lakeshore in urgent need of supplies; there were two of them and only one person standing in their way.  For good measure, they held off Bendry with a shotgun.  Later Moody commented on how much respect he had for Bendry’s command of the English language.  He recounted how Bendry, realizing he could not stop them “contented himself by firing upon them as picturesque a stream of profanity as ever emanated from human lips.” 

They took all the grain and corn off the Swallow and loaded it onto the Siscowit.  Now there was the ice to contend with.  To surmount that obstacle, Moody “employed a large number of Indians to cut a passage…between two and three miles long.”  The two sailors finally succeeded in floating the vessel, and began the perilous voyage to Marquette on Christmas Eve, 1849.  They employed every bit of courage and sailor’s sense they could muster.  All the while they were on the lake, a heavy snowstorm and northwest gale assaulted the small craft.  They could not see land from the time the Siscowit floated free of Keweenaw Bay ice until it limped into Marquette Bay on Christmas Day.  Its sails were frozen stiff and immovable and her deck was covered with ice a foot thick.  The rejoicing townspeople unloaded the feed and other supplies into the warehouse.  Then Moody ran the schooner into the Chocolay River where she lay until spring.  The village was saved, but the story did not end happily for the Siscowit. “When, in coming out…[of the river in spring],” reported White, “she ran on the beach and went to pieces”.” (So Cold a Sky: Upper Michigan Weather Stories, by Karl Bohnak, Hegaunee, Michigan, Cold Sky Publishing, 2006, Chapter 4, pp. 81-82, Chapter: The Legend of the Siscowit)

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