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In Focus

She Sails Again

By Phoebe Prioleau | HUMANITIES, November/December 2004 | Volume 25, Number 6

As he sailed into harbor with his ship full of goods, Oliver Williams could see the American flag flying over Fort Mackinac. It was a ruse. The island was in British hands. The War of 1812 had started.

The British confiscated his ship, the Friends Good Will, renamed her H.M. Sloop Little Belt, and armed her with three cannons. Williams and his crew became prisoners of war.

Now she sails again. The Michigan Humanities Council has funded a replica of the ship to help schoolchildren understand Michigan's role in that long-ago war.

Williams had moved to the territory from Massachusetts in 1808 to open a dry goods store. Two years later he decided to expand his business and built a ship to transport goods from Buffalo via Lake Erie to Detroit. The system proved profitable-until the summer of 1812 when Friends Good Will was taken at the Fort Mackinac.

Within thirty days after the declaration of war, the British had captured the forts at Detroit, Mackinac, and Dearborn. The Americans began building a fleet at Lake Erie to secure supply lines and confront the Royal Navy. Their opportunity came in September of 1813 when the British Squadron took to the open water.

"We have met the enemy and they are ours," reported American Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry after the Battle of Lake Erie. The Americans captured all six vessels in the British fleet, including H.M. Sloop Little Belt. They tore down the Union Jack and hoisted the Stars and Stripes in its place Little Belt served in the American Navy until the winter of 1813 when the British burned the town of Buffalo and, along with it, Williams's merchant vessel.

Now another Friends Good Will is afloat. The Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven was awarded a grant by the Michigan Humanities Council to build a new ship. She made her maiden voyage this past September from Albany, where she was built, to South Haven, Michigan. Onboard the ship, fourth and fifth graders can learn about navigation, weather, and the War of 1812 as they chew hardtack and help hoist sails.

Hugh Culik, director of grants and partnership programs at the Michigan Humanities Council, says it can be difficult to make kids excited about history. "It's that younger group that the museum has targeted in a really smart way," he says. "This project is much more than a naive attempt to represent the past."

The project pays close attention to the past, however. The masts on the ship are hand-sewn and the frame is built using wood laminate construction, a technique that combines old and new methods to provide both safety and authenticity. Docents dressed as first commandant, engineer's mate, and other members of the ship's company provide a first-person account of what life was like two centuries ago.

"A lot of the kids have never been out on Lake Michigan; some of them have never had the chance to see it," says Melinda Graham, the museum's development director. "This gives them the opportunity to learn about Michigan's history and U.S. history--not only to learn, but to experience history--and then to sail out onto the lake and look at the shoreline."

Adults also have a chance to become involved. The museum has drop-in times when community members can work with boat-builders to help construct the ship's dinghy, Little Belt. They can observe Wednesday night rigging sessions or serve as members of the ship's company.

"A variety of people have gotten involved from all sorts of different locations," Graham says. "It's a project the local people can really be proud of."

She adds, "There are so many other avenues that we want to go to." She mentions developing classes for high school students, starting a program for at-risk youth, and collaborating with nearby universities.

"This isn't a program to have a yacht here at the museum," says Graham. "It's really a project for the community."

About the Author

Phoebe Prioleau, a junior at Stanford University, was an intern at NEH.