Friday, January 26, 2024

In Search of Sibouin

by Tristen Woodruff

When working on historical projects, the need to conduct at least some minimal sleuthing is part and parcel within the line of work. This sleuthing can range from the simple fact check, to a slightly more in-depth academic journal cross reference. Rarely, however, is the rabbit hole of research followed to its proverbial wonderland. In the case of the search for the a set of islands in the Great Lakes, however, the journey to wonderland became the only way to determine the facts of the matter.

While working on the metadata for the letters of noted Civil War officer Orlando M. Poe, I was drawn down this path. Prior to the Civil War and his promotion to Major General, Orlando Poe served as Second Lieutenant of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. The Topographical Engineers were a part of a large survey of the Great Lakes region prior to the War and were notable for the many islands and shorelines they mapped during this time. During the summer of 1857, Poe was assigned to chart and map the eastern portions of the Saginaw Bay. This would lead to a direction from his commander, George G. Meade, to map a set of islands identified by Meade.

Meade's longhand: "the ??? islands"

The problem was that, in Meade’s longhand, what were the name of the islands. Did they begin with an L, or an I? Was the second letter an E? The word ends in “o-u-i-n,” but what islands in and around Saginaw Bay end in “o-u-i-n”?

Saginaw Bay from J.H. Colton's
Map of Michigan, 1857
Click to enlarge.
Looking at a map today, the letters on the page seemed odd because there are no contemporary islands on current maps with similar letters. When looking into maps of the 1850s, a name that seemed similar to Meade’s writing did not appear, either. Thus began the spiral into figuring out the true name of these islands. The first place needed to look was in the official reports of the Great Lakes Survey that the Corps released a few years after Poe was first instructed to map these islands. In these reports, I searched for Poe’s name to see the location where Meade reported that he sent Poe. With this, there was, in fact, a location that Poe was sent with the name ‘Sibouin’ Islands. But, there was no map to point to them.

The only known location of these mystery islands, based on the letters and the report, was that they were in the eastern portion of the Saginaw Bay. Naturally, knowing the general location of the islands, I attempted to search the national and local newspapers to find them, including the millions of scanned pages available through the the Library of Congress and the Clarke Historical Library, but to no avail. Surely then, they would exist in the national archives! Still no such luck. Even looking at the amazing collection of maps provided by the David Rumsey Map Collection, no islands named ‘Sibouin’ were mapped in the eastern Saginaw Bay. Finally, I searched “Sibouin” in Hathi Trust, which includes numerous US and State of Michigan government reports among the 17+ million digitized volumes in the database, and there was only one document about a set of islands in the Great Lakes with the name “Sibouin” – Meade’s report mentioning where he sent Poe.

Armed with the knowledge that George Meade was the only person referring to these islands with the name “Sibouin,” I returned back to the report for more clues. Near these islands, Poe was instructed to map the wider “Wild Fowl Bay.” This was helpful as it even further narrowed our search, but there was still no record of the mystery islands in Wild Fowl Bay. I then moved to the amazing Hathi Trust again in search of “Sibouin” (or variations of the spelling). Here would be the key to this whole mystery, the Report of the Chief of Engineers of 1860 had a reference to the “Sebouin Islands.” The report also listed latitude and longitude for the mystery islands, finally!

Map of Fairhaven Township,
from the Atlas of Huron County,
, 1890
. Click to enlarge.
Using the maps of David Rumsey, current map websites, and the coordinates of the Chief of Engineers report, I could divine a location. The answer was revealed, hiding in plain sight right in Wild Fowl Bay. The Sibouin Islands were in fact the modern day Maisou Islands of Huron County. These islands are now apart of the Wild Fowl Bay State Wildlife Area and are no longer owned privately, but back in the 1850s they had been called Kate Chai Island and North Island. These islands had gone through many name changes since the 1850s, and that had done a good job of obfuscating their prior titles. These name changes, however, would eventually be peeled back, due in large part to the help and skills of Bryan Whitledge, without whose guidance I would not have fully figured out even the name of these mystery islands that seem to exist only now as ghosts of the documents of the 1850s.