The Seamans of Drummond Island

Drummond Island was seeded with Seamans by a grandson of Caleb Seaman in 1853. This island, located at the juncture of three of the Great Lakes, became home for a long line of descendants of Daniel Murray Seaman, an early adherent to the Mormon religion.

A hundred years later, John T. Nevill wrote a series of articles about the Seaman family of Drummond Island and these were published in a local newspaper, The Evening News. An index to the entire series of 17 articles from 1953 is here.

Installment Seven - Wednesday, July 29, 1953

The Seaman Story - No. 7

Betsy Seaman and Her Boys Cut Wood for Early-Day River Tugs

Drummond Settlement - If the late Ray Mason Belden, of Peoria, Ill., hadn't passed away in 1941, he may have done precisely what this reporter is doing now; he may have produced a history of the Seaman family of Drummond Island.

Mr. Belden, owner of a summer home along the glistening waters of Potagannissing Bay, not far from Drummond Settlement, spent perhaps a score of his summers on mighty Drummond Island. Completely fascinated by the island's romantic history, physical beauty, and rugged, self-reliant residents, Ray Mason Belden openly confessed himself to be a slave to its spell.

Late in his life - too late to permit completion - he began jotting down information he'd pick up here and there about the island. He filled his notebook with accounts of his conversations with the island people, with the idea, it is assumed, of writing a book on the subject. And he did produce at least the start of such a manuscript - before he reached his allotted span.

To Ray Mason Belden, Drummond Island and the Seaman family were one and the same. The island couldn't have been Drummond without the Seamans - the Seamans wouldn't be worth writing about without Drummond. The two were that inseparable in Mr. Belden's mind. He wrote briefly about interesting people on the island - about the Indians, about Jules Scott and Derbyshire, and other island characters - but mostly he focused his attention upon the Seamans.

We are indebted to Mr. Belden, for example, for telling us much about many of the Seamans who now have passed on, hence are no longer available to talk for themselves. All of this information was checked with Miss Leila Seaman, eldest of Ludlow Seaman's daughters, just a few days before Leila herself died on May 10, 1952.

First Quarry

Belden says the island's first quarry was down near the old lime kiln, in back of the store home build by Clarence Loomis, a summer resident. He tells us the Seaman's first house was located "a short distance northeast" of the summer home now owned by John Van Wayzer, of Chicago. There were no deer on the island in the early days. Belden wrote, but the island was "abundant with berries, and the bay was alive with fish".

Belden tells about "Grandma Betsy" Seaman, grand old matriarch of the Seaman clan, putting the boys to work cutting fuel wood for the steamboats during the dark days following Daniel Murray Seaman's death, and hiring the Indians to work with them - producing hundred of cords of beech, and maple, and yellow birch, used to generate power for the budding river traffic.

The older Seaman boys also were given the job of cutting wild hay, Belden wrote. Rigging a scythe on a long pole, the boys carried it down to the beach, put it in a canoe and paddled to the mouth of the Potagannissing River, where wild hay was abundant. They would cut as much as 25 tons of it in a season, piling it into stacks of about two tons each. When winter solidified the bay's surface, the Seaman boys would go to the river's mouth with teams - and haul the hay home over the ice.

The courage, self-reliance, and resourcefulness of Betsy Seaman impressed Mr. Belden tremendously. In the beginning, there was no school on the island, so Betsy served as both mother and teacher. In her earlier years, of course, she had been a teacher - and this helped. In later years she was able to send Daniel Murray Jr. to Cheboygan to attend a regular school for four terms. Murray's older brother, Ludlow, went for only one term, and Estella (later Mrs. William Johnstone) attended school for a short time in the Sault. Alice, who became Mrs. Fred Bunker, and who was the first Seaman born on Drummond Island, received no schooling whatever - except that obtained from her mother. Despite this, both Alice and Stella later were destined to hold jobs as teachers!

Second Nature

Handling boats, big and little, seemed to be second-nature for the Seamans. Could it be they derived some of that ability from the name they bore? But they were handy in other ways too. They knew how to produce foodstuffs from a harsh, unyielding topsoil. They knew how to earn dividends with a boat - and a net. In the winter, they learned to handle sleds, either horse-drawn or dog-drawn, and that knowledge served them well many a time.

Betsy Seaman could handle a sled, too, when the occasion demanded it. One winter, when two of her smaller tykes came down with tooth trouble, she loaded the two boys and a calf on a "jumper" and started across the uncharted ice for Thessalon, Canada. As straight as a homing pigeon, she sledded twenty-two miles across the frozen bay to a Canadian dentist! In Thessalon she sold the calf to pay the dental bill, then tucked her boys in on the sled - and started back to Drummond. Confused by the ice and cold of winter, men have died trying to make that same trip!

For forty years after the steamer "Superior" had introduced steam propulsion on the St. Mary's, the river's twisting channels remained unmarked. Then, in 1847, the federal government installed a light in Point DeTour. But the proper course from DeTour to the Sault was a confusing series of twists and turns, some sharp, some slight, but most of them fringing on threading through stony reefs, or skirting perilously close to submerged boulders and one of which could mean destruction and death to the mariner luckless enough to encounter them.

P.S. Church

Approximately forty miles upstream from Drummond Island, at the head of Sugar Island, was Church's Landing where Philetus Swift Church, a canny and enterprising adventurer, operated a store and manufactured raspberry jams from berries his Indian hired men picked on and near the island. And, like the Seamans, the Churches were a resourceful lot. As a matter of fact, as early as 1861, one of Philetus Church's sons - J. Wells Church - busied himself at the lower end of the St. Mary's at DeTour, building a dock to service the growing steamer trade. In later years, two decades later, J. Wells Church was to become closely associated with the Seaman family - even related to them, through his son's marriage.

But in the spring of 1863 - that was the year Daniel Murray Seaman died - Philetus S. Church, up on Sugar Island, faced a problem he would have to solve without official help. Church shipped most of his jam production to the lush markets bordering the lower lakes, hence he employed the same boats to bring in most of the supplies for his wilderness store. The problem he faced was represented by the unmarked channels of the St. Mary's River.

Capt. David Tate, a pioneer sailorman, was among those who several times each season groped their way through the treacherous channels to deliver merchandise at Church's Landing - and to carry away the country's fist manufactured raspberry jam.

Like other skippers of his day, Dave Tate had felt his way up and down the bending river so often he knew virtually every danger spot, but his knowing it couldn't keep another, less river-wise, skipper out of trouble. So Philetus Church, thinking of he ten or more tons of raspberry jam he shipped downriver annually, made a decision: At his own expense, he hired Capt. Tate to set out markers each spring - usually in April - and bring them in when bound upriver on his final trip in December. This self-imposed expense paid off handsomely; not only did Philetus Church's transportation problem disappear, but it proved to be good public relations. Many another sailorman, steering a vessel through the river the Jesuit fathers named for the Virgin Mary, had reason to call upon her Son to bless P.S. Church for his generosity.

Many of the powerful little tug boats operating on the St. Mary's and adjoining waters in the 'sixties and 'seventies were owned by Louis P. Trempe (pronounced Tromp) of Sault St. Marie. Mr. Trempe, in a way, was a competitor of Philetus Church. He operated a store and supply house in the Sault, and in addition to his tugs, he owned and operated the scow, M.S. Trempe, which is said to be the first steam-driven work scow on the St. Mary's. A side-wheeler, the Trempe's remains today may be seen projecting from shallow water off the DeTour waterfront.

Wood For Trempe

On Drummond Island, Betsy Seaman produced much of the wood to keep Mr. Trempe's tugboats operating, and more often than not was paid for the wood with groceries and other necessities from the Trempe store. Thus, much of her trading was done with Trempe. Occasionally, she would bolster her "credit" on Trempe's books by delivering a calf or a cow from among her livestock.

On a day in 1868, Grandma Seaman, urgently in need of supplies, sent Ludlow and Daniel Murray Jr. to the Sault in the family sailboat. The fact that Ludlow, at the time was only 11, and Daniel Murray was barely seven, didn't seem to make any difference. They knew how to handle the sailboat, they knew the channels, and they were in no way afraid of the rugged countryside.

They left Drummond with a light breeze making slow going. Nightfall found them no farther upstream than the passage between Neebish and Sugar Island. They put ashore there, tied their boat to a tree, and prepared to spend the night. They had rowed much of the first day, so, dead-tired, they made beds on either side of the centerboard, and fell soundly asleep. In the morning, no breeze had appeared, so they started to row again. They stopped rowing just long enough to gawk at a big bear they saw swimming across the river toward Sugar Island.

When the boys arrived at Mr. Trempe's store to pick up their boatload of supplies - sugar, bacon, tea, dried apples, salt pork, and corned beef - Trempe was so amazed at their stamina and courage he gave them extra special service. He had his men load the supplies into a wagon and back it into the river so that the boys' purchases could be transferred directly into their boat.

Eleven and seven or not, the Seaman boys could be depended upon. They made it back to Drummond all right - with their mother's groceries. How can you beat a couple of kids like that?

John T. Nevill
Drummond Settlement
The Evening News
July 29, 1953