In 1843, six years before prospectors swarmed over the California gold fields, America’s first great mining boom began here. Copper Harbor became the focal point and supply depot for hundreds of copper seekers. The shores of Keweenaw point were whitened with the tents of explorers, miners and businessmen – all looking for red metal.
Fearful of problems that might arise by miners in an area so recently purchased from the Ojibwa, in 1844 the federal government sent in the United States Army to build Fort Wilkins. Under the direction of Captain Robert Clary, Infantry Companies A and B were to serve as a buffer between copper hunters and the Ojibwa, to ensure civil order, and to enforce the federal authority in land claims.
Fort Wilkins was a typical military post of the mid-nineteenth century. This small garrison community contained separate living quarters for officers, enlisted men, and married enlisted personnel; as well as workshops, storehouses, and other support buildings. As in all frontier military outposts, monotony and isolation weighed heavily on the garrison.
In 1845, as the threat of war with Mexico increased, military units were shifted to the southern border. Thus, the garrison at Fort Wilkins was reduced by half. The remainder departed in the following year leaving behind a single military caretaker.
Fort Wilkins remained abandoned until after the Civil War, when a surplus of federal troops and a deficiency of adequate quarters at other posts dictated that the fort be reoccupied. In September 1867, Company E, 43rd Infantry, numbering approximately 66 men, regarrisoned Fort Wilkins.
Garrison life during this second military occupation consisted chiefly of fatigue duty and drill. The physical remoteness of the post contributed to problems of morale, and desertion rates were particularly high during this occupation.
In May 1869, the garrison was relieved by Co. K, 1st Infantry, numbering 57 enlisted men under the command of Captain Fergus Walker. Within a year consolidation of the war-time army reduced the garrison to just 28 men. On August 30, 1870, Co. K was transferred to Fort Wayne at Detroit, and Fort Wilkins was officially discontinued as a military post.
When the army left Copper Harbor, the abandoned fort became a popular spot for local picnickers and campers. After 1900, automobile excursions to Fort Wilkins steadily increased. In 1921 the property was designated a historic landmark and in 1923 it became a Michigan state park. Restoration efforts took place during the 1930s and 1940s.
Today, Fort Wilkins is an excellent example of a mid-19th century military post. Nineteen buildings survive, twelve of them original log and frame structures dating to the 1840s. Museum exhibits, audio-visual programs and costumed interpretation allow visitors to explore the daily routine of military service and discover the lifeways of another era.
The thunder and echo of cannons can be heard during the annual Civil War artillery encampment. The special event, hosted by Battery D, 1st Michigan Light Artillery, takes place on the parade ground.
Every summer, a living history program allows families to experience what life was like at the fort for soldiers and their families.
Life in a northern frontier fort in 1844 is the focus at Fort Wilkins. The site includes enlisted men's barracks, showing the spartan life of a solider.
The Sutler's Store is a period exhibit of a civilian shopkeeper who sold necessities to the soldiers.
Married enlisted men lived in cabins outside the fort, and exhibits give visitors a chance to compare accommodations.
Currently closed for public tours, the Copper Harbor lighthouse is across the harbor from Fort Wilkins.