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1786-88 Hughes

Thomas Hughes [ca 1859 -1790] served with the British troops still holding Detroit from 1786-1788. He recorded his impressions of life at Detroit in his diary. His account provides information on the life of the British military unit on a frontier outpost. Hughes died of consumption January 10, 1790.

Augt 11th. Still at anchor; a fine day, most of us went on shore to walk, or go into the water. At 12 o'clock several Indian chiefs came to request our Commanding Officer's permission to go to Detroit on our vessels - they said they were going to a great council and were afraid of being too late. Though attended with great inconvenience to ourselves their request was granted. Forty of them were put on board the Dunmore; it is my good luck to be in the Rebecca. . . .

Aug. 16th. The 16th we enter'd the river, which though 4 or 5 miles wide has only a very narrow channel for ships; both sides of the river are settled, and many of the islands, with which the river is thickly covered, are inhabited; as you go up the river the settlements thicken and for some miles before you arrive at Detroit it is almost a continued village. Detroit is six leagues from the mouth, and owing to little wind and strong current it is past three o'clock p.m. before we got to the wharf. Our voyage was by no means tedious; it was a most lovely day and all our musick and drums were employed to announce our arrival - and which really was the case as the 34th, whom we relieved, knew nothing of our coming till the noise of our drums made them suspect the truth. As it was too late to get matters arranged we were ordered to disembark in the morning. Our journey from Montreal to Detroit took us twenty two days, and we were told was the most expeditious for a number of men that ever was known. The whole distance is about 700 miles; from Fort Erie to Detroit is more than a 100 leagues.

Augt 17th. Disembarked and took possession of Fort Lernault where we were order'd to remain till the 34th sail'd. We now found that Major Ancrum of the 34th Regt was to be left behind to command the garrison, a piece of intelligence by no means agreeable to us and a great injustice to our Commanding Officer who was almost as old an officer but unfortunately for him no Scotchman. We this day dined with our new Commanding Officer and from some little misunderstanding between the Commandant of the Garrison and the Commanding Officer of our Regt plainly perceived there would no great cordiality in future. The Regiment we relieved did not give us any reason to speak in their praise as every little thing that could be of service to us and which generally go with the post, such as the mess garden &c, was given away to some Detroit people, that is with regard to this year's produce; and the great affront from us that occasioned all this was our refusing to buy their horses, carrioles, and calashes for which we had not the least occasion. They left us on the 22nd and we made ourselves as comfortable as we could, but the people of the settlement were a little surprised that we did not follow the plan of the Regiment before us, and keep horses, give balls and races, and gamble. Our reply was that we were not men of fortune and that we intended to live in such a manner that we could pay our debts when we went away.

Detroit is a small town of about 200 houses, fortified with an old stoccade and block houses, sufficient defence against Indians; at 200 yards further from the river on a small rise stands Fort Lernault which is a field work - square, with half bastions. The pickets of the town run up and join this fort which is in a very unfinished state and badly constructed; it only contains barracks for 140 men and would require 400 to defend it. The troops are quarter'd in this fort and in what is called the Citadelle which is a small part of the town picketed off by itself. The only publick buildings are the church for the Catholicks, the Council House, which serves as church and ballroom to the Protestants, and the Government House for the Commanding Officer; this last is an elegant house built in a modern style with a large garden that runs down to the river.. . .

October. In October we were alarmed by an inroad of the Americans into the Indians' country that lies between Fort Pitt and Detroit; they destroyed some towns belonging to the Shawnees' nation, took some prisoners and return'd. As our commandant was jealous of their intentions, and it was not known where they might stop, we were immediately put to work at Fort Lernault, which in its then situation was not defensible; a few days after we commenced, an engineer arrived with orders from Genl Hope to put the fort in a state of defence, and our business became serious, some works that were to be executed at Niagara obliging Lt Humfrys (the engineer) to return.

November 6th. Major Ancrum appointed me to act as engineer at a dollar per diem, which was confirmed by the general. My time was now pretty well taken up, and as the Commanding Officer of our Regiment had made me acting chaplain to the corps my income was greatly increased. I did my duty as Lieutenant in the 53rd, to which I acted as paymaster and chaplain, and every instant of spare time was taken up by my engineership. We worked hard at the fort, and though we had a severe frost most of November we made shift to put Fort Lernault in a state of security before the 10th December when it was impossible to work any more out of doors.

1787. During the winter we had a ball once a week, which with carrioling and parties of all kinds made time go away faster than we had imagined - in fact a Detroit winter is in all respects like a 1787 Canadian one except that its duration is not so long. The inhabitants of Detroit are a motley set of English and French and live much beyond their means - when we came the whole town was in a state of bankruptcy owing to a bad sale of furs last year - but though the merchants (as they all call themselves) could not pay their debts, they gave entertainments, and any person would have imagined from the extravagance and profusion that reigned in all the houses that trade was in the most flourishing situation. In March some bateaux arrived from Canada, which was the signal for the sailing of the vessels, so we were certain of the Lakes being open. In April orders arrived for Major Ancrum's joining his Regiment and giving the command of the port to Captain Wiseman, and he left us in May. In justice to this gentleman let me say that, though sometimes hurried away by the violence of his temper which made him do things not perfectly agreeable to those under him, yet he was a man of great generosity and could do favours in a way that added to the obligation; to me he was extremely attentive, and was never more pleased than when I went to his house without ceremony. His wife was one of the best of women and his daughters only wanted a little of the world to make them very agreeable companions. Ancrum in general was not liked, and was only regretted by those who were intimate with him.

June 9th. Wiseman had scarcely taken the command and got settled in the Government House, when the part of our Regiment stationed at Niagara arrived to reinforce the garrison, under the command of Major Mathews - who also came to regulate a number of abuses that had insensibly crept into the government of the settlement. Before his arrival Wiseman had given me an apartment in the great house, and his coming made no change; we all three lived together. During most of the summer I was employed in laying an abattis round Fort Lernault, which was a work of time, bing obliged to bring the trees near four miles and had only four horses in employ; other works went on at the same time such as repairing barracks, building ovens &c. In September I accompanied the major in an excursion down Lake Erie to lay out some towns and lands on the east shore; we were a little unlucky in the weather and want of provisions, which obliged us to return without finishing our business. In October we went again and laid out about 20 miles in lots, which were on our return given out to different Loyalists. The most remarkable thing we say was the remains of an old Indian fort, which it seems was built, before we settled the country, by the Indians in their own wars - and we saw a wolf and stag, the last of which took to the water and we chased two miles into the Lake and there killed him. Every evening during this party we were amused by the wolves who visited us, but we lost nothing. Had we gone for pleasure we might have killed great quantities of ducks and partridges; the major hastened our return as he wanted to go down to Canada and the season was far advanced. The Americans during the course of the summer had made great preparations to attack the Indians but it ended in nothing. In October Captains Wiseman and Baird were sent to an assembly of Indians with the yearly presents - the Indians amounted to three thousand and were supposed to be the greatest number every collected on such an occasion. Joseph Brant with his Mohawks were among them, and at a congress held immediately after the distribution of the presents the Indians determined to go to war with the Americans, who had made great encroachments on their hunting grounds.

November 4th. On the 5th November Major Mathews left Detroit, universally regretted, and with great justice, as he had been indefatigable in his endeavours to assist the settlement. My appointment as engineer ceased the day he went away, the Major having been so good as to prolong my office as long as possible - indeed this is but a small part of my obligations to him. Wiseman reassumed the command; a few days after, Capt: Houghton arrived, to whom I deliver'd over the paymastership, and retired to my Lieutenancy, if I may be permitted to use the expression.


Our winter did not begin till 6th Jan: 1788 but it came in with such cold weather that if frightened us; notwithstanding which the amusements of the carnival occupied the whole place, and in my life I never say such feasting and drinking, dinner, suppers and balls every night; and at a dinner given by Wiseman on the Queen's birthday to 38 people they drank him a hundred bottles of madeira besides porter and rum. I only mention this to shew what the Detroiters are - for they drank the same every where. Their eating was in the same extravagant style; forty, fifty dishes were common, and the expense enormous - madeira sixteen shillings and porter eight shillings pr bottle, beef a shilling, veal and mutton eighteen pence per pounds, and so in proportion. My health had been long on the decline and this life, though I refrained as much as possible, almost knockt me up. On the fourth February the cold was so intense that madeira froze in a stove room where some of our people were drinking - the coldest day ever known at Detroit, the thermometer at fifty five degrees below freezing. One of the favorite amusements was the country carriole party, which generally came three times a week during the season, and deserves mentioning. At the commencement of the season a paper goes round with the names of those who imagine will subscribe and includes the generality of the town; those who wish their names to stay make a particular signature, and immediately two managers are appointed to regulate the party. These managers write down a very good dinner calculated for the number of subscribers, and then send a small note to each house telling the person what he is to bring in his carriole - the families generally bring the meat part and the single men the wine and porter. Each gentleman likewise carries two plates with knives and forks and two glasses. They generally go two or three leagues to some farm house, and about twelve o'clock have sufficient to make a country dance; the dancing lasts till three - then dinner comes in and at five they all go to their carrioles with the musick at their head - and so proceed in great order to the Fort. They seldom have less than forty or fifty persons, generally about thirty carrioles, and as they have rules to prevent passing each other on the ice, it has a very pretty effect. My health prevented my going to any more than one of these parties, but it was the most agreeable thing of the kind I was ever at - as there's no more ceremony than what is necessary to restrain rudeness.

Our winter express left us 20th February, having been stopt some time for the letters from Mackinac; on the 17th three Indians came from Mackinac in sixteen days. I wrote to my Mother and Major Mathews, and requested of the last leave to go to England in case our Regt was not relieved this year. The only news from our port was a circular letter from the Indians requesting the warriors of all the Canada nations to meet at a grand congress near Detroit early in the spring. It was pretty positive that the Americans were making preparations for entering the Indian territory, being provoked thereto by the scalping parties that some young savages had gone upon immediately after the congress last fall - against the will of the old men, who had attempted to settle the matter with the Americans, and sent some strings of wampum to lay the blame on their young men's rashness. No notice having been taken of their message, they beg'd the warriors to assemble, that they might not be caught unawares. The Indians had been labouring under a dreadful plague to them: the small pox - sent out amongst them from Fort Pitt, by the Americans on purpose - or at least it was said so. More Indians died of it than were destroyed all last war; and it was with the utmost difficulty that it was kept out of the settlement of Detroit, where it had never been. The 20th February I went in a carriole to the mouth of the river to settle some disputes about lands. The 21st went down the Lake which was quite froze - indeed so much so that when we wanted to give the horse some water we could not cut through the ice which was several feet thick. I visited some of the settlers who had gone upon the lots laid out by the Major and myself, and was pleased to find them already so comfortable; they offered me butter for sale but asked more for it than was given in Detroit. The 22nd I returned to Detroit, having made a very pleasant excursion of about forty miles and lived on milk and eggs.

March 18th. In the beginning of March the weather began to alter, and in a few days the river which had been long froze broke up. On the 18th our express returned from Niagara, having been eleven days on his return. With him came a Colonel Conolly and son; they brought accounts of a rupture likely to take place betwixt England and France - an unpleasant intelligence, as it will perhaps detain us in these posts, from whence we expected to be relieved the ensuing summer. Colonel Conolly came in some public employ - supposed in the Indian line. Finding that my affairs on settling with Captain Houghton would permit me to purchase the Captain Lieutenancy, I wrote to the agents in the beginning of April by the way of Fort Pitt - the letter went by a Mr Vincent, who came with Colonel Conolly and the Colonel employed in forwarding some connections which he wished to form with the Americans in the back countries. About this time I again began to act as engineer, being ordered to inspect a quantity of pickets which the Settlement of Detroit were ordered to bring in to repicket the town. On the 1st of May the first ship sailed for Fort Erie and about the middle of the month the vessels for Mackinac left Detroit - the ice always stays longer in Lake Huron than it does on Lake Erie, which makes the communication to open later and cannot be depended on for more than four months in the year. The latter end of May I accompanied the Commanding Officer in an excursion to our new settlement. We found several lots in a good state of improvement and the inhabitants much pleased with the land, which was mostly a fine rich soil. We were out five days owing to boisterous weather; the Lake was too rough for our boat and we were twice obliged to run ashore to prevent filling. We say a good many flocks of wild pigeons, but their season was almost over - they had been so plenty that they were knockt down with sticks. I have myself seen a flock of many thousands, and the agitation of the air with their wings makes a noise like a strong breeze of wind. In coming home we stopt at a small island called Fighting Island, and seeing a woodcock, I immediately went in search of him; the grass was pretty high, and finding a good many birds flattering myself with good sport. The second that I killed flutter'd a little way, and I called some men to look for it - but we were all glad to get away as fast as possible, as we found ourselves in a bed of snakes; they were in every direction and the ground so full of their holes that you could not step without covering some. A black snake caught one man by the shoe - and the only one we thought proper to kill proved a rattlesnake. We afterwards heard that no person every went on the island to shoot, though there was plenty of game, on account of the snakes; some Indians however live there, and I saw some squaws working in a field who did not seem to mind them. On the first of June a vessel arrived from Fort Erie and brought us the agreeable intelligence of our being to be relieved as soon as the troops could leave Canada, and that all ideas of a war with France were over. By the same packet the Commanding Officer was allowed a private clerk at 2/6 per day - this post was given to me by Wiseman, who has always given me every mark of his regard to my family.. . . .

June 26th. Five companies of the 65th Regt arrived to relieve our Regt; the next day a company was sent off to relieve the post of Michilimackinac, and the day after six companies of our Regt embarked and fell down the river a few miles.


Cambridge: University Press, 1947: 154 -169.